Why Labor has always backed Israel

11 June 2024
Nick Everett
Anti-Zionist Jewish activists protest inside the electorate office of Defence Minister Richard Marles, November 2023 PHOTO: Instagram

When Israel launched its genocidal war on Gaza last October, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong was quick to take Israel’s side. “We stand with Israel and we always will”, she told the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce.

Wong boasted of the role played by “Australia’s most consequential foreign minister”, Herbert “Doc” Evatt, “a leading architect of the partition plan that laid the foundations for the creation of a new nation state”.

Just as Evatt backed the partition of Palestine in 1948, Wong insisted that a new (or not so new) partition plan—the “two-state solution”, in which Palestinians are given “statehood” in a mere morsel of their homeland—is needed to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

That the two-state solution has never eventuated, according to Wong, has nothing to do with Israel’s determination to maintain its 67-year-long occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem through settlement expansion and a brutal siege of Gaza. Instead, it’s the actions of Hamas that have “pushed that two-state solution further out of reach”, she asserted.

Labor’s rhetoric has shifted somewhat over the past eight months. With the International Court of Justice demanding a halt to Israel’s assault on Rafah and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court calling for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s arrest for war crimes, the Australian government has felt compelled to tone down its enthusiasm for Israel’s genocide.

However, any talk of sanctions against the apartheid state has been sharply rebuked.

When Western Australian Labor Senator Fatima Payman put the case for sanctions against Israel on 15 May, she faced scorn from across Labor’s front bench. Labor senators joined with the opposition to condemn as “antisemitic” the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, which Payman had used to end her speech.

And the attacks on our movement continue, Labor accusing the Greens and other supporters of Palestine of “inciting violence”.

Why is Labor so pro-Israel?

One argument—put forward by a number of former Labor politicians such as Bob Carr, Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating—is that the Zionist lobby exercises an all-powerful influence within the corridors of federal parliament and in media debate. The Zionist lobby has been able to dictate Australia’s foreign policy to the detriment of Australia’s “national interest”, according to former Foreign Minister Carr.

To unpack this assertion, we need to consider what Carr means by the “national interest”.

Labor governments don’t serve the interests of the Australian working class; they serve the interests of big business. And Australian big business overwhelmingly favours a close relationship with the United States as a protector of its interests in the Asia Pacific. It should therefore be no surprise that Israel—Washington’s most important ally in the Middle East—gains favourable media coverage and red-carpet treatment from Australian politicians.

However, both Wong and Albanese hail from Labor’s left faction. Albanese was once a founding member of Parliamentary Friends of Palestine and early in his career spoke inside and outside parliament in opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Their embrace of Israel is part of a long tradition of Labor governments going back to 1948; it can’t be explained by the power of the Israel lobby alone. Rather, it is rooted in the long history of Labor’s links with Zionism, Israel’s founding ideology.

When Israel was established in 1948, it had the backing of not only the Labor Party, but also the Communist Party (CPA) and the wider labour movement. The CPA’s position echoed that of Moscow: the USSR under Joseph Stalin had long since subordinated Communist parties around the world to serve its foreign policy interests. The Cold War was just beginning, and Stalin hoped that the USSR could counter Washington’s growing influence in the Middle East by having Israel on its side.

Labor’s links with Zionism reflected the movement’s influence within European social democracy. Zionism began as a minority movement within European Jewry. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, argued that antisemitism was inherent in non-Jews and could not be fought. By contrast, the socialist response to antisemitism was that it could be fought, along with other forms of oppression and racism, but that it would require a united struggle of the working class to overthrow capitalism and create a genuinely equal society.

Zionism needed to appeal to a Jewish labour movement that was overwhelmingly socialist or communist in outlook. It straddled this contradiction with the development of a “left-wing” Zionist current, known as Labor Zionism, which embraced the rhetoric of socialism to justify Zionism’s settler colonial project in Palestine. The main currents within Labor Zionism decisively subordinated class questions to nationalism in the 1930s and played a central role in the establishment of the Zionist state.

During the British mandate in Palestine, between 1922 and 1948, Britain attempted to balance Zionist aspirations for their own settler-colonial regime in Palestine with London’s need to foster clientelist relationships with Arab regimes. Between 1936 and 1939, Britain worked with the Zionists to suppress a popular Palestinian uprising, which opposed both British colonial rule and the influx of Zionist settlers.

The defeat of the Palestinian revolt emboldened the Zionists to go on the offensive. In 1946 the Irgun, a Zionist terror organisation, bombed the King David Hotel, headquarters of Britain’s colonial administration in Jerusalem. Terrorist attacks by both the Irgun and the Stern Gang followed, hastening the end of British colonial rule in Palestine.

In Australia in the prewar years, the conservative Lyons government strongly backed colonial rule during Britain’s suppression of the Palestinian revolt, a policy continued by his successor Menzies and, during the war, by Labor Prime Minister John Curtin. Each shared Britain’s fear of an Arab backlash against the declaration of a Jewish state.

However, after the war, the Chifley government began to reorient Australian foreign policy, shifting allegiance from a declining British Empire towards the United States. In doing so, Chifley began to pursue a more independent foreign policy attuned to a more assertive Australian ruling class that recognised the Middle East’s significance for global shipping and trade.

In December 1943, Labor’s national conference expressed support for “the continued growth of the Jewish national home in Palestine by immigration and settlement”. Prominent journalist Wilfred Burchett equated the Jewish struggle for independence in Palestine with that of the Spanish Republicans confronting a fascist enemy. Feminist Jessie Street also emerged as a strong supporter of a Jewish “national homeland” in Palestine.

The Melbourne-based Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, established in 1942, operated as a coalition of Jewish social democrats, communists and liberals. It was significant in shaping labour movement opinion. In a 1947 pamphlet, titled Whither Palestine, the council defended Jewish mass migration to Palestine and, according to labour historian Philip Mendes, “attributed Arab-Jewish conflict to the malign influence of exploitative Arab landowners, and the extremist Mufti of Jerusalem who had collaborated with the Nazis”.

A May 1948 council petition calling for immediate Australian recognition of Israel gained the support of leading ALP figures Jim Cairns (Snr), William Slater, Doris Blackburn and Frank Crean, as well as Communist trade union leaders Clarrie O’Shea and Jim Healy. The CPA newspaper, Tribune, operated in lockstep with the council, publishing numerous articles supporting Israel.

According to Mendes, “the paper constructed the [1948] war as a brave Israeli ‘David’ backed by the Soviet Union and all supporters of freedom confronting a conservative Arab ‘Goliath’ supported by British and US imperialists and oil companies”. No consideration was given to Palestinian desires for liberation from colonial rule and their mass displacement by Zionist colonisers.

A widespread sentiment of humanitarian sympathy for Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and vocal and organised support for Israel within the labour movement, combined with a more independent and assertive foreign policy, contributed to the Chifley government’s support for Palestine’s partition and Israel’s creation. Doc Evatt, the minister for external affairs in the Curtin and Chifley governments, was well placed to rally support behind the Zionist cause.

Evatt was instrumental to the establishment of the United Nations Committee on Palestine in May 1947. He also chaired the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question, appointed by the UN General Assembly. Both bodies recommended Palestine’s partition. The Ad Hoc Committee presented a plan to the UN General Assembly that allocated 56 percent of Mandate Palestine to a Jewish state, despite Jewish settlers being less than a third of Palestine’s population.

Evatt’s chairing of the Ad Hoc Committee was instrumental in persuading the UN General Assembly to vote in favour of partition, leading historian Chanan Reich to describe Evatt as “one of the godfathers of the present Israeli state”.

Israel’s declaration of independence came at midnight on 14 May 1948. It occurred amid a wave of Zionist terror, known by Palestinians as the Nakba. Between late 1947 and early 1949, 530 Palestinian villages were ethnically cleansed, 15,000 Palestinians were killed and 750,000 more were forced into exile. By the end of the war, the new state of Israel controlled 78 percent of historic Palestine.

While the US and the Soviet Union immediately recognised Israel, Britain moved more slowly. Though the Chifley government supported Israel’s creation from the outset, official recognition didn’t come until eight months later, in concert with Britain. The Chifley government laid the foundation for the US alliance and Cold War policies pursued by his successor, Robert Menzies.

When Labor returned to government, led by Gough Whitlam in 1972, Israel had become the Middle East’s most powerful military state and a key pillar of US hegemony in the region. While Israel’s founding faced no significant opposition within the Australian left, its invasion of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights in 1967 provoked a very different response.

Israel’s occupation of the remainder of historic Palestine coincided with a massive escalation in the US war in Vietnam and the introduction of conscription in Australia. By 1968, a powerful anti-war movement had developed, and its impact was being felt within Labor’s base as trade unionists became increasingly involved in anti-war protest. Labor’s left faction began to express its solidarity with Palestinians.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War proved to be a turning point. While the US backed Israel unconditionally, the Whitlam Labor government felt compelled to adopt a more cautious, independent approach. Australia did not condemn the Syrian and Egyptian attacks on Israel but did condemn the US weapons being airlifted in to support Israel. While officially adopting a position of neutrality, Whitlam and most of its cabinet colleagues remained sympathetic to Israel.

Several factors influenced the Whitlam government’s position. The end of the White Australia Policy meant that Arab voters, though a tiny minority, now emerged as a lobby in support of Palestinian rights. Additionally, Whitlam was focused on building a relationship with Indonesia’s military regime, led by General Suharto, and newly independent Malaysia, both Muslim states.

Whitlam’s deputy, Jim Cairns, had been a prominent figure within the Vietnam movement. The elevation of Cairns and other prominent Victorian left party members into the cabinet was an attempt to coopt anti-war and left-wing sentiment. Enlisting Cairns and other leading luminaries of the Labor left in Whitlam’s business-friendly agenda required making some concessions. This was reflected in a somewhat more critical stance towards US imperialism, in both the Middle East and South-East Asia.

In 1974, Australia’s UN ambassador announced that “if the Palestinians want to create a state of their own alongside Israel, we will accept this”, committing Australia for the first time to supporting a two-state solution. Before his dismissal in November 1975, Whitlam even approved establishing a Palestine Liberation Organization liaison office in Canberra.

However, this more progressive approach was not without its critics inside the ALP. One of the most vocal Labor supporters of Israel was Bob Hawke, elected Labor president in 1974. Hawke became Australia’s next Labor prime minister in 1983, but had had a cosy relationship with the US embassy in Canberra in the preceding Fraser years, when president of the ACTU. Once elected prime minister, Hawke reasserted a close relationship with Washington.

In a 1987 speech, following a visit to Israel, Hawke expressed his admiration for the Israeli state and its Labor Zionist founders.

“As a social democrat, I could not fail to respect the way in which Israel had incarnated the vision of David Ben Gurion of a working class building its own nation through its own physical and intellectual labour”, he gushed.

Hawke rejected the idea of a Palestinian state in favour of Jordanian-Palestinian confederation (an idea that resurfaced again under Trump’s presidency in 2018). Perhaps more attuned to realpolitik, Hawke’s successor Paul Keating threw his support behind the Oslo Accords and established Labor’s longstanding support for a two-state solution.

However, this “solution” was from the outset a capitulation to Israel’s demands. Had it succeeded, it would have given Palestinians statehood on just 22 percent of their historic land. The Oslo Accords failed to meet Palestinian demands for the right of refugees to return to the villages from which they were expelled in 1948 and facilitated Israel’s annexation by stealth of the West Bank through ongoing illegal settlement.

Labor’s support for Israel has continued ever since. During the 2007 federal election campaign, Labor leader Kevin Rudd claimed he had Israel “in his DNA”. Two years later, his deputy, Julia Gillard, defended Israel’s bombardment of the defenceless and blockaded civilian population of Gaza, claiming Israel had “a right to defend itself”.

Whether in opposition or in government, Labor has always been heavily committed to Israel. To the extent that Whitlam embarked on a more independent foreign policy, it proved to be the exception, rather than the rule. Even a national conference resolution committing Labor to recognise a Palestinian state at some point in the future (or rather confer “statehood” on the corrupt and collaborationist Palestinian Authority) has proved a step too far for the Albanese government while Israel carries on its slaughter in Gaza.

Labor’s insistence on a “two-state solution” is and always has been a capitulation to Zionism. It is premised on the idea that Jews cannot live side by side with Muslim and Christian Palestinians within the same state. Moreover, such a “solution” will hold Palestinians hostage in a fragmented territory surrounded by walls and checkpoints, leaving Israeli apartheid intact.

Genuine liberation requires tearing down the state structures of oppression and racism that Zionism has created, structures now intertwined with Israeli and regional capitalism. It will require a revolutionary struggle by the Arab masses to overthrow their corrupt and capitalist regimes and establish a socialist confederation of states throughout the Middle East.

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.