How the SDP failed the Jews

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - POL­I­TICS ROBERT PHILPOT

THE WIN­TER of 1981 was par­tic­u­larly bleak. As a deep re­ces­sion con­tin­ued to bite and un­em­ploy­ment grew re­lent­lessly, the country had rarely seemed more di­vided. Those di­vi­sions were stark­est at West­min­ster where Mar­garet Thatcher sig­nalled her de­ter­mi­na­tion to break with the post-war con­sen­sus, while Labour lurched vi­o­lently to the left.

But for many Bri­tish Jews, the feel­ing of be­ing left po­lit­i­cally home­less by this sharp po­lar­i­sa­tion con­tained an ad­di­tional twist. Even be­fore Me­nachem Be­gin’s elec­tion in 1977, a wave of anti-Zion­ism had gripped Bri­tain’s cam­puses, with stu­dent unions pass­ing a string of res­o­lu­tions call­ing for the de­struc­tion of Is­rael and back­ing the PLO. This as­sault soon be­gan to in­fect the country’s wider body­politic, with at­tacks on Is­rael be­com­ing one of the hall­marks of the hard-left ac­tivists whose grip on Labour’s grass­roots tight­ened af­ter James Cal­laghan’s elec­toral de­feat in 1979.

For a com­mu­nity which had tra­di­tion­ally had strong links to the party, such at­tacks were par­tic­u­larly painful and dis­ori­ent­ing.

At the same time, de­spite Mrs Thatcher’s per­sonal sym­pa­thies, the new Con­ser­va­tive govern­ment was prov­ing it­self some­what less than stal­wart in its sup­port for Is­rael.

Un­der pres­sure from her For­eign Sec­re­tary, Lord Car­ring­ton, the Prime Min­is­ter had, for in­stance, over­come her mis­giv­ings and signed the EEC’s Venice Dec­la­ra­tion in 1980 which called for the PLO to be “as­so­ci­ated” with any fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions. Protest meet­ings in north Lon­don — in­clud­ing one in Finch­ley at­tended by more than 1,000 peo­ple — echoed to warn­ings that, as one prom­i­nent rabbi pub­licly put it: “If Mrs Thatcher meets with the ter­ror­ists, she must know that, north-west of Baker Street, there are many vot­ers in Bar­net who will think twice about re-elect­ing her.”

Launched in March 1981, the So­cial Demo­cratic party, which was de­signed to oc­cupy the now­va­cant po­lit­i­cal cen­tre-ground, might thus have seemed to have a par­tic­u­lar ap­peal to dis­en­fran­chised Jewish vot­ers.

In­deed, the party — the sub­ject of a new play, Lime­house, which opens at the Don­mar Ware­house this month — swiftly man­aged to at­tract a num­ber of prom­i­nent Jewish Labour de­fec­tors, in­clud­ing the for­mer Labour Cab­i­net min­is­ters John Di­a­mond and Ed­mund Dell, MPs David Gins­burg, Ed­ward Lyons and Neville San­der­son, and the pub­lisher and peer Ge­orge Wei­den­feld.

Eric Moon­man, a se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of the Board of Deputies and for­mer Labour MP, would also later join the party, while the ac­tress Janet Suz­man added a touch of star dust.

Within four months of the party’s launch, an SDP Friends of Is­rael had been formed with Wei­den­feld as its chair and one of the found­ing “Gang of Four” — Bill Rodgers — as its pres­i­dent. Another of the quar­tet, the for­mer Labour For­eign Sec­re­tary, David Owen, promised that the SDP would be “zeal­ous in the preser­va­tion of the State of Is­rael.”

One of the few Con­ser­va­tive par­lia­men­tar­i­ans to de­fect, the Duke of Devon­shire, was a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Con­ser­va­tive Friends of Is­rael. With con­tro­versy around Is­rael stoked by the war in Le­banon, Above: the Gang of Four in 1981: David Owen, Bill Rogers, Shirley Wil­liams and Roy Jenk­ins. (below) Ge­orge Wei­den­feld, Janet Suz­man Eric Moon­man the SDP made a con­scious ef­fort, in sharp con­trast to the Labour party, not to fan the flames. “The SDP does not want to be known as a party of con­tention,” re­ported the JC af­ter wit­ness­ing a no­tably even-tem­pered de­bate on Is­rael at its 1982 con­fer­ence. The SDP also at­tracted some ris­ing Jewish stars. Sue Slip­man had be­come pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Union of Stu­dents in 1977 at the height of the rows over anti-Zion­ism and an­ti­semitism on cam­puses. She left the Com­mu­nist party to join the SDP, twice stand­ing un­suc­cess­fully as a par­lia­men­tary can­di­date for it. Along­side the bar­ris­ter An­thony Lester and the then-min­is­ter of the South Lon­don Lib­eral Sy­n­a­gogue, Rabbi Ju­lia Neu­berger, Slip­man was one of three Jews to sit on the com­mit­tee of the SDP’s think-tank, the Tawney So­ci­ety.

A mem­ber of the SDP’s Na­tional Com­mit­tee and pres­i­dent of So­cial Democrats for Gay Rights, Neu­berger was one of the 100 sig­na­to­ries of the party’s pro­to­type man­i­festo and con­tested Toot­ing for the SDP in 1983.

Another youth­ful re­cruit, Danny Finkel­stein — now a Con­ser­va­tive peer and JC colum­nist — joined Labour as a school­boy. De­liv­er­ing lit­er­a­ture for the party dur­ing a lo­cal elec­tion cam­paign, he found some SDP leaflets stuck in a let­ter box. He fished them out, in­tend­ing to throw them away but, hav­ing read them in­stead, promptly joined the new party. Two years af­ter the SDP’s launch, Finkel­stein be­came chair of the Young So­cial Democrats. He went on to be­come a po­lit­i­cal ad­viser to Owen, a mem­ber of the party’s Na­tional Com­mit­tee, and fought Ken Liv­ing­stone in Brent East in 1987. In­deed, fight­ing that year’s general elec­tion in al­liance with the Lib­eral party, the SDP fielded more Jewish can­di­dates than Labour.

It was, how­ever, to be that al­liance with the Lib­er­als which hob­bled the SDP’s abil­ity to win the back­ing of sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of Jewish vot­ers. Over the pre­vi­ous decade, the Lib­er­als had hem­or­rhaged Jewish sup­port. The pri­mary cause was the provoca­tive anti-Is­raeli ac­tiv­i­ties of the Young Lib­er­als, en­cap­su­lated by its for­mer chair, Louis Eaks, who had pub­licly de­clared that “Jews see them­selves as a mas­ter race” and ac­cused Is­rael of “bru­tal atroc­i­ties.” De­spite is­su­ing a pub­lic apol­ogy, the then-Lib­eral leader, Jeremy Thorpe, ap­peared pow­er­less or un­will­ing — in 1974, he wel­comed the de­fec­tion to the Lib­eral benches of the vir­u­lently anti-Is­rael for­mer Labour min­is­ter, Christo­pher May­hew — to halt what Eaks had un­leashed.

Thorpe him­self was a friend of Is­rael. By con­trast, his suc­ces­sor, David Steel, would have noth­ing to do with Lib­eral Friends of Is­rael and was the only ma­jor party leader will­ing to meet with Yasser Arafat be­fore the PLO leader’s re­nun­ci­a­tion of ter­ror­ism in 1988.

What­ever the warm words of its lead­er­ship and the ci­vil­ity of its de­bates, the SDP could thus not es­cape the fact that it had shack­led it­self to a party which had come to be viewed by many Jews as rid­dled with anti-Is­raeli sen­ti­ment.

Robert Philpot’s book on Mar­garet Thatcher’s re­la­tion­ship with the Jewish com­mu­nity will be pub­lished by Bite­back this sum­mer



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