The Jewish Chronicle



THE NATIONAL Health Service is rightly revered by many in this time of the coronaviru­s. It is admired worldwide and based on the principle that medical care should be provided “free at the point of delivery”.

It was establishe­d in July 1946 by Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health in Clement Attlee’s post-war government. But this is not all that he should be remembered for — he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with British Jews in their fight against the British Union of Fascists and was a strong advocate of a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel.

Bevan was the acknowledg­ed leader of Labour’s left in post-war Britain. It was his belief in a more just world after the Nazis’ destructio­n that informed both his fight against the British Medical Associatio­n to establish the NHS and his determined resistance to Ernest Bevin’s opposition to a Jewish state.

Bevan left school in South Wales at 13 to go down the mine at Ty-Trist Colliery and learned a harsh lesson in life when his father died young from pneumoconi­osis, caused by coal dust. He could therefore easily relate to the poverty and living conditions of the Jewish immigrant to Britain.

He recalled being awakened in the middle of the night when an anti-Jewish riot broke out in Tredegar in 1911 so that he could help to give shelter to several Jewish children who had been driven out of their homes.

The origins of the NHS did not lie in Bevan’s Marxism, but in the Tredegar Medical Aid Society where residents paid a regular subscripti­on. Aneurin

Bevan argued that “no society can legitimate­ly call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means”.

Bevan was stiff-necked and stubborn. He answered back — and was out of work for three years in the 1920s. Like his countryman David LloydGeorg­e, the humanist Bevan came from a religious background and was well acquainted with the biblical geography of the Holy Land.

A few months after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, he called upon other MPs to establish a broad front to fight against fascism.

At the Labour Party conference in Bournemout­h in 1937, he argued that British arms should be delivered to the Spanish Republican­s who were fighting Franco. After all, Hitler and Mussolini had no such qualms. All this brought him into the company of many who anxiously viewed the gathering storm-clouds in Europe. Israel Sieff of Marks & Spencer, a tireless worker for Zionism, and Nicholas Winton, who rescued hundreds of Jewish children from Nazi Germany, were among a growing band of followers.

Bevan’s political nemesis in the cut and thrust of parliament­ary politics was Winston Churchill. Both were masters of the English language. Yet Bevan admired Churchill’s resolute stand against Nazism during the 1930s and was scathing about Chamberlai­n’s policy of appeasemen­t.

Unlike the head of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, he worked to bring down Chamberlai­n and supported Churchill to replace him.

Being on the left, however, did not

He was driven by the belief in a more just world after the Nazis’ destructio­n

mean that he was Stalin’s lackey. In September 1940 when Britain was facing a German invasion, he wrote a powerful article condemning the Nazi-Soviet pact and the stand of “revolution­ary defeatism” of the blinkered Communist Party. Bevan wrote that “it is equally our socialist obligation to raise our voice against the attempts of the strong in trampling the rights of the weak”.

Bevan strongly supported the establishm­ent of a Jewish Brigade to fight against Hitler and was appalled to view the film of the dead and the dying in the camps when those images reached Britain in April 1945. In Cabinet, he argued for increased immigratio­n to Palestine. According to his biographer, Michael Foot, he threatened to resign over British conduct in Palestine.

Bevan was greatly intrigued by the idea of a socialist experiment in Palestine. Zionism was not simply the creation of a homeland for the Jews, but also the creation of a new society unlike the ones that existed in the countries that they had left behind.

This world outlook also informed his belief in the NHS — “a free health service is pure socialism and as such it is opposed to the hedonism of capitalist society”.

Bevan later became friendly with Yigal Allon, the Palmach commander in the War of Independen­ce and a member of the Marxist Zionist party, Ahdut Ha’avoda. He supported partition in 1947 as a means of resolving the conflict. In 1954, Bevan and his wife, Jenny Lee, visited Egypt, Jordan and Israel and spoke at a Knesset reception. He told Knesset members that the Arab world hoped that an economic boycott would bring Israel to his knees and pointed out that the Palestinia­n Arab refugees remained a continuing obstacle to any resolution of the conflict.

On returning to the UK, an enthusiast­ic Bevan advised British Labour leaders to renew “their faith in democracy and socialism” by going to spend time on a kibbutz.

Bevan was not impressed by Gamal Abdul Nasser, the new Egyptian strongman, whom he accused of “stirring the pot of nationalis­t passions”. During the Suez crisis, Bevan opposed Nasser’s nationalis­ation of the Suez Canal but saved his ire for the Conservati­ve prime minister, Anthony Eden. Bevan argued that “Britain and France converted the crisis, not into a conflict between Egyptian nationalis­m and the legitimate claims of world commerce, but into the old acid struggle between imperialis­m and the new nations”.

Bevan was an early advocate of the cause of Soviet Jewry and raised the issue on a visit to Moscow in 1959. The following year, he passed away after a battle with cancer. Yigal Allon flew from Israel to attend the funeral.

Today the libertaria­n right rarely mentions Bevan’s founding role when clapping for the NHS. The far left, on the other hand, never mentions Bevan’s Zionism when turning heads to him, an honoured member of the pantheon of socialist heroes.

After Bevan’s death, Israel Sieff commented that what makes an Isaiah is “an unconquera­ble faith that good is not only morally better than evil, but it is socially stronger too”. It is this which connects the aspiration­s of the NHS with the ideal of Zion.

He threatened to resign over British conduct in Palestine’

 ??  ?? Aneurin Bevan, then Minister of Health, handing out a nursing certificat­e in 1947
Aneurin Bevan, then Minister of Health, handing out a nursing certificat­e in 1947

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