Leonard Woolf’s journey shows us why the Labour party needs room for intellectual flexibility, writes Luke Reader
Towards the end of 1957, Leonard Woolf ordered boxes of Israeli oranges and grapefruits to send to his friends. Not much surprise there perhaps. Woolf had visited Israel earlier that year and found much to admire in the vibrancy of the newly established state.
But earlier in his career, Woolf had been deeply critical of the Palestinian mandate and of Zionism itself. Best remembered today as the husband of Virginia Woolf, Leonard was also an accomplished literary critic and writer, who, as secretary of the advisory committees on imperial and international questions between 1918 and 1945, directed colonial and foreign policy for the British Labour party.
Labour had supported the idea of a Jewish homeland since 1917. There were several reasons for this: sympathy for an oppressed minority, a belief in self-determination, and ideological alignment with the collectivist approach to agriculture, public services, and enterprise of settlers in Palestine. Despite the fact that he was a non-practicing Jew who nevertheless used Jewish ethics and philosophy to guide his own public activities, Woolf did not share this point of view.
Today, the recrudescence of antisemitism and antipathy towards Israel has mired Labour in crisis. A vocal pro-Palestinian minority, from which Jeremy Corbyn draws support, all too frequently conducts criticism of Israel using antisemitic tropes, while an evolving conversation about racism continually excludes antisemitism.
But if Labour is stuck,Woolf’s shifting perspective offers a route out.
The distant echo of Woolf’s criticisms still reverberate. Woolf supported strict limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine. In his memoir, The Journey Not The Arrival Matters (1969), he wrote: ‘the savage xenophobia of human beings is so great that the introduction into any populated country of a large racial, economic, religious, or cultured minority always leads to hatred, violence, and political and social disaster.’ In sum, by their actions Jews authored their own misfortune. Familiar, huh?
The philosophical tenets of Zionism were also troubling. Woolf was a powerful advocate for internationalism. In the New Statesman in 1915, he explained that cooperation across political borders – particularly through courts and assemblies that would arbitrate territorial disputes, oversee disarmament, and organize a fairer distribution of colonial resources – would denote historical progress. Under Woolf’s guidance, these ideas formed the bedrock of foreign and imperial policy for Labour between the wars; they also helped shape the nascent League of Nations. By contrast, as Woolf recalled in Sowing (1961), Zionism was a reversion to the chauvinism that had ignited in war in 1914.
To Woolf, Jews had long been a model of internationalism. This was due to their minority status. In Quack! Quack! (1935), he wrote that equal rights for ‘western Jews’ arrived because they ‘long ago abandoned tribal and racial delusions.’ More significantly, setting aside atavistic ‘racial altars’ allowed Jews to a build a culture around ‘the traditions both of his own and of a world civilization.’ Writing in the New Statesman in 1940, Woolf stated that the models of assimilation found in the United States offered the best prospect for Jews. In Europe, fascist legal restrictions forced an identity upon Jews that invited further repression, while Zionism incited nationalist reaction in Palestine.
So what changed Woolf’s mind? Put simply, Israel. Its existence was a fait accompli. But Woolf also saw in Israel a positive expression of internationalism.
Woolf considered Israel a society driven by a spirit of collective enterprise. It had made itself a nation. In The Journey Not The Arrival Matters, he presented Israel as an international community in microcosm, where settlers ‘creat[ed] materially out of the rocky soil and spiritually out of the terrible history of all the peoples of the world, in all the millennia since Adam, a new civilized way of life.’ Haunted by the Holocaust, and beset by enemies on its borders, Jews from across the world gathered in Israel to pursue a greater vision that dissolved national identity and political belief.
So why does Woolf matter? Well, he changed his mind.
Woolf considered dogmatic adherence to ideology a form of religious obscurantism. The Labour party was an effective vehicle for advancing social change because it tested different propositions according to the needs of a particular situation. In Woolf’s case, he understood that the conditions determining his argument had changed. Rather than make his analysis fit a particular agenda, he looked to see how he could adapt to changing circumstance.
Labour today seems consumed by certainty. Orthodoxy is a key measure of belonging. Purity tests about policy distinguish authentic members from the Tory or Blairite stooge. In turn, expressing concerns about antisemitism becomes a smear on Corbyn and the view of the world he represents that requires excision. But as Woolf shows, you do not need to give up principles. You need to think about them.
Luke Reader is a lecturer in the English Department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He received a PhD in History from University of California, Irvine and researches internationalism, liberal philosophy, and the Labour party. He is originally from the UK and worked in the civil service between 1999 and 2002
Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L14404 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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