The Bevin enigma: what motivated Ernest Bevin’s opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine

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Ernest Bevin was the British Foreign Secretary between 1945 and 195 1 . Thus he was the most senior Cabinet Minister responsible for the formulation and implementation of British Palestine policy from the end of the Second World War until a few years after the establishment of the State of Israel.

A common view at the time was that he was antisemitic and this influenced his policies. These accusations of antisemitism only arose after he became Foreign Secretary, but they were so strong and widely held that they have been subsequently addressed by many historians and all his biographers, as well as in memoirs of his contempories. Not everyone either at the time or later considered that he was antisemitic, and the following are a number of contrasting quotations. The first two are from speeches in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister Clement Attlee and the leader of the oppo- sition, Winston Churchill. Churchill remarked: "I do not feel any great confi- dence that he has not got a prejudice against the Jews".2 To which Attlee responded: "That is entirely and utterly untrue. My right honorable friend has many good friends among the Jews".3

Those closest to Bevin when he was Foreign Secretary were Christopher Mayhew, who was Under Secretary of State in the Foreign Office, and Frank Roberts, who was Private Secretary to Bevin from December 1947 to April 1949. Mayhew wrote: "There is no doubt, to my mind, that Ernest detests Jews",4 whereas in his memoirs Roberts wrote that "Bevin has often been accused of being anti-Jewish, which is quite untrue".5

Among the Jewish Zionists, the two leaders at the time were Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion, who had contrasting views. In a letter Weizmann wrote: "The British Foreign Secretary is blinded by his hatred of

1 Based on a paper presented to the Society at its meeting on 23 June 201 1 .

2 Winston Churchill, speech in House of Commons, 26 January 1949. Hansard , 5th Series, vol. 460 cols 953 and 1051.

3 Clement Attlee, ibid, col. 1058.

4 Christopher Mayhew, Time To Explain (London, 1987) 119.

5 Frank Roberts, Dealing with Dictators: The Destruction and Revival of Europe 1930-70 (London, 1991), 125.

the Jews"6 but Ben-Gurion observed that "It has been said that he was anti- Semitic[;] I prefer to consider Bevin simply as an anti-Zionist".

Biographers and historians have the benefit of reflection over time, but they do not agree among themselves. Alan Bullock, who authored the official biography, wrote that "Bevin was not moved by hatred of the Jews or anti- semitism"8 yet Peter Weiler, in a more recent biography, wrote: "It is also the case that Bevin held antisemitic views . . . although there is no evidence that they shaped his policy towards Palestine".9

Among historians, Avi Shlaim considered that Bevin was "the guardian angel of the infant state"10 but Efraim Karsh responded that Shlaim"s comment "represents the exact opposite of the historical truth" ,11

So there we have it - an enigma. Was Bevin an antisemite and if

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