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Lord Shinwell Dead at 101

May 9, 1986
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Lord Shinwell, the poor Jewish boy from London’s East End who rose to become one of Britain’s most controversial and best loved politicians, died Thursday at his London home at the age of 101 and seven months.

His 68-year-old son Ernest said he was lucid and talkative to the end and that half an hour before his death had requested a glass of whisky. After raising up his hands and saying, “I have had enough,” he asked to be put in a more comfortable position and died with a peaceful smile on his face.

Tributes to the former Defense Minister began pouring in Thursday from politicians of all parties as well as from the Jewish community, in which he was esteemed for his fearless way of dealing with anti-Semites and his incisive support for the State of Israel.

One of the founding fathers of the British Labor Party, Emanuel Shinwell first earned his reputation for uncompromising militancy in the shipbuilding unions on Glasgow’s River Clyde.

Shinwell was born in the Spitalfields district of London’s East End on October 18, 1884, exactly a week before the 100th birthday of Sir Moses Montefiore, the celebrated Anglo-Jewish philanthropist, who also died at the age of 101.

Unlike the wealthy Montefiore, however, Shinwell, the oldest of 13 children, came from a very poor immigrant family. His father was a tailor from Poland and his mother a Londoner of Dutch Jewish descent.

When he was nine years old, the family moved to Glasgow, where he acquired his broad Scottish accent and a reputation as a bare knuckle boxer. He threw himself into the workers’ struggle at an early age and was jailed for inciting riots. In 1922, he was elected to the House of Commons on the Labor ticket and 16 years later crossed the floor to punch a Conservative member who had told him to “go back to Poland.”

In 1933, the year the Nazis seized power in Germany, Shinwell made a speech at the British Labor Party conference in which he proudly avowed his membership in the Jewish race and said he had never sought to conceal it.


Even so, he had little time for religious observance and it was not until he was in his 80’s that he began appearing on Jewish public platforms as a defender of Israel.

A week after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, he addressed 18,000 British Jews in London’s Trafalgar Square. Identifying himself solidly with Israel, he said it was entitled to hang on to all the land captured in 1967, and accused Britain of hypocrisy for demanding territorial concessions by Israel.

Although a Socialist, his support for Israel remained unabated when Israel’s Labor Party was defeated by Menachem Begin. “Thank God for Begin,” Shinwell exclaimed on hearing of the Israel Air Force’s destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

As a member of the first Labor government after World War II, he was formally a party to the anti-Zionist policies of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, even though, as Minister of Fuel and Power, he had little to do with foreign policy.

Privately, though, he bitterly disagreed with Bevin, with whom he had been on bad personal terms since his days as a Clyde-side rebel. Shinwell had once threatened to strike Bevin, who taunted him as an “Oriental.”

Shinwell was all the more pleased, therefore, at seeing Bevin’s policies smashed by Jewish opposition. While Bevin was still wrestling to maintain the British position in Palestine, Shinwell voted in Parliament in favor of partition and backed the United Nations resolution of November 1947, on which Britain’s UN delegation abstained.


His own ministerial involvement in Palestine began at the end of 1947 when, on becoming Minister of War, he was in charge of the withdrawal of the British Army. He ordered the army to pull out with the minimum risk to itself and without favoring either the Jews or Arabs.

But unlike much of the British military and political establishment, he already had a high regard for the Yishuv’s military potential. In his 1973 memoirs, he wrote that “Bevin neither knew nor cared about the military resources of the Israelis and Egyptians, beyond believing that Britain had provided the Arab states with sufficient arms to confine, and probably restrict, Israeli territorial ambitions.”

In the three subsequent Middle East wars, Shinwell consistently supported Israel, most notably during the 1956 Suez operation which was bitterly attacked by his own party. Shinwell stoutly defended both Israel and the Conservative government of Anthony Eden.

Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock said Thursday that Shinwell “always fought to win for the people. He was tough and turbulent and he believed that strength and power should be used to help those who were not strong or powerful.”

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