The Black Lives Matter protests have brought to the fore the issue of slavery upon which many British fortunes were built. This has led to calls for schools to take another look at their approach to the British Empire and its consequences. In many respects, this is a taboo subject, none more so than Britain’s colonial approach to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Britain, Zionism and the Creation of Israel by Gardner Thompson is, therefore a timely publication. As the author points out, Britain was one of the “Great Powers” which worked secretly with the early Zionists to create a Jewish state on land largely inhabited and owned by Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
At its height in 1922, the British Empire covered a fifth of the world's population and a quarter of the land. Although its proponents say that the Empire brought economic progress across the world, its critics point to massacres, famines and exploitation. It was the British, remember, who introduced the concept of “concentration camps” to the world during the Boer War in South Africa.
As a major colonial power with a toe-hold in the Middle East, therefore, it was almost inevitable that Britain would be given the “mandate” to prepare Palestine for independence by the League of Nations as from 1923. In this, “The British record is one of failure,” Thompson points out, because the intention was always to create a Zionist state, not an Arab Palestinian state in Palestine. “Perhaps some British supporters of Zionism in the period 1917 to 1922 would have regarded as success the emergence by the late 1930s of a national home in Palestine of around 400,000 Jews,” writes Thompson. “But the costs – for example, in money, lives and reputation – had been considerable, and there was every prospect that Britain’s legacy would be an ungovernable country. Although for the time being the British remained in power, the government had lost the consent of the governed.”
The author notes that “European colonisers liked to wrap their self-interest in protestations of service to others – especially when assuming the constraints of mandated authority – but this myth had been shattered in the case of Palestine by the [1936-39] revolt (and revolt was itself the strongest evidence of political and administrative failure). The British had not been able to provide ‘good government’, let alone consensual steps towards self-government.”
Thompson examines the deeply problematic racist ideas and motives that were behind support for Zionism. They still exist today, as evidenced by successive British governments’ refusal to review colonial policies, legacies and responsibilities. No apology is ever likely to be forthcoming.
The British Mandate was set up in such a way that it would equip Jews with the tools to migrate to Palestine and establish a degree of autonomy, at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs. This was despite warnings about the establishment of a Jewish "national home" and its potentially catastrophic consequences.
The 1917 Balfour Declaration signed by Britain’s Foreign Secretary, the eponymous Lord Arthur Balfour, enabled the Zionist movement to embark on the systematic takeover of Palestine. As Thompson writes, Balfour himself reflected, “with lordly cynicism, that the British ‘had not been honest with either French or Arab, but it was now preferable to quarrel with the Arab rather than the French’.” The State of Israel claims its legitimacy from Balfour and Britain won’t even acknowledge, let alone apologise, for the crimes committed against the Palestinians as a direct result.
On the contrary, in a speech commemorating the declaration’s centenary, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that Britain was proud “of the relationship we have built with Israel” and called for “renewed resolve to support a lasting peace that is in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.” In practice, this meant that Britain would continue to turn a blind eye to Israeli violations of human rights and treat it as a favoured trading partner. Lip service, as in May’s speech, will continue to paid to “peace”.
The racism behind such a position has roots more than a century old. In Balfour’s infamous letter to Zionist leader Lord Rothschild in November 1917, the Foreign Secretary expressed the British government’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, but added the proviso “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
The Palestinian Arabs were not described by Balfour as what they are, but as what they are not. According to Thompson, this was no accident: “Over and above this, the Declaration makes no mention of the Arabs by name. Though a great majority of the residents of the territory, they were merely subsumed in the expression ‘non-Jewish communities’. The naming of Jews alone, and reference to others only in subsidiary relation to them, was confirmation of prevailing notions of the racial and social hierarchy.”
Edwin Samuel Montagu, the only Jewish member of the cabinet headed by David Lloyd George under whom Balfour served, was aware that the Zionists were counting on support from anti-Semites to establish a Zionist state in Palestine. Commenting on the Balfour Declaration, he said, “I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic and in result will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country in the world.”
Thompson sets out for us the complicated yet strategic beginnings of the Zionist movement. The hatred and persecution of Jews in Europe was always connected to religion, and anti-Semitic politicians in Europe were drawn to the romantic notion of a Jewish “restoration” to the Holy Land. The Zionists, however, had plans for more than a “national home”, and pushed the British government to go further than Balfour’s somewhat vague terminology.
The text of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine was thus based on Zionist proposals, despite some opposition within the War Cabinet, including the high-ranking British colonial administrator Sir John Shuckburgh who “saw no purpose to the mandate” and said that “the Balfour Declaration had not been worth it.”
“Britain’s men on the spot were repeatedly overruled by London,” writes Thompson. “They knew the reality of the deeply contentious unfolding situation in post-war Palestine, many months before the mandate was drawn up. They were not hindered by delusion. They reported what they found and what they saw and made their recommendations accordingly. Yet the men in Whitehall and Westminster chose to ignore unwelcome facts.”
The mandate for Palestine did not clarify what the “national home for the Jewish people” would look like. Nor did it explain how the rights of the Arab majority were to be protected.
Indeed, as the author explains, there was no clear picture crafted in Whitehall as to what the outcome of British rule in Palestine would be. Neither was there consideration of how self-governing institutions for all of Palestine could be developed, whilst also establishing such a “national home” for Jews.
The mandate replaced relative harmony with rivalry, and condemned Palestine to increasing Arab opposition to Jewish colonisation and eventually revolt against Zionism and its then main sponsor, the British government.
Thompson’s book covers the fact that British political figures joined the early Zionists in being motivated and influenced by anti-Semitism. When Balfour himself was Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, he introduced the 1905 Aliens Act, whose aim was to stop the immigration to Britain of Jewish refugees fleeing the murderous anti-Semitism that was thriving in the Russian Empire.
The father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, knew that the movement should try to harness anti-Semitism to solve the “problem” of Jewish communities in Russia, Europe and the USA by creating a state of their own. He did not live to see that state come into being. One Zionist pioneer who did, though, was Chaim Weizmann, who was born in Minsk, White Russia (Belarus) in 1874. He knew how to lobby patiently for Zionism in Europe, especially in Britain. In 1914, Weizmann recorded in his diary that he had met C.P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian (later, the Guardian) who was “quite prepared to help… in any endeavour in favour of the Jews… Scott carries great weight and he may be useful.”
“At the start of the [First World] war, Britain appeared to Weizmann to be the only belligerent power in Europe that might one day be persuaded, if the circumstances were right, to adopt the Zionist cause,” says Thompson. “...He told C.P. Scott (won over by him the previous year) that Jewish settlement in Palestine ‘would develop the country, bring back civilisation to it, and form a very effective guard of the Suez Canal’.” The so-called “civilising” role for Israel, and its protection of British interests in the Middle East are both made clear in this conversation noted by Thompson. The racism behind the Zionist approach is obvious.
This is far from what post-colonial Britain should be aiming for. After setting out the history of Israel and its creation from the 1920s to 1948 in such detail, Thompson concludes that it is high time for Britain to denounce the blood-drenched 1917 Balfour Declaration and “acknowledge historic responsibility, shed stale partisanship and initiate a renewed search for justice and peace.”
It is a noble suggestion, even if it is likely to be ignored. Even so, Gardner Thompson has done us a service by writing this book, which provides readers with a clear explanation of events in the first half of the 20th century which continue to have consequences for everyone in the Middle East and beyond to this day.