Balfour, Weizmann and the Creation of Israel

Charles Glass

  • One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate by Tom Segev, translated by Haim Watzman
    Little, Brown, 612 pp, £25.00, January 2001, ISBN 0 316 64859 0
  • Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine 1917-48 by Naomi Shepherd
    Murray, 290 pp, £12.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 7195 6322 4

The British Army occupied Jerusalem on Sunday, 9 December 1917, and withdrew on 14 May 1948. During its brief imperium in the Promised Land, Britain kept the promise made in 1917 by its Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, in the Declaration that bears his name, ‘to favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. While nurturing the ‘national home’, a term as deliberately vague as Palestinian ‘autonomy’ is today, Britain neglected to observe the Declaration’s final clause: ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’.

Britain erected and for thirty years maintained the scaffolding that the Zionists happily tore down when their House of Israel was ready. Despite the objections of some British military commanders and civil servants in Palestine, His Majesty’s Government protected Jewish immigration, encouraged Jewish settlement, subsidised Jewish defence and protected the Yishuv, as Palestine’s minority Jewish community called itself, from the native population. Without Great Britain, there would not have been an Israel for the Yishuv, or a catastrophe – nakba in Arabic – for Palestine’s Arab majority. It is not surprising that each year Balfour Day is celebrated by the friends of Israel and mourned by Palestine’s Arabs.

Israeli textbooks and propaganda novels, such as Leon Uris’s Exodus, have tended to portray the Zionist pioneers waging a war of independence against the British oppressor. Jon and David Kimche provided a good example of the conventional Israeli analysis of British policy in Both Sides of the Hill: Britain and the Palestine War (1960). ‘It was a mixture of ignorance, blundering, indecision and local bias against the Jews, encouraged by the known bias of the Foreign Secretary.’ They were writing about 1947, when Ernest Bevin was Foreign Secretary and Zionist forces were attacking the British. However, Tom Segev points out that the British Army, as it withdrew from Palestine a year later, was careful to hand over its main military bases to the Zionist forces even as it attempted to protect Jaffa’s Arabs from eviction.

For Israel’s new historians, among them Segev and Naomi Shepherd, the Zionist project is part of the saga of white settlement, as in North America and Rhodesia. The settlers declared independence only when they no longer required the Mother Country’s soldiers to subdue the natives. Presenting Israelis as colonisers, rather than as enemies of imperialism, was once the preserve of Palestinian and Marxist writers. Many Palestinians, notably Nur Masalaha, have done pioneering work on what Israelis called ‘transfer’, that is, the forced evacuation of Palestinians from their homes and villages, or what in a later context would be called ‘ethnic cleansing’. In 1973, the French Marxist Maxime Rodinson’s book Israel: A Colonial Settler State? required a question-mark in its title that Segev and Shepherd would probably remove. In what he referred to as ‘an obvious diagnosis’, Rodinson took Israeli statehood to be the ‘culmination of a process that fits perfectly into the great European-American movement of expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries whose aim was to settle new inhabitants among other peoples or to dominate them economically and politically’. Between 1948 and 1977, when the Labour Party dominated politics and culture, the Israeli Left disputed the notion that theirs was a colonial project. Rather, they argued, the settlers brought progress, socialism and ideas of equality to Jews and Arabs alike. The Right was less reticent: they admitted their desire for more land and fewer Arabs. With British help, and then despite British interference, the Zionists got both.

The release of Israeli records over the last twenty years has led to a reappraisal of a century of Zionism by a new generation of Israeli historians – among them Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris – whose work is now entering the mainstream. In a sense, by focusing on the Mandate, Ploughing Sand and One Palestine, Complete are considerations of Israel’s debt to the British and Britain’s injury to the Arabs. Shepherd writes that ‘British rule protected the Zionist beachhead in Palestine during the most vulnerable, insecure period during the 1920s and 1930s. This was, politically, the main legacy of the Mandate.’ Similarly, Segev concludes: ‘The British kept their promise to the Zionists . . . Contrary to the widely held belief in Britain’s pro-Arabism, British actions considerably favoured the Zionist enterprise.’

At the fringe of Jewish life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Zionist movement lacked popular support, an army and the money to buy significant tracts of land for the purposes of colonisation. To compensate, it sought powerful allies among the gentiles. ‘The anti-semites will become our most loyal friends,’ the father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, wrote. ‘The anti-semitic nations will become our allies.’ Segev depicts prominent British gentiles favouring Zionism, not because they hated Jews, but because they assumed that Jews controlled the world. It was as though many British politicians imagined they were enlisting the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion to serve the British Empire. (Some of them, like Churchill, read and recommended the Protocols, until the Times exposed it as a fake.) The British Ambassador in Constantinople reported that Jews were behind the revolution of the Young Turks of 1908, a complete nonsense. ‘I do not think it is easy to exaggerate the international power of the Jews,’ the Foreign Office Under-Secretary Lord Robert Cecil said. Segev quotes a character in The Thirty-Nine Steps airing the common prejudice that ‘the Jew is everywhere . . . He’s the man who is ruling the world just now.’

Although Zionist leaders could turn these anti-semitic notions to their own ends, the tactic was not without risk. In 1988, Jonathan Frankel wrote in an article in Contemporary Jewry that ‘the belief in Jewish power, exaggerated to the level of myth, had permitted Jewish organisations and advocates to intervene at crucial moments and at the highest government levels . . . Few realised just how much this myth, albeit a source of political strength, was still more – given the essential weakness it disguised – a source of danger without limit.’

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