Blame it on Britain

Separation wall. Bethlehem, June 2012.

“When a real and final catastrophe should befall us in Palestine the first responsible for it would be the British and the second responsible for it the terrorist organisations build [sic] up from our own ranks.” So wrote Albert Einstein, in a letter to Shepard Rifkin in Spring, 1948.

Rifkin had apparently asked Einstein, as a prominent Jew, for his support for his organisation “the American Friends for the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel,” something that the physicist had the good judgment to refuse, despite his formerly enthusiastic, (now somewhat qualified,) support for Labor Zionism.

Einstein was right to do so. The American Friends group were supporters of the Stern gang, a militant organization that committed a number of crimes in Mandate Palestine, among them acts of butchery that killed innocent civilians.  Decades later, as the hopes for an end to the soul-destroying war cycle in the Levant, let alone the prospects of a just peace, appear to drown in front of the eyes of an impotent Israeli and Diaspora Left, Einstein’s disaster does not look far off.

While many will contend this is due in no small part to the fact that the political inheritors of those that practised early terror now dominate the Israeli political scene, Britain’s crucial role in the laying the ground for today’s tragedy should not be ignored.

By attending to British actions in the thirty-year period of her rule – which runs from the First World War to Britain’s post-colonial scramble from Mandate Palestine – we may be able to see why Einstein was probably right in assigning chief responsibility in 1948 to Britain for planting the seeds of disaster in the Yishuv soil.

If we are able to establish that this is the case – and I think that we will be able to – I would like to follow this with something not common to writing on the subject of the Arab-Israeli conflict: an apology, on behalf of the decisions made by the political elite in the nation of my birth.

While I bear no personal responsibility for the “hell disaster” (to quote Winston Churchill) that the Brits created, the pain and bloodshed that it has produced – much of which, contrary to popular assumptions, could have been prevented – deserves contrition from someone, no matter how tangentially connected to the culprits in Whitehall.

Roots of the Conflict

The sine qua non of the State of Israel was the Balfour Declaration issued by the British government in 1917, a text that famously consented to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in what was to become the British Mandate of Palestine.

The wording of this document guaranteed the rights of the Jewish and Arab residents to live in the area. The substantive part of the declaration read:

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”

This move, while welcomed enthusiastically by Zionists and many British progressives (such as The Guardian’s CP Scott), who saw it – not unreasonably – as redress for centuries of injustice meted out to Jews, was made particularly problematic by the fact that Britain was perceived to have made previous, conflicting promises to other parties about the future of the region.

In the white heat of World War I, Britain was desperate to achieve a number of strategic aims in the Middle East. Chief among these was the desire to prevent the ailing Ottoman Empire, who had sided with the Axis powers, from taking control of the Suez Canal in Egypt. In order to prevent this scenario, and to achieve the dissolution of Ottoman domination in West Asia, London sought to bring about an Arab rebellion against foreign rule.

This was realized following a series of promises made on behalf of Britain by High Commissioner to Egypt Sir Henry McMahon to Hussein Ali, the Sharif of Mecca. These are contained in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.

According to historian Kirsten Schulze, through McMahon Britain promised Hussein that “the Arab territory of the Ottoman Empire [would] be returned to Arab sovereignty, with [certain exceptions]…The excluded territory…did not include Palestine, despite Britain’s later claim that it did.”

Thus, with the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, the Promised Land, to quote Isaiah Friedman, became “twice promised” (although Friedman himself did not believe this, and was ephemerally successful helping to exonerate Britain for its lead role in paving the way for the mess that followed. Subsequent research has contradicted this view.)

Things were further complicated by arrangements that the British made with France in 1916. The Sykes-Picot agreement, made between two high-level diplomats bifurcated the Middle East into two spheres of influence: roughly France, in the North, Britain in the South.

Just as compatibility between the implicit promises contained in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration could only exist in theory, justification for this treacherous triad of endowments can only be achieved through tortured casuistry. In practice, these conflicting guarantees meant that tensions between the claimants to Palestine were inevitable – a situation that eventually inspired sustained rancour between Arab and Jewish nationalist movements.

As the descent into de facto civil war deepened, Britain’s Peel commission would summarize with damning clarity Britain’s responsibility for the morass:

“Under the stress of the World War, the British Government made promises to Arabs and Jews in order to obtain their support. On the strength of those promises both parties formed certain expectations. . . . An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country. . . . There is no common ground between them. . . . This conflict was inherent in the situation from the outset.”

Peel went on to conclude that Britain could not “in Palestine as it is now —both concede the Arab claim of self-government and secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home” – the very promises contained in the Balfour Declaration. He proposed partition instead.

This was something that had support from Weizmann left in the Zionist camp, but not from the Revisionist right, led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Motives for the Balfour Declaration

According to Tom Segev, Britain’s final decision to approve the Zionist cause was forged in the cast of ugly imperial attitudes: fear, racism and squalid self-interest.

Jewish, Arab and British police officers. Haifa, 1933.
Jewish, Arab and British police officers. Haifa, 1933.

David Lloyd George, considered by some to be a leading light of early twentieth-century British Liberalism was in fact as racist as many of his Conservative counterparts. The former Prime Minister once famously stated that he “reserved the right to bomb the niggers.”

According to Segev, his attitudes toward Jews and Arabs was no more enlightened: Lloyd George’s classically anti-Semitic belief that the Zionists wielded great power over the world’s affairs convinced him that they needed to be appeased in the midst of war and in its wake. He later stated of the strategic importance of frustrating Arab rights in Palestine in favour of Jews:

‘Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad is of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.’

Another motive had drawn Lloyd George to the Zionist cause: strategic necessity. In the midst of the First World War, a leading British Zionist, Dr Chaim Weizmann (the future President of Israel) had fortuitously devised a way to synthesize acetone, a production component of cordite, which was desperately needed for the production of war materials. Germany had plenty of this valuable resource, while Britain needed it. Thus, a close relationship between the British government and Dr Weizmann began.

Finally, the British government was desperate to win the war by any means, knowing what defeat would mean to their empire. Crucial to achieving this objective was Britain’s relationship with the US. The hope that the Americans could be drawn into the war was central to Britain’s interests, and as a result, they committed themselves to a tactic of wooing Washington One way to do this, wrote US academic James Gelvin, was to get on the good side of “two of Wilson’s closest advisors, Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter,[who]  were avid Zionists.” He added:

“The British adopted similar thinking when it came to the Russians, who were in the midst of their revolution. Several of the most prominent revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky, were of Jewish descent. Why not see if they could be persuaded to keep Russia in the war by appealing to their latent Jewishness and giving them another reason to continue the fight?” … These include not only those already mentioned but also Britain’s desire to attract Jewish financial resources”

Balfour himself, as Foreign Minister, declared that, by aligning with the Zionist cause, Britain would find a way “to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.

The Great Unraveling

British military presence in Palestine after WWI, endorsed by the League of Nations, meant that it would maintain control over an area of key strategic importance. As Mark Tessler wrote in A History of the Israeli-Palestine Conflict (1994), via the Sykes-Picot agreement, Britain fulfilled its goal of “assuring access to the Suez Canal and the East, preventing French ambitions in Lebanon and Syria from drifting south, and creating a land bridge from the Mediterranean sea to the oil fields of Iraq.”

In the post-war period, Hussein’s hopes were crushed and Zionist ones partially upheld. Hussein would have to make do with being King of Hejaz rather than being a great a pan-Arab leader – a consolation that he would lose within a few years upon usurpation by assault from the House of Sa’ud who subsequently established the Kingdom that bears their name.

Jewish rights to settlement in Palestine were affirmed at the Paris Peace Conference and the San Remo conference of 1920 after British pressure was brought to bear on the reluctant French.

From then on, Jewish settlement in the Holy Land increased, upsetting the Arab population who were already highly resentful about Britain’s perfidy in frustrating Arab nationalist ambitions, increasingly regarding European Jews as imperial collaborators. Nonetheless, both sides at that point were by no means set on a course of inevitable confrontation.

This is shown by the fact that when the first great outbreak of inter-communal violence took place – the Nebi Musa riots in Jerusalem’s Old City area in 1920 – the majority of local clerics came forward to condemn anti-Jewish violence.

Arab and Jewish soldiers in training. Mandate Palestine, WWII.
Arab and Jewish soldiers in training. Mandate Palestine, WWII.

As Tom Segev has written about this period, Arab attitudes towards both Jews and Zionist immigration was, in fact, positive. “Arab notables, and hundreds of sheikhs and mukhtars,” writes Segev, “expressed support for Jewish immigration” even while an unrepresentative Arab delegation to London in 1921, egged on by Anti-Zionist British officers, expressed their desire for the Balfour declaration to be reversed.

Around this time, Chaim Weizmann had found an ally in Prince Feisal in the Hejaz, whom the British had betrayed in Paris. Warm words were expressed by Feisal toward his Semitic cousins. All of which goes to show that mutual rancour between Arabs and Jews, contrary to popular belief, was not a product of fate and, if the situation had been handled better, did not have to result in the conflict that followed after.

Things changed when the Hebron Massacre occurred in 1929. Jews, having supposedly left behind such brutal mistreatment in Europe, were appalled at the murders that took place in the city of Abraham’s tomb. The resident population fled, and the Haganah – the underground defence organization that preceded the IDF- was established in response. This incident emboldened the militant voices among Zionists to pursue statehood by violent means if necessary and helped to persuade many Jews that the Arabs were implacably hostile.

It is easy to forget that even during this horrendous incident, Arab-Jewish hostility was not a natural state of affairs. This was unmistakably demonstrated by the fact that Arabs in Hebron saved the lives of 400 Jews, and many more were horrified by the actions of those who perpetrated the violence. A fever of Arab hostility was fed by paranoia about an “invasion” of Jewish settlers and, crucially in this case, false rumours of a takeover of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Prior to the Massacre, Hebron was something of a model of peaceful co-existence, as survivors recalled in the 1999 documentary What I saw in Hebron.

Britain’s inept response to Hebron only inflamed the inter-communal tension and set into motion the final collapse of hopes for peace. British Colonial Secretary Lord Passfield issued a white paper, partly intended to appease Arab concerns, which blamed Jewish Agency land purchases for the violence and which increased restrictions on Jewish immigration. This unsurprisingly outraged the Jewish community, which was still recovering from the trauma of Hebron and helped to strengthen support for the Zionist right.

The latter reaction was noted by the British government. This concerned British Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, who, according to Schulze, “issued a letter explaining away the white paper, which, in turn, angered the Arabs.”

Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, 1933 and American restrictions on immigration meant that Palestine became a major destination for Jews on the brink of an approaching catastrophe in Europe. An influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees meant that Arab fears of a takeover increased. This led to, according to Schulze “a new phase in Arab nationalism, which can be seen as the first popular expression of a distinctly Palestinian nationalism.”

An anti-Semitic Arab movement led by the notorious Haj Al Husseini (who would later ally with the Nazis) gained ground, as tensions rose in response to foreign immigration, eventually manifested in the Arab Higher Committee in 1936. 

The Second Arab Revolt and WWII

From 1936 until 1939, the Arabs of Palestine began strikes against British rule, a move that caused the imperialists considerable trouble, and meant that Albion’s policing of the restive region became reflexively ever more violent. Eventually, the aforementioned Peel Commission proposed partition of the land, a suggestion that was rejected by Arab opinion, already inflamed by preceding grievances.

In order to assuage Arab fears, Britain issued a white paper in 1939 that restricted Jewish immigration to 15,000 per year until 1944 – a period in time in which Jews were about to be subjected to unimaginable mistreatment. To Zionists, this move was an act of ultimate betrayal and merely helped to consolidate trends toward militancy and ever-growing animosity to Arabs, coupled with bitter resentment toward Britain.

As the Second World War broke out, and Jews were being brutally murdered en masse by the Nazi killing machine, those fleeing certain destruction in Europe were being turned away at the shores of Palestine, while the anti-Semitic Palestinian leader Haj Al-Husseini sided with Hitler. Inter-communal violence, and a near-enough full-scale uprising against rule from the UK meant that London, upon the war’s conclusion, handed over the situation to the nascent United Nations. In such a manner Britain ran away from a mess it had helped to create, having led Arabs and Jews toward the gates of Gehenna, before washing its hands of the situation.

An Apology

There are many other aspects to this grim story that needs to be addressed. However,  there is not space enough to give them adequate treatment. Even in this comparatively brief account, it seems obvious enough that Britain has a lot to apologize for.

Needless to say, it never has done so meaningfully. And for this reason, I, as a Brit (moreover, one from a family which includes both Jews and Muslims,) feel the need to apologize on behalf of those of my countrymen who set in motion events that even now are pulling the entire region yet again towards a precipice.

Such apologies might seem trite, under the circumstances. Everyone, of course, knows that Britain bears some responsibility for the Mideast crisis. However, there is also a tendency, particularly amongst progressives, to blame the locals, to the exclusion of foreign powers. The issue, as I see it, is that the outside world remains inextricably linked with Arab-Israeli dysfunction. As such, it remains an essential partner in its resolution.

As long as the violence persists, so will the requirement that we acknowledge shared responsibility for the conflict. As a journalist, I can think of no better a way to do that, than to help recount its origins.

Photographs courtesy of brunswicksquare,  Israel’s Government Press Office, and England. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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