Book Review: Legacy of Empire – Britain, Zionism and the Creation of Israel by Gardner Thompson

By Tim Llewellyn, Oct 10th 2019

“…[T]he Mandate has proved to be unworkable in practice…[and] the obligations undertaken by the two communities in Palestine have been shown to be irreconcilable.” (Ernest Bevin, British Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons in February, 1947.)

“…The UN [Partition] plan of November 1947 represents a global act of nimbyism. Shared anti-Semitism brought together the Cold War superpowers, Truman’s USA, and Stalin’s USSR, along with numerous other states who would pay no price for the creation of Israel.” (Gardner Thompson.)

“Nimbyism”, for readers unfamiliar with the term, crops up regularly in Gardner Thompson’s eloquent account of the disastrous course and consequences, still with us, of Britain’s 31 years ownership of and faltering rule in Palestine. Nimby stands for Not In My Back Yard, a sarcastic description of those home-owners who support new housing or other urban developments in the public interest, but not anywhere near their own residences. Nimbyism well explains that weird combination of British fascination with the Jewish question and Jewish people, from the early 19th Century onwards, and the innate anti-Semitism of the British ruling classes. The success of Zionism was to a large extent founded on this anomaly.

It was the mid-19th Century philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury, an early Christian Zionist, a believer in the return of the Jews to the Holy Land for the second coming of Christ, who advocated the concept of terra nullius, empty territory, Palestine “a country without a nation for a nation without a country.” Palestine was not empty, of course, but as far as the British imperialist ruling class were concerned it was: Arabs were not really “people”, any more than were Africans, on their continent. It was this racism, unremarkable in those days, that underpinned the values, if so they can be described now, of the Balfour Declaration, and the essential, central part it played in the political and physical dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs and their steady replacement by Jews during British rule in Palestine, from 1917 to 1948.

But as Thompson points out, this fascination with the Jewish people, expressively described in George Eliot’s final novel “Daniel Deronda” (1876), combined with a latent anti-Semitism that underpinned the desirability for a refuge for the beleaguered Jews of Europe—somewhere else: The Holy Land, from whence, as the Biblical Texts had it, these exiled people had originally come. The trials of the First World War, the British conquest of the Ottoman Empire and seizure of Palestine in December 1917 brought the rulers of Empire and the leaders of the Zionist movement together with one common purpose in mind: the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

But this was by no means pre-destined. And it was certainly not in Britain’s best interests.

In 1916, while Herbert Asquith was still Prime Minister, there was little appetite among Britain’s foreign policy establishment for acquiring Palestine. Arrangements with the French, Britain’s close allies, had sealed a bargain, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, whereby Britain would gain as its part of the Ottoman spoils most of Iraq, and its oil, and that oil’s outlet at the ports of Haifa and Acre; France would control as a buffer crucial elements of the northern Arab tier between Mosul and the Syrian coast; Britain’s navy already dominated the Persian Gulf and the British ruled Egypt. Oil supplies, the Suez Canal, the passage to India, were assured. Promises to the Arab leader Hussein Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, guaranteed the Arabs independence in those parts of the Arab Middle East that the French and British had not earmarked. Or, so it seemed.

As for Zionism, it was faltering, despite the best efforts of first Theodor Herzl, its first international luminary and enthusiast, soon to be joined by the mightily well-connected and persuasive eminence of Chaim Weizmann, a Manchester businessman and scientist of Russian Jewish origin, who was a constant presence in ruling European circles from the turn of the 20th Century onwards. (He became a close friend of British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s in 1905.) But as a popular movement Zionism was inchoate until well after the First War. The pogroms in Tsarist Russia and elsewhere in eastern and central Europe inevitably caused mass Jewish emigration, but it was to America that ninety or more per cent of fleeing Jews headed; Palestine, to them an uncultivated land amid a sea of Muslims, was not an attraction. In Britain there was little appetite among Jews for emigration to the unknown discomforts of the farthest shores of the Mediterranean. The same applied in Germany and France and other parts of Western Europe, where many Jews had happily and successfully blended into the landscape, into business, banking, politics, and society. Most preferred assimilation or even conversion to the questionable experiment of Zionism. Many Jews also realized that a Jewish homeland in the Middle East might inflame latent anti-Semitism in Britain: “You have your own place now. Go there.”

Weizmann and his teams seemed to be banging on a closed door.

December 1916 and the dire months of early 1917 changed everything.

David Lloyd George acceded to the Prime Ministership at a time when the war was decidedly not going well. Casting round for help for wherever he could find it, Lloyd George imagined (vainly) that world Jewry, with its allegedly awesome power, in the United States especially, its access to funds and its influences in many global circles, could bring much-needed sustenance to the British and Allied war effort; vitally, he was also himself a romantic Zionist, a Welsh Noncomformist in whose ears still rang the Sunday School tales and nomenclatures of the Holy Land. The Jews were an exiled and oppressed people who needed a homeland. At the same time, he thought, a commanding Jewish presence in Palestine would anchor the British Empire with a friendly ally in the Near East.

Weizmann played on these dreams. Lloyd George’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur J. Balfour, was equally enamoured, equally a Noncomformist enthusiast for the beleaguered Jews, especially far far away. In 1905, as Liberal Prime Minister, he had presided over the enforcement of the Alien’s Act, aimed primarily at keeping Jews fleeing Eastern Europe from landing on British soil. As we are to see, as Thompson’s narrative unfolds, this kind of anti-Semitism suited the Zionist book perfectly. The last thing the Zionists desired was a safe haven for Jews in Europe or America or anywhere other than Palestine.

In November 1917, the Balfour Declaration, drafted mainly by Zionists, tweaked by the Foreign Office, was issued, 67 lapidary words that despite their careful crafting contain within them the terrible contradictions that during the subsequent 30 years the British were never able to overcome. The key phrase was that the British Government pledged to facilitate the establishment in Palestine of a “national home for the Jewish people.” Although it did not say so, subsequent statements by Balfour, Lloyd George and Churchill made it clear that this meant a Jewish state. Subsequent actions made it even clearer. The “national home” concept was written into the British League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, in 1922, and stuck to religiously throughout the first years of the mandate, despite the mounting evidence that it could only bring violence and irredeemable communal and religious alienation (not a problem in pre-war Palestine).

British Army officers and British administrators warned Westminster and Whitehall from 1917 onwards that Jewish immigration and a Jewish state could be imposed only by force, and so it was to be. Against the advice of the occupying British army administration, the British authorities early on allowed the Zionists to establish a parallel system of government to their own: a trades union movement, control over immigration and land sales, the Jewish National Fund to finance Zionist enterprises and a clandestine Jewish army, the Haganah. To Britain’s delight, by 1928 the 17 per cent Jewish community was contributing 44 per cent of the British Administration’s revenue.

However, as Thompson writes, by the end of 1923 “all the ingredients for irreversible antagonism were in place.”

As for the Arabs, they had no voice. Determined to maintain their Arab Palestine, they refused to take part in legislative bodies they knew would be rigged against them. The Balfour Declaration had described the 90 per cent Arab population as “the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, an insulting formula that British rulers were to repeat throughout the Mandate. In 1930, when the British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, led a delegation of his Arab Higher Committee to London he was treated dismissively by the Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, who complained that he could not find a suitable (i.e. complaisant) Arab to negotiate with. His words are precursors of those of the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who regularly complains that he can find no Palestinian “partner for peace.”

Inexorably, the Mandate became more and more impossible to implement. Between 1932 and and 1935, the advent of Hitler in 1933 meant that Jewish immigration to Palestine rose from 9,553 to 61,856. By 1939, despite the Arab Revolt and various contradictory machinations by the British, the core of a Jewish state in Palestine had been established. Meanwhile, the European powers and the Americans, Britain and its Dominions, were severely restricting Jewish immigration at this most crucial period, and pointing the victimized Jews—with Zionist support—towards Palestine.

The rest we know, and Thompson encapsulates dispassionately the final, unmanageable Mandate years, the Nakba and the creation of Israel in a late chapter.

Thompson is not a Middle East specialist, so has brought an unbiased historian’s eye to this inexplicable chapter of British and imperial history. He cannot and does not really try to explain what it was that led Lloyd George and Balfour and their successors to make the Declaration central to Mandatory rule in Palestine and to persist with it in defiance of all the evidence from those soldiers and administrators who were there on the ground. Wartime promises, after all, were generally made to be broken when peace descended. Was it Zionists lurking in the corridors of Whitehall power? The Zionist sympathies (or anti-Semitism) of so many MPs? The mystic, religious aura of the wandering and persecuted Jew, Christian Zionism, its hold on a largely Victorian-educated Establishment? Was it imperial design? Was it the sheer force and persuasiveness of Weizmann and his teams? Was it, in the end, the force majeure of virulent anti-Semitism in Europe, finding its foul apotheosis in the genocide of the Nazis, that tipped the balance as the 1930s unfurled? Certainly a constant theme in his book is the continuing conviction of the British authorities that the Arabs of Palestine should play their part, as it turned out a fateful part, in solving Europe’s Jewish problem; and they still play that part today.

The distinguished Jewish scholar and historian Bernard Wasserstein told me in an interview I did for the BBC 22 years ago, coming up to Israel’s 50th anniversary, that despite all the expert research, writing and theorizing by many masters of the Middle East’s recent history no-one has ever really been able to explain why the Balfour Declaration was not just written, issued and signed but promulgated. Elsewhere on this website Charles Glass examines Tom Segev’s “One Palestine, Complete”, and “Ploughing Sand”, by Naomi Shepherd; John McHugo reviews the seminal “Palestine: the Reality”, by J.M.N.Jeffries; all raise more questions, in the end, than answers. As Elizabeth Monroe, wartime chief of the British Government’s Middle East Information Division, referring to the Declaration, put it: “…measured by British interests alone, it was one of the greatest mistakes in our imperial history.”

Its devastating outcomes remain with us all, but most especially the Palestinian people, in the Holy Land and worldwide.

Thompson ends the book with words that must resonate with any supporter or member of our Balfour Project, indeed any advocate of equal Palestinian rights and political self-determination: “…among external agencies, none is better qualified than Britain to help put the Balfour Declaration to rest…the British Government could acknowledge historical responsibility, shed stale partisanship and initiate a renewed search for justice and peace.”

Tim Llewellyn is an Executive Committee and Advisory Forum member of the Balfour Project, and is a former BBC Middle East Correspondent.

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