Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for November 4th, 2019

Legacy of Empire

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 4th November, 2019

Legacy of EmpireOn 18 February 1947 the Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, stood up in the House of Commons and declared, “We have reached the conclusion that the only course now open to us is to submit the problem [of Palestine] to the judgement of the United Nations. We shall explain that the Mandate has proved to be unworkable in practice, and that the obligations undertaken to the two communities in Palestine have been shown to be irreconcilable.” Those obligations had been set out 30 years earlier in the deceptively brief Balfour Declaration, which was in the form of a letter from the then (Conservative) Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to a leading member of the UK’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, stating, “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.” [my italics]

UN partition planFor three decades successive British governments (and their representatives on the ground following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War) had struggled to reconcile those irreconcilables, trying to appease both the Zionists, who had won the backing of Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George for their “return” to the historic land of Israel, and the Palestinian Arabs who were alarmed by the growing immigration of predominantly European Jews into Palestine. That alarm turned to outright hostility in the mid-1930s and in true colonial fashion, the British administration put down the consequent Arab Revolt forcefully, while at the same time sending messages to London that a further Jewish influx would only inflame the situation. But after the Second World War, a mixture of collective sympathy and guilt over how appallingly Jews had suffered under Nazi rule — even worse than under earlier Russian and eastern European pogroms — as well as a nimby-esque policy of wishing to limit the amount of Jewish immigration into Britain and North America, led almost inevitably to the creation not of a Jewish homeland within Palestine but of the Jewish state of Israel in a substantial part of the previously mandated territory. Partition (as happened simultaneously in the case of India and Pakistan) seemed to be the only logical way forward, and that is what the fledgling United Nations decided after Britain threw in the towel.

Chaim WeizmannThis is the context for Gardner Thompson’s admirable history of Britain, Zionism and the Creation of Israel, Legacy of Empire (Saqi, £20). Unlike many books written about what would become designated as the Israel-Palestine conflict, Thompson’s eschews polemic, instead adopting a cool, rational approach and a judicious, critical use of a wide range of diverse sources. Some readers may be disappointed that the author does not overtly take sides regarding Zionism itself, though it is hard not to be shocked by the stated Euro-centric view of  “the Arab” from Chaim Weizmann (who would become Israel’s first President): “His laziness and primitivism turn a flourishing garden into a desert.” It was Weizmann, too, who articulated a plan (communicated in 1941 to the Soviet Ambassador in London) “to move a million Arabs now living in Palestine to Iraq, and to settle 4 or 5 million Jews from Poland on the land which the Arabs had been occupying.” That wasn’t quite what happened in the event, but the extent of Palestinian dispossession in 1947-1948 was on a similar scale; small wonder Palestinians still today refer to it as the naqba or Catastrophe and see it in terms of ethnic cleansing. Because of the very irreconcilables mentioned earlier, there were bound to be winners and losers, whatever happened.

Frequently the whole issue of Israel-Palestine is shrugged off as being impossibly complicated, as well as insoluble, but as Noam Chomsky (quoted by Thompson) has said, although the world treats it as a multifaceted and complex story, it is in fact “a simple story of colonialism and dispossession.” The great virtue of this book is that the reader is provided with the tools necessary to understand how colonialism was a determining factor in the territory’s destiny a century ago, as it remains today.

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