Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Zionism’

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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The Spirit of Córdoba

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th November, 2018

5061EB38-2936-4119-B8B3-99CCCC4F7ADDHaving so often cited the Umayyad emirate (later caliphate) of Córdoba in my Humanities lectures at SOAS, as an historic example of religious tolerance and the promotion of an independent spirit of enquiry, it is perhaps surprising that I had never been to this Andalusian city myself until last night. Of course, I am 1200 years too late to see the place in its full glory, when it was a centre of civilisation and learning to rival Damascus, populated by Muslims, Christians and Jews, and was probably the biggest human settlement in Europe. But there are still many vestiges of that golden era, not least the pillars and arches of the city’s main mosque, now incorporated into the Roman Catholic cathedral’s precinct. Many of the courtyards in the old town are reminiscent of the casbahs of North Africa and I was intrigued by how many Moroccan visitors I noticed as I walked round the city today. There are remnants of an even older, Roman, town, not least the splendid (albeit heavily remodelled) bridge that spans the Guadalquivir river. But it was the civilisation established after the Moors took control in 711AD that still resonates in world history. Perhaps inevitably, after a couple of centuries, the rot set in. Books were burned, as Islamic religious puritans got the upper hand. Then in 1236 the city fell to a Christian king’s armies. Subsequently both the Muslims and the Jews were expelled and one of the most repressive, totalitarian forms of Christian orthodoxy was imposed through the Spanish Inquisition.

BABF9765-ABDC-42D4-956C-02EC92A4B394A degree of mutual respect between the three Abrahamic religions was found in various parts of the Ottoman Empore at different times, but nothing quite like the spirit of Córdoba. With hindsight we can maybe wonder whether it would not have been possible to create such a society in an independent Palestine after the First World War, but Britain (as the mandated power for the area) got no further than supporting the concept of Jerusalem as an international city, where Muslims, Christians and Jews would live as brothers, and even that notion was swept aside by the surge of Zionism and the creation of the modern state of Israel. However, we live in an interconnected, postmodern world in which boundaries are traversed and the Internet allows us to create transnational communities of interest. Interestingly. in 2005, as fears were expressed about polarisation between Islamic and Western civilisations, the then Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, launched the “Alliance of Civilizations”. The initiative was based on the idea that all societies are interdependent, regarding development, security, welfare and environment, and that therefore a common political will should be established in order to overcome prejudice, misperceptions and polarisation. This move was endorsed by the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, turning the Alliance into a UN programme, the UNAOC. Progress has not exactly been linear since then, but there are a number of significant efforts to revive the Spirit of Córdoba, and to help it thrive, at the national level, including an independent research and public relations organisation in the UK, the Cordoba Foundation: https://www.thecordobafoundation.com

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Ahmadinejad Harms the Palestinian Cause

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 21st April, 2009

mahmoud-ahmadinejadThe Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, looked smugly satisfied when British and other Western delegates to the UN anti-racism conference in Geneva walked out yesterday, once he started his anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish rant. While his uncompromising words — including yet another questioning of the reality of the Holocaust — may have played to a certain radical gallery, they were disastrous for the Palestinian cause. As a result of his intervention, once again Israel and Jews worldwide can portray themselves as victims, whose very existence is threatened by Iran. The Palestinian issue, which the Iranian leader was supposedly highlighting, was effectively sidelined, as so often is the case.

There are many reasons to criticse Israeli policy; I do so often myself. There was no justification for the sickening scale of the assault on Gaza earlier this year, for example. But to couch such criticism in terms that play into the hands of those who cry ‘anti-semitism’ anytime Israel is scrutinised is counter-productive. Far from helping the Palestinian cause and their just struggle for dignity, freedom and statehood, Ahmadinejad has put it back. And he has persuaded the rational world — if it wasn’t persuaded already — that he is anti-semitic himself. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was right to attack the speech as contrary to the very purpose and spirit of the conference. Maybe Ahmadenijad thinks his display of arrogance will improve his chances of being re-elected in the forthcoming presidential elections back home. But actually he has damaged the reputation of Iran, as well as doing the Palestinians a disservice.

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