Jan Smuts given honor where honor was due

Smuts was an international statesman of great repute who bestrode the world political stage like a colossus for the first half of the 20th century.

By PETER BAILEY
July 25, 2018 04:45
A street sweeper cleans sidewalk next to a flower bed in shape of U.S. flag, near location of new U.

A street sweeper cleans sidewalk next to a flower bed in shape of U.S. flag, near location of new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, 2018.. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

While I have no objection to Daniel P. Moynihan being honored by Israel in any way which Gil Troy would see fit, I take great exception to the fact that Moynihan’s name is even mentioned in the same context as that of Jan Smuts.

Smuts was an international statesman of great repute who bestrode the world political stage like a colossus for the first half of the 20th century, while Daniel Moynihan was, at best, thrust onto the world stage for a short period as the United States ambassador to the United Nations. The only commonality I have found, is that prime minister David Lloyd George sent Smuts to Ireland in 1921 for discussions aimed at ending the violence with Irish nationalist leader Eamon de Valera, while 60 years later in 1981, Moynihan, together with other Irish American politicians, Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill, established a bipartisan group to promote peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Neither Smuts nor Moynihan were particularly successful in that worthy endeavor.

Gen. Jan Christiaan Smuts was the architect of the Union of South Africa, established in 1910 as a self-governing dominion of the United Kingdom, becoming a totally committed and loyal Anglophile, despite having fought against the British during the Anglo Boer War (1898-1901). Smuts enjoyed a great friendship with Chaim Weizmann, which lasted from their first meeting in 1917 until Smuts’ death in 1950.

Smuts and Weizmann had much in common, sharing a great interest in science, with Smuts becoming the first president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1931. Weizmann was a Zionist. Smuts, as a devoted Christian, held a firm belief in the right of the Jewish people to their homeland in Palestine.

Smuts was partial toward the Jews and Jewish problems globally, being sympathetic to Jewish immigration to South Africa as early as 1910. In 1917, as Minister of Defense, in which capacity he would become a member of the Imperial War Cabinet in Britain, he promised the South African Zionist Federation that he would support the movement for a Jewish Homeland in Palestine. Shortly after his appointment to the war cabinet, he met with, and developed his lasting friendship with Weizmann, and lent his not-insignificant support to the Balfour Declaration.

FOLLOWING THE end of hostilities in 1918, which brought the First World War to an end, a peace conference was held at Versailles in France on January 19, 1919, between the victorious Allied Forces and the defeated Central Powers, which had been led by Germany. The product of this conference was the Versailles Peace Treaty, with the Balfour Declaration granting a homeland to the Jewish people as one of its many clauses – this, at the insistence of Jan Smuts.

Versailles was followed by the San Remo Conference, which lasted from April 19-26, 1920, and was also attended by Smuts. The primary objective of this conference was to ratify the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and to establish the League of Nations. Here again, Smuts insisted that the Balfour Declaration be embodied in the clauses establishing the League of Nations, with Smuts the author of its constitution.

The San Remo Resolution, as well as Article 22 of the newly established League of Nations, incorporated the Balfour Declaration, with the resolution officially designated the Smuts Resolution. This resolution was the basis for the establishment of the mandate system that led to the British Mandate over Palestine, and should have rapidly led a self-governing Jewish state in the whole territory between the Jordan River and the sea.

British intransigence and a failure to keep to the terms of the Article 22 as soon as was practical resulted in the impasse that lasted until the United Nations, successor to the League of Nations, passed the historic partition vote on November 29, 1947. This was not the fault of Smuts, who repeatedly approached successive British governments on behalf of the South African Zionist Federation, protesting the various white papers limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine. While it must be said that Smuts voted to restrict Jewish immigration to South Africa in 1936, he had a choice of bringing down the coalition government, or going along with his coalition partners.

His record prior to that vote and subsequent record are totally at odds with his support for that contentious Immigration Bill.

Smuts led the move for South Africa to enter the war as a British ally against the wishes of his coalition partners, who voted against a Declaration of War on Germany. However, they were defeated, leading to the end of the coalition and the establishment of the Reformed National Party, which would win the 1948 general election on an apartheid-policy ticket.

The war years saw Smuts once again as an influential member of Winston Churchill’s British war cabinet. Churchill had a great admiration for Smuts and valued his opinion above all others. Following the end of hostilities in September 1945, the United Nations was established on October 24, 1945, with the objective of preventing future global conflicts. Smuts was once again present and was the author of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Nations. Smuts was the only politician to serve in the British war cabinet in both the First and the Second World Wars. He was the only politician to sign the peace treaties ending global conflict after both world wars and was the only signatory to the establishment of both the League of Nations and the United Nations, a truly amazing record to say the least.

SOUTH AFRICA, with Jan Smuts as Prime Minister, voted in favor of the partition of Palestine to ensure the establishment of a Jewish homeland. David Ben-Gurion made the famous Declaration of Israeli Independence on May 14, 1948, and Smuts granted de facto recognition to the State of Israel 10 days later on May 24. His successor, prime minister Dr. D.F. Malan, granted de jure recognition on Israel’s first Independence Day, May 14, 1949. He later became the first foreign head of state to visit Israel in 1953.

Smuts is also accused by Troy of being a racist, not without foundation. But his conduct must be judged in the context of his times. Black South Africans definitely had more rights and less restrictions under Smuts than under successive Nationalist Party governments. Smuts acknowledged that the restrictions on blacks had to be reduced, but that this would have to be done under controlled circumstances. Accusations of racism against a South African prime minister for his actions in the 1940s, based on contemporary standards, is unfair and borders on bias. 

The move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is vitally important to Israel. There is no denying the significant role Daniel P. Moynihan played over the years, albeit unsuccessfully, trying to influence a succession of presidents to move the embassy. The role played by Moynihan in the move just does not bear comparison to the roles played by Smuts in the Balfour Declaration, at the Versailles Conference, the San Remo Conference, the League of Nations and later at the United Nations, which led to the State of Israel.

Find another street to honor Moynihan, but the German Colony street honoring Smuts must stay the German Colony street, honoring a great friend of the Jewish people. And let’s not forget Smuts Boulevard in Tel Aviv and Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan (Smuts) in northern Israel.

The writer is a member of the Balfour Centenary Committee for Israel, the author of Smuts, the Anonymous Figure Behind the Balfour Declaration, an avid student of and lecturer on South African Jewish military history, and the author of Street Names in Israel.


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