Shimon Peres, Israel’s 87-year-old president doesn’t usually arouse antagonism
A tireless peace advocate for decades, and architect of
the Oslo Process for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize, he has long
presented Israel’s moderate face to the outside world.
Yet last week he
provoked anger among British politicians and Anglo- Jewish leaders when he told
a Jewish website that the British establishment had always been “deeply pro-
Arab ... and anti-Israel,” and that this was partly due to endemic anti- Semitic
dispositions. “I can understand Mr. Peres’ concerns, but I don’t recognize what
he is saying about England,” said James Clappison, vice-chairman of Conservative
Friends of Israel. “Things are certainly no worse, as far as Israel is
concerned, in this country than other European countries. He got it
But did he? While few arguments have resonated more widely, or
among a more diverse set of observers, than the claim that Britain has been the
midwife of the Jewish state, the truth is that no sooner had Britain been
appointed as the mandatory power in Palestine, with the explicit task of
facilitating the establishment of a Jewish national home in the country in
accordance with the Balfour Declaration, than it reneged on this
AS EARLY as March 1921, the British government severed the
vast and sparsely populated territory east of the Jordan River (“Transjordan”)
from the prospective Jewish national home and made Abdullah, the emir of Mecca,
its effective ruler. In 1922 and 1930, two British White Papers limited Jewish
immigration to Palestine – the elixir of life of the prospective Jewish state –
and imposed harsh restrictions on land sales to Jews.
of its international obligations to the Jewish national cause reached its peak
on May 17, 1939, when a new White Paper imposed draconian restrictions on land
sales to Jews and limited immigration to 75,000 over the next five years, after
which Palestine would become an independent state in which the Jews would
comprise no more than one-third of the total population.
Such were the
anti-Zionist sentiments within the British establishment at the time that even a
life-long admirer of Zionism like prime minister Winston Churchill rarely used
his wartime dominance of British politics to help the Zionists (or indeed
European Jewry). However appalled by the White Paper he failed to abolish this
“low grade gasp of a defeatist hour” (to use his own words), refrained from
confronting his generals and bureaucrats over the creation of a Jewish fighting
force in Palestine, which he wholeheartedly supported, and gave British
officialdom a free rein in the running of Middle Eastern affairs, which they
readily exploited to promote the Arab case. In 1943, for instance, Freya Stark,
the acclaimed author, orientalist, and Arabian adventurer, was sent to the US on
a seven-month propaganda campaign aimed at undercutting the Zionist cause and
defending Britain’s White Paper policy.
That this could happen at the
height of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry of which Whitehall was keenly
aware offered a stark demonstration of the mindset of British officialdom, which
was less interested in stopping genocide than in preventing its potential
survivors from reaching Palestine after the war.
So much so that senior
Foreign Office members portrayed Britain, not Europe’s Jews, as the main victim
of the Nazi atrocities.
THIS ANTI-ZIONISM was sustained into the postwar
years as the Labor Party, which in July 1945 swept to power in a landslide
electoral victory, swiftly abandoned its pre-election pro-Zionist platform to
become a bitter enemy of the Jewish national cause. The White Paper restrictions
were kept in place, and the Jews were advised by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin
not “to get too much at the head of the queue” in seeking recourse to their
Tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who chose to ignore
the warning and to run the British naval blockade were herded into congested
camps in Cyprus, where they were incarcerated for years.
accept the view that all the Jews or the bulk of them must leave Germany?” Bevin
rhetorically asked the British ambassador to Washington.
“I do not accept
that view. They have gone through, it is true, the most terrible massacre and
persecution, but on the other hand they have got through it and a number have
Prime Minister Clement Attlee went a step further by comparing
Holocaust survivors wishing to leave Europe and to return to their ancestral
homeland to Nazi troops invading the continent.
While these utterances
resonated with the pervasive anti-Semitism within British officialdom (the last
high commissioner for Palestine, General Sir Alan Cunningham, for instance, said
of Zionism, “The forces of nationalism are accompanied by the psychology of the
Jew, which it is important to recognize as something quite abnormal and
unresponsive to rational treatment”), Britain’s Middle Eastern policy also
reflected the basic fact that as occupiers of vast territories endowed with
natural resources (first and foremost oil) and sitting astride strategic
waterways (e.g., the Suez Canal), the Arabs had always been far more meaningful
for British interests than the Jews.
As the chief of the air staff told
the British cabinet in 1947, “If one of the two communities had to be
antagonized, it was preferable, from the purely military angle, that a solution
should be found which did not involve the continuing hostility of the
One needs look no further than David Cameron’s statements on the
Middle East to see this anti-Israel mindset is alive and kicking. In the
of 2006, when thousands of Hizbullah missiles were battering Israel’s
villages, he took the trouble of issuing a statement from the tropical
which he was vacationing at the time condemning Israel’s
Four years later, while on an official visit to Turkey, he
went out of his way to placate his Islamist host, Prime Minister Recep
Erdogan, by criticizing Israel’s efforts to prevent the arming of the
Islamist group, which, like its Lebanese counterpart, had been lobbing
of missiles on Israel’s civilian population for years.
Plus ça change,
plus c’est la même chose
The writer is professor of Middle East
Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, editor of the Middle
Quarterly and author, most recently, of Palestine Betrayed.