Two of Israel’s most ardent supporters in the European Parliament clashed this week over their interpretations of Zionist history.
I’ve got hold of an intriguing series of email messages sent after an invitation was circulated for a drinks reception in Brussels marking Israel’s so-called Independence Day. The event — held on Wednesday night — was organized by European Friends of Israel, a lobby group comprised of various members of the Parliament (MEPs).
Responding to the invitation, Malika Benarab-Attou, an MEP representing France, expressed puzzlement by the name Independence Day. “Does this mean Israel was colonized?” she asked. “By whom?”
The EFI’s chairman, Marek Siwiec from Poland, then gave a slightly condescending lesson to Benarab-Attou. “The word ‘independence’ describes usually the anniversary of the creation of a country,” he wrote. “Sometimes independence means a nation’s assumption of independent statehood after ceasing to be a colony, sometimes it means the end of a military occupation. Just think about Independence Day in the USA, where they commemorate, on 4 July, the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776.
“I think that if you looked a bit deeper into the history of Israel, you would discover that only in 1948, Israel got rid of the British protectorate. So, what we will celebrate today, is an independence from the British mandate for Palestine. I will translate it into your terms: this independence means the end of the colonization by the British mandate.”
That explanation wasn’t good enough for another leading light in the EFI, the English Conservative Charles Tannock. He took umbrage at the hint that Britain might have behaved in a less than honorable manner in Palestine before the establishment of the state of Israel.
“I cannot let it pass that you describe this independence day of Israel as celebrating the end of British colonisation!!” Tannock wrote (his exclamation marks). Tannock claimed that the British Mandate to rule Palestine from 1923 to 1948 was granted under Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations “in order to protect and decolonize” former German and Ottoman-controlled territories after the First World War.
“We were never ‘colonists’ – i.e. claiming national sovereignty and attempting to settle British people in Palestine and in fact we lost British soldiers and civilian administrators due to terrorist actions against the UK as we tried to keep the peace between the different communities in Palestine and arriving settlers from abroad. Sadly 70 years on these matters have not been peaceably resolved yet but I have never heard before from anyone the idea that we British were a ‘colonial power’ as opposed to a ‘mandated power’ in interwar Palestine!!”
Tannock’s rosy view of Britain’s role in the Middle East omits some salient facts. The most salient — indeed, indisputable — fact is that in 1917, Arthur James Balfour, then foreign secretary in London, wrote a terse letter to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland promising the establishment of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. Two years later, Balfour expanded on this pledge by stating: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-old traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far greater import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
The words of Balfour illustrate how the establishment of the state of Israel can only be viewed as a colonial project based on a toxic notion of racial supremacy.
The fact that Britain didn’t try to settle its own population in Palestine is hardly relevant. Britain didn’t move large numbers of its civilians into India either, yet not even Tannock could argue that India wasn’t once a British colony.
More importantly, Britain’s behavior in Palestine bore the hallmarks of an imperial power. Henry Hugh Tudor, inspector-general of police and prisons in British Mandate Palestine, had previously headed the police force in Ireland during its war of independence in 1920 and 1921. A large component of the officers under his command in Palestine had been part of the Black and Tans, British colonial forces that burnt down part of my hometown (Balbriggan, County Dublin) and several other parts of Ireland.
Nor should we forget Britain’s High Commissioner to Palestine, Herbert Samuel, who paved the way for the theft of Palestinian land. Himself a committed Zionist, Samuel issued a series of regulations on landownership that enabled the Zionist leadership to acquire huge chunks of Palestine.
Tannock’s reading of the Covenant of the League of Nations would also appear a little selective. Article 22, which he cited, stipulated that the wishes of the indigenous populations in former Ottoman territories “must be a principal consideration” for the mandatory power. Plotting to install a Jewish state in a land with a majority Arab population was hardly in keeping with either the spirit or the letter of that clause.
The disagreement between Tannock and Siwiec didn’t appear to spoil the atmosphere at the European Friends of Israel drinks. The special guest for the evening was Einat Wilf, a member of the Knesset with Ehud Barak’s new party Independence. Earlier this year, Wilf alleged that Palestinians have a “desire to perpetuate the conflict.”
It sounds like she was perfect company for a group known to bend and twist history to suit its own purposes.