Britain’s poisoned legacy in Palestine

Legacy of Empire: Britain, Zionism and the Creation of Israel by Gardner Thompson, Saqi Books (2019)

The recent defeat of the UK’s Labour Party amid a relentless campaign to smear its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as an anti-Semite makes the appearance of historian Gardner Thompson’s Legacy of Empire: Britain, Zionism and the Creation of Israel especially relevant.

Corbyn likely would have become the first British prime minister to renounce the notorious Balfour Declaration of 1917, which gave Britain’s colonial endorsement to the establishment of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. The baseless charges of anti-Semitism that dogged Corbyn are wholly hypocritical given the links between Zionism, British colonialism and real anti-Semitism.

Legacy of Empire documents how this strange brew of ideologies and bigotry led to the denial of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. Thompson covers the period from the birth of Zionism in 1897 to the establishment of Israel in 1948, but the author maintains that “Israel’s origins are properly sought in the period of the First World War” (1914-1918).

Books on Balfour

Is there a need for another book focusing on the Balfour Declaration?

Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel, by The Electronic Intifada editor David Cronin, was published in 2017, the centenary of the declaration. That same year saw the republication of Palestine the Reality: The Inside Story of the Balfour Declaration 1917-1938 by J.M.N. Jeffries, a British journalist who was contemporary with the events.

Prior to that was The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Jonathan Schneer’s 2010 study that shouldn’t be overlooked.

By examining in greater detail the period between 1918 and 1948, with a focus on two central questions, Thompson makes a resounding case for what he calls “a fresh, evidence-based corrective review of what happened when the British were responsible for Palestine.”

Thompson indicates he was motivated to write Legacy of Empire in part by a House of Lords debate on the centenary that was characterized by “a prevailing tone of uncritical pride” in the declaration and the almost complete disregard of Palestinians, save for a few lonely critics.

Named for British foreign minister Lord Arthur James Balfour, who helped craft and implement it, the declaration is a classic example of a European colonial power attempting to set the terms for the future of a non-European land without consulting the indigenous people who represented the overwhelming majority of its population.

Moreover, it did so by endorsing a settler-colony project that at the time was either opposed or ignored by most of the people for whom the Zionist movement claimed to speak.

Anti-Semitism and a version of philo-Semitism, or appreciation for Jewish culture, that essentialized the Jewish people laid the foundation for the Balfour Declaration. As British prime minister, Balfour had presided over the passage of the Aliens Act in 1905, which was intended primarily to prevent Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe from entering Britain.

“The Balfour Declaration,” Thompson writes, “was a landmark expression of nimbyism” – an acronym for not in my backyard – that meant viewing Jewish immigration as a problem that could be solved by creating a “national home” elsewhere.

The anti-Semitic dimensions of the declaration did not go unnoticed at the time, particularly by the only senior minister in the British government who was Jewish, Edwin Montagu. “The policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic,” Montagu stated.

Montagu argued vociferously against the Zionist precept that the Jewish people represented a nation. He warned that this notion would lead to pressure to expel Jews from Britain or deny them the rights of citizenship.

Montagu also expressed awareness that Palestine at the time was inhabited mainly by Muslims and Christians, and he recognized that the declaration could lead to their expulsion from Palestine.

Why Palestine?

The narrative of Legacy of Empire revolves around two central questions.

First, why was Palestine relevant to the British Empire in 1917? And second, why did British colonialism remain faithful to Zionism, even in the wake of concerted Arab resistance such as the major revolt of the 1930s?

Thompson answers the first question by writing that the declaration was a “wartime exigency” and “a tale of coincidences and contingency.” Under H. H. Asquith, British prime minister from 1908-1916, Palestine was not “a strategic priority.”

The author questions historical accounts that say Britain collaborated with Zionism under Asquith. What made Palestine relevant, he argues, was the ascension of David Lloyd George to the premiership in December 1916, along with military setbacks that risked Britain losing the world war.

Thompson’s case for contingency and coincidence rests with Lloyd George, a Christian Zionist who was charmed by Chaim Weizmann, one of the leading figures in the Zionist movement.

Weizmann convinced Lloyd George that “the Jews in both Russia and the US were crucial to their respective countries remaining in the war.” The promise of a Jewish homeland would result in Jews pressuring Tsarist Russia to remain in the war and ensure that the US would become fully involved in it.

In short, Weizmann sold Lloyd George on what was essentially an anti-Semitic trope of the power of “international Jewry.”

Thompson posits that British ruling circles were primarily won over to the Zionist position on ideological grounds. They accepted the precepts that Jews represented a nation in exile that suffered persecution in the diaspora and therefore had the need and right to return to Palestine.

But this also fit well into anti-Semitic beliefs that aligning with the Zionist movement gave Britain a strategic advantage in the war due to Jewish power and influence.

Statements made by British leaders from the period, quoted by Thompson, eerily evoke the white nationalism emanating from the Donald Trump administration.

Consider, for example, Balfour’s belief that Jewish immigration to England represented an “invasion” and that Jews would never fit into English society because they were “a people apart.”

Thompson quotes similar views espoused by Winston Churchill in 1920 when he wrote in the Illustrated Sunday Herald that a “world-wide conspiracy” of “international Jews” threatened to destroy European civilization but concluded “with praise for Zionism as ‘a new ideal’ that was simple, true and attainable.”

Britain’s faithfulness to Zionism

Why did Britain remain faithful to the Zionist movement following World War I, and despite Arab resistance? Thompson answers this by recounting the many variations in British policy – from the Peel Commission report that suggested the partition of Palestine to the White Paper of 1939 – that promised an independent state with an Arab majority.

But in the end, none of these policies fully renounced Britain’s colonial role or embraced the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, which Balfour had outright rejected. Nevertheless, Thompson is dismayed that there was never a “pragmatic shift of policy in Palestine” given the resistance Britain encountered from Palestinian revolts.

The British Empire no longer exists, and the sun sets now on the United Kingdom’s own backyard. Following World War II, Great Britain not only had to relinquish its empire but it had to acknowledge – especially after the US rebuked it for its role in the 1956 Suez Crisis – that it was simply a junior partner to the Americans, a role it continues to play dutifully.

The kind of redemption that a Corbyn government would likely have brought has received a setback. But there is still hope that both the US and the UK will one day end their role as unofficial occupiers of Palestine.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.




I hope I live long enough to see that day, though the present circumstances give me cause to doubt it.