It seems a strange fatality that the latest horrors perpetrated by Israel in Gaza have coincided with the commemoration in the UK of the beginning of the First World War on Aug. 4, 1914. For the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict is the poison fruit of what was hailed as the ‘war to end all wars.’
It is understandable that the centenary of the 1914-18 war matters profoundly to British people mindful of forebears who lost their lives in this hellish episode of blood-letting. Yet the preoccupation with mourning the war dead is apt to cloud understanding.
If there is no little public confusion about what precisely the war was fought for, there is also widespread ignorance about its legacy, especially with regard to the Middle East.
Few grasp that the Israel-Palestine conflict has its roots in the anxiety of the British imperial government to secure the backing of world Jewry, above all that of prominent American Jews, in their war against Germany.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour promised that his government would ‘view with favor’ the establishment of a ‘Jewish national home’ in Palestine, was issued at a time when Britain faced bankruptcy, with the outcome of its war effort in doubt. Jewish support was reckoned a potentially decisive asset in the struggle to defeat the forces of Kaiser William II.
Much is said about the need never to forget the lessons of the war. Yet lessons can only been learned if they are taught, and for all that it constituted a great global crisis the war has long been portrayed in blinkered Euro-centric terms. The question of its wider fall-out, of what Britain and its ally France did with their ‘victory’ over Germany, is seldom confronted. It is far from common knowledge that that they resorted among other things to flagrant land-grabbing in the Middle East, re-drawing the map of the region according to imperial whim.
Not that this was how the British imperial elite saw their behavior. In assuming jurisdiction over Palestine, Britain preened itself that it was selflessly administering the area as a ‘mandate,’ a trust to be surrendered in the fulness of time. In so far as they were sincere champions of the Zionist cause, British rulers saw themselves as chivalrous benefactors of a long-persecuted people, one whose religion had profoundly influenced their own Christian faith, implanting in Christian culture a sense of the numinous significance of Jerusalem not unlike that nursed by Jews themselves.
What seems barely credible today is that both before and after the creation of Israel in 1947 Zionism enjoyed the status of a ‘progressive’ cause in Britain.
It was considered such even after Jewish terrorists forced the British to leave Palestine at gun-point. Among the bien pensant, the Nazi attempt to eliminate European Jewry, together with the apparent vibrancy of Socialism in Israel, encouraged the belief that the return of Jews to Palestine represented the triumph of good over evil. Scant regard was paid to the cost of this to indigenous Palestinians. Liberal opinion partook of the same colonialist mindset as the Conservative Balfour, for whom Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular did not belong to civilization.
Now, not least among liberal-minded Western Jews, there is deepening disquiet about Zionism’s relationship with fundamental human decencies. In the light of Israel’s savage onslaught on Gaza, the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland has felt obliged to question whether it is morally defensible to be a liberal and a Zionist. Palestinian victims of Zionism may wonder how people of conscience ever imagined the two things were compatible.
The truth is that Zionists and their British political supporters were long united in their contempt for the Palestinian people, their disinclination to regard them as fellow human beings.
When Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to speak to Palestinians he is reproducing the towering racist disdain of Arthur J. Balfour, who, with reference to Britain’s Mandate in Palestine, declared that he was not disposed so much as ‘to go through the motions of consulting the present inhabitants of the country.’ Even Balfour, though, might be aghast at all that has flowed from his supercilious words.