The British in Palestine

Exile and Return.
by Martin Gilbert.
Lippincott. 364 pp. $12.95.

In a recent article on the fate of the British empire, Sir William Haley, the former editor of the (London) Times, paid tribute to “the understanding, the charity, and the magnanimity” shown by the British to their colonial charges. Although somewhat self-gratulatory, Sir William’s praise was not entirely unwarranted: in many instances, the British were magnanimous. Yet as Winston Churchill’s official biographer, Martin Gilbert, shows in this richly documented and engrossing study of Britain’s administration of the Palestine Mandate, there were also times when British behavior was lacking not merely in charity or magnanimity, but in simple decency.

The legal basis for the British presence in Palestine was the League of Nations Mandate, issued in 1922, which, in its essentials, incorporated the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The immediate purpose of this Declaration, by which the British government pledged itself to facilitate “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” was to rally world Jewry, and especially Russian Jewry, to the cause of the Entente. But to British statesmen like David Lloyd George and Arthur James Balfour, the Declaration was also intended to right an ancient wrong, to remedy the unhappy condition of Jews in the world. As Balfour put it, “A great nation without a home is not right.”

Interestingly enough, some initial Arab reaction to the proposed establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine was favorable. As the Emir Feisal, head of the Arab delegation to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, wrote to Felix Frankfurter, who was one of the American Zionist leaders, “We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement.” But in the 1920’s, leadership of the Palestinian Arab movement fell to Haj Amin, the Mufti of Jerusalem, an outspoken Nazi sympathizer who believed, or pretended to believe, that the Zionists had as their “ultimate aim” the reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple on the ruins of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, and who inaugurated a reign of terror against those Arabs who felt that an accommodation with Zionism was possible.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the situation in Palestine steadily worsened until finally, in 1936, the House of Commons dispatched a royal commission under the chairmanship of Lord Peel to investigate the causes of unrest. In 1937, the commission published its report. Because it seemed impossible to devise a government which would be acceptable to both Jews and Arabs, the report recommended that Palestine be partitioned into separate Jewish and Arab states. The Jewish Agency accepted the report with reservations. The Arabs rejected it outright.

Meanwhile, within the British Foreign Office, influential people were urging that the Palestine problem be reconsidered “from the point of view of our relations with the surrounding Arab countries.” The head of the Eastern Department of the Foreign Office, George Rendel, argued that Britain should scrap any plans for partition and instead impose permanent minority status on the Jews of Palestine. In an important memorandum circulated to the Cabinet on November 19, 1937, Rendel explained that the Middle East was “an organic whole” and that it was necessary to give the Arabs “some assurance that the Jews will neither become a majority in Palestine, nor be given any Palestinian territory in full sovereignty.” Otherwise, he warned, Britain would incur “the permanent hostility of all the Arab and Muslim powers in the Middle East.”

Gilbert shows how these two ideas, that the Arab world constituted an “organic whole” and that Anglo-Arab relations in general hinged on British behavior in Palestine, became the basis for Britain’s Palestine policy during the last decade of the Mandate. “Palestine has become a pan-Arab question,” the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, told his colleagues on the Cabinet Committee on Palestine, and any discussion of its future must include the “Arab princes” from neighboring states. To avoid antagonizing these “princes,” Britain would have to renege on the pledge contained in the Balfour Declaration to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. “If we must offend one side,” Chamberlain said, “let us offend the Jews.” Thus, the Peel Commission’s recommendations were rejected, and on May 17, 1939, the Chamberlain government issued a White Paper which limited to 100,000 the number of Jewish immigrants to be admitted into Palestine over a five-year period, after which all further immigration would be subject to Arab veto.

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Within four months of the issuance of the White Paper, World War II began. On September 18, Chaim Weizmann, who was president of the World Zionist Organization, called on the Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, with an urgent request for “immediate permission” for 20,000 Polish Jewish children to enter Palestine. “The economic burden of supporting them,” Weizmann stated in an accompanying letter, “will naturally fall upon the Jewish people, inside and outside Palestine. We pledge ourselves to provide for them. It therefore depends on your decision alone whether the lives of Jewish children shall be saved or not.”

Weizmann’s proposals were discussed that afternon in the Colonial Office. As the minutes recorded: “Mr. MacDonald said his own view had at first been that we should make some effort to meet this request, on humanitarian and other grounds. On reflection, however, he felt that it must be turned down.” He acknowledged that “technically it might be possible for us to admit 20,000 Polish Jewish children to Palestine straightaway without going back on our pledge to the Arabs not to exceed the immigration figures laid down in the White Paper.” Nevertheless, “the position in all the Middle Eastern countries was delicate, and he thought that to accept Dr. Weizmann’s proposals might have serious consequences.” Moreover, “however brutal it might sound, to remove 20,000 children from Poland at this moment would pro tanto simplify the German economic problem.” Weizmann’s request was therefore rejected.

As the tidal wave of anti-Semitism surged across Europe, many Jews sought refuge in Palestine. This provoked vigorous British countermeasures. Diplomatic representations were made to Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest, Athens, and Ankara urging that all exits to Palestine be sealed and that Jewish refugees be turned back to their countries of origin. Royal Navy ships were sent to intercept immigrant vessels, whose passengers were then transported to such remote places as the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and sometimes to even more distant colonies. Frequently, the results were tragic, as in the case of the Struma, a small boat which reached Istanbul in December 1941 carrying 769 Jewish refugees en route to Palestine. Two months later, the Turkish government, bowing to British pressure, ordered the ship out of Turkish waters and back into the Black Sea. There it was sunk, probably by a German submarine, and all but one of its passengers drowned.

British policy, however, as Gilbert documents it, remained unyielding. On March 5, 1942, the War Cabinet formally decided that “All practicable steps should be taken to discourage illegal immigration into Palestine.” In December 1942, the Cabinet rejected, “on security grounds,” an appeal from the Jewish Agency to permit 4,500 Bulgarian Jews to enter Palestine; an earlier request to permit 750 Iraqi Jews, survivors of anti-Jewish riots in Baghdad, to enter Palestine had been rejected by the High Commissioner for Palestine, Sir Harold Macmichael. Britain’s fear of alienating Arab opinion was so extreme that on December 24, 1944, the new High Commissioner for Palestine, Lord Gort, advised the Foreign Office to ask the Soviet government, now occupying Rumania and Bulgaria, to close those countries’ frontiers on the grounds that “Jewish migration from Southeast Europe is getting out of hand.”

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With the accession of the Labor party to power at the end of the war, many Zionists confidently expected that the White Paper, which Labor had opposed in 1939, would now be abrogated. They were wrong. Ernest Bevin, the new Foreign Secretary, believed in the “organic unity” not merely of the Arab Middle East, but of all of Islam. “Zionism is a matter of keen interest to 90 million Muhammadans in India,” he declared in 1945, and it was obvious that those interests took precedence over the fate of the Holocaust survivors. To enforce the White Paper, the British government once again undertook to pressure foreign governments into preventing the departure of Jews to Palestine.

By 1947, the British had discovered yet another compelling reason to avoid offending the Arabs: oil. In a memorandum to the Cabinet marked “Top Secret,” Ernest Bevin and Emanuel Shin-well, the Minister of Fuel and Power, predicted that the Arab states would soon become the world’s principal oil producers, and warned against displeasing them “by appearing to encourage Jewish settlement [in Palestine] and to endorse the Jewish aspiration for a separate state.” The British public, however, was demanding that the troops in Palestine, engaged in suppressing what had become a major uprising on the part of Palestinian Jewry, be brought home, and the Cabinet reluctantly acceded to its wishes. On February 14, 1947, Bevin announced that Britain would hand the Palestine problem over to the UN.

Gilbert barely discusses the final year of the British Mandate in Palestine, probably because at the time he was writing his documentary study the relevant government archives had not yet been opened. Still, he might have pointed out that whereas in most other cases the British arranged their departures in such a way as to insure a smooth and orderly transfer of power, in Palestine the Mandatory government refused to transfer the administrative apparatus to the incoming Jewish successor-regime. Instead, they preferred simply to dismantle it, so that when the British departed from Palestine in 1948, they left total chaos behind. Even so, despite their best efforts to scuttle the Zionist enterprise, the British gained neither the gratitude nor the respect of the Arab states.

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Perhaps the most curious fact to emerge from Gilbert’s study is the readiness with which British statesmen, from 1937 onward, accepted the contention that the Arab world constituted an “organic whole.” Far from being self-evident, this proposition flies in the face of observed political reality, yet it is hardly ever challenged to this day. There must be something peculiarly seductive in the image of the Arab world as a seamless web. How else explain the fact that so many American policy-makers remain intellectually affronted by the possibility of a “partial” settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and argue that the only worthwhile settlement must be a “comprehensive” one? Indeed, as Elie Kedourie has astutely observed: “A reader of the published collections of U.S. State Department papers relating to [the Middle East] . . . will be impressed by the extent to which American officials implicitly accepted the assumptions which underlay British policies from 1937.” It is hard to think of a more damning indictment.

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