Amid the intractable struggle in Israel/Palestine for the moral high ground of legitimate victimhood, Europe has a historic responsibility.
As I learnt at first hand during a recent visit to Israel’s occupied territories, there is a widespread conviction among Palestinians that their misfortunes are attributable to Britain. It was a British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, who issued the eponymous declaration, in November 1917, which led three decades later to the establishment of Israel and to what Palestinians refer to as the nakba (catastrophe). At least 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in the fighting which erupted in May 1948 between the forces of the newly declared state of Israel and Arab armies intent on extinguishing the nascent Jewish state.
The Balfour declaration had called for ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’, while emphasising that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’ in the territory. These objectives soon proved irreconcilable, however—particularly in a region no bigger than Wales (once Transjordan was recognised as a separate juridical entity from Palestine) and under the shadow of officially sanctioned anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and much of central and eastern Europe.
During the inter-war era growing numbers of European Jews sought sanctuary in Palestine, triggering protests and occasional explosions of violence from within the Palestinian Arab community. After World War II, the efforts of thousands of Holocaust survivors to reach Palestine—administered until May 1948 by the United Kingdom under what was originally a League of Nations mandate—were greeted with dismay by Palestinians who saw large-scale Jewish immigration as a demographic threat to their hopes of establishing a unitary and sovereign Palestinian state.
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From an Arab perspective Britain has been a willing accomplice of the Zionist project. In issuing the Balfour declaration, the UK recognised Jewish claims to a privileged status in Palestine. At the same time, as the mandatory power responsible for the welfare and governance of Palestine during the inter-war period, it was ultimately responsible for the rapid growth of the territory’s Jewish population. Largely as a result of immigration from Europe, the Jewish community in Palestine grew from 60,000 in 1918—less than 10 per cent of the population at the time—to over 716,000 in 1948.
In essence, the Balfour declaration was an act of political expediency, reflecting an exaggerated belief by UK policy-makers in the extent of Jewish power and influence. By pledging to secure the establishment of a Jewish ‘national home’ in Palestine, the UK hoped to consolidate Jewish support in various countries, including Russia and the United States, for its war effort.
It’s important to recognise that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the appeal of a Jewish state or ‘national home’ in Palestine—then a remote, impoverished and underdeveloped territory—for Jews long settled in Europe, north America or Russia. Limited but growing interest among diasporic Jewish communities in Zionism—in the creation of a Jewish state—began to gather momentum in the final decade of the 19th century almost entirely as a reaction to the unexpected resilience of anti-Semitism in even liberal, affluent and progressive European countries.
In particular, in the 1890s the notorious and widely reported Dreyfus affair in France demonstrated that virulent anti-Semitism was not confined to chronically ‘backward’ polities such as Tsarist Russia. In its wake, increasing numbers of secular Jews, including the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl, questioned whether acceptance and integration were even attainable. Herzl and others started to focus their energies on the establishment of a Jewish state.
For Jews from east-central and eastern Europe (ECEE) especially, the appeal of Palestine and of a Jewish state increased enormously after the Holocaust, in which two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population perished. Jewish survivors, returning from the Nazi camps to their homes in the ECEE area, faced indifference or, in some cases, open hostility from the local population, many of whom had occupied the Jews’ homes, taken over their businesses and appropriated their household effects. In several instances, in Poland, Hungary and what is now Slovakia, returning Jews were attacked and killed by credulous villagers and townspeople who had no difficulty believing rumours that the Jews were engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children.
Restrictive and discriminatory postwar immigration policies, applied by the UK and other western countries, also help to account for the fact that thousands of Jewish survivors, particularly those who were young and whose family homes lay in the ECEE region, believed that their only real option was to make their way to Palestine. As emphasised by Tony Klug, however, there is a bitter irony in the fact that the Palestinians have paid the price for centuries of unremitting European anti-Semitism:
Displaced, dispossessed and deserted, they [Palestinians] were among the principal losers in the geopolitical lottery that followed the horrors of the Second World War. Their original felony was, in essence, to be in the way of another distressed people’s frantic survival strategy, fuelled by an industrial genocide for which the Palestinians bore no responsibility.
As argued by Klug, the ultimate tragedy of Israel/Palestine is that, despite what is now an overwhelming disparity in power between the two peoples and the illegality as well as immorality of the Israeli occupation of the territories, both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews can present a morally compelling narrative. Despite the serial injustices inflicted on the Palestinians before and after the creation of Israel—including by Arab governments—both Palestinians and Israelis can reasonably claim to be history’s victims.
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If European anti-Semitism and British wartime diplomatic manoeuvrings lie at the root of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict—as well as Britain’s breathtakingly arrogant assumption, in 1917, that it was entitled to make undertakings in respect of a foreign territory without consulting its inhabitants—how can the UK and Europe now make amends? At first sight, the prospects do not appear encouraging.
A growing segment of European opinion, particularly on the left, now regards Israel/Palestine in Manichean terms with Israelis consigned to the role of ‘Zionist settler-colonists’, their claims devoid of even a scintilla of moral legitimacy. Whatever its merits, such a rigidly ideological viewpoint is unlikely to contribute to an early or peaceful resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, or help alleviate the grave and worsening plight of Palestinians in the territories.
Israelis, having demonstrated exceptional tenacity in defending—and sometimes expanding—their state are unlikely to surrender their hard-won independence and sovereignty by agreeing to a new binational state in which Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, including millions of Palestinians living in the west Bank and Gaza, would enjoy equal citizenship. That is the stuff of political fiction.
If a just and lasting peace is to be achieved and if the lives of Palestinians are to improve significantly, Israelis must recognise the injustice and futility of holding on to the occupied territories and of maintaining their oppressive policies towards Gaza, which is home to an estimated 1.8 million Palestinians. A two-state solution, as originally envisaged by the United Nations General Assembly in 1947, remains the only viable basis for a just and enduring peace, although establishing the final borders of the states is likely to entail protracted negotiations.
In the context of an overall peace settlement between the two peoples, Europe is unlikely to play a major role in providing security guarantees to either Israel or Palestine. It could however make a significant contribution to a just and stable political outcome by providing a massive injection of capital and know-how to help grow the Palestinian economy.
Such steps would go at least some way towards atoning for Europe’s historical responsibility towards both Palestinians and Jews.