Lloyd Geering

Part 3
The British Responsibility

From The Fourth R
Volume 15-3
May–June 2002

Read Part 1: The Jewish Claim
Read Part 2: The Palestinian Claim
Read Part 4: Who Solves the Conflict?

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Middle East underwent widespread changes as the European nations were creating their world empires. Between 1798–1801 Napoleon attempted to carve out a Middle Eastern Empire. After conquering Malta and Egypt he turned to Palestine, then under Ottoman rule. Napoleon was repulsed from Acre because the British came to the aid of the Sultan, and after the Battle of the Nile, the way was open for the British to bring the Middle East into its sphere of influence.

From then right up until 1948 the British took an increasing interest in the Holy Land, but that interest displayed an uneasy mixture of both religion and politics. The political interest of Britain was to open up and guard a more direct route to India, and this it advanced with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1875. The religious interest of Britain in the Holy Land arose out of the Evangelical revival, then still gathering momentum in English religious life. This gave rise to all sorts of missionary organisations, such as the Church Missionary Society (1799), and the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804).

Preparation for the Second Coming

Of particular interest was the founding, in 1808, of ‘The London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews’. It was commonly referred to as ‘The Jews’ Society’. By 1841 nearly all the English bishops endorsed it. By 1850 it employed 78 missionaries, all working to convert Jews to Christianity.

The Jew’s Society encouraged the return of Jews to the Holy Land and had an ulterior motive for doing so. On their interpretation of the Bible this was to be the divinely planned forerunner of the Second Coming of Christ. (Footnote: Many conservative Christians today have, for the same reason, strongly supported the return of the Jews to the modern state of Israel. Christian fundamentalists in America, particularly from the Bible belt, have been giving both financial and moral support to Israel for just that reason.)

The President of the Jew’s Society was the well-known philanthropist, the Earl of Shaftesbury, an evangelical Anglican, who, to use his own words, believed that ‘The Bible is God’s word written from the very first syllable down to the very last’. Shaftesbury not only supported the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, he wanted to make sure that there was a sufficient welcoming body already there when they arrived in order to convert them all to be good Anglicans!

The crowning achievement of the Jews’ Society, largely promoted by Shaftesbury, was the creation of an Anglican Bishopric in Jerusalem. They foresaw the ancient kingdom of Israel becoming a diocese of the Church of England. The creation of a bishopric without a diocese was not only unusual but it required a special act of Parliament. Very appropriately, a converted Jew was consecrated as the first Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem and he set off bravely on his mission. A few years later a traveller observed that he had a total congregation of eight converted Jews and two tourists. This early venture was misconceived and quite unsuccessful; yet it was the forerunner of the present Anglican Cathedral and Hospice in Jerusalem, known as St. George’s.

The return of the Jews to the Holy Land did not take place as the Jews’ Society expected. That was to occur a century later — this time chiefly by Jewish effort. But even that was initiated by Britain through a strange set of circumstances, with which Shaftesbury was indirectly connected.

Proposal for a Jewish Settlement

Another British philanthropist was also interested in the return of the Jews to Palestine but for very different reasons. This was Sir Moses Montefiore (1784–1885), a practising orthodox Jew and an acquaintance of Shaftesbury who later proposed him for a peerage. Between 1827 and 1875 Montefiore made seven journeys to Palestine. He was instrumental in rescuing Jews in Damascus, who had been falsely accused of a ritual murder. He obtained from the Sultan what he called a ‘Magna Carta for Jews in Turkish lands’. On his return home he was knighted by Queen Victoria for his exploits. At a subsequent dinner with Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, out of concern for his persecuted fellow-Jews in Poland and Russia, he proposed a scheme for Jewish settlement in Palestine. At the same time Shaftesbury, too, had a word in the ear of Lord Palmerston who was his step-father-in-law.

In 1840 Palmerston wrote a letter to the Sultan in Istanbul suggesting that he encourage the Jews to return and settle in Palestine, since they would bring much wealth into the Sultan’s domain and be a check on the evil designs of Mohammad Ali of Egypt, whom the British and the Turks regarded as their common enemy. The Sultan evidently took this suggestion seriously and is even reported to have offered to sell to the Jews the Muslim Dome of the Rock so that they could rebuild their Temple on the historical site!

The idea of a Palestinian home for the Jews was spreading in Britain; it is reflected in the last novel of George Eliot, the leading English novelist of the day. In Daniel Deronda (1876) she portrayed as her leading character a man who eventually discovered he was of Jewish birth and who decided to devote himself to the cause of establishing a home for the Jewish people.


While these ideas were surfacing in Britain, the seeds of Zionism were being sown in Eastern Europe. In response to the increasing number of Russian pogroms, a group called ‘Lovers of Zion’ was formed to promote the re-settlement of Jewish farmers and artisans in Palestine. The earliest of these Zionist agricultural settlements in Palestine took place in 1882.
Then came an event which speeded up the cause. In 1894, a French Jewish army officer named Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of giving secrets to the Germans. His trial so impressed Hungarian Jewish lawyer and journalist Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) that in 1896 he issued a pamphlet entitled Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). He advocated the establishment of an autonomous Jewish state to deal positively with continuing anti-Semitic persecution. ‘The Jewish state is essential to the world.’ he said, ‘Let sovereignty be granted to us over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the rightful requirements of a nation; the rest we shall manage for ourselves.’

In 1897 Herzl organised the first Zionist Congress at Basle. Herzl has been likened to Moses, a man leading his people to the Promised Land but never able to see the fruits of his labours himself. Actually Herzl burned himself out within a few years. He went to England to see Joseph Chamberlain, head of the Colonial office and regarded as the most powerful man in Britain. Joseph Chamberlain was not really interested in the Jews but he was keen to extend the British Empire. They discussed a possible home for the Jews, including even Sinai and East Africa.

Herzl did not find his mission all plain sailing. Many of his fellow-Jews were strongly opposed to political Zionism. The Reform section of Jewry, then strong in Western Europe, completely rejected it. The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, attended the conference at Basle but later became critical of political Zionism. Although he ended his days in Israel he became unpopular with many Israelis because of his insistence on open dialogue with the Palestinians with a view to creating a shared state.

Most interesting of all was the response of a young Hasidic Jew from the Ukraine called Asher Ginzberg (1856–1927). He joined the ‘Lovers of Zion’ movement at the age of 22 and became known thereafter by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am (‘one of the people’). In 1889 he published his first essay, ‘Lo ze ha-derekh’ (‘This Is Not the Way’), where he outlined a spiritual basis for Zionism. He called for a renaissance of Hebrew-language culture, which came to be known as ‘cultural Zionism’. He did support the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, but mainly as a centre for the Jewish life of the Diaspora. He believed that the goal of re-creating Jewish nationhood required spiritual rebirth rather than political pressure. So in 1897 he severely criticised the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl, believing that a Jewish state should be the end result of a Jewish spiritual renaissance rather than the beginning. It was due to his efforts that the Hebrew University was founded in Jerusalem in 1927, some twenty years before the State of Israel.

Calls for a Jewish State

The way for an eventual Jewish State was opened up by World War I, when Palestine once again became the scene of fierce battles. Jerusalem was captured by Allied forces under General Allenby in December 1917 and the whole was occupied by the British by October 1918.
While this was taking place the Allies were already making decisions concerning the future of Palestine without much regard to the wishes of its normal inhabitants. By May 1916 Britain, France, and Russia had agreed that Palestine should be internationalised. To make matters worse, Britain made two independent promises which were in conflict. It is this which lies at the root of the present hostility between Jews and Palestinians.

In an exchange of letters with the Emir of Mecca in 1915–1916 the British made a commitment to grant independence to the Arabs (including those in Palestine) in return for their support against the Ottomans. But in November 1917 Earl Balfour, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, wrote to the Jewish financier, Lord Rothschild. His letter expressed sympathy for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, on the understanding that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ Unfortunately Balfour had little knowledge of the nature and number of the ‘existing non-Jewish communities’ and thought Palestine was virtually unpopulated.

This letter is now known as the Balfour Declaration. It was not prompted by any great stirring of conscience over the bitter fate of the Jewish people; rather, it was intended to encourage American Jews to influence the U.S. government to support British post-war policies.

The Balfour Declaration was made public by the Zionist leaders in London. It actually fell short of the Zionists’ expectations; they had asked for the reconstitution of Palestine as the Jewish national home, but the Declaration specifically stipulated that nothing was to be done to infringe the rights of the existing inhabitants.

Arab Conflict with Zionism

Up until World War I Muslim, Christian and Jew lived in complete harmony in the Holy Land. Within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem each had their own quarter, and each had their own holy places and respected those of the others. Even the Russian migrants had been accepted in the 1880’s without any protest. The decision made by the Western conquerors undermined that harmony.

In February 1919 a Palestinian Arab conference, which united both Muslim and Christian associations, passed a resolution rejecting the Balfour Declaration.

At the peace conference in 1920, the Allies divided up the territories formerly ruled by the Turks. Syria and Lebanon were mandated to France, and Palestine was mandated to Britain. The Balfour Declaration was endorsed by the Allied powers, though Britain was still expected to secure international sanction for their occupation of Palestine. The Palestinian Arabs spoke of 1920 as an an-nakba, or ‘year of catastrophe’.

Arab disappointment led in 1920 to anti-Zionist riots in the Old City of Jerusalem, resulting in many casualties among both Jews and Arabs. The British replaced the military administration with a civilian administration, appointing as the first high commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel, a Zionist. The new administration proceeded with the implementation of the Balfour Declaration, announcing in August a quota of 16,500 Jewish immigrants for the first year.

The Palestinians became even more alarmed when land purchased by the Jewish National Fund led to the eviction of Arab peasants. In 1921, anti-Zionist riots, in which many Jews and Arabs were killed and wounded, broke out in Jaffa. An Arab delegation of notables visited London, demanding that the Balfour Declaration be repudiated and proposing the creation of a national government with a parliament democratically elected by the country’s Muslims, Christians, and Jews. If that had been done the future of the Holy Land would have been very different.

The British government rejected it but, alarmed by the extent of Arab opposition, issued a White Paper declaring that Britain did ‘not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but only that such a Home should be founded in Palestine’. It further decreed that immigration should not exceed the economic capacity of the country to absorb it.

In 1922 the League of Nations, in approving the British mandate, incorporated the Balfour Declaration into its preamble and stressed the historical connection of the Jews with Palestine. Palestine thus became a distinct political entity for the first time in centuries and yet it created problems for Palestinian Arabs and Zionists alike. It was much less than the Zionists wanted and it was much more than the Palestinians were willing to concede.

The British rule of Palestine was very efficient; it developed public works, laid water pipelines, expanded ports, extended railway lines, and supplied electricity. But it failed to solve the growing tension between Jew and Palestinian. Indeed, Britain itself was strangely ambivalent. Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organisation remained in London, close to the ear of the British government, which tended to side with the Zionists. British local authorities in Palestine, however, being more aware of local conditions, sympathised with the Palestinian Arabs.

Aware of this uncertainty, the Jewish community in Palestine, led by David Ben-Gurion, set up in self-defence its own military organisation called the Haganah. An even more militant group of Jews formed a unit called the Irgun Zvai Leumi, which did not hesitate to use force against the Arabs. Violence broke out from time to time, particularly in 1929, when a dispute concerning religious practices at the Western Wall flared up. There were violent clashes in Jerusalem, Zefat, and Hebron, where the killed and wounded on both sides ran into the hundreds.

Britain set up a royal commission to study the situation. It was finally acknowledged that Britain’s specific obligations to the Zionists under the Balfour Declaration clashed with its general obligations to the Arabs. As a result, the White Paper of 1930 gave some priority to Britain’s obligations to the Arabs and called for a halt to Jewish immigration. But when the Palestinian Jews and London Zionists protested, the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, nullified the White Paper. This convinced the Arabs that recommendations in their favour made in Palestine could too easily be annulled by Zionists in London.

The Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933, followed by its widespread persecution of Jews, made the establishment of a Jewish national home a necessity. It gave a great impetus to Jewish immigration to Palestine, which jumped to 30,000 in 1933, 42,000 in 1934, and 61,000 in 1935. By 1936 the Jewish population of Palestine had reached almost 400,000, or 30 percent of the total. This new wave of immigration provoked major acts of Arab violence against both Jews and the British.

The violent Arab Revolt of 1936–39 began with a general strike in Jaffa and Nablus. The British were taken aback by the intensity of the revolt and shipped more than 20,000 troops into Palestine. By 1939 the Zionists themselves had armed more than 15,000 Jews in their own militia. According to some estimates, more than 5,000 Arabs were killed, 15,000 wounded, and 5,600 imprisoned. The traditional Arab leaders were either killed, or deported, leaving the rest dispirited. The Zionists, on the other hand, were united behind Ben-Gurion, and co-operated with British forces in their attacks against Arabs.

A further British Royal Commission, presided over by Lord Robert Peel, declared the mandate to be unworkable since Britain’s obligations to both Arabs and Jews were mutually irreconcilable. The White Paper recommended that Palestine be partitioned and that an independent Jewish national home should be established; it was opposed by both the Zionists and the Arabs. The Zionists were enraged because they were being allotted only a part of Palestine, even though it was immensely larger than their present land-holdings. The Arabs not only objected to the loss of their land but were horrified to hear there would be an enforced transfer of Arab population to Transjordan.

British Conflict with Zionism

Britain had long lost the trust of the Arabs. When World War II intervened, Britain came into conflict with Zionism also. The Zionists sought an immediate increase of Jewish immigration to Palestine, while the British sought to prevent it, regarding it as illegal and a threat to the stability of a region.

Ben-Gurion declared on behalf of the Jewish Agency: ‘We shall fight with Great Britain in this war as if there was no White Paper and we shall fight the White Paper as if there was no war’. British attempts to prevent Jewish immigration to Palestine in the face of the terrible tragedy befalling European Jewry led to the disastrous sinking of two ships carrying Jewish refugees, the Patria (November 1940) and the Struma (February 1942). In retaliation, the Irgun, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, and a small terrorist splinter group, known as the Stern Gang, embarked on widespread terrorist attacks on the British, culminating in the assassination of Lord Moyne, British minister of state in Cairo, in November 1944.

The neighbouring Arab countries then began to take a more active interest in Palestine. In October 1944 Arab heads of state met in Egypt, and set out the Arab position in the Alexandria Protocol. They made it clear that, although they regretted the bitter fate suffered by European Jewry as a result of European dictatorships, the Jewish problem could not be solved by inflicting injustice on Palestinian Arabs. The Arab League, formed in March 1945, re-asserted the Arab character of Palestine, and declared a boycott of Zionist goods. The pattern of the post-war struggle for Palestine was now beginning to emerge.

The Holocaust had confirmed for the Jews that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was absolutely essential. Having lost the support of Britain, Zionists turned to the United States. Already in May 1942, at a Zionist conference in New York City, Ben-Gurion gained American support for the establishment of Palestine as a Jewish commonwealth, with unrestricted immigration and its own army to protect it. An increasing number of pro-Zionist statements came from United States politicians. In August 1945 President Harry Truman requested the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee to facilitate the immediate admission of 100,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors into Palestine.

Truman’s request marked an important dividing line. From this time onwards USA increasingly took over the role previously played by Britain in determining the destiny of Palestine. The two powers had very different agendas. The primary goal of British policy was to secure British strategic interests in the Middle East, and for this the co-operation of the Arab states was considered essential. Truman, on the other hand, presided over a country which had the largest concentration of Jews to be found anywhere in the world. He was determined to listen to them and ensure that all Jews displaced by the war were permitted to enter Palestine.

Jewish immigration to Palestine was the major issue between 1945 and 1948. The Jews were determined to remove all restrictions to Jewish immigration and to establish a Jewish state; the Arabs were just as determined that no more Jews should arrive and that Palestine should become an independent Arab state. Zionist pressure against British authority in Palestine was intensified, first by unauthorised immigration of refugees on a grand scale and, secondly, through acts of terrorism by Jewish underground forces. It reached a culmination in July 1946, when the Stern Gang blew up a part of the King David Hotel containing British government and military offices, with the loss of 91 lives.

UN Recommends Partition

World War II had left Britain victorious but exhausted. The British had no will to remain any longer in the Middle East and they referred the Palestine question to the United Nations. The UN recommended the partition of the country into an Arab state and a Jewish state, with Jerusalem and its environs to be declared an international city. At that stage Arabs still outnumbered Jews by two to one, for there were 1,269,000 Arabs and 678,000 Jews then in Palestine.

In 1947 the UN plan for partitioning Palestine was adopted by a two-thirds majority but all the Islamic Asian countries voted against it. The competence of the General Assembly to partition a country against the wishes of the majority of its inhabitants was then referred to the International Court of Justice, but the appeal was narrowly defeated.

The Zionists welcomed the partition proposal, both because it recognised a Jewish state and also because it allotted 55 percent of Palestine to Israel. The Arabs fiercely opposed it, both in principle, and because a substantial minority of the population of the Jewish state would be Arab. Britain was unwilling to implement a policy that was not acceptable to both sides. So it set May 15, 1948, as the date for ending the mandate.

By January 1948 volunteers were arriving from the Arab countries to help the Palestinian Arabs, but they were soon overwhelmed by the Zionist forces. Confusion and disorder broke out. Many atrocities were committed on both sides. By May 13 the Zionist forces had secured full control of the Jewish share of Palestine and had already captured important positions in the areas allotted to the Arabs.

State of Israel Proclaimed

On May 14, the Union Jack was lowered in Jerusalem, and the British high commissioner, General Sir Alan Cunningham, sailed from Haifa at 11.30 p.m. that night. But already at 4 p.m. that day, Ben Gurion proclaimed the state of Israel. Within 24 hours the United States recognised Israel as a legitimate state and the Soviet Union quickly followed suit.

On the following day, troops of the Transjord-anian army, the Arab Legion, and their counterparts from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq entered the country and occupied all the areas which were not yet controlled by the Jews. The new State of Israel came to birth amid ethnic conflict and spent the first six months of its existence at war with its neighbours, in what is now called the War of Independence.

What happened thereafter will be discussed in the final article. Here we have been showing the British responsibility for the present instability in the Holy Land. It is in the thirty-year period of the British rule of Palestine, 1918–1948, that we find the sources not only of the continuing conflict between Israeli and Palestinian but also for the growing confrontation between the Western world and the Islamic world.

The Western Powers have dominated world affairs for so long that they have rendered themselves blind to the way they are perceived in the Islamic world. Until World War II it was Britain that was the dominant power. Then that role was taken over by the USA. The power of the West has been secretly admired, and even coveted, but it has also fuelled resentment, distrust and hatred.

It is altogether too superficial to believe that world security will be restored by the elimination of Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist network. We in the West need to understand what lies behind such shocking acts of terrorism. They are only the symptoms of something much more deep-seated. Indeed, we do well to listen to what Bin Laden himself said, ‘There can be no peace between the Islamic world and the Western world until the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is healed’. The British failed to do that. Can the United States now do better?

« Return to Part 2 Read Part 4: Who Solves the Conflict? »

Lloyd Geering is Foundation Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and the author of several books including Christian Faith at the Crossroads and Tomorrow’s God. His new book, Christianity without God, appeared in 2002.

Copyright © 2002 by Polebridge Press. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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