The Promised Land?

Balfour & Weizmann: The Zionist, the Zealot and the Declaration which Changed the World by Geoffrey Lewis
‘A Senseless, Squalid War’: Voices from Palestine 1945-1948 by Norman Rose
One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict by Benny Morris

Books History Israel Judaism Middle East

These three books cover three different phases of the emergence and evolution of Zionism. Their common theme is the Jewish search, not for a safe haven or place of refuge from persecution, but for a sovereign national identity. It was Winston Churchill who, in 1921, told a Palestinian Arab delegation that had demanded a halt to all future Jewish immigration: “It is manifestly right that the Jews, who are scattered all over the world, should have a national centre and a National Home, where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated?”

Churchill’s White Paper of the following year, accepted by the League of Nations as the blueprint for the governance of Mandate Palestine, stated that the Jews were in Palestine “of right, and not on sufferance”. But the Balfour Declaration of 1917 had explicitly stated that, in the creation of a Jewish National Home in Palestine, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Of those communities, the Muslim Arab community was the largest. 

The clash of Jewish and Arab nationalisms preceded the Balfour Declaration.
Geoffrey Lewis, in his thoughtful account, notes the letter written in 1891 by the Jewish thinker and Zionist pioneer Ahad Ha’am (Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg), in which he says, “If ever we develop in Palestine to such a degree as to encroach on the living space of the native population to any appreciable extent, they will not easily give up their place.” In 1899, only two years after Theodor Herzl had issued the Zionist programme at Basel, Yusuf Ziya al-Khalidi, from a distinguished Palestinian Arab family, wrote to the Chief Rabbi of France, Zadoc Kahn: “The reality is that Palestine is now an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, and what is more serious, it is inhabited by others…Even those nations most favourably disposed towards the Jews, the English and the Americans, would never consent to go to war against the other inhabitants of Palestine to help the Jews settle in Palestine…In God’s name, let Palestine be left in peace.” On the eve of the First World War, the two Jerusalem Arabs elected to the Ottoman parliament in Constantinople both stood on an emphatically anti-Zionist platform.

Lewis explores with skill the diverse forces that produced the Balfour Declaration, including Britain’s desire to obtain the support of both American and Russian Jews for the flagging war effort, and the fact of Jewish nationalism. On the eve of his declaration, Balfour told the War Cabinet of the “intense national consciousness held by certain members of the Jewish race”, who regarded themselves “as one of the great historic races of the world, whose original home is Palestine”, and that these Jews had “a passionate longing to regain once more this ancient national home”.

British self-interest and Jewish national aspirations combined, once Britain had driven the Turks from Palestine, to create a Jewish National Home into which, between 1920 and 1939, more than half a million Jews joined the existing 50,000 Jews who were living there in 1914. But in that same interwar period, Arab immigration from as far west as Morocco and as far east as Afghanistan helped raise the Arab population of Palestine from half a million to a million. Britain had envisaged what Churchill called “a great Jewish State” numbering millions emerging in Palestine as a result of Jewish immigration. But with successive Palestinian Arab riots, culminating in the Arab revolt against the British that broke out in 1936, the chance of a Jewish majority by immigration had receded. 

Britain changed tactics, seeking to appease the vociferous hostility towards a possible Jewish state on the part of the newly independent Arab states of Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and of the Muslims of India by drastically restricting Jewish immigration and land purchase, and seeking to crush the militant Jewish national movement that emerged in Palestine even as the Second World War was being fought. In his penetrating study, Norman Rose describes the evolution and course of what Churchill — in 1946 — called Britain’s “squalid, senseless war” against the Jews. It was a war characterised by mutual hatreds, reprisals, abductions and executions.

Rose, a distinguished Israeli historian, writes objective, hard-hitting history. He notes that as early as 1919, the American King-Crane Commission of Inquiry stated that no British officer in Palestine whom the commissioners consulted believed that the Zionist programme could be carried out except by force of arms. “In essence”, Rose comments, “little changed until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948-and for many years thereafter.”

The coming to power of the Labour Party in 1945 gave the Zionists cause for self-congratulation. Hugh Dalton, one of Churchill’s wartime ministers, had drafted a resolution adopted by the Labour Party a few months before the election that contained the sentence: “Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in.” Dalton proposed generous compensation for the displaced Arabs and for their resettlement to be “generously financed”, in the “many wide territories” ruled by the Arabs. But the decision of the new Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, to refuse to allow 100,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to enter Palestine intensified the violence in Palestine between Briton and Jew. Rose gives a powerful, detailed and meticulously documented account of that violence, shaming to both the contending parties.

Sixty-one years have now passed, and three major Arab-Israeli wars been fought since Israeli independence. The third of those wars, that of 1973, has been followed by further fighting inside Lebanon and Gaza and by continuous strife within Israel’s borders. The peace process that began at Madrid and continued, via Oslo and Camp David, until today is still being kept alive — just — by both sides, and with varying degrees of international involvement, including a sustained effort by Tony Blair. Where will it lead? Benny Morris, the author of a seminal book on the 1948 war, now sets out the case for a two-state solution as first proposed by a British Royal Commission in 1937, endorsed by the UN ten years later, and currently at the centre of negotiations, of the Saudi peace plan and of President Barack Obama’s Middle East vision. 

Morris sees grave danger in a single, binational state between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan, arguing that it would mean the end of any possibility of a Jewish majority and with it the end of the Zionist ideal of a national home for the Jews in any part of pre-1948 Palestine. But Palestinian Arab grievances are many, 1948 remains the traumatic time of mass dispossession, occupation has been a growing burden and there will be a need to find ways to redress these legitimate grievances. 

On balance, Morris is an optimist, despite what he sees as “violent opposition from Islamic fundamentalist countries and factions”. As Gordon Brown discovered when he was in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in July 2008, the opportunities that beckon to both sides in the event of a true peace are so great, not only in economic terms but in the normal modalities of daily life, that moderates across the divide — which in places is a formidable concrete wall with few crossing points — will demand that wise counsels prevail. 

The difficult concessions both sides will have to make, putting aside legitimate historic grievances, will have to be accepted for the greater good.