Tony Greenstein | 18 July 2021 | Post Views:

Whitewashing the role of the British Empire during the Palestine Mandate. What is the Balfour Project’s agenda?

 Eugene Rogan’s Theory Neither Pro-Zionist nor Pro-Arab but Pro-Empire’ whitewashes the role of the British in Palestine

The Balfour Project was formed in January 2017 during the 100th year since the Balfour Declaration. Its purpose was to counter the Zionist celebrations. Much of the material it produced was excellent. In any event the Zionist celebrations turned sour very quickly.

Jeremy Corbyn, in one of his few principled actions as leader, refused an invitation to attend a Zionist celebratory dinner and sent Lady Emily Thornberry in his place. Her Ladyship believes that ‘Modern Israel is a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy”.

Formally the  Balfour Project’s objectives are

the advancement of education, human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation’, by ‘a process of education, to advance public understanding of Britain’s role in the Middle East in the 20th Century, and thereby to seek to advance reconciliation in Israel and Palestine’.

Suppressing the Palestine Revolt

Whenever I hear the term ‘conflict resolution’ and ‘reconciliation’ I reach for  my pistol! The ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians wasn’t a ‘conflict’ and the word ‘reconciliation’ is another word for ‘surrender’ by the Palestinians. ‘Conflict resolution’ assumes that if only well meaning people gather together in one room then any little problems like the eviction of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrar can be resolved within the existing Zionist paradigm of settler colonialism.

What is the purpose of the Balfour Project? The centenary has gone but under the baleful influence of Sir Vincent Fean, a minor diplomat and former Consul-General in East Jerusalem, it would seem that the BP has settled on rewriting the history of British crimes in Palestine.

On 3rd June Eugene Rogan, an American academic at Oxford University, gave a lecture on Britain’s role during the Mandate, ‘Neither Pro-Zionist nor Pro-Arab but Pro-Empire’.

Nial Ferguson – right-wing British historian

Rogan’s thesis was that throughout the Palestine Mandate Britain was neither pro-Zionist nor pro-Arab but it was solely concerned with maintaining the Empire (which, in one of those deceptions for which imperialism is famous, the Mandate system was officially not part of the Empire).

Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’

Suffice to say that as I listened I grew more and more restless at this attempt to rewrite the history of the Mandate. Rogan’s thesis was a revisionist one, on a par with the attempts of British conservative historians such as Andrew Roberts and Nial Ferguson, to rehabilitate the reputation of the British Empire and pretend that it was, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, the white man’s burden.’

Sir Herbert Samuel

On 3 June I wrote to Diana Safieh of BP making the following points:

1.     Eugene Rogan’s thesis, that the British were honest brokers, holding the ring in Palestine, is not a new one. Nicholas Bethel’s. ‘The Palestine Triangle’, Yiga Hurewitz’s ‘Struggle for Palestine’ and Christopher Sykes ‘Crossroads to Israel’ plough the same furrow. Eugene’s argument was a Tory version of history, an attempt to sanitise the British Empire.

2.     Eugene made no mention of the Woodhead Commission that reversed the Peel Commission proposal for partitioning Palestine. He made no mention of the Hope Simpson Report which is required reading for anyone seriously interested in the mechanics of Zionist colonisation. 

3.     Quite remarkably Rogan made no mention of Sir Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner and father of the Balfour Declaration.

Irregulars fighting in the Arab Revolt

4.     There was no mention of the Arab Revolt 1936-39 which saw the British create the Jewish Settlement Police which was controlled by the Zionist terror group, Haganah. There was no mention of the Special Night Squads or of their commander Col. Orde Wingate, a highly influential Christian Zionist officer.

5.     The suggestion by Rogan that the idea of a Jewish state only originated during the latter stages of the First World War, that dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, the ‘sick man of Europe’ began then, is remarkable.  Christian Zionism had existed for nearly a century, indeed longer. Palmerstone, Shaftesbury, Disraeli, Ernest Laharanne, Napoleon I and III to mention but a few. Discussions about a Jewish State in Palestine began as early as January 1915 when Weizmann met Lloyd George with Samuel (see Chapter 8 ‘Weizmann, Samuel and Lloyd George’ in Leonard Stein’s The Balfour Declaration.

Sir Ronald Storrs

6.     Sir Ronald Storrs, Britain’s first Military Governor, was explicit as to what Britain’s purpose was in Palestine and it wasn’t a neutral one. Storrs wrote in his autobiography ‘Orientations’ that

the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine “blessed him that gave as well as him that took, by forming for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.” 

British soldiers engaging in day to day repression of the Arabs

That was the policy of the British from the start.  Almost the first thing Churchill in 1921 was to send the Black & Tans, from Ireland to Palestine. And it wasn’t to suppress the Zionists.

7.     Of course there was a debate between the British civil service and the military as to Zionism. It may amaze people now but both the Daily Mail and the Express opposed Zionism on the grounds of cost. Politicians were more favourable to the Zionist alliance since they took the longer view of British imperialism’s interests. I refer for example to Doreen Ingram’s Palestine Papers for the debate within the British Establishment.

The Jewish Settlement Police

8.     1.     I suggested that with such a contentious title there should have been a debate on the topic not a one-sided, pro-British imperialist thesis.  I also remarked on a tendency in the BP to excuse Britain’s record with Sir Vincent Fean, a minor former diplomat as its Chair.

2.     Rogan’s thesis is an attempt to whitewash Britain’s role in Palestine and should not go unchallenged in an organisation which is pro-Palestinian.

I followed up with a second email the following day to Diane saying that I had had a lot of responses to my original email, all agreeing with what I had said, viz. that Rogan was engaged in an exercise in excusing Britain’s role in Palestine, the exact opposite of holding Britain accountable as the BP claims to be doing.

I gave as an example British support for Zionist colonisation. It was the British Police who when the JNF purchased land then evicted the Palestinian peasants and I referred to the introduction of the ‘criminal gang of misfits and cut throats’, the Black and Tans, led by Douglas Duff after whom ‘duffed up’ is derived. See e.g. The Irish Times.

 Black & Tans

Rogan’s quotes from British officials, although interesting were out of context and it seemed that ‘the good professor was unable to see the wood for the trees.’

I also remarked that the chat facility was disabled during Rogan’s talk which prevented attendees commenting or making points. This is a Command and Control approach which inhibits genuine discussion.

Sir Vincent Fean

I received no reply to this email but having copied it to Eugene Rogan, he replied. I don’t have his permission to post his replies so I have to paraphrase them. Rogan’s main points were:

1.            My comments surprised him as he didn’t think we disagreed!

2.            The British armed the Zionists in order to make them more ‘reliable’ in upholding the British Mandate.

3.            That he is a ‘staunch critic’ of both the British and French empires.

My response was that:

1.            By arming the Zionist settlers you were not making them more reliable but potentially your own adversaries.

2.            In any event by arming one side only the British were clearly supporting the Zionists against the Palestinians much as they had used the Unionists in Ireland against the indigenous Catholic Irish.

if you go and arm one side then what you create is not reliability but a rod for your own back and that is exactly what happened.  Orde Wingate effectively created Palmach and taught the Zionists the rudimentary skills of counter insurgency and they used them to good effect after 1945.

3.            That the British denied the Palestinians any semblance of self-government, until the Zionists were in a majority. This was unlike India where the British conceded majority control of the provincial assemblies.

4.            Rogan made great play of the restriction of Jewish immigration in the 1939 White Paper to 35% of the total population, 15,000 a year for 5 years. However this restriction wasn’t part of a long term plan to keep the Zionists in the minority but a necessity brought about by the imminent conflict with Germany. The British could not afford to keep large numbers of troops in Palestine to deal with another Arab rebellion.

5.            That the British allowed almost unlimited Jewish immigration, with the only proviso being the economy’s absorptive capacity. That it was the Zionists who practiced a policy of selective immigration, turning away 2 out of 3 immigrants – the poor, elderly, etc. In fact in 1926 there was a net outflow of Jewish immigrants because of the dire economic situation.

6.            That the British wanted another White Dominion along the lines of Canada and Australia. Of course the Zionists had other ideas but at no stage had the British chosen neutrality.

Rogan followed this up with one final email of 22nd June in which he made the following points:

1.            He was not an Anglophile but an Irish-American!

2.            He now accepted that we did have some disagreements. He also accepted that British officials were aware of Zionism before WW1 but queried whether they had ever contemplated ‘wrenching it’ from the Ottoman Empire to give to the Zionists.

Of course it is true that the British had not intended to ‘wrench’ Palestine from the Ottoman Empire, not least because up till 1914 the British saw it as a bulwark against French expansion from Syria to the Suez Canal. And not only France but Germany too. There is though an intriguing comment of Julian Amery MP to Leonard Stein that ‘the disruption of the Turkish Empire was a matter of continuous speculation at this time’ (fn. 88, p.25)

3.            The British were alive to the threat from Mehmet Ali in Egypt to British interests by his attack on the Ottoman Empire and his invasion of Syria. As Leonard Stein wrote ‘British interests required that everything possible should be done to prop up the Sultan.’ (p.5) However they also, as with Palmerstone in 1840, attempted  to interest the Turks into sponsoring a Jewish settlement of Palestine to ward off the French.

4.            The argument that the British were not interested in a Zionist settlement of Palestine or adjacent territories is unsustainable. In 1903 Herzl and Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, discussed the El Arish scheme. 

5.            Rogan suggested that I should not overstate the influence of Herbert Samuel’s paper The Future of Palestine present to the British Cabinet in January 1915. That is arguable however it clearly won over Lloyd George.

6.            Rogan asked why, if the immigration restrictions in the 1939 White Paper were only a war-time necessity, why then uphold these limits after the war to the extent of turning back shiploads of refugees and holocaust survivors. The answer is of course that circumstances had changed.

The Haganah, the Zionists’ semi-official army

The Irgun had declared war on the British in February 1944. They were joined by the main Zionist terror organisation, Haganah in Autumn 1945. The Zionists wanted a Jewish state not a British Dominion. The centre of gravity in the Zionist movement had shifted during the war from Britain to the United States. Ben Gurion represented the alliance with the United States and Weizmann the orientation towards Britain. It was the consequences of the 1939 White Paper that led to the Zionist breach with the British. But throughout the war the British and Haganah had cooperated very closely with the British effectively arming Haganah and creating a Jewish Brigade at the end of 1944.

Of course the British were intent on retaining their foothold in Palestine as they were in the Middle East as a whole but they never, at any stage, contemplated arming the Palestinians in the same way as they had armed the Zionist militias. This is similar to the American War of Independence when the British refused to contemplate arming the Black slaves in the South in order to bolster their own forces. The fight between the British and the Zionists was an inter-imperialist fight not unlike the Boer Wars. It was a sacred principle that Britain would not arm the indigenous people. Hitler also foreswore the idea of arming the natives against British imperialism which is why talk of a Nazi-Arab alliance is rubbish.

British wanted posters for the Irgun

7.            On the positive side Rogan liked my comparison between the Boers and the Zionists and agreed that many Britons supported Zionism for anti-Semitic reasons. But he argued that this did not mean that Britain was going to sacrifice the interests of the Empire for the sake of Zionism.

I agree. Of course the British were primarily interested in maintaining the Empire. However up till 1945, despite disagreements, they saw their alliance with the Zionists as one way of doing this. At no stage did they think of forming an alliance with the Palestinians.

In a short rejoinder I pointed out that there were some British politicians, the most notable of whom was the future Labour Cabinet member Richard Crossman MP, but also the Tribune group of Labour MPs, who did support the Zionist militias against the British army.

We also had a short exchange on Irish Republicanism but I will desist from copying it here. Suffice to say we agreed on that subject at least!

Tony Greenstein

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Tony Greenstein

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