Sunday, 11 March 2018

Antisemitism in 21st century United Kingdom?

Don’t like Jews

An acquaintance once confided: “A lot of people here don’t like Jews”.  He is a born-and-bred British Jew, a successful businessman, not just well-integrated, but almost entirely assimilated into the social fabric of modern-day United Kingdom.  This man is the very image of self-confidence, yet he delivered that disconcerted statement at the dinner table in a low, almost conspiratorial voice.

His words spring to mind every time somebody mentions ‘defining’ antisemism.  And so, I remembered them recently, while reading the results of the latest survey on antisemitic attitudes in contemporary Great Britain.

Please tell us if you are an antisemite…

Undertook in 2016-2017 by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (a British-Jewish think-tank), the new poll is reputed to be the largest and most accurate survey on antisemitism ever performed in Britain.

But first, let’s talk about scope and methodology: the survey measured attitudes towards Jews and towards Israel among the British population.  It did so by approaching a representative sample of that population (more than 4,000 people in total), who were asked to provide answers to a questionnaire.
The first question asked was rather obvious:
“Please tell me if you have a very favourable, somewhat favourable, somewhat unfavourable or very unfavourable opinion of Jews”.
I say ‘obvious’ because this question is but a posher version of my friend’s rumination: it seeks to determine how many people “don’t like Jews”.  The immediate answer: 5.4% (that is, slightly more than 1 in 20 individuals or circa 3.6 million Britons) responded that they had either “a somewhat unfavourable” or “very unfavourable” opinion – i.e. that they “don’t like Jews”.  On the other hand, 39% said that they had a “favourable” or even “very favourable” opinion of Jews.  But the majority (56%) declared that their opinion of Jews was “neither favourable nor unfavourable”, or that they didn’t know/didn’t want to answer.

“Not very helpful, this”, must have thought the academics behind the survey, scratching their balding pates.  Hence they asked the question again, while eliminating the ‘neutral’, fence-sitting option “neither favourable nor unfavourable”.  This time, 12.6% of respondents (i.e. 1 in 8) admitted that they didn’t like Jews.  In the absence of another ‘neutral’ option, 19.4% (almost 1 in 5) chose the ‘don’t know/refuse to answer’ option.

The survey report authors analysed the difference between the two sets of results:
“Within the context of this survey, that means that the respondents may have been somewhat cautious about revealing the true nature of their feelings toward certain groups, and may have given responses that were socially acceptable instead, i.e. responses that were unlikely to result in them being negatively judged. In survey science jargon the outcome of such under-reporting is called social desirability bias.”
Great.  Now let’s dispense with the “survey science jargon” and with ridiculous euphemisms such as “somewhat cautious about revealing the true nature of their feelings”.  The survey authors seem unable to say it – so let me state it for them: at least 7% of respondents (the difference between 12.6% and 5.4%) lied.  In the first experiment, they declared themselves ‘neutral’ – even though in reality they “don’t like Jews”, as proven by the second experiment.

And that is a fundamental problem with the “survey science”: people lie.  As we’ve all seen, most recently in polls regarding the Brexit referendum and US elections.  They lie to the pollsters and – perhaps even more frequently – they lie to themselves; and the more ‘controversial’ the issue, the higher the propensity to lie.  Ask yourself, dear reader: if you harboured some deep dislike towards an entire racial, ethnic or religious community – how likely would you be to admit those attitudes in writing, even in a questionnaire purported to be anonymous?  In fact, how likely would you be to admit them even to yourself – if they were (as they often are) well-hidden or even subliminal?

In fact, what the survey academics didn’t say (or didn’t say in plain English) is that those 12.6% are not the ones who “don’t like Jews”, but just the ones less reluctant to admit it.  In fact, there is no way of knowing how many (perhaps all?) of the 19.4% that stubbornly refused to answer did so because of understandable reluctance to confess a racist attitude.  It is also impossible to say how many of those who responded that they liked Jews actually lied (to the pollsters or to themselves) and in reality harbour dislike.

Here’s another part of “survey science”: the very words used in asking the question create a strong bias, because people are always more likely to declare something positive (such as a “favourable opinion”) than they are to admit negative feelings (“unfavourable opinion”).  Even more so when it comes to issues of ‘race’.

The survey academics did not say all this in plain English – but they know it.  Which is why they continued their research beyond the obvious ‘favourable/unfavourable’ question.

I’m not antisemitic, but…

Respondents were presented with a number of statements about Jews and were asked to state if they agree with those statements or whether they disagree.  The statements themselves were based on common antisemitic preconceptions, but they also included a few positive statements about Jews.

And here are the results:

-          13% agreed/strongly agreed that “Jews think they are better than other people”;
-          12% agreed/strongly agreed that “The interests of Jews in Britain are very different from the interests of the rest”;
-          12% agreed/strongly agreed that “Jews get rich at the expense of others”;
-          10% think that “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes”;
-          8% think that “Jews have too much power in Britain”;
-          4% agree/strongly agree that “The Holocaust has been exaggerated” and 2% think it “is a myth”.

Again, the authors of the study avoid using plain language.  So let me do it in their stead: these ‘statements’ represent various embodiments of anti-Semitic prejudice.  And the percentages above are those of people who admit that they harbour those types of prejudice.

Interestingly, a full third of the people who declared unfavourable opinions in the previous round did not agree with any of the listed types of prejudice against Jews.  Maybe they base their antipathy on some other aspect; or perhaps they lied in the second round, when asked the more specific questions.  Or (more likely in my opinion), their dislike of Jews is a ‘matter of gut feeling’ and not based on any particular reason.  After all, racism isn’t rational; and, for some racists, it doesn’t even have to be post-rationalised.

True, on the other hand considerable majorities of Britons (78% and 61% respectively) agreed/strongly agreed that “A British Jew is just as British as any other British person” and that “British Jews make a positive contribution to British society”.

But, again, that’s not the end of the story.  A huge proportion of people (between 34% and 47%) reacted to the ‘negative’ questions either by choosing “neither agree nor disagree” or by refusing to answer.  On the other hand, just 16% chose that ‘neutral’ option with regard to the positive statement “A British Jew is just as British as any other British person”.  Perhaps many interpreted this as a statement of fact, rather than of opinion: after all ‘British’ (unlike ‘English’, ‘Scottish’ or ‘Jewish’) has to do with citizenship, not ethnicity; and it is a fact – not a matter of opinion – that British Jews are citizens equal under the law.

So, again, we are left mostly in the dark.  Take, for instance, “Jews get rich at the expense of others”: how many of the 39% who chose not to let us know their opinion about this statement actually agree with it (but are reluctant to confess it) and should really be added to the 12% who admitted the prejudice?  How many of the 34% who preferred to hide their feelings on the matter really believe that “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes”?

We know one thing: that, in the previous experiments, the number of people who admitted not liking Jews went up from 5.4% to 12.6% when the ‘neutral’ option was eliminated; in other words, 6 out of 10 individuals who actually don’t like Jews initially lied about it.  Assuming the same proportion for the ‘negative’ questions (an assumption that makes sense, I think, but for which I am unable to provide evidence) would mean for instance, that at least 27.5% of Britons believe that “Jews get rich at the expense of others”.

Unfortunately, the study’s authors did not overly concern themselves with the painful issue of insincere answers.  They did something else, however: they calculated the proportion of people who either admitted to disliking Jews or admitted to harbouring at least one type of anti-Jewish prejudice.  That proportion is 30%.  I.e., about 1 in 3 Britons admits to harbouring a dislike or prejudice against Jews.

Boundary of the diffusion of attitudes

British Jews have a complex relationship with antisemitism: on one hand, they are keen to expose it, so that it can be dealt with; on the other hand, they are loath to admit its true extent.  And not just because it means confronting a scary situation, but because it would force them out of that false comfort of ignorance.  It is hard for a Jew to live, work and interact with other people when he/she knows that – statistically speaking – many of them ‘don’t like Jews’.

Hence, every piece of British-Jewish research into antisemitism always seems to tread softly, to gently tiptoe around the issue and to contain ‘clarifications’ meant to take the edge off otherwise harsh findings.

This study is no exception.  Having established – even with the huge caveat of deeming every answer as sincere – that scary 30% proportion, the authors take great pains to try and humble down its significance:
“We relate to this figure not as the proportion of antisemites that exist within British society (such a claim simply does not stand up to any reasonable scrutiny), but rather as a boundary of the diffusion of antisemitic attitudes in society. The use of the new term, diffusion, is highly significant analytically. It signals a shift in emphasis – from counting antisemitic individuals to quantifying the spread of attitudes that Jews consider to be antisemitic, and that may represent a source of discomfort or offense to many Jews when exposed to them.”
Well, I agree that antisemitism is not a matter of black-and-white, but a continuum of attitudes ranging from complete lack of prejudice to violent, berserk hatred.  What I do not understand or accept is the attempt to detach the assessment of the pandemic from the number (or proportion) of infected individuals.  Let’s do away with posh academic lingo and take an example.  Say an individual agrees (or strongly agrees) with the statement “Black people are lazy” (this is a prejudice originating, I believe, with white slave owners).  Would you then say that the polled individual is a racist – or would you just say that “We relate to this […] as a boundary of the diffusion of [racist] attitudes in society”??

‘Good’ news: they don’t ‘just’ hate Jews…

Perhaps in an attempt to persuade themselves that ‘things are not so bad, after all’, the survey authors also asked respondents about any ‘unfavourable’ opinions about Christians, Hindus and Muslims.  Needless to say, the vast majority of people in the UK do not dislike Christians – those who do represent just 3.1%.  After all, the UK is still ‘a Christian country’ – nominally at least, if not in terms of church attendance.  5.5% of respondents admitted to having unfavourable opinions of Hindus and 14.4% harbour such opinions with regard to Muslims.  So hey – there you are!  Jews fare no worse than Hindus and much better than Muslims.  Yippeee!!

Except that – though the academics behind the study failed to point this out – things are not so simple.  To start with, there are (according to the 2011 census) only about 260,000 Jews in the UK, compared to circa 835,000 Hindus.  That’s not including 425,000 Sikhs – although it’s doubtful that the average Briton differentiates between those two religions; in fact, it is much more likely that the majority of respondents had taken ‘Hindus’ to mean ‘more-or-less of Indian origin’, and hence have mentally included all ‘Indian-looking’ people, whether originating from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, whether Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Muslim.  That would bring UK’s total ‘Hindu’ population in 2011 to 3 million people.

As for Muslims, the 2011 census found circa 2.8 million self-declared adherents of this religion in the UK.

So both Hindu and Muslim minorities are considerably more numerous – arguably a full order of magnitude above Jews in absolute numbers and in proportion within the general British population.  As a result, the comparison is rather meaningless.  And for several reasons:

Firstly, given the minuscule proportion of Jews in the UK (and the fact that most British Jews live concentrated in a handful of urban areas), it is obvious that the vast majority of Britons spend the vast majority of their lives without ever interacting with Jews.  This means that, if they declare an ‘unfavourable opinion’ or some prejudice about Jews, that’s mostly not the result of some personal experience, not even personal experience wrongly twisted and generalised.  It is pure, unadulterated racism.

Secondly, at under 0.4% of population and given the long and bitter history of European antisemitism – including Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust – Jews not just feel more vulnerable, but objectively are more vulnerable than both Hindus and Muslims.  With regard to Jews (but not Hindus or Muslims), there is a concrete, relatively recent and absolutely horrific history of specific persecution.  This is not a ‘potential’ danger; nor are we talking about the type of racism that results in ‘mild’ discrimination – but about racism that has shown centuries of genocidal intensity.

Thirdly, in terms of sheer electoral muscle (the ultimate source of power in a parliamentary democracy) Jews are a negligible factor.  Hindus and Muslims are not.
All of the above should translate – in any democratic and caring society – into an understanding that Jews are more at risk of oppression and should therefore be more entitled to protection.

Left, right and centre

One of the issues investigated by the survey was the specific prevalence of antisemitic attitudes across the political spectrum.  To that end, respondents were asked to self-describe their political inclinations on a scale ranging from ‘very left wing’ to ‘very right wing’.  These categories were then cross-related to the previously measured antisemitic attitudes.

In the authors’ opinion, the only relevant result pertains to the ‘very right wing’.  52% of those who self-described as ‘very right wing’ admitted some form of antisemitic prejudice, as compared to 30% in the general population.  All the other types of political persuasion (including ‘very left wing’) hovered around 30%.  In the authors’ words:
“The very left-wing is indistinguishable from the general population and from the political centre in this regard. In general, it should be said that, with the exception of the very right-wing, there is little differentiation across the political spectrum in relation to the prevalence of antisemitic attitudes.”
Not so in relation to anti-Israel attitudes (which was measured using a similar methodology to the one described above).  Anti-Israel attitudes are hugely prevalent among the ‘very left wing’ – affecting close to 80% of those respondents.  Even among the ‘slightly left of centre’ anti-Israel attitudes are found among two thirds of respondents.  This exceeds even the prevalence of such sentiments among the ‘very far right’.

Should we conclude, then, that antisemitism is mainly an issue on the far right and that the far left is, in that respect, no-better-no-worse the rest of the British population?  Well, such stupid conclusions might, I think, come under the title ‘Statistics triumphs upon reason’.

The ‘anti-Zionism is not antisemitism’ has long been a slogan on the far-left.  Far-leftists have heard arguments around this slogan and are as a consequence both more motivated and more able to consciously avoid statements that are overtly antisemitic; to conceal antisemitic sentiment – and to more skilfully cloak it as ‘anti-Zionism’.  That biasing factor is certain to have been amplified in the period 28 October 2016 - 24 February 2017, when the survey was conducted and when Labour and Momentum were very much ‘under fire’ on the issue of antisemitism.  (See for instance articles published even in The Guardian.)

In fact, the poll attempts to use the same tools on two completely different populations: one (the militant far-left) is ‘forewarned’, extremely aware from a political point of view – and hence ‘forearmed’; the other, the much more ‘innocent’ and much less politically active centre, which decidedly less skilled in the art of dissimulation.  This is decidedly like comparing apples with oranges.

While far rightists may be just as militant as far leftists, they are less likely to dissimulate attitudes that may be perceived as racist, because such attitudes are less strident in the general picture of their ideology.

For the left (and in particular for the hard left), opposition to racism is – at least in theory – a major ideological thrust.  According to the perception of many Jews, the hard left’s anti-racism manifests a strange blind spot when it comes to seeing and identifying as such antisemitic (as opposed to anti-black, anti-Asian or Islamophobic) attitudes.  It would have been extremely interesting to test that hypothesis: even assuming that the ‘very left wing’ segment manifests the same level of anti-Jewish ‘dislike’ as the bulk of the population, how does that segment compare in terms of anti-Hindu and anti-Muslim sentiment?  If the level of that kind of racism is lower than average (as would be expected from a purportedly ‘anti-racist’ segment), then that would prove the ‘blind spot’ hypothesis.  Unfortunately, that data is not available in the published survey report.

But even if we were to accept that the far left is – from the point of view of antisemitism – no-better-no-worse than the bulk of British population, that should not be, from their own point of view, an acceptable situation.  This is a political segment that – to a considerable extent – defines itself in terms of opposition to racism.  Naively, we would expect them to be at the forefront of fight against antisemitism and not just ‘average’.

But you know what?  Let us now be practical.  Let us assume, despite all the above caveats, that the proportions found in the survey are largely correct.  So, we’ve got 52% of the far right harbouring antisemitic sentiment and ‘only’ 33% on the far left.  Does it follow, then, that the priority should be fighting far-right antisemitism?  Hardly!  In fact, the opposite is more logical, because in contemporary UK the far right is decidedly marginal – both in terms of numbers and of political influence.

Just 1.4% of respondents self-describe as ‘very right wing’, while 3.6% declare themselves as ‘very left wing’.  If we include ‘fairly right wing’ and ‘’fairly left wing’, the proportions are 7.8% and 15.5%, respectively.  As a result, despite the lower proportion, there are more leftists harbouring antisemitic prejudice than there are rightists.

But it’s not just about the numbers.  In terms of practical political influence, the English Defence League is a non-entity and so is the BNP; with no representatives in the Parliament, even UKIP is more and more inconsequential.  On the other hand, the hard-left faction currently leads the Labour Party – the country’s second-largest parliamentary bloc.  It is Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of that faction, that has a chance of becoming the next Prime Minister, not Nick Griffin or even Nigel Farage.

Proudly anti-Zionist, but utterly opposed to antisemitism…

Previous polls showed that, for the vast majority of British Jews, the State of Israel is central to their Jewish identity.  While British Jews accept (and often join) ‘normal’ criticism of Israeli government policies, they typically perceive anti-Israel hostility and anti-Zionism as antisemitic.  The survey attempted to discover, using statistical means, whether there is a correlation between ‘anti-Israelism’ and antisemitic prejudice.

In their academic lingo, the study authors state:
“we find that the existence of an association between the antisemitic and the anti-Israel attitudes tested, is unambiguous.”
In English: according to the survey results, the more anti-Israel a respondent’s opinions, the higher the likelihood that that individual also harbours antisemitic prejudice.  As we have seen, the prevalence of that prejudice is 30% among the general British population; it is, however, 74% among those with high levels of anti-Israel hostility.  1 in 2 respondents with strong anti-Israel opinions believes that “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes”; compared to 1 in 10 respondents in the general population.  Conversely, among those who hold no anti-Israel opinion, 86% are also free of antisemitic prejudice.  Of course, as discussed earlier, the correlation is likely to be even stronger than that, because the survey ignores the (very likely) possibility that some respondents will much more freely express anti-Israel attitudes, which they consider legitimate and even noble political views; but will tend to conceal anti-Jewish opinions, which are less ‘socially acceptable’.

In total, one third of respondents were willing to declare an ‘unfavourable’ or ‘somewhat unfavourable’ opinion about Israel.  The equivalent proportion was 23% about the USA and 48% about Iran.

Unfortunately, the survey investigated the correlation between ‘anti-state’ opinion and ‘anti-people’ prejudice only in the case of Israel and Jews.  It would have been interesting to see, for instance, if respondents who exhibited anti-USA opinions also tended to show more dislike for Americans living in Britain; but such data is not available.

As any student of statistics knows, ‘correlation’ does not necessarily imply causality – and of course does not shed any light on the direction of that causality.  True to their academic (or perhaps didactic) make-up, the study’s authors felt compelled to point that out:
“Our analysis lacks the capacity to identify causality. What remains unclear is just how the connection between the two types of attitudes arises, when it does. Do people develop anti-Israel attitudes because they are antisemitic? Does adopting an anti-Israel position become just one more channel for expressing antisemitism? Or, alternatively, do people become antisemitic as a side-effect of their anti-Israel attitudes and activities? Future research will have to tackle the question of the chain and order of the acquisition of these two types of attitudes.”
Theoretically, that is indeed so.  But, ‘between us girls’, allow me to scoff with contempt at the ludicrous suggestion that a sentiment well-documented in Europe for many centuries may actually be “a side-effect” of attitudes towards the modern State of Israel (established in 1948).  Statistics is an excellent aid for reason; it should never be employed in-lieu of reason.

So let’s summarise – in as simple a way as possible – what we learned about the anti-Zionism/antisemitism correlation:
  •          If a Brit appears strongly hostile to Israel – this does not absolutely mean that s/he harbours antisemitic prejudice; but there is a 74% likelihood that s/he does.
  •          If a Brit shows zero hostility towards Israel, it does not absolutely mean that s/he is free of antisemitic prejudice; but there is an 86% likelihood that s/he is.

The Muslim factor

The study also tested the prevalence of antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiment among various religious communities in the UK.  To paraphrase the study’s authors, the conclusion in this respect is also ‘unambiguous’: no significant difference was found among the various Christian denominations, or indeed between Christians and those who self-described as ‘of no religion’.  On the other hand, both anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opinions are much more prevalent among British Muslims.

Almost 40% of the British Muslims polled did not agree with the statement “A British Jew is just as British as any other British person”.  63% did not agree that “British Jews make a positive contribution to British society”.  1 in 4 British Muslims believes that “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes”.  1 in 7 believes that the Holocaust has been exaggerated and 1 in 12 believes that it is a myth.

According to the study, the higher the level of Islamic religious observance, the higher also the level of antisemitic prejudice (and anti-Israel opinion) among British Muslims.

It’s not like there are pogroms here!

Finally, the study measured the propensity to violence against Jews.  When asked whether it is justified to use violence against Jews “in defence of one’s political or religious beliefs and values”, 4.1% of respondents opined that this is ‘often justified’ or ‘sometimes justified’; 9.8% opined that it ‘rarely justified’.  When the same question was asked about ‘Zionists’, the proportions were 4.4% and 10.1% respectively; naming Israelis as the target of violence resulted only in a minor increase: 4.8% and 10.4%, respectively.  Strangely, the study authors failed to point out this similarity – which may indicate that for extremists the terms Jews, Zionists and Israelis are quasi-interchangeable.

4.1% might sound like a small proportion.  But when applied to the entire British population, it translates into 3 million people envisaging violence against Jews, either ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’, if they perceive that their “political or religious beliefs and values” are jeopardised.

It would have been interesting to see the propensity-to-violence among Muslim respondents, but the data has not been provided in the report.  Was the result uninteresting, or did it offend the authors’ sense of ‘political correctness’?  We can only guess.

(Not) assigning blame

And perhaps it was political correctness that caused the authors to opine, in the final conclusions that, despite their focus on perceived ‘high incidence’ segments such as far right, far left and Muslims, the ‘responsibility’ for antisemitism cannot be assigned to these groups.  The authors justify that conclusion by showing that, if those three segments were eliminated from the analysis, the level of anti-Semitic prejudice would reduce only marginally.  That’s because those three segments of focus are numerically small within the general population (they account together for only circa 10%).  Well, the number crunching is correct – but the reasoning is rotten; this is yet another instance in which the authors are, in my humble opinion, ‘misinformed by data’.  Looking simplistically at the ‘numeric’ contribution of the three focus segments may be misleading.  We are clearly dealing with segments that tend to be more ‘militant’, where the general population is typically more ‘apathetic’.  The question is – or should be: to what extent are the levels of antisemitic prejudice found in the general population the result of the 3 segments’ militancy?  After all, the activism of a small but militant minority can gradually ‘spill over’ or ‘seep into’ the majority – such phenomenon is well-known in social sciences and is familiar also from historical events.  We do not know if this is what occurred here; but surely the authors should have given more thought to this very credible possibility, before placing the ‘responsibility’ squarely on the shoulders of the ‘mainstream’ and practically exonerating the political extremes (and the Muslim community) as ‘too few to matter’.

Making no bones about it!

It is easy to get caught in (or get bored with) numbers and number-crunching.  But what this study (and of all the studies before it) did was merely to provide scientific evidence for something that most British Jews – the well-ensconced, comfortable British Jews – already knew; for something they feel in their not-yet-assimilated Jewish bones: that antisemitism exists – and at worrying levels; that it exists in 21st century United Kingdom; that it exists in the mainstream and among those that inscribed anti-racism on their flags as a defining value; that it’s everywhere and that it’s growing.

It’s good to have scientific evidence.  But frankly – I don’t need it.  I listen to the scream of alarm coming from those old Jewish bones.  Broken by Inquisition and burned at Auschwitz – they’ve developed delicate nerves.  They’ve learned to identify a certain type of hostility – even when it’s well-hidden, even when it’s reflexive and subliminal.  They tell me all I need to know…

Friday, 9 February 2018

Poles apart: Poland, Israel and the Holocaust

If you were a 10-year-old in 1943, you’d now be 85.  Fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors are still alive; there’s just a handful of old people still around, whose testimony has that irreplaceable aura of personal experience.  And – because of that, if nothing else – it’s becoming easier and easier to deny, to trivialise, to distort... Or just to forget.

There’s unique value in remembrance and commemoration: the pain of repeated memory diminishes the danger of the pain repeating itself.

But arguably the most dangerous form of Holocaust revisionism has been silently perpetrated in Europe – for decades now – away from serious scrutiny.

The ultimate, most ‘sophisticated’ Holocaust revisionists do not deny that ‘it’ happened; they might not even deny that ‘it’ represented a unique, unprecedented episode of barbarism.  They just deny responsibility.

Like everything to do with history, the Holocaust is a complex phenomenon.  It brought out the worst in the human race – but also the best.  Unimaginable savagery – and also sublime heroism.

It is a fact that, during the Holocaust, tens of thousands of people – belonging to many nations, including Germans – risked their lives to save Jews.  26,513 of them (belonging to 51 different nations) were recognised as Righteous Among the Nations; and about 6,700 of them were Poles.

It is also a fact that, throughout Europe, Jews have been hunted down, persecuted, tortured and murdered in almost unimaginable numbers with single-minded purposefulness, for a period of time measured in years.  And not just by Nazis or by Germans.

The fact is that the Holocaust was perpetrated by the nations of Europe.  There is hardly a nation on the blood-drenched continent that can claim immaculate innocence: some took active part in the crime, more or less enthusiastically, more or less willingly; others just obeyed orders; a third category profited and a forth just closed their eyes and their ears, their minds and their hearts.

There may be a hierarchy of guilt; but I’m not interested in it.  My point is that the Holocaust is unique not just because so much innocent blood has been spilt; but also, because so many hands are tainted by that blood.

But we live in morally relativistic times and some people don’t deal in facts – they deal in ‘narratives’.  And an insidious narrative is gradually being propagated: the Holocaust happened; we are even going to commemorate it.  But, ‘of course’, it was never ‘our’ responsibility – it was ‘theirs’.  It was the Germans, ‘they’ did it – not ‘us’.

And, of course, it’s not even ‘the Germans’ – they cannot be collectively blamed; it’s just ‘the Nazis’.  And not even everybody who joined the National Socialist Party – more or less willingly; after all, some of them were just small fry obeying orders.

So – there you are – the ultimate Holocaust-denying ‘narrative’: the most horrible crime in history has been perpetrated by a guy with a funny moustache and a small bunch of crazies surrounding him.  It’s ‘their’ fault – not ours.  And those guilty Nazi leaders happen to be all conveniently dead; so no need to do anything special here: no remorse, no introspection, no soul searching, no hands wringing, no heart wrenching – and no moral lesson to be learned.  Let’s just ‘commemorate’ and get it over with.

Let’s be fair here: this ‘narrative’ can be found across the entire continent and beyond; not just in Poland.  The latter’s current government is – at most – guilty of clumsiness in trying to convert the ‘narrative’ into accepted fact – by means of the blunt instrument of legislation.  We should probably be grateful for their clumsiness, for that lack of finesse.  Their ‘elephant-in-china-shop’ moment brought the limelight on a form of Holocaust revisionism that was already thriving in the shadows, carefully nurtured by more experienced, far more skilful operators.

And now it’s in the open.  And it is interesting to analyse the reactions. 

Shocked, mainstream Israeli politicians reacted with equal clumsiness.  Relatively inexperienced opposition leaders like Yair Lapid may be forgiven for expressing outrage on Twitter – though not for gratuitously offering offence.  Yes, Yair Lapid: Poles (like most other nations in Europe) have murdered Jews, persecuted Jews and caused Jews to be murdered.  But no, the death camps in Poland were not ‘Polish’.
Tweet by Yair Lapid

Less forgivable, however, was the knee-jerk reaction of an experienced hand like Benjamin Netanyahu.  He first tweeted something that can be (and probably was) interpreted as a broad accusation of Holocaust denial against the Polish government, if not the Polish nation as a whole; only later did he pick up the phone to try and smooth things over diplomatically.  Now, I’m hardly a handyman myself, but somehow I feel that, if one wants to fix a delicate piece of clockwork, hitting it first with a big hammer tends to be rather unhelpful.
Tweet by Benjamin Netanyahu

Next, an army of Polish and non-Polish antisemites came out of the woodwork.  They flooded the mailbox of Israel’s Embassy in Warsaw and much of the social media with their ‘valuable contributions’: Jews are themselves to blame for the Holocaust, Jews have murdered Poles, Jews are doing to Palestinians what Nazis did to Jews – and other such sweet comments.  You get the picture...

Into the fray jumps Germany’s idiotic Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel; who felt it was helpful to declare that Germany – "and no one else" – is responsible for the Holocaust.  It is not clear what makes Mr. Gabriel such an expert on the Holocaust; being the son of a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi is not – in my humble opinion – sufficient qualification.

Some self-appointed ‘liberal Jews’ then felt obliged to put in their tuppence.  Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, for instance, starts his contribution by criticising the Polish legislative initiative and proceeds to give a fair and balanced historical account.  Unfortunately, he then gets enmeshed in his own ideological cobwebs: he blames ‘Polish nationalists’ (i.e., the current right-of-centre government) for not owning up to Poland’s Holocaust responsibility – although the policy of whitewashing that responsibility had been initiated decades ago by the country’s then Communist (so ‘internationalist’) rulers.  And then, perhaps in the name of ‘balance’ (read: moral relativism), or just out of habit, Freedland ends up… criticising Israel.
“Predictably, Israel has sought to hit back with a draft law of its own, making it a crime punishable by jail to deny or diminish the role played by those who connived with the Nazis in persecuting Jews.”
Clearly, Jonathan Freedland does not wish to be accused – by the Guardian’s oh-so-non-antisemitic readership – of practicing some form of ‘identity journalism’.  Hence he draws up an equivalence between the Polish and Israeli ‘laws’:
“I am against both the new Polish and Israeli laws…”
Of course, “Israel” hasn’t “sought to hit back”.  The Israeli draft bill that Freedland refers to – a draft which hasn’t even been formally debated, so it’s certainly no ‘new law’ –  wasn’t initiated by “Israel”.  It wasn’t even an initiative of the Israeli government (or of ‘Israeli nationalists’, as Freedland would probably put it): it’s actually been proposed by a left-of-centre legislator.

I don’t blame Freedland’s intentions as much as I fault his intellect; but, whatever the reason, after browsing through his learned article about Poland, what a large proportion of the readers will take away is yet another instance of “Israel” aggressively “hitting back”.

One can dismiss the stupidity of self-enthroned ‘liberals’ with a sigh or a resigned shrug; but the self-hatred of far-left activists makes my blood boil.

Uri Avnery is not just any far-left activist – he is a political dinosaur whose biography makes for entertaining – if somewhat embarrassing – reading.  Avnery is Israeli and very much alive – but only because nobody ever took his proposals seriously.  For instance, the one he made in 1947, which would have seen the establishment not of the State of Israel, but of a grand ‘Semitic Union’ made up of Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.  One can only imagine how well a tiny Jewish minority would have faired in that ‘Grand Union’; but the fate of other ethno-religious minorities (Christians, Kurds, Yazidis) provides some helpful clues to help our imagination…

Avnery has always considered himself ‘progressive’; which is why, by 1952, he enthusiastically called for ‘preventive war’ against Egypt’s ‘reactionary regime’.  A few years later, however, that regime made friends with the Soviet Union; so Avnery turned to advocating war against a new ‘reactionary’ adversary: the Hashemite dynasty of Jordan.

If ‘reactionaries’ incurred Avnery’s ire, he had a soft spot for the ‘progressive’ PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, whom he embraced personally long before the latter renounced – however reluctantly and insincerely – the path of terrorism.

With such an ‘illustrious’ track record, Avnery does not have much of a constituency in Israel – but he writes for foreigners less aware of his ‘past achievements’.

His latest article addressed the Polish Holocaust Law controversy by… bashing Polish Jews:
“Rachel happened to enter a clothes shop and hear the female owner talking with a customer in Polish. Still full of her discovery, Rachel asked the owner: ‘Did you know that the Nazis also killed a million and half non-Jewish Poles?’The woman answered ‘Not enough!’Rachel was amazed. So was I.We knew, of course, that many Polish Jews did not like the Polish people, but we were not aware of the intensity of this hatred.THIS HATRED reappeared in full force this week.”
Needless to say, the shop-owner’s remark is beyond contempt.  But one Polish Jew’s disgusting words should hardly be sufficient reason for anyone (let alone someone as ‘progressive’ as Avnery) to sling mud at an entire community.  If I heard one black person saying that all white people deserved to die, I wouldn’t interpret that as meaning that ‘many black people’ hate whites.

Well, I guess I’m not ‘progressive’ enough.  Because, when it comes to Jews and Israel, self-described ‘progressives’ undergo a strange metamorphosis: they actually resort to racism, rather than combatting it; they employ sweeping generalisations based on handpicked anecdotal evidence; and they find themselves defending positions that – theoretically at least – should thunderously collide with any progressive’s world view.

Avnery finds himself defending the Polish law; a law which, irrespective of one’s reading of history, amounts to criminalising opinion and penalising free speech. 

Avnery, of course, was a fierce critic of Israel’s so called ‘anti-boycott law’.  If anything, however, the Israeli law is much more liberal: it does not criminalise dissent, it does not seek to send people to prison for whatever they think or say; it is a tort law: it only makes people responsible for the financial losses they may cause by promoting boycotts.  So why does Avnery defend the draconic Polish law, while condemning the comparatively tolerant Israeli law?  Because condemning Israel and defending whoever appears to be anti-Israel has become part of the far-left’s gut instinct, of its DNA.

But what’s the right answer?  How should Poland confront its Holocaust ghosts – with realism and dignity?  Well, I found a model – a good example to follow.

It’s a document published by the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation of Norway and entitled ‘Action plan against antisemitism 2016–2020’.  To be honest, the plan itself is worthless – just a load of empty words.  But the introduction includes a short section entitled ‘The Holocaust in Norway’.  It’s very short, very dry and frigid like the Norwegian winter – but also happens to be very true.  I reproduce it here in its entirety:
“During the Second World War, 773 Jews were deported from Norway to Nazi mass extermination camps.  Only 38 of those who were deported survived.  Almost one-third of the Jewish population in Norway was brutally murdered during the Nazi genocide – simply because they were Jews.  The order to deport Jews came from the German authorities in Norway.  The Nazified State Police initiated the order, registered and arrested the Jews.  The Norwegian police also participated in the arrests, along with members of the paramilitary unit of the Norwegian Nazi Party “Quisling’s Hird” and Germanic SS Norway.  The police action against the Jews on 26 November 1942 was the largest in the history of Norway.  All Jewish assets and property were confiscated, on the initiative of the Norwegian Nazi party “Nasjonal Samling”.  Members of the civil service, taxi drivers and civilians were also involved in the actions.  Around 1,200 Jews managed to escape arrest, most by fleeing to Sweden.  The majority of the Jews who fled were assisted by groups affiliated with the Norwegian organised resistance movement, but friends and neighbours also helped them escape.  When the Jews who survived the Holocaust returned to Norway after the Second World War, they encountered a bureaucracy that did not take their human or material losses into account.  For many of them, it was very difficult to reclaim lost assets, businesses and homes.  The state refused to pay out inheritances unless a death certificate was presented, which was impossible for the Jews who had lost family members in the concentration camps to obtain.  Some people had to go to court to get their property and assets back.  The restitution settlement – compensation to the Jewish minority – was paid in 1999 on the basis of a recommendation in Official Norwegian Report NOU 1997: 22 The confiscation of Jewish property in Norway during World War II.  The settlement was both collective and individual.  980 individuals received compensation.  The collective settlement has been divided between three main causes: a fund whose return will be used to safeguard Jewish culture and presence in Norway; international support for the revival of Jewish cultures; and to create a centre of knowledge, education and documentation about the Holocaust and the situation of Jews and other minorities.  The Norwegian Centre for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities was established in 2001.  In 2012 the then Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg issued an apology for the role played by Norwegian police officers and other Norwegians in the arrest and deportation of Jews.  The National Police Commissioner and the Norwegian State Railways (NSB), whose trains were used to transport the arrested Jews, have also officially expressed their regret that this could happen.”
And that’s all: ‘during the Holocaust, Jews were killed in Norway; some Norwegians helped kill them; some Norwegians saved Jews.  The Norwegian state was incredibly unsympathetic towards survivors.  Apologies were uttered – better late than never.’  The Norwegian document spells it all out – in less than 500 words: the good, the bad and the ugly; the Truth.

Of course, what happened in Poland is not exactly the same as what happened in Norway.  But there is enough similarity for the Norwegian text to provide a helpful template for a Polish one.  The document did not besmirch Norway’s dignity; it saved it.  It did not provide consolation, let alone restitution; but it delivered at least a measure of symbolic justice.

Rather than attempting to legislate away a guilty conscience, the Polish government – nay, the Polish state – should produce a similar type of precis.  For the sake of my dead relatives – may they rest in peace in their unmarked, unknown graves; for the sake of your own humanity: let God’s Truth be spoken, written, proclaimed, screamed from the rooftops.  And may it be Thy will, our God and God of our forefathers – Whose name is Truth – that the Truth shall set us all free: of guilt, of bitterness and of hate.

Monday, 30 October 2017

The Balfour Demystification

Fools never differ

So this is the centenary of the famous (some will say infamous) Balfour Declaration.  And these days, anything to do with Zionism and Israel causes a real furore.  Journalists waste tons of hapless ink, activists work themselves into a frenzy and politicians exploit the opportunity to attract a few votes – or at least some attention.

The lines seem to be clearly drawn: if you are pro-Israel, you celebrate; if you are anti-Israel – you mourn, accuse, threaten to sue and demand apologies.  It depends whether one thinks that the birth of the Jewish state was a good outcome – or a very bad deed.

But on one thing everybody seems to agree: that the Declaration was a momentous event, one which set in motion a process leading directly to the establishment of the modern State of Israel.

The none-too-friendly (from an Israeli point of view) The Guardian writes:
The promise by Arthur Balfour, then foreign secretary, led to the British mandate, mass Jewish immigration and eventually to the creation of Israel in the wake of the second world war and the Holocaust, and to the Palestinian ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe).
Israel’s supporters appear to agree (except for the Nakba bit, obviously).  In a recent tweet, Matthew Offord, Tory MP for Hendon, states:
Proud to lead the debate on the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration, a document which led to birth of Israel.
So it’s obvious, ‘innit?  The Balfour Declaration led to the creation of the State of Israel.  Oh wow!  Rarely have I seen more poignant evidence that ‘fools never differ’.  So let’s demolish a few myths here.

What was the Balfour Declaration?

Let’s start with what it wasn’t: it was not an international instrument, an agreement between states.  Or any kind of agreement, for that matter: signed by then Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour and addressed to Jewish magnate Lionel Walter Rothschild, this was a unilateral statement.  Of course, unilateral undertakings can sometimes constitute unbreakable commitments.  Except this one wasn’t unbreakable – in fact it wasn’t even a commitment.  It’s worth reading again the text of the ‘Declaration’:
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
Note the ‘woolly’ quality of the terms: “view with favour”, rather than ‘supports’; “will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”, rather than ‘will secure this objective’.  And what the heck is “a national home” (except, that is, an ill-defined euphemism never used before or since, except in a Jewish context)?

The wording (carefully chiselled over a few months) is designed to obfuscate.  This becomes even more obvious if one examines the evolution of the document through a number of drafts: the clear commitment initially proposed by the Zionists is gradually diluted with each subsequent version – until it morphs into the final ‘woolly’ product.  To give just one example, the term 'state' employed in the early drafts becomes ‘homeland’  and finally turns into ‘national home’.

The Declaration was drafted and re-drafted over several months,
being constantly watered down in the process.

Let’s also point out that the Declaration was bereft of any practical details: it said nothing about how “this object” was to be achieved, or when.  No plan of action reinforced the vague, feeble statement of intention.

In its final, official form, the Declaration was very far from an enforceable commitment; it wasn’t even a clear-cut promise.  In fact, His Majesty’s Government was in no position to promise anything – even if they genuinely wanted to: progressing north from Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula, the British forces had barely reached a front line stretching from the small coastal town of Gaza to the even smaller oasis settlement of Beer Sheba in the Negev Desert.  The bulk of ‘Palestine’ (the populated and fertile landmass, including the major towns) was still under Ottoman control and there was no certainty that it could be taken by the British Army.  But even if that happened, it still was no foregone conclusion that His Majesty’s Government could dispose as they pleased of that (ill-defined) piece of territory.  Like the entire Levant, ‘Palestine’ was subject to some half-baked understandings with the French, as well as – arguably – with the British Empire’s newly-found ally, Hussein the Sharif (Lord) of Mecca.
Campaign map showing the front line near Gaza, on 1 November 1917.

In other words, the British Government was ‘offering’ the Jews something it did not yet possess and that was arguably not in its gift anyway.  But the truth is that the Declaration was not actually offering anything; this was the oldest trick in the book: if you want a dog to run, dangle some prized bait in front of its eager nose.  The Jews were the dog in this instance; but where to exactly were they expected to run?

Why was the Declaration issued?

Much has been written, in the intervening century, about the British government’s motivations in issuing the declaration.  Some of these writings are really touching – but only because of their enormous stupidity.  Take, for instance an article hammered a few years ago by a certain Josh Glancy for the Jewish Chronicle and entitled ‘Chaim Weizmann and how the Balfour Declaration was made in Manchester’.  According to Josh (or, rather, according to the third rate ‘sources’ he recycled), there were three main reasons why the Declaration was granted:
  •          David Lloyd George and Balfour were ‘Christian Zionists’ – they wanted to help the Jews out of religious conviction;
  •          Chaim Weizmann (who happened to be a talented chemist as well as an ardent Zionist) helped the British war effort by inventing a process to make acetone – a substance used to make high explosives.
  •          Chaim Weizmann was a charming individual able to ‘schmooze’ the British political elite into granting him personal favours.

The irony is that the statements above are all basically true – if a bit overstated.  But the notion that hard-nosed British politicians award territories based on messianic impulses, gratitude for services rendered and/or feelings of personal sympathy – that notion is just ludicrous.

In fact, one does not have to use psychoanalysis (nor to recycle fanciful theories) to find the motivations that drove the likes of Lloyd George and Balfour.  The latter explained his reasoning himself clearly enough – for those who, unlike Josh Glancy, bother to read the minutes of the 31 October 1917 meeting of the British War Cabinet, which approved the Declaration.  Those minutes record as follows:
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs [Balfour] stated that […] from a purely diplomatic and political point of view, it was desirable that some declaration favourable to the aspirations of the Jewish nationalists should now be made.  The vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as, indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be favourable to Zionism.  If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal, we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.
So there we are: the Declaration was motivated by “purely diplomatic and political” considerations.  But what kind of “extremely useful propaganda” was Balfour intent on carrying on?  And why “in Russia and America”, of all places?

Well, it’s 31 October 1917; the world is convulsed by the greatest, bloodiest military confrontation ever known – World War I.  It is a war of empires: the British, French and Russian Empires (the so-called Entente Cordiale) have taken on the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires (a.k.a. the Central Powers).  It’s not just about who fights better, but also about which of the blocs can attract strong allies to fight on their side.  In April 1917, USA formally enters the war.  But it does so gingerly and half-heartedly.  It declares war on Germany, but not on Germany’s allies.  Many American politicians are reluctant to send ‘American boys’ to die in what they see as ‘somebody else’s war’.  In the East, another mighty ally – Russia – is in the throes of revolution; for the new powers that be in Petrograd – and especially for the Bolsheviks – this is also ‘somebody else’s war’.  Britain needs one ally – USA – to fully join the battle; it needs the other ally – Russia – to battle on.  

And in the rather antisemitic minds of ‘Christian Zionists’ Lloyd George and Balfour, Jews hold enormous power in both America and Russia.  Enough power to push the former full speed into the war and prevent the latter from bailing out.

If only, of course, one could dangle a suitable bait in front of those Jewish noses…

How ‘momentous’ was the Declaration?

If we are to believe Ian Black, Middle East Editor at The Guardian the Balfour Declaration “led to the British mandate [of Palestine].

Did it, really, Mr. Black?  True, the Declaration was referenced in the text of the Mandate – which would seem to vindicate Mr. Black’s contention.  But only if one ignores the much more ‘momentous’ Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was already being negotiated 2 years prior to the Declaration, under Lloyd George’s and Balfour’s predecessors.  Finally signed in May 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement included much of the future Mandate of Palestine in the ‘British Sphere [of influence]’, with the rest an ill-defined ‘International Sphere’ (which, in diplomatic terms of the time, probably meant ‘we’ll see about that later’).
The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the Levant into 'spheres of influence'.

In reality, European/Christian powers (Britain, France, Italy, as well as Germany and Russia) have long coveted ‘Palestine’ – not for its potential as ‘Jewish national home’, but because of the putative prestige imparted by control of the Christian holy sites.

But by 1917 religion was becoming less important in European politics; and prestige has always been a rather intangible asset.  Britain had a more pragmatic reason: in the minds of early 20th century politicians, who thought in terms of land and sea (rather than aerial) journeys, ‘Palestine’ sat across the route linking the British Isles with the all-important jewel of the imperial crown – India.  So did ‘Mesopotamia’ (future Iraq) – which is why that territory was also included in the ‘British Sphere’.  In fact, when the British diplomats eventually drafted the mandates, they included ‘Palestine’ and ‘Mesopotamia’ in one document; both were, after all, supposed to serve the same imperial interest.
The British Empire in 1921.  Note how the mandates of Palestine and Mesopotamia
sit on the shortest land & sea route linking Britain with India

Needless to say, nobody bothered to write a Balfour-like declaration concerning Mesopotamia, or concerning any of the other 10 territories wrestled away from the defeated powers and awarded as ‘League of Nations Mandates’ to the victors.

The Balfour Declaration did not lead to the British Mandate; what led to the mandate was imperial interests and the age-old custom of dividing the ‘spoils of war’ among the victors.  A custom for which the League of Nations mandates provided just a modern veneer.

But what about Mr. Black’s next assumption, that the Balfour Declaration “led to […] mass Jewish immigration”?  Unsurprisingly, that statement is also demonstrably false.  What Europeans called ‘Palestine’ the Jews have called, for thousands of years ‘Land of Israel’.  It was frequently mentioned in the Judaic scriptures, traditions and daily prayers.  As individuals and small groups, Jews have always tried to reach ‘Palestine’ and settle there.  But what about ‘mass immigration’?  Historically, there have been 5 waves of Jewish ‘mass immigration’ (i.e. thousands and tens of thousands of people) before the establishment of the State of Israel.  The first such wave (known as the First Aliyah in Zionist chronology) took place between 1882 and 1903 and saw the arrival in ‘Palestine’ of around 30,000 Jews – mainly from Eastern Europe and Yemen.  The Second Aliyah lasted between 1904 and 1914, bringing to ‘Palestine circa 35,000 Jews, mostly from the Russian Empire and Yemen.
Second Aliyah (1904-1914) pioneers 

The Balfour Declaration could not have led to these waves of ‘mass immigration’ – unless, that is, Mr. Black believes that those 65,000 Jews that settled in the Land of Israel between 1882 and 1914 had somehow foreseen the Declaration issued in November 1917.

The “mass Jewish immigration” started long before the Declaration, when ‘Palestine’ was a rather nondescript, under-developed part of the Ottoman Empire.  It practically stopped during the Great War and resumed afterwards.

The Ottomans, by the way, did not lift a finger to stop that immigration.  They could not be suspected of ‘Christian Zionism’; they simply did not share the European obsession with Jews – one way or another.  There was plenty of nationalism which threatened to break up their multi-ethnic, multi-faith empire: Greek, Armenian, Slavic, Egyptian, Levantine and Bedouin-Arab…  The Jewish flavour of it – Zionism – was at the bottom of the Sultan’s long list of worries.

No, Mr. Black: the Balfour Declaration did not lead to “mass Jewish immigration”.  Sorry to disabuse you of the notion that thousands of people move to distant, under-developed territories on the say-so of the British Foreign Office.  Jews immigrated to ‘Palestine’ not because His Majesty’s Government declared the place a ‘national home for the Jews’; but because they (the Jews) felt it was their homeland.

And what about the Mandate?

But didn’t the League of Nations Mandate require the British Government to establish the Jewish National Home and help grow it into an independent state?  It certainly did; but that requirement was simply not fulfilled.  In fact, the British Government repeatedly ignored, deliberately twisted and, ultimately, blatantly violated the terms of the Mandate.

Let us examine the text – and juxtapose the facts.

In its all-important preamble, the Mandate explained that
recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country;
‘Historical connection’ and ‘reconstituting’ are key terms here.  This was not conceived as a gift to the Jews – but as restitution of a homeland that had been unjustly taken away from them.  The Preamble also nominated
His Britannic Majesty as the Mandatory for Palestine.
Article 1 of the Mandate gave the Mandatory wide powers – but also curtailed them:
The Mandatory shall have full powers of legislation and of administration, save as they may be limited by the terms of this mandate.
In effect, Article 1 makes the text of the Mandate into a kind of Constitution, curbing the legislative and executive powers of the Mandatory.  Britain was authorised to rule Palestine, but only within the terms of the 'Constitution'.

So what were the main limitations and the rigid requirements included in that ‘Constitution’?

Article 5 required the Mandatory to maintain the territorial integrity of the Mandate:
The Mandatory shall be responsible for seeing that no Palestine territory shall be ceded or leased to, or in any way placed under the control of the Government of any foreign Power.
Except that the territory of ‘Palestine’ referred to by the Mandate extended on both banks of the Jordan River, i.e. it included today’s Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

In fact, soon after the Mandate was issued, the British government separated the area east of the River – which comprised three quarters of the Mandate of Palestine – into a different entity called ‘Transjordan’.  It did so by using a provision it managed to sneak into the Mandate precisely for that purpose: Article 25.
In the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined, the Mandatory shall be entitled, with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations, to postpone or withhold application of such provisions of this mandate as he may consider inapplicable to the existing local conditions, and to make such provision for the administration of the territories as he may consider suitable to those conditions…
Note that Article 25 empowers the Mandatory “to postpone or withhold the application” of Mandate provisions, but not to change or violate them; it certainly did not empower it to violate Article 5 – territorial integrity.
The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine included Trans-Jordan. 
But the British Government decided to effect an immediate partition. 
Trans-Jordan was separated from the remaining Palestine. 
Jewish immigration, settlement and land acquisition were prohibited in Trans-Jordan.
In theory, Transjordan was still Mandate; yet in practice the British Government created Transjordan an Emirate and handed it over to the Hashemite family.  In 1946, Britain did away with even the appearance of compliance: Transjordan was given its independence as a separate state.  The British Government not only proceeded to recognise the new Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan (in blatant violation of Article 5); they immediately signed a Treaty of Alliance with it.

But if you think that the mandate provisions were applied at least in the remaining quarter of the Mandate of Palestine – think again.

Article 6 required:
The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.
Moreover, Article 24 required the Mandatory to report annually to the Council of the League of Nations on the implementation of Mandate provisions.  No doubt irked by attempts to obfuscate information in these reports, the Council even required specific questions to be answered.  This is fortunate, as the historian is provided with an account (compiled by the British Administration itself) documenting its lack of compliance.

Let’s examine, for instance the Report issued in 1930 – 13 years after the territory passed under British control and circa 10 years into the Mandate regime.

Referring obviously to Article 6, the Council asked the Mandatory:
What measures have been taken to facilitate Jewish Immigration?
And also
What are the effects of these measures?
The response to this question stretches over two pages of the Report – and is therefore too long to reproduce here.  Suffice to say, however, that nothing in that response can be interpreted as ‘facilitating’ Jewish immigration.  At best, the British authorities seemed to understand ‘facilitating’ as merely ‘permitting’: Jews were allowed to immigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine – just as they had been to the Ottoman sanjaks that preceded it.  In fact, the British immigration policy was distinctly more restrictive than the Ottoman one: under Arab pressure, the British Government adopted the principle that immigration to Palestine should be limited to the territory’s ‘economic absorptive capacity’.  This ‘principle’ (never mentioned in the Mandate and not employed anywhere else in the vast dominions of the British Empire) oddly ignored the reality – that Jewish immigration brought economic growth and increased prosperity – in favour of a hypothetic danger.  The Peel Commission report was to conclude, a few years later:
The Arab population shows a remarkable increase since 1920, and it has had some share in the increased prosperity of Palestine. Many Arab landowners have benefited from the sale of land and the profitable investment of the purchase money. The fellaheen are better off on the whole than they were in 1920. This Arab progress has been partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the National Home. In particular, the Arabs have benefited from social services which could not have been provided on the existing scale without the revenue obtained from the Jews.
While on one hand the mandatory limited Jewish immigration purportedly to avoid exceeding the ‘economic absorptive capacity’, on the other hand it allowed non-Jewish immigration – including illegal immigration.  As the Report states, in 1930
6,433 immigrants were admitted to Palestine, that is 3,386 men, 2,116 women, and 931 children, of whom 2,550 men, 1,700 women, and 694 children were Jewish. Included are 695 Jews, 493 Christians, 112 Moslems, and 6 Druze who had entered without permission but were allowed to remain.
But of course, the ‘economic absorptive capacity’ was nothing but a convenient excuse.  The Arab opposition to Jewish immigration was caused by nationalist/religious resentment – not by genuine economic worries.  The British authorities adopted the same excuse, which allowed them to restrict Jewish immigration to try and appease the Arabs, while still claiming to comply with the terms of the Mandate.

Again with reference to Article 6, the League of Nations Council queried:
What measures have been taken in co-operation with the Jewish Agency to encourage the close settlement by Jews on the land (give figures)?  […] What are the effects of these measures?
The response of the Mandatory is most enlightening.  It lists a total of 5 (five) cases in which – in its own estimation – it had fulfilled the mandate requirement to
encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.
It is worth examining these cases, one by one:
(1) An area of approximately 45,000 dunums (a dunum is approximately a quarter of an acre), consisting of the Athlit marshes, the Zor Kabbara and Mallaha and the Caesarea sand dunes was leased in December, 1921, to the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association for a period of one hundred years, at a rental nominal at first but subject to reassessment by agreement or arbitration at intervals of thirty-three years.
We are talking here about waste land (marshes and sand dunes), which had never been claimed before – because it was considered unusable and lacking any value.  Yet the lease came with strict conditions:
The lessees, under the agreement of lease with the Palestine Government, were required to complete, within eight years, the drainage of all swamps within the area leased and within a period of twenty years to reclaim and plant the sand dunes.
In other words, the Jews were required to develop the land and make it valuable.  For which efforts they were to be charged a rent “nominal at first but subject to reassessment” (needless to say, the rent could only sharply increase, since the land was being developed).  Still, according to the letter of the Mandate (if not its spirit), it would seem that the Mandatory authorities were doing what they were supposed to.  Until, that is, one notices that this was no new initiative of the British administration.  In fact it was just the completion of a deal already made with the Ottoman government!
In this case an uncompleted concession of a similar nature for part of the area leased had been under negotiation at the outbreak of war by the lessees with the Turkish Government.
But let us proceed to the next case of British compliance with Article 6 provisions:
(2) A grant to the inhabitants of Rishon-le-Zion of an area of 21,000 dunums of sand dunes adjoining the village, on the coast south of Jaffa, was made during the War by the Mejlis Idara (Administrative Council) of Jerusalem. This grant has been confirmed, and the area has been set aside as ‘Metrukeh’ (common) land for the benefit of the inhabitants of the village in common.
Mejlis Idara was the Ottoman equivalent of a County Council.  In this case, too, the British mandatory administration claims credit for a transaction made with the Ottoman authorities that preceded it.

On to the next ‘case’:
(3) A lease for a hundred years to the Township of Tel-Aviv of a plot of land on the seashore abutting on Tel-Aviv for the purpose of erecting a bathing establishment, restaurant and esplanade.
This lease deals with the establishment of a public entertainment facility (a beach) of the type any local government is supposed to provide for its citizens.  Clearly, this is not what the Mandate intended by “close settlement by Jews on the land”.
(4) A lease to the inhabitants of Petach-Tikvah for fifty years, renewable under fixed conditions, of the Bassa swamps adjoining the village land, on requirement to drain the swamps within five years, and cultivate or afforest the land.
Again, we are talking here about land previously seen as unusable and valueless, which the Jews were supposed to make valuable within 5 years.

And finally:
(5) A lease of 6,000 dunums at Tel-Arad, near Hebron, to Jewish ex-soldiers. In this case, lack of water led to the abandonment of the plan of colonization.
“Jewish ex-soldiers” – just to make it ultra-clear – did not mean, in 1930, IDF veterans.  It meant ‘British soldiers of Jewish persuasion’.  The British authorities – emulating perhaps the practices of another empire, the Roman one – rewarded their own soldiers with a piece of (waste) land and tried to portray this as fulfilling the Mandate requirement to “encourage […] close settlement by Jews on the land”.  Except that the land so generously leased proved in this case genuinely unusable.

And that’s it.  In 10 years of Mandatory regime, the British authorities have
  •          ‘confirmed’ two transactions already made with the Ottomans;
  •          allowed the establishment of a beach facility;
  •          leased a swamp under draconic conditions; and
  •          leased a totally unusable plot of land to a group of British soldiers.

Over the 1921-1930 decade, that’s the entire extent of the Mandatory compliance with the Mandate requirement to “encourage […] close settlement by Jews on the land”.

But violating the Mandate provisions by omission only is hardly the entire story.  In reality, almost immediately upon being granted the Mandate, Her Majesty’s Government began to adopt policies in complete contradiction first with its spirit and ultimately with its letter, as well.  The more transparent portion of those policies was contained in the so-called White Papers – in effect a series of colonial decrees that (under Arab political pressure stiffened by periodic outbursts of mass violence) grew progressively harsher and departed more and more from the purpose and conditions of the Mandate.

The process culminated with the White Paper of 1939, which:
  •          Strictly limited Jewish immigration between 1939 and 1944 and prohibited it completely from 1945 onwards;
  •          Prohibited the sale of land to Jews (but not to non-Jews) in the vast majority of the Mandate.
  •          In effect, condemned the Jewish community in the Mandate to the status of an isolated ethno-religious and linguistic minority in an Arab Muslim state.

One cannot overstate the extent to which the 1939 White Paper violated the provisions and the very purpose of the Mandate.  But the consequences of that draconic decree should not be seen only in the cold light of the law.  Let us remember, instead, that this was May 1939: six months after Kristallnacht, four months before the Nazi invasion of Poland.  The vast majority of the Jewish immigrants that His Majesty’s Government was so determined to keep out of Palestine were in effect refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and who had nowhere else to go.  We will never know how many of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust (including my maternal grandmother’s entire family) could have been saved – had the White Paper not been issued; but it is not unreasonable to assume that that number would have been in the hundreds of thousands.

Many things changed after the Holocaust, of course; but not the Mandatory attitude.  The Jewish community in ‘Palestine’ may have contributed to the Ally war effort – not in the least by enrolling in the Jewish Brigade; conversely, the Arab world – initially at least – sympathised with the Axis.  But there were many Arabs and much fewer Jews – and the British Government continued to prioritise perceived interests over commitments and humanity.

Europe was heaving with ‘displaced persons’ – a euphemism that, when it came to Jews, mostly meant concentration camp survivors.  Many were still kept in overcrowded camps, others were roaming like ghosts upon war-devastated lands.  There was overwhelming evidence that a huge majority of these wretched survivors wanted to join the Jewish National Home; they did not wish to stay in Germany or Poland; nor did they wish to return and live among former neighbours who had delivered them to be slaughtered.

A 'protest meeting' held by survivors at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in November 1945 sent the British Government the following desperate message:
We assembled Jews former inmates of Concentration Camps demand that the British Government do not prolong our bitter existence in Camps.
Give us the possibility to live free lives in our home in ERETZ ISRAEL (Palestine).
We shall not rest until the White Paper restrictions be removed.
We shall enter ERETZ ISRAEL by any means.
Enough Jewish blood has been shed.
You will bear the responsibility for those innocent victims who will fall as a result of your cruel decree if you do not open widely the gates of Palestine.
We wish to return to a peaceful creative life upon our own soil in ERETZ ISRAEL and this is our only possible way.
But the British government had no interest in the desires of Jewish survivors; its prominent ministers advocated the ‘resettlement’ of those ‘displaced persons’ in Europe – though not in Britain of course  – or even their transportation to South America.  Excerpts from a 31 July 1946 contribution to a House of Commons debate, by Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morisson:
[B]y assisting to reestablish political and economic stability in Europe, we should continue to contribute to the restoration of those basic conditions which will make possible the reintegration in Europe of a substantial number of displaced persons, including Jews. [...]
But, when all that is possible has been done in Europe, it is clear that new homes must be found overseas for many whose ties with their former communities have been irreparably broken.  [...]
Plans are in preparation, in cooperation with the nations concerned, for resettling large numbers of displaced persons in Brazil and other South American countries.
Many Jewish refugees were, however, reluctant to rely on the tender love and care of Mr. Morisson's colleagues.  They did not wait to be shipped off to South America, but instead tried to reach the Mandate of Palestine illegally.  They were hunted down and, if caught, interned in detention camps.  By May 1948, there were tens of thousands of Jews detained in British camps in Cyprus, Jews guilty of trying to illegally enter the Jewish National Home…

British detention camp in Cyprus.  These were not concentration camps. 
Still, conditions were harsh.
Meanwhile, the ‘Jewel of the British Imperial Crown’ – India – was in the process of gaining its independence.  By 1947, from the point of view of British interests, the Mandate of Palestine had outlived its purpose and His Majesty’s Government swiftly and unceremoniously dropped it in the lap of the newly-formed United Nations Organisation.

But in November 1947, when the UN voted on a solution to the conflict, the United Kingdom abstained.  The Partition Resolution was nonetheless adopted.  This was no mere Declaration: it sketched a practical implementation plan, including the formation of a UN Commission charged with organising and managing the transition between the Mandate and the two independent states.  To enable that, the UN Resolution required the Mandatory to cooperate with the UN Commission:
The [British] administration of Palestine shall, as the mandatory Power withdraws its armed forces, be progressively turned over to the Commission, which shall act in conformity with the recommendations of the General Assembly, under the guidance of the Security Council. The mandatory Power shall to the fullest possible extent coordinate its plans for withdrawal with the plans of the Commission to take over and administer areas which have been evacuated.
In the discharge of this administrative responsibility the Commission shall have authority to issue necessary regulations and take other measures as required.
The mandatory Power shall not take any action to prevent, obstruct or delay the implementation by the Commission of the measures recommended by the General Assembly.
But the mandatory Power did nothing of the kind.  Far from cooperating with the Commission, it did not even allow it to enter the territory.

In January 1948, Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, bluntly informed the UN Commission that
His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom would not regard favourably any proposal by the Commission to proceed to Palestine earlier than two weeks before the date of the termination of the Mandate.
The Commission protested bitterly:
… the proposal of your Government that the Commission should not proceed to Palestine earlier than two weeks before the date on which the Mandate is to be terminated is entirely unacceptable.
The Commission is convinced that this limitation on its arrival in Palestine would make it impossible for the Commission to discharge the responsibilities entrusted to it by the resolution of the General Assembly. The Commission has been informed that the Mandatory Power proposes to relinquish its responsibility for the Government of Palestine as a whole and not piecemeal. In consequence, the Commission, in two short weeks in Palestine, would he required to prepare itself to assume responsibility, under most difficult circumstances, for the full burden of a complex administrative structure and for maintaining law and order in the country.
But the protests were met with contempt; faced with what was obviously an impossible task, the Commission adjourned sine-die and disappeared in the ample archive of failed UN projects.
We will never know whether full cooperation by the Mandatory administration with the UN Commission could have prevented the war and (at least some of) the human suffering that followed.  But one thing is clear: given the situation on the ground, the British administration’s sabotage of the Commission’s role rendered violence in Palestine unavoidable.

On the diplomatic front, the British government of the time attempted to surreptitiously overturn (or at least subvert or make ineffective) the Partition Resolution; among other things, by lobbying the US administration to withdraw its support from the Resolution.

Finally, it attempted (both by omission and commission) to influence the outcome of the military confrontation to the detriment of the Jewish community and the nascent Jewish state.

Thus, the British administration in Palestine did nothing (in either diplomatic or military terms) to prevent or stop the infiltration of ‘irregular’ Arab forces from Iraq, Syria and Egypt into Palestine.  That infiltration started as early as December 1947 and continued in 1948.  Although formally not part of the regular armies of the Arab states, these ‘volunteers’ were typically armed, trained and officered by those states.  The presence of the ‘irregulars’ – who did not just attack Jewish settlements and traffic themselves, but often bullied local Arab villages into joining such attacks – had a huge destabilising effect and exercised a major aggravating influence on the extent and intensity of violence.

The conduct of the British administration and army during the last months of the Mandate was far from neutral.  Officially, the overriding aim was to maintain ‘peace and order’ – at least to the extent necessary to maximise the safety of British withdrawal.  In practice, however, various officials and officers followed their own political preferences.  And, given the clash between the Jewish Yishuv and the British administration that characterised the previous months and years, those sympathies, more often than not, tended to favour the Arab side.  Numerous instances are documented in which British troops failed to intervene or were slow to intervene when Jews were attacked ‘under their noses’; strategic positions evacuated by the withdrawing British army were handed over to Arab irregulars.  There were even cases when Jewish guerrillas were captured by British soldiers, disarmed and handed over to Arab irregulars or villagers, who promptly lynched them.

But arguably the most blatant British intervention was related to the so-called Arab Legion.  Established in the 1920s by British ‘advisors’ to the Hashemite court, the Legion became in 1946 Transjordan’s official, regular army.  It was armed, trained and at least partially funded by Britain.  The upper commanding echelon was staffed with British officers, including the Commander-in-Chief, General John Bagot Glubb.  The latter nominally reported to Transjordan’s monarch, but in reality often got his marching orders from London.  Although modest in numbers, the Legion was by far the most effective Arab force in terms of training, discipline, command-and-control and weaponry.
Gen. John Bagot Glubb with King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan.
As the army of Transjordan – an Arab state rejecting the Partition Resolution – the Arab Legion was, from the point of view of the Jewish Yishuv, a hostile force.  Yet the British administration had deployed this force across Palestine, ostensibly as an auxiliary to the British army.  It was withdrawn from Palestine very late in the process and only under heavy American pressure.  It re-entered Palestine on 16 May 1948 as part of the coordinated Arab attack on the newly-declared State of Israel and engaged with it in some of the toughest, most costly battles of the 1948-1949 war.  It was the Arab Legion that besieged Jerusalem; it managed to occupy the eastern neighbourhoods of Jerusalem including the Old City.  It even conquered the Jewish Quarter and expelled its civilian population.  All the while using British weapons and munitions and under the command of British officers.

In conclusion: it is absurd to claim – as the Middle East Editor at the Guardian did – that the British Mandate led to the creation of Israel.  In reality, the random twists and turns of history caused the winds of British imperialism to blow into the sails of Jewish nationalism – for just a short, fleeting moment.  They soon veered however and turned into headwinds; far from contributing to the creation of Israel, the British governments in the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s did everything in their power to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state.

Why does this ‘ancient history’ matter now?

One of the most intractable challenges related to the Arab-Israeli conflict is the stubborn refusal of the Arab side to recognise the connection between the Jewish people and ‘Palestine’ or the Land of Israel.  For those like me, who do not believe that people can coexist in close proximity in peace and freedom, while believing in diametrically opposed narratives, this is the major obstacle to peace.  Because, whatever else occurred, a 3000 year-long connection with that land implies – at the very least – some obvious moral rights.  And once the conflict comes to be seen as one of right-vs.-right (rather than right vs. wrong), it becomes amenable to solutions based on reason and accommodation.

Now, I have no doubt that Arab leaders – at least some Arab leaders – understand that connection.  But they see mileage in denying it, both to gain external support and stiffen the internal one.

But if there is no connection between Jews and the Land of Israel, how does one explain the six and a half million Jews who live there?  Simply: it’s the work of external factors.  It’s not love of Zion that drove Jews to dream up Zionism and settle in Rishon-le-Zion; it’s the Balfour Declaration; it’s British colonialism, American imperialism, European racism – anything but Jewish nationalism, because to admit the latter is to admit that ‘the other’ is but a mirror image of one’s own humanity.

Blaming ‘external factors’ (especially when those factors already have a poor reputation) is a magic strategy.  It is easy to grasp; it is just as convincing for the illiterate fellah in the Nile Delta as it is for the Middle East Editor of The Guardian: the former had no opportunity to study history; the latter is too lazy to bother.  Like any conspiracy theory, the ‘externality explanation’ can be embraced both by fanatics animated by hate and by scholars perpetually in love with their own intellectual phantasms.

Just google ‘Zionist settler colonialism’ and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of articles, web pages, blogs and social media hubs claiming that Jewish settlement in places like Tel Aviv and Zikhron Yaakov is entirely similar to the European colonisation of Australia, Africa and the Americas.  That is a very handy and attractive explanation, having only one tiny downside: that it’s untrue.

But discovering the truth takes some dedication, patience, honesty and intellectual curiosity – commodities that are in short supply in Guardian Editors, in many of our politicians and – let’s face it – in your average Joe on the street.

Which makes the clear and uncompromising enunciation of that truth even more imperative.  But when stupid Israeli ‘diplomats’ and hapless pro-Israel MPs wish to ‘celebrate Balfour’ (with or without ‘pride’), they inadvertently reinforce that most toxic anti-Israel narrative.  The one that not only denies the legitimacy of the State of Israel, but denies the morality of making peace with it.

I can understand the desire to showcase legitimacy, especially when it is under attack; I get the craving for friends and allies – especially when they are scarce.  But this is counter-productive.

States are not created by imperial Declarations; nor by League of Nations Mandates or by UN Resolutions.  Recognition by the ‘international community’ (whatever that oft-used cliché means) is usually post-factum; it acknowledges the reality, it does not create it.

The only thing that creates a state is the will of a nation.  What gives a state legitimacy (and enough social solidarity to make it stable and successful) is the national aspiration upon which it is built.

The Balfour Declaration was not a philanthropic gesture – nor was it motivated by noble ethics; it was an act of political expediency, which only coincidentally served a higher purpose.  The same can be said about the British Mandate for Palestine.  Don't get me wrong: there is nothing particularly evil in either, in the context of the time.  In issuing the Declaration and engineering the Mandate, the British Government did what most governments did then (and still do most of the time these days): pursued their own country’s selfish interests, as perceived by them at a particular moment in history.

Neither the Declaration nor the Mandate created (or, in deceitful journalistic jargon, ‘led to the creation of’) the State of Israel.  What ‘created Israel’ was an age-old longing preserved through generations in the Jewish people’s faith, culture and identity.  That was the itch that ‘created’ the scratch.  Of course, like any other historical process, the re-emergence of Jewish statehood did not happen in a political vacuum; on the contrary, it happened in the midst of political tumult.  And, out of the thousands of historical acts and events that interacted with that process, some helped it along, others hindered it.  There is as little point in ‘celebrating’ the former as in ‘mourning’ the latter.  They are but collateral, incidental externalities.

The State of Israel exists in the Jewish ancestral homeland; it’s once again populated by Jews who speak Hebrew, pray to the One God and further develop their own culture, their particular flavour of humanity.  All that did not happen because of the Balfour Declaration, or because of the British mandate, or because of UN resolutions; but because of Jewish collective longing, because of treasured national memory, because of perennial desire for freedom and human dignity.  And that is what we should celebrate.