In February 1920, Winston Churchill publicly affirmed his support for a Jewish national home in Palestine, writing in a British newspaper that he hoped a future Jewish state “may become not only a refuge for the oppressed from the unhappy lands of Central Europe, but … [also] a symbol of Jewish unity and temple of Jewish glory.” He concluded that its creation was a task “on which many blessings rest.”
The British government had issued the Balfour Declaration three years prior to Churchill’s declaration, lending support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” But in 1947 – when the United Nations voted on the partition of Palestine, which would create the modern Jewish State – the United Kingdom was the only western European nation to abstain. In only a few short decades, the British government appeared to have dramatically changed its policy on Israel.
But British politicians and diplomats had always been divided over how to approach the idea of a Jewish state. In 1920, British Foreign Secretary George Curzon held views diametrically opposed to Churchill’s: “Here is a country [Palestine] with 580,000 Arabs and 30,000 – or is it 60,000 Jews?” he said. “We then proceed to draw up a document which reeks of Judaism in every paragraph and is an avowed constitution for a Jewish State. The poor Arabs are only allowed to look through the keyhole.”
Until the First World War, the Middle East was a backwater for British diplomacy. British interests were centered on only India and the Suez Canal in Egypt; Palestine was merely one corner of the declining Ottoman Empire. But when the Ottoman Empire joined the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary following the outbreak of war in 1914, the region took on far greater importance. Britain recruited a small army of Arab irregulars to fight against the Ottomans, at the same time mounting a campaign to push the Ottoman army out of Palestine. In December 1917, the British captured Jerusalem. General Edmund Allenby – the overall commander of British forces in the Middle East – famously refused to enter the city on horseback, and as a mark of respect, dismounted and walked through the Jaffa Gate.
Following the war, Britain was given control of Palestine as a “mandate” from the League of Nations. An official report by the British Mandatory government concluded that the country was underpopulated due to “lack of development” and that the entire population of Palestine was “less than that of the province of Galilee alone in the time of Christ.” There was an element of truth to the oft-quoted Zionist phrase that the Jewish statehood project was to provide “a land without a people for a people without a land.” As Jewish immigration increased, so did organized opposition from Arabs within Palestine. But the popularly held view that the Balfour Declaration and Britain’s acquisition of Palestine as a mandate led to an immediate and dramatic influx of Jewish refugees is simply not borne out by the figures. It is estimated that in 1919, there were 20,000 fewer Jews in Palestine than there had been before the start of the First World War. Significant riots occurred in 1920 and again in 1929, as larger numbers of mostly Eastern European Jews emigrated. The protests against the British administration’s apparently open-door policy to Jewish immigrants culminated in a full-blown uprising by the Arabs against the British between 1936 and 1937.
The dramatic violence of the Arab revolt – which began in 1936 – shocked the British administration and led to the imposition of a cap on Jewish migration. The simple reality was noted by the official report into the disturbances, which concluded, “The Jewish national home is no longer an experiment. There can be no question of fusion or assimilation between Jewish and Arab cultures. The national home cannot be half-national.” At the same time, it was noted that “Arab nationalism is as intense a force as Jewish. The Arab leaders’ demand for national self-government and the shutting down of the Jewish national home has remained unchanged since 1929.” The British administration had practically sleepwalked into a position that placed it squarely between two sides, both of which demanded self-government.
The British government’s response, like that of an exasperated parent confronted with bickering children, was to force the warring parties into a room to settle their differences and threaten to impose a solution if no compromise was forthcoming. In February 1938, the Arab leaders who had been publicly condemned as “agitators” were invited to a conference in London, along with a Jewish Zionist delegation led by Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion. The Arab delegation refused to sit in the same room as their Jewish counterparts, forcing the colonial secretary to hold separate meetings with both parties. After 14 sessions, there was no agreement.
That week, Adolf Hitler’s armies invaded the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, and Europe slid once more toward war. In March 1939, the British government announced a white paper that effectively shelved the Balfour Declaration. It proposed the creation within 10 years of an independent state of Palestine – which would be neither Jewish nor Arab – where, for the first decade, Jewish immigration would be limited to 75,000.
This British change of heart was motivated by the perception that what mattered most in Palestine was stability, and support for the majority Arab population against Jewish immigration (and claims of statehood) was deemed to be the method of achieving it. Four months later, following the German invasion of Poland, Britain declared war. Ben-Gurion famously stated, “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no white paper, and we must resist the white paper as if there were no war.”
Following the Second World War, the British faced a profound dilemma. The murder of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis had outraged the world, and now British soldiers were detaining and holding in camps survivors of Hitler’s Holocaust; if they were allowed to enter Palestine, the number of those immigrants would breach the pre-war cap agreed upon to placate the Arabs. At the same time, Zionist terror groups were mounting attacks against British soldiers policing the mandate. The British government faced international pressure to resolve the “Jewish problem” – not least from United States President Harry Truman, who strongly supported the Zionist cause – and domestic outcry at the deaths of British soldiers after the war had supposedly ended.
The British government was once again divided. Some, despite the attacks against British soldiers, still supported the idea of partition to create a Jewish state, while others simply wanted to wash their hands of the mandate as soon as possible. The foreign office, meanwhile, maintained support for the Arabs, as Curzon had done more than two decades previously. In 1946, an unnamed foreign office official wrote to British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, saying “The principal aim of our policy in Palestine has been and should be to reach an agreement with the Zionists. Desirable as such an agreement could be, it is, from the foreign office point of view, far more important that we should avoid a quarrel with the Arab States over Palestine.” In September 1947, the domestic pressure became too much for the government to stand. The cabinet decided to surrender its mandate to the United Nations and withdraw British forces from Palestine as soon as feasibly possible.
The U.N. proposed that Palestine be divided into separate Jewish and Arab states. On November 29, 1947, the U.N. General Assembly voted 33-to-13, with 10 abstentions, to partition Palestine. The United Kingdom was one of the countries to abstain. The nation that had been the first to pledge its support for the creation of Israel no longer officially wanted any part in a Jewish State.
The secretary of state for the colonies lamented afterward in Parliament, “Britain has received little gratitude, and has been shamefully traduced for the great part she has played.”
His view was not universally shared; one Labour MP remarked:
There is now no alternative to total withdrawal, to abdication, to going away and knowing that chaos will follow. It is fashionable to look back after the event and to say that we should never have embarked upon the Balfour Declaration or upon this great experiment.
This article originally appeared on Philos Project, September 4, 2017, and reposted with permission.