Balfour's shadow: A century of British support for Zionism and Israel


David Cronin, Pluto Press, 2017, £16.99               

On 2 November 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, signed a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild a leader of the Zionist Federation in Britain, expressing support for, 'the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people'. This letter, made public on 9 November, and known as the Balfour Declaration, set in train a process, as David Cronin describes 'whereby colonisers would be treated as superior to the native population' and Palestinians living and farming the land became 'non-Jewish communities'.

The horrific consequences of this for the Palestinian people, starting with the encouragement of Zionist immigration to Palestine, the crushing of the Palestinian revolt in 1936, the expulsion of around 750,000 Palestinians in the Nakba of 1948, up to the desperate situation of Palestinians today, are outlined in Cronin's excellent book. Importantly, helped by his research through government papers and other sources, it documents the historical and continuing role of British imperialism in promoting and supporting the Zionist project and the state of Israel. There are one or two points missing, such as the endorsement of the Balfour Declaration by the Labour Party and TUC in their December 1917 War Aims Memorandum, but that does not detract from the book’s overall importance.  

In writing his letter to Rothschild supporting a homeland for Jews in Palestine, Balfour was not motivated by any altruistic concern for the Jews who had been facing persecution in Eastern Europe and pre-revolutionary Russia for decades. In 1905, when he had been Prime Minister, he had enthusiastically supported the Aliens Bill, Britain’s first immigration act, which was aimed at preventing Jews fleeing Russian pogroms from entering Britain. He denounced an 'alien immigration that was largely Jewish'. Balfour's anti-Semitism existed alongside his later support for Zionism and the possibility of encouraging Jewish emigration from Europe to Palestine.

Balfour was an imperialist politician who early in his career had served as Chief Secretary for Ireland where in 1887 he had ordered the police to open fire on a demonstration against the prosecution of  Irish Nationalist leader William O'Brien, killing three protesters. His active political conversion to supporting Zionism was based on British imperialism's desire to undermine Jewish working class support for the Bolsheviks in Russia and to rally Jewish support behind Britain’s war aims in the First World War. A 1917 telegram from the Foreign Office to British envoys in Petrograd read:

'We are advised that one of the best methods of counteracting Jewish pacifist and socialist propaganda in Russia would be to offer definite encouragement to Jewish nationalist aspirations in Palestine'.

Control of Palestine was seen as one of the key military objectives for British imperialism in the Middle East due to its proximity to Egypt and the Suez Canal. Herbert Samuel, a Zionist and major supporter of the Balfour Declaration, when a Cabinet Minister in 1915, had advocated that Britain endorse the establishment of a Jewish colony in Egypt next to the Suez Canal to help prevent it falling into French hands. Cronin quotes a senior figure in the Foreign Office, Ronald Graham, briefing Balfour about 'the very important role the Jews are now playing in the Russian political situation'. If Britain convinced Russian Jews that the success of Zionism depended on 'their support of the Allies and the expulsion of the Turks from Palestine, we shall enlist a most powerful element in our favour'.

The architect of what became the Balfour Declaration was Chaim Weizmann, a leading Zionist, originally from Belarus, who was a research chemist at Manchester University and the inventor of an alternative method of producing acetone which was vital to the British arms industry during the war. As a reward for his invention Weizmann is reported to have asked the Prime Minister Lloyd George for help in pursuing his Zionist project.

One little quibble with Cronin is that he doesn't give much detail about Weizmann’s political activities in Manchester where the Balfour Declaration was actually born. For instance he doesn't mention the Manchester School of Zionism, a Zionist political group led by Weizmann which included Harry Sacker an influential journalist on the Manchester Guardian and the owners of Marks and Spencer, Israel Sieff and Simon Marks.

CP Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, became a supporter of Weizmann’s project and used the editorial column of the paper to promote the Zionist cause. It was Scott who reportedly first introduced Weizmann to Lloyd George. Weizmann had first met Balfour in 1906 when Balfour had been an MP in Manchester; they had also met in 1914 where Balfour had reportedly broken down in tears after listening to Weizmann's pitch for a Zionist homeland in Palestine. However, it was only in 1917 that the political situation saw the convergence of the interests of both British imperialism and Zionism.

What became the Balfour Declaration went through a number of drafts as both the Zionists and the British government debated the exact wording, what is undoubted though is that the birth of it had taken place due to the activities of the Manchester School of Zionism. As Israel Sieff's son Marcus writes in his memoir 'Don't ask the Price' about the role his father and Simon Marks (his uncle) played,

'The Marks family also were not religious minded, but for both families (Marks and Sieff) Zionism was a different matter...this developed to a great extent because of the relationship which father and Simon developed while still young men with Dr Weizmann, and the role they played in the genesis of the Balfour Declaration'.

British imperialism's support for the Zionist project was completely tied up with its desire to control strategic areas of the Middle East after the end of the war. It was of no concern that the only Jewish Cabinet Minister, Edwin Montague, was completely opposed to Zionism and that within the wider Jewish community in Britain, support for Zionism was limited to a small minority. The official war aims drawn up in 1917 stated that it was essential for the British Empire to secure 'continuity of territory or control' between Egypt and India. The 1916 Sykes-Picot accord drawn up with France which divided the Middle East up between the two imperialist powers was amended so that Britain would be guaranteed 'definite and exclusive control over Palestine'.

Although British troops only entered Jerusalem in December 1917 and Turkey still controlled the northern parts of Palestine, the Zionist Commission was formed in 1918. Led by Weizmann, it was instructed by the British government to take 'any steps required' to promote the establishment of a 'national home for the Jewish people'. Along with forming ministries for settlement and farming it set about training an armed force.

In 1920, the League of Nations granted Britain a mandate over Palestine. The arch-Zionist Herbert Samuel became Britain’s first High Commissioner there, and Britain agreed to allow 16,500 Jewish settlers to enter Palestine each year. It was in this period, as Cronin notes, that a system of 'economic apartheid' was set up with the Jewish labour union, the Histadrut, playing a crucial role pressurising Jewish employers to hire only Jewish labour. A Jewish Agency was now formed, which was supposed to work under the British administration’s control, but in reality became a parallel Zionist government. No equivalent body was proposed for the Palestinians.

In 1921 when Churchill became Colonial Secretary he bribed Abdullah, the sharif of Mecca, with the throne of Transjordan, now Jordan, 'on the understanding that he used his influence to prevent anti-French and anti-Zionist propaganda there'; Abdullah’s brother was given the throne of Iraq. Churchill also brought into Palestine a force of around 800 Black and Tans from Ireland to form a 'picked force of white gendarmerie' to defend British rule. The Black and Tans had a brutal reputation from their behaviour in Ireland where they had sacked whole towns in revenge for Irish republican attacks on them and the British authorities.

In 1929, serious riots broke out in Jerusalem and other Palestinian towns brought about by fears the Zionists were going to build a synagogue in the area of the Haram Al Sharif, 135 Jews and 116 Palestinians died in the rioting over a one week period. Once the riots were over, British forces began to raid Palestinian villages, arrest people and hand out collective fines to whole villages. These fines, most of which were never paid, were finally cancelled in 1935. The British High Commissioner, acting for the newly elected Labour government, was adamant that some of the Palestinians arrested would be hanged, and three executions took place in June 1930.

Labour's Colonial Secretary Sidney Webb set up an inquiry into the riots, the Shaw Commission. It found that their root cause was the eviction of Palestinians from their land. It warned that Palestinians were afraid that 'by Jewish immigration and land purchases they may be deprived of their livelihood and in time pass under the political domination of the Jew'. However, Webb insisted, 'the government has no idea of reconsidering the tenure of the mandate for Palestine and has no intention of departing from the policy laid down in the Balfour Declaration'. In discussion with Weizmann, addressing the issue of Palestinian landlessness, Webb suggested that expelling Palestinians to Transjordan 'might be a way out'.

In association with the Shaw Commission, Webb produced a White Paper which called for a reduction in the immigration of Jews into Palestine. This caused such an uproar that Ramsey MacDonald the Labour Prime Minister took control of the issue and wrote to Weizmann declaring that Jewish immigration would not be reduced.

Palestinian dispossession and landlessness increased alongside growing protests against not just the Zionists but the British authorities. In 1933 the High Commissioner, writing about protests in Jerusalem, said

'It is noteworthy and symptomatic of a new orientation of Arab nationalism in Palestine that the cries of the demonstrators were “down with the English” and “down with the Colonisers”. Arab feeling in Palestine is definitely becoming anti-British and anti-government. Without the British government, the Arabs think they would have nothing to fear from the Jews'.

In October of that year two protests in Jaffa were met with fierce British repression with 12 and 26 people shot and killed respectively.

In 1936 a Palestinian rebellion broke out against British rule. A British officer quoted in the book says the rebels, 'were fighting what they believed to be a patriotic war in defence of their country against injustice and the threat of Jewish domination'. This view was not supported by the representative of Barclays Bank in Jerusalem who in May 1936 signed an appeal calling for 'immediate drastic action against the ringleaders' of the uprising. The rebellion lasted until 1939; it was met with massive repression from the British with over 5,000 Palestinians killed, thousands interned in concentration camps, torture used against prisoners and collective punishment dished out against villages where it was alleged resistance fighters lived.

The strength of the British led police force rose from 2,500 in 1935 to 5,400 in 1939. Two infantry divisions of the British army, around 25,000 men, were also deployed. Even the Royal Navy was involved. In 1938 the battleship HMS Repulse was anchored at Haifa and regularly launched shells at Palestinian targets. Jewish colonialists were also recruited into the British police in significant numbers: approximately 6,000 were armed by the British government. Some were allocated to guard huts and stores at one of the concentration camps for Palestinians, some were guarding the building of a fence across the north of the country and some were trained to take part in 'ambush work'. A lot of them were members of the Haganah, an illegal Jewish armed force which was tolerated by the British.

The book doesn't go into great detail over the Second World War period but does cover the Labour Party conference of 1944 which passed a motion approving the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians declaring that there was, 'an irresistible case now, after the unspeakable atrocities of the cold and calculated German Nazi plan to kill all the Jews in Europe' to enable Jews to enter Palestine in 'such numbers as to become a majority... Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in'.

After the war, in reaction to what they perceived as restrictions on Jewish immigration, Zionist violence against the British administration increased, in 1946 the Irgun terrorist group bombed offices used by the British at the King David hotel in Jerusalem killing 91 people. General Montgomery called for large scale force to be used against the Zionist private armies but he was overruled by the government. Two days after the bombing the Labour cabinet endorsed a plan drawn up by the deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison and a US diplomat that proposed separate Jewish and Arab cantons with the Zionists controlling the most fertile areas. The plan was ultimately shelved. Britain was incapable of continuing its control of Palestine and in September 1947 the United Nations voted to split the country into separate Jewish and Palestinian areas with Britain announcing it would withdraw in May 1948. The Zionists were armed, trained and prepared for what was to happen.

In April 1948, the Irgun and Lehi groups, supported by the Haganah, massacred 250 Palestinians at Deir Yassin. Other massacres took place leading to the Nakba, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their land. Britain still had around 100,000 troops plus police in Palestine at this time and could have prevented the massacres but chose not to. The British officially withdrew on 14 May and on the same day the Zionists formally established the state of Israel.

Britain still attempting to defend its strategic interests were keen for its client state of Jordan to take control of Arab areas and in 1949 when the final partition borders were agreed Jordan did take control of the West Bank and Egypt of Gaza. Chaim Weizmann became the first President of Israel describing the mass expulsion of the Palestinian population as a 'miraculous simplification of the problem'.

Cronin's book doesn't end with the formation of the state of Israel; it takes us from there through Suez, the 1967 and 1973 wars, the invasions of the Lebanon and the massacres in Gaza all the time pointing to the unwavering support of British imperialism for Israel.

From 1949 until 1956 there was an agreement by the imperialist powers to restrict certain arms sales to Israel and the Arab states which inconvenienced Israel but didn't prevent it from building up its military capacity. In 1955 Israel attacked Gaza killing around 40 Egyptian soldiers in an ambush. It also launched a raid into Syria and in 1956 it launched four attacks into the West Bank, then part of Jordan , killing over 100 people.

The attempt to seize control of the Suez Canal in 1956 after Nasser nationalised it was a subterfuge organised between Britain, France and Israel. Israel invaded Egypt through Gaza, in the process massacring hundreds of refugees. This was a pretext for Britain and France to seize control of the Canal a process only stopped because of the opposition of the US.

From 1958 onwards the idea of any effective arms embargo on Israel disappeared. In 1958 Israel bought two submarines from Britain and in 1959 a deal was signed for 60 Centurion tanks. In 1964, following further arms deals which had been signed under the Conservative government, another two submarines and 250 Centurion tanks were delivered by the incoming Labour government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Labour backed Israel in the June 1967 war, with a shipload of arms leaving Britain the weekend before the war broke out. British Centurion tanks played a central role in the invasion and occupation of the Sinai peninsula. After the war Israel asked for replacement tanks and, after some diplomatic hot air, they received 100 Centurion tanks between August 1967 and January 1969.

Britain has played in major role in the development of Israel’s own arms industry. In 1967 it agreed to 'the disclosure of confidential information about our own cluster bomb system to the Israelis'. By the late 1970s, Israel was exporting cluster bombs to Africa. In 1973, the UK Atomic Energy Authority began to work with Israeli institution. In 1979 in the UN, Britain refused to back a resolution criticising nuclear co-operation between Israel and South Africa or an Arab call for a study of Israel's nuclear capability. In 1984, the Foreign Office declared that it had no objection to the export of depleted Uranium to Israel on the condition that 'the arrangement be subject to adequate safeguards'.

In 1986, Thatcher made the first official visit by a Prime Minister to Israel since its foundation.

Cronin is clear that the Oslo Accords were a defeat for the Palestinian movement, quoting Edward Said description of them as 'an instrument of Palestinian surrender'. They were also a green light for Britain to open itself up to, as John Major put it, 'responsible two-way trade' in weapons as armaments was 'a sector in which both countries excelled'. Britain’s commercial links with Israel have expanded since 1994 not just in weapons technology but in telecommunications and IT.

The Blair-led Labour government was a consistent supporter of Israel, agreeing to oversee the imprisonment of six Palestinian Resistance fighters, including Ahmed Sa'adat leader of the PFLP, in a Jericho prison in 2002, before co-operating with an Israeli raid in 2006 which saw the prisoners taken into Israeli custody. In 2005, Britain authorised arms sales worth £22.5m to Israel and the following year, Blair fully backed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

In 2007 the 'responsible two way trade' that John Major had spoken about came to fruition with Britain operating Israeli-made drones in the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan. The drone was manufactured by Elbit systems. Elbit is a central part of the Watchkeeper programme, set up by Labour, which is designed to supply the British army with drones. Cronin details the links between Elbit and their connected companies, Thales UK, UAV Engines and others such as Ferranti Technologies. BAE systems, one of the top three arms producers in the world is also working in collaboration with Elbit.

As Cronin explains, 'Fifty years ago Israel began its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza with the aid of Britain's weapons. Fifty years on, Britain is signalling that its future wars will use Israeli weaponry tested in the West Bank and Gaza. While Britain remains an exporter of arms to Israel, it has also become a lucrative client for the Israeli arms industry'.

Cronin ends his book with a section on solidarity and the importance of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. As he says 'Boycotting has assumed a central importance in the Palestinian quest for justice. The growing boycott is perceived as a major threat by Israel and its supporters'. The demands of the BDS campaign are: an end to the occupation, full equality for Palestinians within Israel, and the right of return for all Palestinian refugees. It is not surprising, he says 'that Britain’s ruling elite is hostile to a campaign making those demands. Realising the demands would put an end to the apartheid system that Britain helped to introduce to Palestine and still props up'.

This book is a strongly-recommended read.