How Bri­tain helped forge Is­rael

BRI­TISH JEWS AND THE DREAM OF ZION Ra­dio 4, Mon­day April 28

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis -

ON THE eve of the 60th an­niver­sary of Is­rael, here was a pro­gramme which told the story of the in­volve­ment of Bri­tish Jews, and in­deed non-Jews, in the foun­da­tion of the Jewish state.

Don’t get the idea that the Bri­tish side of the story was some­how a sideshow. Jews in Bri­tain may have been low in num­bers com­pared to the great pop­u­la­tions in East­ern Europe and the grow­ing com­mu­nity in Amer­ica. But Bri­tain, as the dom­i­nant world power, played a huge part in the story, ac­cord­ing to this well-re­searched and fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­men­tary pre­sented by Jonathan Freed­land and with in­trigu­ing de­tail sup­plied by the likes of aca­demics Colin Schindler and Ge­of­frey Al­der­man.

In­deed, the lead­ing char­ac­ters were on Bri­tish soil from the late 19th cen­tury on­wards. There was Theodor Herzl, the founder of mod­ern Zion­ism, who came to Lon­don to lobby the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment for their help in set­ting up a Jewish home­land in Pales­tine, Uganda, Tas­ma­nia, Alaska or just about any­where, re­ally. It is hard to imag­ine a po­lit­i­cal fig­ure with an ob­scure ide­al­is­tic no­tion gen­er­at­ing the near hys­te­ria that Herzl did in 1898 when he spoke in the East End. Thou­sands gath­ered to hear him and thou­sands more spilled on to the streets. All to hear about a dream of na­tional self-de­ter­mi­na­tion which seemed about as likely as, well, as a kib­butz in Kam­pala.

Lon­don con­tin­ued to be the ful­crum of ac­tiv­ity, par­tic­u­larly when, in the First World War, Pales­tine sud­denly be­came the front line of the con­flict.

A new ac­tivist, a young chemist called Chaim Weiz­mann who was do­ing great work with ace­tone at Manch­ester Univer­sity, led the cam­paign for the new move­ment of Zion­ism to re­ceive gov­ern­ment back­ing. This duly came with the 1917 Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, in which the For­eign Sec­re­tary, Arthur Bal­four, an­nounced this coun­try “viewed with in­ter­est” the foun­da­tion of a Jewish home­land in Pales­tine. Weiz­mann was sit­ting out­side the cabi­net room when he was told about the an­nounce­ment. “It’s a boy,” said Con­ser­va­tive politi­cian Sir Mark Sykes.

Weiz­mann, not a re­li­gious man, was later spot­ted per­form­ing a Chas­sidic dance with his col­leagues.

JC colum­nist Al­der­man re­vealed a slightly sur­pris­ing fact about Bal­four — com­monly thought of as one of the ar­chi­tects of the Jewish state. He was border­line an­tisemitic, claimed Al­der­man. He re­called a Bal­four speech in which he said: “We do not want a peo- ple apart.” It was, he said, a line wor­thy of Enoch Pow­ell.

Not ev­ery­one was ex­cited about the new move­ment. The top-hat­ted Jews of the West End were threat­ened by the im­pli­ca­tion of split loy­al­ties, while the fire­brand so­cial­ists were against Zion­ism for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons and the Chas­sidim railed against Herzl as a false mes­siah.

Fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War, the is­sue sur­faced again — this time be­cause of the Holo­caust.

Freed­land­in­ter­viewed an un­likely kitb­butznik called Tony Benn who hap­pened to be row­ing on the Sea of Galilee when the an­nounce­ment of in­de­pen­dence was made. As a so­cial­ist, he was a sup­porter of the idea of a home­land for a dis­pos­sessed peo­ple. It was, he said, “a mo­ment of great hope”. Al­though that hope was later be­trayed by the way the state had de­vel­oped. He was not on his own. Bri­tons queued up to help the new Jewish state, and many of them were not Jewish.

Is­rael is now of course a strong, in­de­pen­dent and well-es­tab­lished state which no longer re­lies on the ef­forts of friendly vol­un­teers for its sur­vival. Just as well, re­ally.

Herzl lob­bied Lon­don for a Jewish home­land

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