Jerusalem Lost
Britain's Zionist Fiasco 1917-1956


Contributed by Dr Robert Carr



The advent of World War I brought unlikely alliances into action, not least the Ottoman empire alongside Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany and the Austro-Hungarians. The Ottoman empire was long regarded as a frail and anachronistic 'Sick Man of Europe'. Indeed, just a year into the war, Britain and France had agreed on the division of Ottoman lands in what was soon termed the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The British were anxious to secure Near Eastern Arab support to help overthrow Turkish tutelage: in this respect there was coordination of war-time strategies and the celebrated events of T.E. Lawrence's Arab Revolt which helped ensure 1918's defeat of the Ottomans. At the same time the British were also mindful of winning over Jewish support in the US to help ensure American intervention and this proved a contributory factor behind the Balfour Declaration. Lord Arthur Balfour was Britain's Foreign Secretary who conveyed government post-war plans to a leading Jewish figure:

Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:

'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...'

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

There was more than American war-time support, however, behind the government's push for a Jewish home in Palestine. Consider also Anglicanism and its literal and sentimental approach to the Old Testament. The nation's best-loved hymn seeks to replicate the very centre of Biblical Jewish life and faith: "Until Jerusalem is builded here in England's green and pleasant land." Religious, if not romantic, convictions lent sympathy to the 'chosen' Jewish nation. Another factor was the advent of Political Zionism (i.e. the hope to establish a Jewish homeland in Ancient Israel) which gained momentum largely as a result of violent antisemitism in late nineteenth century Russia. The active Zionism of high society figures such as Lord Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann further encouraged the British government.

Interestingly, British promises to both Jews and Arabs during the Great War were compatible. Arab-Jewish agreement on the division of former Ottoman territories was reached during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Emir Feisal (son of the Sherif of Mecca), who was to become King of Iraq, wrote to the Zionist Organization:

We Arabs... look with deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organization to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.

In itself British victory brought political reward to none of the former Ottoman subjects. Instead, the League of Nations awarded Britain the Palestine Mandate in 1922; the mandate stipulated that Britain was responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home.

From the war itself, Britain managed to make both promise and counter-promise to Jews and Arabs: in this way, Britain drove a wedge between the two communities. In 1922, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill all but renounced the Balfour Declaration and restricted Jewish immigration. Furthermore, his White Paper saw Palestine divided and two-thirds of the territory formally became the Arab emirate of Transjordan!

While those hoping for the creation of a Jewish homeland were being squeezed by the British, Jews already living in Palestine became victims of looting and murder as frustrated Palestinian Arabs revolted - initially in 1920 but followed up by further violence in 1921 and 1922. Zionists justifiably complained that the British failed to provide protection to Jewish settlers.

The year 1929, however, saw the bloodiest massacres in Palestine: 133 Jews were killed. Somewhat insensitively, Colonial Secretary Passfield attributed such Arab violence to the provocation of Zionist land purchases and immigration! His 1929 White Paper introduced a severe limit on Jewish immigration. The League of Nations had provided for only temporary and short-lived trusteeship of Palestine yet now Britain was closing the door to Jewry. This soon became an increasingly critical and moral issue with the establishment of the antisemitic Nazi regime in Germany.

Neither the Jews nor Arabs of Palestine were any closer to self-determination which was galling given British withdrawal from, and the independence of, neighbouring Iraq and Egypt.

In response to an Arab general strike and rioting in 1936, the British established an inquiry and, under Lord Peel, drew up a partition plan. The Palestinian Arabs flatly rejected the division of land. Britain had failed miserably to fulfil its mandate responsibilities: it was no closer to bringing either community to self-rule; instead, British bungling had set Jews and Arabs against one another - with fatal consequences i.e. 2,800 killed in massacres between 1936 and 1939. Remarkably, the (failed) Peel Plan had provided for Britain's indefinite rule over Jerusalem - perhaps as a sign of imperial arrogance rather than administrative competence.

In seeking wider Arab support in an impending war with Germany, Britain introduced yet another White Paper. 1939's White Paper declared Britain's intention to withdraw 10 years hence: in the meantime it limited Jewish immigration to 15,000 each year (up to 1944 and thereafter only with Arab consent) and land sales to Jews were either prohibited or restricted across Palestine.

Despite British wavering over 1917's Balfour Declaration and its mandate responsibility, 140,000 Palestinian Jews (men and women) volunteered for British military service. A Jewish Brigade Group was formed even and saw action in Europe. Above all they were concerned about the fate of their European cousins and sought to defeat Nazism.

Knowledge of the Nazi Final Solution had reached Britain by the end of 1941; requests to bomb either Auschwitz or its railway links were simply refused by the British. Instead government attitude can perhaps be summed up by a senior war-time Foreign Office official: "A disproportionate amount of time in this office is wasted in dealing with these wailing Jews".

Needless to say, while more than 6 million Jews were exterminated, there was no relent on immigration restrictions to Palestine imposed by the 1939 White Paper. Two examples will help illuminate British policy. The Sturma, filled with children fleeing the Holocaust, was denied access to Palestine for 2 months before the ship sunk killing all but one of the refugees. Britain's intransigence was again evident in the notorious case of the Exodus which was loaded with pitiful Holocaust survivors, turned away from Palestine and forced back to Germany! Such refusal to provide shelter to targets of the Nazi Final Solution demonstrated that Britain had lost the moral authority to govern anyone - whether Jewish or Arab.

Hanging onto Palestine, turning away Auschwitz survivors and running the territory with a heavy military presence (a tenth of all British forces!) was simply poor judgement in the aftermath of the Holocaust. There was on-going Arab resistance to Britain's presence and the Irgun and Stern Gang represented Zionist hostility. Indeed, such Jewish nationalists are considered the founders of modern terrorism. In the face of letter bombing, kidnapping and the King David Hotel attack, Britain was at a loss.

The United Nations (i.e. UNSCOP) finally put Britain out of its misery and urged termination of the mandate and partition of the land between Arabs and Jews. For their part, the Jews of Palestine grabbed statehood with two hands: Israel was thus born on 14th May 1948 - the eve of British withdrawal. Britain left behind two communities in bitter dispute: the mandate period set in motion the long years of Arab-Israeli conflict. In effect, Britain had been kicked out of Palestine and lost hold of Jerusalem for once and all.

Britain next dared to dip its toes in the Middle East in 1955. For its role in the cold war, Britain sought to demonstrate its authority and keep the Soviet Union at bay in the region through the Baghdad Pact. This was a British-led alliance of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. On the other side of the political fence sat President Nasser of Egypt. Nasser had formally recognized newly Communist China and was the beneficiary of Soviet weaponry. In July 1955 Nasser announced the forthcoming receipt of 200 modern bombers and other Soviet armaments. What prompted British conflict with Egypt, however, was Nasser's seizure of the British-controlled Suez Canal in October 1956. The Suez had been a source of British power and wealth since Disraeli's acquisition of the canal 80 years previous.

Nasser sought to raise finances for his ambitious Aswan Dam project: failing to secure foreign loans meant he turned to a source of great revenue within Egypt itself, i.e. the Suez Canal. Under the terms of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, Britain was to maintain a military base on the Suez for the next 20 years. As the main east-west shipping route and the carrier of a quarter of all British imports, the canal was crucial to British interests.

In conjunction with France, Britain hatched a plot against Egypt using Israel. Egypt was not only an avowed enemy of the Jewish state but had denied it access to the Red Sea at Israel's southern tip. Israel had long wanted to remove this illegal blockade and, moreover, had been on tenterhooks since the Soviet arms influx and recent establishment of joint Egyptian-Syrian military command.

Britain (with France) planned that Israel should attack Egypt: Israeli forces were to reach as far as the Suez Canal; at this point, Britain would 'intervene' to protect shipping and thus (re)take control of the canal.

In military terms, Britain's plans worked out: Israel met its objectives and the British bombed Egyptian air bases and occupied the northern section of the canal. In wider terms, the Suez Crisis proved a political blunder and grave diplomatic gaffe.

Despite tacit support from President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Eden was requested to delay any action against Nasser until after the American presidential elections of the 6th November 1956. Britain ignored such advice and suffered UN condemnation, a veiled threat from the Soviet Union and the imposition of US economic sanctions. Consequently Britain was forced to withdraw from Egypt with its tail between its legs. This was no mere humiliation confined to Egypt however: wider world reaction and Arab disgust eroded both Britain's moral and imperial standing. Both the Baghdad Pact and Anglo-Jordanian Treaty were lost, and, in 1957, both the Gold Coast and Malaya's independence heralded a 'wind of change' which swiftly blew away Britain's colonies.

Unwittingly, such imperialist aggression provided the Soviet Union with a considerable political victory: Suez displayed Anglo-French impotence and thus created a power vacuum in the Middle East. The Soviet Union proved the best able to fill such a void.

Tragically, both the cold war and superpowers' arms race were added to the troubles of the Arabs and Jews. Soviet sponsorship of Egypt was stepped up and Syria was soon similarly armed and advised. America later came to rely on Israel to redress the strategic balance: over a short period of time (from Kennedy's presidency) Israel was pumped full of American weaponry and funding. The seeds for the third and fourth Arab-Israeli wars had very much been sown by the fiasco of 1956.

More than a failure of imperialism, Suez showed that Britain had lost its independence in terms of foreign policy. Hugh Thomas has indicated that "the British have never since ventured on a foreign policy independent of the USA". It was, arguably, a new low in Britain's policy relations with the Jews of the Middle East.

Only years before Britain had failed to protect Jews against Arab and Nazi violence; moreover, Britain's handling of, and withdrawal from, Palestine made bloody Arab-Israeli confrontation inevitable. Still, in 1956, Britain was prepared to use Israel for its own ends. This last hurrah for the empire displayed evident double standards.

The period under discussion in this article saw government policy swing between promise and punishment to the Jews. Britain's relations with the Jews of Palestine and Israel undermined the idea of an enlightened power. Insensitivity and ineptitude ensured a Zionist fiasco in imperial affairs between 1917 and 1956.

Further Reading
A Concise History of the Middle East
by Arthur Goldschmidt Jr.
The Arab-Israel Reader
Walter Lacqueur and Barry Rubin (Eds)
The Suez Affair
Hugh Thomas


Dr Robert Carr is the author of a study guide on the History of 20th Century India that includes activities and tasks. It is available from: Waterstones




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