A Sharp Bend in History
After over a hundred years of Arab war with the very idea of a Jewish state, the rulers of several Arab states are entertaining a change of the paradigm. True, at the very beginning there was a similar moment when Emir Faisal, with the encouragement and mediation of Lawrence of Arabia, met with Weizman and not only agreed (in writing) to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, but expressed his hope that it would be beneficial for Arabs. For a short time Emir Faisal was the ruler of Syria and later of Iraq, but his influence on the course of history in Palestine turned out to be close to zero. Other forces decided on a categorical rejection of the idea of a Jewish state in the midst of Arab and Muslim elements. The idea of Jewish independence was just as offensive to the Muslim religion as it was to the Christian one. It would appear that today it’s even more offensive than it was a hundred years ago, because to the contempt and cruelties with which believers from both these religions treated Jews through history, the massacres and genocide of the 20th century were added. A resistance axis against the existence of a Jewish state united the Vatican with the Muslim world and the British with the Arab despots. Nothing unites better than animosity against victims who in spite of all your efforts are still alive.
Just a few months ago it would appear that nothing could change the determination of the Arab world to seek to annihilate the Jewish state. But behind-the-scenes actions revealed a hidden trend. Previously unknown forces are ready to acknowledge that peace is more beneficial than never-ending war. A ceremony of signing a peace agreement has hallmarks of a spectacle of which further acts are almost always more dramatic. It seems that a more interesting fact is that now in Arab societies positive reactions appears to prevail over the negative ones. You get a strange feeling that people were just waiting for a signal that they are allowed to change an obligatory declaration of hostility into a declaration of friendship (possibly tied to overblown hope). In Europe the agreements were met as in Ankara, Tehran and Ramallah, but in greater silence, without open expressions of anger. Certainly, the EU’s spokesman for external affairs, Peter Stano, declared firmly that opening embassies in Jerusalem may have serious consequences for countries which are seeking membership in the European Union. The point is that the Americans are poking their noses into somebody else’s business and have not only managed to arrange the rapprochement between Serbia and Kosovo, but even worse, have encouraged at the same time (Muslim) Kosovo to establish ties with Israel, and Serbia to strengthen these ties. So, while he couldn’t forbid Arab countries to do such things, he could at least threaten the European ones.
What is this change of paradigm in relations between Arabs and Israel? The key here is this disgusting word “normalization”, or recognition that Jews have a right to live in the Middle East, that they are a part of it. It also means rejecting the famous “NO to normalization”, i.e. ending the treatment of Israelis as colonizers, ending the acceptance of murdering Jews while claiming that it is all part of the peace process. The new paradigm is a recognition of normalization in spite of protests on the part of terrorists. Strange approach but who knows, maybe there is a seed of reason somewhere there.
Did the Western world have honest intentions when one hundred years ago it declared its readiness to support Jewish aspirations to build an independent state? If so, this unexpected generosity didn’t last long. The mission to facilitate building a Jewish National Home was given to the British, but their enthusiasm for this mandate ended almost as soon as they had received it. It’s interesting today to read a letter by Arthur Koestler written in August 1947 (recalled in “New Statsman”, 2007) to a father of a British soldier deployed to Palestine. Koestler writes that he understands that for the parents of soldiers in Palestine every day is full of anxiety for the lives of their sons, that they could be killed by Jewish terrorists. The author understands their fears.
I am not speaking lightly of terror; during several years I have lived in the same anxiety, for persons near to me, which you feel for your son. The persons were my mother and her family; the danger which threatened them, as Jews in German-controlled territory, was death by poison gas or quicklime. My mother was the only one who escaped. Her sister, her sister’s daughter and two grandchildren were gassed. My mother’s brother managed to commit suicide. Every single Jewish terrorist in Palestine has a similar story. This is the first fact you have to let sink in; without this background you will understand nothing.
Today the situation is different. The majority of the Jewish population in Israel consists of refugees from Arab and Islamic countries and their descendants. There were more Jewish refugees than the Arab inhabitants of Palestine who escaped from the war theatre. But Koestler writes about Palestine in 1947 and earlier. He continues his letter to a father of a British soldier deployed in Palestine:
“But,” you will object, “after all we did let the Jews come to Palestine in spite of Arab opposition didn’t we? We could just as well have locked them out, and saved ourselves all this trouble…” You are again misinformed. Palestine never was a Colony or Protectorate of yours: your job and raison d’être in that country was to administer a Mandate on behalf of the League of Nations and that Mandate put you under the obligation “to facilitate Jewish immigration,” to help the “close settlement by Jews of the land” and finally the establishment of the “National Home.” The deal, concluded in 1917 and known as the Balfour Declaration, had been ratified by fifty-two nations and had become the legal basis, and the only basis, of your presence in Palestine.
The British are Europeans, and they have a very long and deep-rooted Christian contempt for Jews. The decision to accept the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine was taken during World War I, solely because of their search for additional support during hostilities in the Middle East. For many British politicians it was a wrong, even repugnant, decision from the point of view of their faith and deep-rooted racist prejudices. Koestler continues:
The third part of the story starts in 1939, with the White Paper which Mr. Morrison, in the name of the Labour Party, called “a cynical breach of faith, a breach of British honour,” and Mr. Churchill “a base betrayal, the filing of a petition in moral bankruptcy.” You have probably heard about this famous document which, leaving details aside, amounted to the barring of Palestine to the Jews (after a last batch of 75,000) for ever, and led to the prohibition of the buying and cultivating of land by Jews in 95 per cent of the country’s total area (Land Transfer Act of February 1940). Thus at the very moment when the extermination of the European Jews began, the doors of Palestine were slammed in their faces; while those already inside Palestine were condemned to live in one more cramped, Oriental ghetto. This policy was not only inhuman, it was apparently also illegal in the terms of International Law, and this point is essential for the understanding of all further developments in Palestine. For legally, as already mentioned, Britain’s presence in Palestine was based on the Mandate. The League’s Permanent Mandate Commission met on June 16th, 1939, and found unanimously that the new policy contradicted the terms of the British trusteeship. Now according to Article 27 of the Mandate “the consent for the Council of the League of Nations is required for any modification of the terms of this mandate.” The Council of the League was to meet in September, 1939, but meanwhile the war broke out and it never met.
Well, the infamous White Paper legalized a decades-long practice of restricting immigration of Jews and to turn a blind eye to the massive immigration of Arabs, as economic revival of Palestine, thanks to the Jews, became a magnet for thousands of Arabs from neighbouring countries. Now, however, to some extent in connection with the Nazi policy of exterminating Jews in Europe, the British decided to be more resolute. Koestler writes:
In March and April, 1939, three refugee ships – S.S. Assandu, Astir and Assimi, packed with Jews who had escaped, mainly from Germany, reached Palestine, and were refused permission to land. In the House of Commons Mr. Noel-Baker asked the then Colonial Secretary, Mr. Malcolm MacDonald, what would happen to these people. Mr. MacDonald said that they had been sent back from where they came. Mr. Noel-Baker: “Does that mean to concentration camps?” Mr. MacDonald: “The responsibility rests on those responsible for organising illegal immigration.” (Debate in the House of Commons, April 26th-27th, 1939.)
Do you recognise the tune? It is unchanged to this day. The responsibility rests with the “racketeers” who tried to save these condemned people, not with those who sent them back to their death. There was also much talk in 1937 about the insanitary conditions on these hell-ships. The gas chambers, the quicklime – and the dry rot of the D.P. camps to-day, were and are doubtless sanitary.;
But this was just a harbinger of British decisiveness:
More examples? On November 24th, 1940, the passengers of the steamer Patria, who had been refused admission to Palestine, blew their ship up in Haifa harbour. Over two hundred people were blown to bits or drowned a hundred yards from the promised shore. They were not even to have been deported back to Europe, which, owing to the war, was impossible; only to a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. But these people had become allergic to barbed wire. When a person reaches that state, like the survivors in the D.P. camps to-day, he is past listening to the reasonable voice which tells him that he should never have escaped, or saved his wife and children, without a permit in triplicate to do so.
One last example. The year is 1942; the crematoria in Europe had started to work, when another hell-ship, the 180-ton cattle-boat Struma, hailing from Constanza, floundered into the harbour of Istanbul. There were 769 escapees on board, several of whom had lost their reason. The Turks were prepared to let them land in transit, on condition that the British would permit their entry into Palestine. This the Palestine Government, after consultation with London, refused; so the Turks sent the boat back to Rumania. The rest of the story you can guess: the ship blew up within a few miles of the Turkish coast; one man survived; all other passengers, including 250 women and 70 children were drowned.
The Black Sea was the Jews’ main life-line of escape from the European crematorium. The Struma cut that life-line. Those who, against law and morality, refused to grant its passengers entry into Palestine, did not want them to be drowned. They were presumably even sorry and surprised. All they wanted was that they should be sent back to their “port of embarkation,” where they could wash their hands of them, and thus discourage others from trying to save their skins. In the parliamentary debate of April, 1939, from which I have quoted, the Colonial Secretary had said that the Government had the fullest sympathy with Jewish refugees, but if they allowed one shipload, more would follow. This has been the guiding principle of British policy in Palestine from 1939 to this day. It was a policy of deliberately obstructing by active and passive measures, by force and by diplomatic pressure, the escape of Jews from extermination by a mass exodus into Palestine
Some Brits called the White Paper of 1939 the Palestine Munich.Voices of condemnation came mainly from the Left, so after the Labour victory of 1945 there were expectations that the last relic of Chamberlain’s policy would be wiped out. No party was so deeply committed to supporting Jewish immigration into Palestine than the Labour Party, writes Koestler in August 1947. He quotes words by Nobel Prize Laureate, Philip Noel-Baker, who said that the adoption of the White Paper would mean telling “those kindly British soldiers to shoot them [Jewish refugees] down.” Hopes connected with the victory of the Labour Party turned out to be in vain. According to Koestler, “It is the story of yet another broken pledge; of the triumph of a Foreign Office clique and Ernest Bevin’s pigheadedness over Labour’s honour.” In the last part of his letter that he writes to a father of a British soldier in Palestine:
…if public opinion still has a say in your country, now is the time to stop disaster. For the Jews of Palestine fight for one thing only, for the oldest slogan in their history: Let My People Go. There were six million of them in Europe; only one of ten is left. Your countrymen are very fond of the word decency; if you have any left, let them go.
[…]Palestine is a test for your integrity; and in more than one sense your fate is linked with hers.
The time of the British exit from Palestine was approaching. The British government hastily trained and armed the Arab Legion and left practically all the arms of its military in Palestine to them. What’s more, it provided the Arab Legion with the British officer corps. The goal of this Legion (as of other Arab armies) was to finish the handiwork of the Nazis in Europe. The British knew this perfectly well.
Less than a year after the publication of this letter, five Arab armies invaded the one-day-old Israel. The Arab Legion was a Jordanian army and was commanded by a British officer. Armies of Egypt and Syria got a vast number of the arms in Western arsenals after the war ended, and they were trained by SS officers who found in these countries a friendly haven. Hit squads of Palestinian Arabs were commanded by a former collaborator with Hitler, Muhammad Amin al-Huseini. This Muslim cleric, responsible for many war crimes, was in the hands of the French, who refused to extradite him to Great Britain and quietly facilitated his “escape” from prison to Egypt. The final annihilation of the Jewish nation seemed inevitable. In London it didn’t cause anybody’s surprise nor any special dread.
In spite of all expectations, the Arab armies lost the war to poorly armed and trained groups of survivors from the Nazi extermination of Jews. 700,000 Palestinian Arabs found themselves outside Israel’s borders.
Twice again, combined Arab armies tried to finish Hitler’s handiwork, and their failure led the Arab world to change strategy to a constant battle in which Palestinians played the key role. For those who conducted the holy war with Jews the word “normalization” was for decades anathema.
Europe and America were not only looking indulgently on the Arab holy war. They financed terror organizations and condemned Israel for the crime of defending the lives of her inhabitants. Europeans today are eager to call Israelis “new Nazis”. Curiously, as polls show, the greatest number of people prepared to call Israelis new Nazis are in German society, followed by Spaniards and Poles. Pope Francis calls Mahmoud Abbas “The Angel of Peace” and eagerly hugs those Muslims who are the greatest enemies of normalization. Decades of the “peace process” were supposed to induce Israel to give up the defense of her borders. The changing of the paradigm means acknowledgement that Jews are not only an ancient and legitimate part of the Middle East but also are good neighbors, and friendship and cooperation with them can make a huge difference.
I don’t know who really came up with the name “Abraham Accords”. The Pope is as silent as the grave, but he is not alone in his silence, he is silent together with a huge choir of the deeply offended. I’m seeing the name “Abraham Accords” in the Arab press where the change of paradigm is welcomed with relief and the word “normalization” is no longer taboo. The Abraham Accords give rise to hope, and who knows what will come in its wake. Maybe it will be a real peace if only the silent choir of opponents is not successful in erecting a dam to it. It will be interesting to see what is lurking beyond this bend in history.
15 September 2020
Translation: Małgorzata Koraszewska and Sarah Lawson