Britain's Legacy in Palestine (Part 1 of 2)
Fri 27th Dec 2013
Palestinians have lived in Palestine since time immemorial. Semites, identified in the Old Testament as the children of Abraham, lived in Palestine. These children were a mixture of many peoples: Abraham's children from Sarah, his children from Hagar, immigrants choosing to settle in Palestine, invaders through history whose eventual withdrawal still left a remnant of their brief and, at times, not so brief, presence and many other incoming groups. Archaeological digs in Israel and Palestine testify to this mix.
Added to this, there is also the permeating residue of religious beliefs. Judaism and Christianity were born in Palestine. Islam joined them some fourteen hundred years ago. The three faiths lived there almost ceaselessly with the usual demographic changes caused by migrations, invasions, internecine wars and natural disasters.
By 1517 the Levant was under Turkish rule and by 1534 so was the rest of the Arab World. Palestine became a province of the Ottoman Empire. The downfall of the Ottoman Empire after the defeat of Turkey in 1918 handed Palestine over to the British Mandate. That was the beginning of Britain's involvement in Palestine lasting from the arrival of General Allenby in Jerusalem in 1917 until the British withdrew in 1947 allowing for the creation of Israel in 1948.
The purpose of this chapter is to examine Britain's legacy in Palestine. It is to ask the simple question, 'What has Britain done to and for Palestine?'
There is a need to start off by analysing the psychology and political motivation behind Britain's attitude to, and behaviours in, Palestine.
Britain’s historical attitudes to Palestine are predicated on several underlying principles that cause the particular behaviours that we still see today in the British Government's reaction to Palestinian issues.
(1) The British Empire was primarily motivated by profit and acquisition. Britain's control of other nations came from its perceived economic needs. Over time, and in order to justify what was becoming uncomfortably contrary to civilised Christian behaviour, Britain began to find justifications for oppressing other peoples and purloining their resources. The most glaring example of this, of course, was probably the Slave Trade which was justified by quoting Ham's Curse cast by his father Noah (Genesis, 9:25). Furthermore, British intellectuals created a huge number of arguments that could be used to keep control of the subject peoples under the Empire's rule. Such ideas included the aim of civilising the savage (what the French quaintly called "la mission civilatrice"), converting the heathen to Christianity, teaching subject races British values, educating the illiterate and so many other such altruistic objectives. A quick survey of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century novels would produce a huge number of examples of such constructs that, in today's post-colonial world, would appear to be pure unadulterated racism.
There are an endless number of Biblical narratives that motivated British behaviour in Palestine: Abraham’s promise to his descendants, the so-called Chosen People, Ham’s Curse affecting his people, the Canaanites, the fact that Israel’s Jews descend from Abraham and Sarah whilst the Palestinian Arabs descend from Abraham’s bondswoman, Hagar – if equal opportunity legislation were enacted in Biblical times, there would have been a clear case of an injustice done by God to Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general.
Indeed, the British Christian response to Israel is so unconscious that it was possible for Churchill to consider himself a Zionist without specifically being able to pinpoint where such a development came from: “I am a Zionist, let me make that clear. I was one of the original ones after The Balfour Declaration and I have worked faithfully for it” (Churchill speaking at the Washington Press Club, 1954). He also said, rather significantly in defence of Jewish right to settle in Palestine, “I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time . I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia . I do not think the Red Indians had any right to say, ‘The American Continent belongs to us and we are not going to have any of these European settlers coming in here’. They had not the right, nor had they the power” (Churchill giving evidence before the Palestine Royal Commission known as The Peel Commission, 1937). Churchill put such a rationale within an argument of the supremacy of the white races over the indigenous ones, “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place” (Ibid). Yet Churchill did go on to warn that the creation of Israel would lead to decades of confrontation in the Middle East – clearly accepting that an injustice had been done to the Palestinians: “The position of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs [Palestinians] driven from their homes and existing precariously in the no-man’s-land created round Israel’s frontiers is cruel and dangerous” (Churchill, 1957).Of course, such contradictory utterances by Churchill must be put side by side with his bizarre reasoning for supporting the creation of the State of Israel. In his article in The Illustrated Sunday Herald , February 8, 1920 ' Zionism versus Bolshevism: A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People', Churchill places the responsibility for Bolshevism on the shoulders of Russian Jews:
Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world. And it may well be that this same astounding race may at the present time be in the actual process of producing another system of morals and philosophy, as malevolent as Christianity was benevolent, which, if not arrested would shatter irretrievably all that Christianity has rendered possible. It would almost seem as if the gospel of Christ and the gospel of Antichrist were destined to originate among the same people; and that this mystic and mysterious race had been chosen for the supreme manifestations, both of the divine and the diabolical.
In order to resolve what Churchill perceived as the destabilising influence of the Jews, he ends his outrageous article by suggesting that a Jewish State would resolve this difficult conundrum of a great people causing such damage in Russia – giving credence to the argument that Western support for Israel emanated more from wishing to be rid of their Jewish communities than it did from any sense of decency, humanity or empathy for a long suffering people:
Zionism offers the third sphere to the political conceptions of the Jewish race. In violent contrast to international communism, Zionism has already become a factor in the political convulsions of Russia, as a powerful competing influence in Bolshevik circles with the international communistic system. Nothing could be more significant than the fury with which Trotsky has attacked the Zionists generally, and Dr. Weissmann in particular. The cruel penetration of his mind leaves him in no doubt that his schemes of a world-wide communistic State under Jewish domination are directly thwarted and hindered by this new ideal, which directs the energies and the hopes of Jews in every land towards a simpler, a truer, and a far more attainable goal. The struggle which is now beginning between the Zionist and Bolshevik Jews is little less than a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people.
(2) The British Empire's racist supremacy was not entirely predicated on intellectual ideas derived from philosophy, theology, literature and other cultural arenas.British racism was also heavily reliant on science as well as pseudo-science. Darwin partly helped to justify the suppression of one people by another. His theories were taken further with a great deal of the abuse of scientific research trying to justify the white man's control over lesser coloured races. Examples of such abuse included measuring black, brown, yellow and white features, head size, phrenological manifestations, height and other physical features in order to prove and maintain white supremacy. This was not by any means confined to pre Twentieth Century Britain as can be seen from recent work by scientists such as Eysenck attempting to prove the difference in intelligence between racial groups. Again, such scientific findings may have been largely discredited in today's world, but the influence of their so called scientific proof of white superiority over others can still be clearly seen today. One only need look at the overwhelming shock and horror at the murder of thousands of New Yorkers on the eleventh of September 2001 as opposed to the virtual non-newsworthiness of hundreds of thousands of black Rwandans being murdered or the historical marginalisation of the one million Armenians massacred by the Ottoman forces. There is still a strong echo of racial superiority as expressed in the value of life according to race.
(3) Britain is largely a sectarian society despite its claim that it is a Christian country.However, almost every aspect of British life is steeped in Christian morality and values. In fact, this is so much the case, that the overwhelming majority of British citizens, regardless of the faith that they profess or of their right to profess none, live according to Christian traditions, habits and values. There are several examples of the influence of Christianity that manifests itself in Christian living even if its outcome or consequences do not appear particularly Christian. Even the insatiable greed and gluttony shown by almost everyone over Christmas is allegedly in order to celebrate the birth of Christ. On the rising of the Crucified Christ, British children are encouraged to swallow more chocolate eggs than could conceivably be any good for them. There are endless Christian burials for people who had probably not even regarded themselves as Christians during their lives. Babies visit their local church to be baptised and thereafter do not visit a church until they get married or require a funeral. Millions of children daily stand slouching in school assemblies to repeat the Lord's Prayer without giving its meaning a second thought. Although a Christian society, the drinking of alcohol, smoking of cigarettes, taking of drugs and other such harmful habits are rife despite the Christian necessity of treating one's body with respect as “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians, 6:19-20). In other words, as often happens in societies, the British think like Christians although many may act precisely in a way that is the exact opposite of Christianity.
Consequently, the overwhelming majority of British people almost unconsciously sympathise with Israeli aspirations as descendants of Abraham and Sarah whose seed were promised Palestine and beyond as the Chosen People. Intuitively, they are antagonistic towards the Palestinians as the descendants of Abraham’s bondswoman Hagar who gave birth to Abraham’s son Ishmael who, in turn, was promised the leadership of a great nation. The enemies of Israel were the Canaanites who, as stated above, were Ham’s people sharing his father’s curse. The very language of so many Biblical narratives favours Israel against the Palestinians regardless of the realities of history. Good equals: Abraham, Sarah, Noah, God’s Chosen People. Bad equals: Philistines, Ham’s Curse, the inferiority of the Canaanites, Hagar the bondswoman and her son Ishmael. It is no wonder that Zionist Christian Evangelists are so obsessed with Israel upon whose establishment is predicated Christ’s Second Coming. To a huge number of Palestinians and Arabs, the Bible stories are to blame for their woes – many of which are, of course, self-inflicted because of originally Western imposed dictatorships, greed, hunger for power, servitude to manufactured political ideals and unquestioning obedience to traditions and to religious leaders running contrary to the essence of Islam as being a direct relationship between the believer and his Allah without any intermediaries or icons or superfluous representations.
(4) The English curriculum was originally based on the Prussian militaristic model aimed at creating the military men of the future. The background underscoring moral and spiritual development has been strongly influenced by Christian precepts. The result is a process of enculturation that derives a great deal from Biblical stories and from the example of Jesus Christ and His Disciples. Consequently, the ordinary Briton carries emotional constructs that favour one narrative over another. Almost imperceptibly, the Ancient Egyptians were evil and Moses and his people were the essentially decent victims of persecution. The Philistines were immoral whilst the Israelites were God's Chosen People. These national mind-sets apply to every nation in the world. At its most indecent, it evinced itself in Nazi supremacist beliefs and practices culminating in the systematic extermination of whole groups of peoples based on their faith, sexual orientation, mental altitudes, racial origins and other such pre-determined qualities.
(5) Historically, deve lo ping economic imperatives dictated the behaviour of the British Government. For example, Britain largely ignored the Malvinas Islands (Falklands Islands) for years (they were barely heard of in Britain prior to the 1982 Argentinian invasion and subsequent war culminating in the British regaining the Islands under British suzerainty). The discovery of oil in areas around the islands suddenly made them of great nationalistic importance to both Argentina and Britain. There are numerous similar example from all over the world, the most glaring of which is the oil wealth in the Arab World, diamonds in Congo, gas off Lebanon, Israel and Gaza... to name but a few. Britain was largely motivated by such economic gains in expanding its Empire and, now that the Empire is no more, in expanding its economic hegemony through the Commonwealth and other modes of influences.
(6) Finally, as in the case of most Western cultures, Britain exhibits most, if not all, of the attributes of Orientalism as defined by Edward Saïd in his seminal work of the same name. Saïd's definition is encapsulated in the following quotation from Orientalism:
Unlike the Americans, the French and British have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western Experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles. . . .