Respectable British politics, writes historian Gardner Thompson, is full of people who “do not know or understand the turbulent history of Palestine and Britain’s leading role in it.” Yet they “speak and act as if they do.”
Despite much sound and fury, most of these types are ignorant of Israel’s founding ideology Zionism, the dispossession of the Palestinians and the crimes of the British Empire.
This, says Thompson, means the Labour Party has “struggled to distinguish anti?Zionism and antisemitism.” It’s also created a “lopsided” debate in favour of Israel, and leaves politicians “ill-equipped to pursue Arab?Israeli reconciliation now.”
He hopes his new book, Legacy of Empire—Britain, Zionism and the Creation of Israel, can help to correct that.
In an easy to read, accessible way, Thompson describes the complicated beginnings of the Zionist movement.
Zionism was full of contradictions and arguments. The thing that united them was Jewish experience of antisemitic oppression in eastern Europe.
They all concluded that Jewish people could never—or should never—be accepted in non-Jewish society, and should seek to become a nation of their own.
The Zionists wanted to redefine what it meant to be Jewish to mean Jewish nationality, and support for a Jewish state.
It’s an idea that Thompson says allowed antisemitic politicians in Europe to deny entry to Jewish refugees in their countries, instead encouraging settlement in Palestine.
He does a good job at showing how Zionism in practice led to the dispossession of Arabs. He explains how its enforcement laid the basis for division between Arabs and Jews in Palestine—and for Arab resistance.
He shows again and again how this wasn’t based on any natural antisemitism among Arabs, but hostility to an attempt to dispossess and displace them.
And, in a later chapter, he goes through how the partition of Palestine—the first “two-state solution”—is at the root of the decades of conflict that followed.
Thompson’s book does have a flaw though. He says the argument that controlling Palestine protected the interests of the British Empire is wrong.
He agrees that imperial considerations played a part. As did the idea among British politicians that the support of “world Jewry” could help win the First World War—a belief Thompson rightly labels antisemitic.
But these were only of “secondary importance,” he says.
Instead, Britain only really swung round to backing for Zionism when David Lloyd George “an enthusiastic Zionist” became prime minister in 1916.
Thompson says that Lloyd George’s religious support for Zionism, and the persuasiveness of Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, were decisive factors.
His claim seems to be that British politicians’ support for Zionism convinced them that Palestine was more useful to them than it actually was.
This argument can encourage the wrong-headed idea that support for Israel has something to do with Israeli or Zionist lobbying and influence on British politics.
But it fits in with Thompson’s idea that British politicians’ support for Israel rests on their ignorance of the history, rather than Britain’s interest in the Middle East.
There’s not much hope in finding a solution in Palestine through attempting to educate politicians in a history they don’t care about.
But if we know that history, we can arm ourselves with the knowledge to build an effective solidarity movement, and refute accusations that anti-Zionism is antisemitic.
Thompson’s book has some useful information in to help with that. And in the climate, any book that so clearly argues the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is very welcome.