Shimon Peres, Israel's 87-year-old president doesn't usually arouse antagonism among Europeans.
A tireless peace advocate for decades, and architect of the Oslo Process for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize, he has long presented Israel's moderate face to the outside world.
Yet last week he provoked anger among British politicians and Anglo-Jewish leaders when he told a Jewish website that the British establishment had always been "deeply pro-Arab ... and anti-Israel," and that this was partly due to endemic anti-Semitic dispositions. "I can understand Mr. Peres' concerns, but I don't recognize what he is saying about England," said James Clappison, vice-chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel. "Things are certainly no worse, as far as Israel is concerned, in this country than other European countries. He got it wrong."
But did he? While few arguments have resonated more widely, or among a more diverse set of observers, than the claim that Britain has been the midwife of the Jewish state, the truth is that no sooner had Britain been appointed as the mandatory power in Palestine, with the explicit task of facilitating the establishment of a Jewish national home in the country in accordance with the Balfour Declaration, than it reneged on this obligation.
AS EARLY as March 1921, the British government severed the vast and sparsely populated territory east of the Jordan River ("Transjordan") from the prospective Jewish national home and made Abdullah, the emir of Mecca, its effective ruler. In 1922 and 1930, two British White Papers limited Jewish immigration to Palestine – the elixir of life of the prospective Jewish state – and imposed harsh restrictions on land sales to Jews.
Britain's betrayal of its international obligations to the Jewish national cause reached its peak on May 17, 1939, when a new White Paper imposed draconian restrictions on land sales to Jews and limited immigration to 75,000 over the next five years, after which Palestine would become an independent state in which the Jews would comprise no more than one-third of the total population.
Such were the anti-Zionist sentiments within the British establishment at the time that even a life-long admirer of Zionism like prime minister Winston Churchill rarely used his wartime dominance of British politics to help the Zionists (or indeed European Jewry). However appalled by the White Paper he failed to abolish this "low grade gasp of a defeatist hour" (to use his own words), refrained from confronting his generals and bureaucrats over the creation of a Jewish fighting force in Palestine, which he wholeheartedly supported, and gave British officialdom a free rein in the running of Middle Eastern affairs, which they readily exploited to promote the Arab case. In 1943, for instance, Freya Stark, the acclaimed author, orientalist, and Arabian adventurer, was sent to the US on a seven-month propaganda campaign aimed at undercutting the Zionist cause and defending Britain's White Paper policy.
That this could happen at the height of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry of which Whitehall was keenly aware offered a stark demonstration of the mindset of British officialdom, which was less interested in stopping genocide than in preventing its potential survivors from reaching Palestine after the war.
So much so that senior Foreign Office members portrayed Britain, not Europe's Jews, as the main victim of the Nazi atrocities.
THIS ANTI-ZIONISM was sustained into the postwar years as the Labor Party, which in July 1945 swept to power in a landslide electoral victory, swiftly abandoned its pre-election pro-Zionist platform to become a bitter enemy of the Jewish national cause. The White Paper restrictions were kept in place, and the Jews were advised by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin not "to get too much at the head of the queue" in seeking recourse to their problems.
Tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who chose to ignore the warning and to run the British naval blockade were herded into congested camps in Cyprus, where they were incarcerated for years.
"Should we accept the view that all the Jews or the bulk of them must leave Germany?" Bevin rhetorically asked the British ambassador to Washington.
"I do not accept that view. They have gone through, it is true, the most terrible massacre and persecution, but on the other hand they have got through it and a number have survived."
Prime Minister Clement Attlee went a step further by comparing Holocaust survivors wishing to leave Europe and to return to their ancestral homeland to Nazi troops invading the continent.
While these utterances resonated with the pervasive anti-Semitism within British officialdom (the last high commissioner for Palestine, General Sir Alan Cunningham, for instance, said of Zionism, "The forces of nationalism are accompanied by the psychology of the Jew, which it is important to recognize as something quite abnormal and unresponsive to rational treatment"), Britain's Middle Eastern policy also reflected the basic fact that as occupiers of vast territories endowed with natural resources (first and foremost oil) and sitting astride strategic waterways (e.g., the Suez Canal), the Arabs had always been far more meaningful for British interests than the Jews.
As the chief of the air staff told the British cabinet in 1947, "If one of the two communities had to be antagonized, it was preferable, from the purely military angle, that a solution should be found which did not involve the continuing hostility of the Arabs."
One needs look no further than David Cameron's statements on the Middle East to see this anti-Israel mindset is alive and kicking. In the summer of 2006, when thousands of Hizbullah missiles were battering Israel's cities and villages, he took the trouble of issuing a statement from the tropical island on which he was vacationing at the time condemning Israel's "disproportionate use of force."
Four years later, while on an official visit to Turkey, he went out of his way to placate his Islamist host, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by criticizing Israel's efforts to prevent the arming of the Hamas Islamist group, which, like its Lebanese counterpart, had been lobbing thousands of missiles on Israel's civilian population for years.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Efraim Karsh is professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College London, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and author, most recently, of Palestine Betrayed.