British anti-Semitism? What Else Is New

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Protests against anti-Semitism outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on August 31, 2014.
Protests against anti-Semitism outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on August 31, 2014.Credit: AFP

They say there’s anti-Semitism in Britain. The British Labour Party is infested with anti-Semites, scream the headlines. So what else is new?

We don’t have to go back to King Edward I, who expelled the Jews from England more than 200 years before Ferdinand and Isabella expelled them from Spain, to realize that anti-Semitism has been around in Britain for a long time. More recent times serve as a reminder of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, but not only in the Labour Party. It’s also in government offices and among senior army officers in good times and bad. But it was worst in the worst of times, during Hitler’s time.

When a minister in Neville Chamberlain’s government, Malcolm MacDonald, issued the White Paper in May 1939 severely limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine, in effect pronouncing a death sentence on the Zionist dream, Chaim Weizmann told him: “You are handing over the Jews to their assassins.”

Chamberlain wrote to his sister: “No doubt the Jews aren’t a lovable people.” And thus fueled by anti-Semitism, and a misguided Imperial policy, hundreds of thousands of Europe’s Jews were left to be slaughtered during the war years.

The first shot to be fired by a British naval vessel during World War II was fired on September 2, 1939, at an immigrant ship the Tiger Hill bringing “illegal” refugees to Palestine. Two refugees on board, having escaped from Europe, were killed.

Throughout the war the British kept up their blockade of Palestine’s shores. In February 1942, while the massacre of Europe’s Jews was already in full swing, the unseaworthy ship the Struma, having left Romania, landed in Turkey unable to proceed. The British refused to grant those on board permits to enter Palestine. The Turks refused to let them land without such permits. The ship was towed into the Black Sea, were it sank; its 768 passengers perished, among them many children.

The British were obsessed by a fear that more refugees fleeing Hitler’s clutches might follow the Struma in attempts to reach Palestine. In December 1943 the Ministry of Economic Warfare wrote to the U.S. Embassy in London: “The Foreign Office are concerned with the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy occupied territory.”

A ship carrying Jews to pre-state Israel in 1948.Credit: GPO

British policy throughout the war prevented the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Jews and made Britain partly responsible for their fate. This has not been acknowledged by any British government to this day.

After the war there followed the inglorious chapter of British rule in Palestine until the withdrawal on May 15, 1948. There were attempts by the British navy to prevent Holocaust survivors from coming to Palestine, the military rule, the gallows in Acre and Jerusalem, the deportation of hundreds to Africa, and Gen. Evelyn Hugh Barker’s order to British troops to boycott Jewish establishments so as to punish the Jews “in a way the race dislikes by striking at their pockets.”

Britain did not support the UN partition resolution, Jordan’s British-officered and British-equipped Arab Legion participated in the Arab onslaught on Israel in May 1948, and Britain was among the last to grant Israel recognition.

True, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration that paved the way for international recognition of the Zionist enterprise, and during World War II it was led by Winston Churchill, a great champion of Zionism. So it’s ironic that it should have been responsible for actions that prevented the rescue of many who could have been saved, and threatened the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Anti-Semitism in Britain was at least partially responsible for the widening gap between the original promise and its nonfulfillment.

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