The leaders of the British Labour Party last week ordered their MPs to vote for a parliamentary motion calling on the British government to “recognize the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.” Most Conservative MPs were absent or abstained, and the meaningless [nonbinding] resolution passed. But the Labour Party took the opportunity to make clear yet again that it is no friend of Israel.
There was a time, many years ago in pre-state Israel, when the Zionist Labor party had high hopes that the British Labour Party, presumably its ideological sister party, would steer Britain on a pro-Zionist course once it came to power. Those were the days when the Tories ruled Britain and the Neville Chamberlain government adopted, over the opposition of Labour, the infamous MacDonald White Paper in 1939, which was meant to be a death sentence to Zionist aspirations in Palestine. “This low-grade gasp of a defeatist hour,” Winston Churchill called it. Chaim Weizmann told Malcolm MacDonald [the British colonial secretary who presided over its drafting], “You are handing over the Jews to their assassins.” It turned out to be literally true. Implementing this inhumane policy, the British Royal Navy blockaded the shores of Palestine throughout the war, firing at ships that carried refugees from Europe to Palestine.
The Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe on the MV Struma, which reached Istanbul in December 1941 from Romania, unable to continue its voyage, were denied entry permits to Palestine by London, out of fear that they might be followed by other ships from German-occupied Europe. In February 1942, they were towed out into the Black Sea, where almost 800 who had managed to escape from Europe perished [after a Soviet submarine torpedoed the boat; there was only one survivor]. Hundreds of thousands could have been saved. The White Paper policy condemned them to death.
When Labour came to postwar power in July 1945, after winning the parliamentary election by a landslide, a sigh of relief was heard in the Land of Israel. The Zionist Labor party’s friends and allies were surely going to reverse British policy toward the Zionist enterprise. What a disappointment it turned out to be!
The following three years were the worst in relations between Britain and the Zionist movement. The European-Jewish community in ashes, the survivors clamoring to be allowed to go to Palestine, the Labour government insisted on implementing the White Paper policy and blockading the shores of Palestine. During the war years, the rationale for that policy was that Britain needed the support of the Arab world (which it never got). Postwar, it was just spite with a dose of anti-Semitism espoused by Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. The refugees intercepted on their way to Palestine were sent to internment camps in Cyprus. The refugees on the SS Exodus were sent back to Hamburg. In Palestine, the gallows became the hallmark of British policy. Thousands were imprisoned in Acre, Latrun, Jerusalem and Bethlehem; hundreds were exiled to Africa; and the hangmen were kept busy.
But when, in the wake of the United Nations partition resolution, fighting between Jews and Arabs broke out, the Labour government made no bones about whose side it was on. British tanks tried to stall the advance of Irgun fighters into Jaffa. The British officered and supplied Jordanian Arab Legion took an active role in the combined Arab attempt to crush the newborn Jewish state, capturing Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem, including the Jewish Quarter. RAF pilots flying out of Egypt engaged the fledgling Israel Air Force over Israeli positions in Sinai. Bevin confided to Churchill that the Arabs were going to win. But British assistance to the Arab invasion was not sufficient to prevent an Israeli victory.
It was only eight months after Israel’s declaration of independence – following immediate recognition by the United States and the Soviet Union – that Britain deigned to recognize the State of Israel. But Britain’s Labour government did extend recognition to Jordan’s annexation of the territories the Jordanian army had occupied during its invasion. Only one other country extended similar recognition, and that was Pakistan.
The recent parliamentary initiative of Britain’s Labour Party is quite consistent with that party’s past record of hostility to Zionism and the Jewish state. There they go again.
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