When history is in a sorry state

On June 25, Dr James Renton, a history lecturer, delivered a lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies on the subject of the Balfour Declaration. Hosted by Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Renton addressed the question "Should Britain apologise for the Balfour Declaration?" He clearly believes the answer is in the affirmative.

In 2007, Dr Renton published The Zionist Masquerade, a revised version of his doctoral dissertation. I have read neither the dissertation nor the subsequent monograph (other than excerpts online). But I have read an article by Renton in Ha'aretz published in April, which I assume is the distilled essence of the thesis.

Renton's argument is that the motives that led the government to promulgate the Declaration in 1917 were informed primarily by a particular view of Jews and Jewish power. The leading gentile Zionists, he argues, had a generally negative view of Jews, but feared Jewish influence in the world: it was in order to appease this influence that the Declaration was authorised. But those who sanctioned it certainly did not envisage that it would become the founding document of an independent Jewish state.

What has always fascinated me about history - what in a sense drew me to the subject - is precisely this: that the consequences of human actions are rarely those that were intended. Bearing this in mind, I have to say that there are aspects of Dr Renton's argument that I do find appealing.

Thirty years ago, I demonstrated (in The Jewish Community in British Politics) that the staunchest political allies of the early British Zionists were to be found among the Jew-hating classes. Of course, British foreign policy during the war was muddle-headed and contradictory. The phrase "national home" was deliberately vague. Cabinet was not in the game of making precise commitments, but rather of articulating sweeping pronouncements.

The government, engaged in a bloody war to which there seemed no end, looked only to the immediate future: it dared not look further. But there is in this absolutely nothing to apologise for.

I am aware that to say this is especially unfashionable when ex-colonial powers are being pursued by all manner of persons - not to mention states - that claim they have been victims of past imperial wrongs.

These campaigns strike me as notoriously one-sided. In India last February, David Cameron wisely stopped short of a formal apology for the massacre of 379 Indians by the British army at Amritsar in 1919. "I don't think," he explained, "the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for." He might have added that no apology has ever been forthcoming for the beating to death of three British bank employees, which preceded and was indirectly the trigger for the massacre. Or for the death by suffocation of scores of British personnel (the exact number will never be known) in the over-cramped dungeon known as the "Black Hole of Calcutta," in 1756. (Does it matter that this took place in the 18th century rather than the 20th?)

Last month, Foreign Secretary William Hague officially expressed "regret" for the torture and murder of native Kenyans in the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Has the Kenyan government ever expressed regret (let alone apologised) for the murder, by Mau Mau terrorists, of Kenyans both black and white? For the hacking to death of six-year-old Michael Ruck, together with his parents? On the contrary, Mau Mau veterans are now, officially, Kenyan national heroes.

You may say, these observations all ignore the vital element of context. I agree. For a government in the 21st century to "apologise" for actions taken 60 or 90 years ago is to pluck them out of their historical milieux. This is not something I would advise any historian to attempt.

When Brigadier Reginald Dyer, who ordered the mass shootings at Amritsar, returned to England he was presented with the sum of £26,000, collected by public subscription. No amount of apologising or regretting can ignore that fact.

If we wish to be especially controversial we might point out that it was precisely because of its imprecision that the Balfour Declaration paved the way for Jewish statehood. And that this is nothing to be ashamed of.

    Last updated: 11:45am, July 8 2013