How Britain helped forge Israel

British Jews and the Dream of Zion
Radio 4, Monday April 28

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of Israel, here was a programme which told the story of the involvement of British Jews, and indeed non-Jews, in the foundation of the Jewish state.

Don’t get the idea that the British side of the story was somehow a sideshow. Jews in Britain may have been low in numbers compared to the great populations in Eastern Europe and the growing community in America. But Britain, as the dominant world power, played a huge part in the story, according to this well-researched and fascinating documentary presented by Jonathan Freedland and with intriguing detail supplied by the likes of academics Colin Schindler and Geoffrey Alderman.

Indeed, the leading characters were on British soil from the late 19th century onwards. There was Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who came to London to lobby the British government for their help in setting up a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Uganda, Tasmania, Alaska or just about anywhere, really. It is hard to imagine a political figure with an obscure idealistic notion generating the near hysteria that Herzl did in 1898 when he spoke in the East End. Thousands gathered to hear him and thousands more spilled on to the streets. All to hear about a dream of national self-determination which seemed about as likely as, well, as a kibbutz in Kampala.

London continued to be the fulcrum of activity, particularly when, in the First World War, Palestine suddenly became the front line of the conflict.

A new activist, a young chemist called Chaim Weizmann who was doing great work with acetone at Manchester University, led the campaign for the new movement of Zionism to receive government backing. This duly came with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, announced this country “viewed with interest” the foundation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Weizmann was sitting outside the cabinet room when he was told about the announcement. “It’s a boy,” said Conservative politician Sir Mark Sykes.

Weizmann, not a religious man, was later spotted performing a Chassidic dance with his colleagues.

JC columnist Alderman revealed a slightly surprising fact about Balfour — commonly thought of as one of the architects of the Jewish state. He was borderline antisemitic, claimed Alderman. He recalled a Balfour speech in which he said: “We do not want a people apart.” It was, he said, a line worthy of Enoch Powell.

Not everyone was excited about the new movement. The top-hatted Jews of the West End were threatened by the implication of split loyalties, while the firebrand socialists were against Zionism for political reasons and the Chassidim railed against Herzl as a false messiah.

Following the Second World War, the issue surfaced again — this time because of the Holocaust.

Freedland interviewed an unlikely kitbbutznik called Tony Benn who happened to be rowing on the Sea of Galilee when the announcement of independence was made. As a socialist, he was a supporter of the idea of a homeland for a dispossessed people. It was, he said, “a moment of great hope”. Although that hope was later betrayed by the way the state had developed. He was not on his own. Britons queued up to help the new Jewish state, and many of them were not Jewish.

Israel is now of course a strong, independent and well-established state which no longer relies on the efforts of friendly volunteers for its survival. Just as well, really.

    Last updated: 1:28pm, June 2 2008