I have just written the obituary of Binyamin Zironi for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. He was a former member of the vehemently anti-British Zionist underground movement, Irgun, and his death evoked for many in Israel the worst days of the British Mandate. Back then, Zironi had a price of £200 on his head and was captured — and tortured — by a CID officer, who, in turn, was killed by Zironi’s comrades.
But this is a relatively rare blemish. In general, the history of relations between Britain and the Jewish inhabitants of the region makes for happier reading.
At Bevis Marks Synagogue in London last week, the Jerusalem Foundation UK launched a campaign celebrating 150 years of British commitment to Jerusalem, non-Jewish as well as Jewish. The goals of the campaign are to support the projects of the Foundation, especially in disadvantaged neighbourhoods; foster ties between the UK and Jerusalem; increase British support for Israel, particularly Jerusalem; and to build the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Open Museum, dedicated to the life and work of Sir Moses Montefiore.
It was Sir Moses who, in 1860, built Mishkenot Sha’ananim (peaceful dwellings) — the first Jewish neighbourhood outside the walls of the Old City, thereby establishing himself as the father of modern Jerusalem. Montefiore replaced the old idea of Haluka (the collection of diaspora money for dissemination among the poor of the Holy Land) with a wider kind of philanthropy, enabling Jerusalemites to help themselves.
Every morning on my way to work, I pass the windmill Sir Moses built for the first residents of Mishkenot Sha’ananim for them to produce their own flour rather than remain dependent on others. Today, it is a favourite Jerusalem landmark, where couples come to be photographed on their wedding day. At the same time, it serves as a constant reminder for the residents of Jerusalem — now the poorest city in Israel — to respond to the challenge Sir Moses gave them.
Since the time of Sir Moses Montefiore, British involvement in Israel and Palestine has taken many forms. Some non-Jewish individuals, such as Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen and Orde Wingate, were motivated by their religious beliefs to help the Jews. But of course the greatest British contribution to the Jewish national resurrection was the Balfour Declaration, which established the political right of the Jews to a homeland, after two millennia of exile.
The British authorities, during the 30 years of the mandate, worked hand in hand with the Yishuv (the official institutions of the Jews, mainly the Jewish Agency) and helped the Jews in Palestine to stand on their own feet when they eventually had a state. Unlike the French, the British always invested in promoting local institutions and bureaucracies in lands where they held colonial sway. Few Israelis today realise how much they owe to the Britons who ruled here before — the cornerstones of the legal system, the civic administration and more.
Today, for all the annoying distractions like the vicious attempts at boycotting Israeli universities, and the threat to arrest the Israeli General, Doron Almog, should he land in the UK, the British contribution to the development of Israeli life continues, not with American-style fanfares, but in quieter, profound ways.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is now working tirelessly to alleviate the living conditions of the underprivileged Palestinians. Israelis and, indeed, Jews everywhere should support his efforts, because a happy Palestinian neighbour is a good neighbour.
Following Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s visit to the region and Israeli President Shimon Peres’s trip to London — where he was given an honorary knighthood by the Queen — there are some good British-Israeli vibes in the air. Let us all, in the Holy land and in Britain, do all we can to ensure this vital link is maintained.