"I arrived at 3.30. By 3.45 we were all sitting down. In addition to the intended signatories, there were visitors, journalists and the Tel Aviv Philharmonic orchestra...then without any hesitation, Ben-Gurion stood up at four o’clock on the dot. We were all shaking . Without any introduction...he read the Declaration of Independence. He asked the members of the Council of the Provisional Government to come forth and sign it. No discussion, no dissent. One by one they stood up. Hatikvah. People got up and we were out of the museum at ten to five. For me, it was the greatest moment of my life”.
So spoke the late Arieh Handler, one of the few British Jews present to witness the re-establishment of a Hebrew republic in the land of Israel on May 14 1948. It was a Friday afternoon and Handler went to synagogue that evening to the sound of Egyptian bombers dropping their payload on Tel Aviv.
For most British Jews that day divided Jewish history in two: before and after. Many, regardless of their degree of observance, went to synagogue on May 15. The Chief Rabbi’s Office had requested several readings following the prayer for King George and the royal family.
Yet not all Jews welcomed the coming of the state. This had been apparent since the passing of UN Resolution 181 which called for partition into two states on November 29 1947.
The anti- and non-Zionists had been led by the Jewish Fellowship. It counted amongst its members the president of the United Synagogue, Sir Robert Waley Cohen, the Liberal Synagogue’s Rabbi Israel Mattuck, the Lords Bearsted and Swaythling and an array of Jewish Conservative MPs.
Lt. Col. Louis Gluckstein, the former Conservative MP for Nottingham East, believed that the UN Resolution had been a grave error and voted against the Board of Deputies’ resolution which welcomed it. Leonard Stein, president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, argued that “the allegiance and loyalty of British Jews was and would remain an undivided allegiance and loyalty to Britain — allegiance and loyalty not merely in name and in law, but in feeling, thought and deed.”
Some non-Jewish parliamentarians resorted to time-honoured stereotypes. The Conservative MP Major Harry Legge-Bourke said that Jewry was only interested in Palestine because of the economic resources of the Dead Sea and that the inspiration of political Zionism was similar to that of Bolshevism.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the “Keep Left” group within the Labour Party passionately espoused the Zionist cause. The day after the UN vote, its leading light Richard Crossman spoke, with Labour MPs Sidney Silverman and Barnett Janner, at the Kingsway Hall in London. Thousands attended and the meeting concluded with the blowing of the shofar.
The Orthodox Rabbi Eli Munk argued that halachah would guide the new state while Reform’s Rabbi Leo Baeck welcomed the Jewish renaissance in Palestine.
Even the longtime anti-Zionist Lubavitch Chasidim combined a service to commemorate the reprieve of the sixth Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, from a Stalinist firing squad, with a thanksgiving ceremony for the UN vote.
In parallel, British Communists, noting the Kremlin’s volte-face and its support for a Jewish state, now argued that the Jews in Palestine were fighting a British puppet state, Jordan, and reminded its members that its Arab Legion was staffed by British officers and financed by His Majesty’s Government.
Bill Rust, the editor of the Daily Worker (Morning Star), told an audience at Stoke Newington Town Hall that the conflict between Zionist Jews and Arab nationalists was a war instigated by British capitalism.
There were reservations within British Jewry about the merits of partition. The supporters of Menachem Begin’s Irgun vehemently opposed the idea of a second partition of Palestine. Ivan Greenberg, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle for a decade, had been sacked in 1946 for his pro-Irgun views. He commented that the UN resolution was tantamount to “ripping from them four-fifths of their birthright under a show of legality”.
Many religious Zionists, however, welcomed partition. Arieh Handler’s pioneering Hapoel Hamizrahi supported it while Yehezkel Abramsky, the senior dayan of the London Beth Din, commented that Jews had lost faith in the “civilised world”. Therefore, they had to accept that part of Palestine to which they could return. Jews, he remarked, needed two things at this moment in time – self-restraint and unity. His son, Chimen Abramsky, later a famed historian of the Jews, but then a central figure in the Jewish Committee of the Communist Party, was arguing a similar approach, albeit it from a Marxist standpoint.
In the spring of 1945, a Charing Cross cinema first began to show film of British soldiers in liberated concentration camps, using bulldozers to bury the skeletal dead. Long lines of people waited in silence outside, the queues winding round several blocks.Although the soldiers placed handkerchiefs over their mouths and nostrils, the stench of the victims was palpable for the cinema audience. For the Jews of Britain, these scenes were beyond imagination. It dawned upon British Jews that it had only been 20 miles of clear blue water that had saved them from the fate of their European brothers and sisters.
In his book, British Jewry, Zionism and the Jewish State 1936-1956, Stephan Wendehorst demonstrates how both acculturated British Jews and assimilated Jewish Britons were radicalised by home-grown antisemitism and the possibility of a Nazi invasion in 1940.
In the immediate aftermath of the revelations of the Holocaust, a majority of British Jews understood that they had to take matters into their own hands. The war was over and there was a profound difference of opinion between British Jews and Attlee’s Labour government over the future of Palestine.
Moreover, for all Churchill’s heroic leadership and his philosemitic rhetoric, it had been his government which had not abrogated the 1939 White Paper which effectively blocked escaping European Jews from reaching Palestine. Wendehorst points out that in October 1940, the British cabinet approved a plan for the formation of a 10,000-strong Jewish Legion, including 3,000 to be recruited from Palestine. Hebrew would be the language of instruction and the star of David would be emblazoned on the Union Jack. By August 1941, the government withdrew its offer when it realised that it would not suit British interests in the Arab world.
After 1945 the abandonment of the Jews persuaded many to transcend their reticence. Following the arrests of Jewish Agency leadership in Palestine in July 1946, 8,000 Jews marched from the East End, led by war hero, Tommy Gould VC, to Trafalgar Square. They sang God save the King and Hatikvah, in public. The Jewish Representative Council in Glasgow accused the Attlee government of “a policy of procrastination and vacillation”.
More and more synagogues affiliated to the Zionist Federation. When the refugee ship, the Exodus, was turned back from Palestine and eventually forced to return to Germany – its passengers interned in camps – the hitherto reserved United Synagogue declared a Palestine Sabbath in June 1947.
British society, however, did not understand that its Jewish citizens had changed. Moreover the Irgun’s military actions in Palestine – opposed by a majority of British Jews – brought the community into the crossfire. An editorial in the Sunday Times in January 1947 implied that British Jews had failed to condemn “the Palestinian outrages” and that they were not performing their civic duty and moral obligation.
London’s Dollis Hill Synagogue was firebombed. When the Irgun hanged the two British sergeants, there were days of attacks on synagogues and pillaging of Jewish-owned shops in the north of England and Scotland.
Many Zionist fighters had been interned in Camp Gilgil in British Kenya. After May 1948, the men informed the camp’s commander that they now considered themselves to be free citizens of Israel and that the colonial government had no right to hold them. They removed all the grilles and locks and demanded that their doors should not be locked at night. Most of their demands were acceded to. The flag of Israel was raised in the centre of the camp. Thus the declaration of the state of Israel irrevocably changed the relationship and indeed the nature of the debate between Jew and non-Jew.