Gardner Thompson’s book, Legacy of Empire: Britain, Zionism and the Creation of Israel (Saqi Books, 2019) opens with a brief observation that contradicts all mainstream propaganda which spouts the pro-Israel Zionist narrative. “This is not a story of the inevitable,” he writes.
The book presents a meticulous account of the early years of political Zionism and subsequent British alignment and endorsement of the colonial project in Palestine. Earlier British colonial ventures failed to provide a deterrent for what would ultimately constitute, “a problem in Palestine that before too long grew to be beyond their [Britain’s] capacity to solve.”
Tracing the early promotion of Zionism, Thompson shows how dissociated from nineteenth century Judaism that the political movement actually was, as well as the diverse interests and aims of European Jews, many of whom had assimilated in their home countries and had no intention of becoming part of a settler-colonial project. The Jews living in Palestine, meanwhile, were also opposed to the creation of the settler-colonial state as well as the ideology behind it.
Alongside Zionist leaders such as Theodor Herzl, concerns about the ramifications of implementing the Zionist project were raised. The author quotes Yitzhak Epstein asking, “Will those who are disposed [the people of Palestine] remain silent and accept what is being done to them?”
Yet this question was raised and silenced several times throughout the early years of Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine. Acknowledgement by Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann regarding Palestinian resistance to land purchase and growing settlements – “They consider Palestine their own” – only served to consolidate the plans for the forced transfer of the Palestinian population, which was one of Herzl’s proposals.
In the British, the Zionists found willing accomplices. By the end of 1917 Britain was affirming its support of Zionism through the Balfour Declaration, even before its troops marched into Jerusalem in the latter stages of the First World War. Prime Minister Lloyd George requested that the Declaration should be included in the British Mandate for Palestine at the League of Nations. Diplomacy, however, was just one strand of the Zionist project. The author shows how Weizmann combined Zionist aspirations and British interests, the latter also influenced by its strategic concerns about the Suez Canal.
As a result, while Britain upheld its administrative duties as the Mandate holder, Zionists focused on migration and settlement expansion in Palestine. Despite the collusion, British discord, or concern, was occasionally raised in succinct terms, such as Edwin Montagu stating, “I would be almost tempted to proscribe the Zionist organisation as illegal and against the national interest.” Montagu was the only Jewish member of the British Cabinet when the Balfour Declaration was issued; he clearly wasn’t in favour.
Throughout the book, Thompson points out the inconsistencies within the Zionist project and British involvement through the Balfour Declaration which makes no mention of Palestinians — they are described as the “existing non-Jewish communities” — and their political rights. Thompson quotes Joseph Jeffries, who described Balfour as “the most discreditable document to which a British Government has set its hand within memory.”
It is within the context of increasing ambiguities that spelled the alleged absence of Palestinians that Zionism was able to promote and implement its ideology and project. Palestine would pass from imperialist hands into Zionist settler-colonialism, bolstered by the British refusal to acknowledge Palestinian resistance to the ideology that was intended to facilitate the theft of their land. The King-Crane Commission report (1922) clearly outlined Palestinian unanimous opposition to Zionism and recommended limited Jewish immigration, while warning against colonisation. Yet no effort to revise the Balfour Declaration was made, despite the report stating that, “Zionists looked forward to a complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine.”
The British, Thompson argues, had no interest in Zionism as an ideology but required resources to make “newly acquired Palestine pay”. In the process, however, Britain had committed itself to a permanent alteration of Palestine and provided little space for Palestinians to articulate their demands and be heard. This marginalisation bolstered Zionist plans and demands, as Zeev Jabotinsky, quoted by Thompson, stated: “There can be no voluntary agreement between ourselves and the Palestinian Arabs.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the ideological heir of Jabotinsky.
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Palestinian resistance, therefore, had to contend with Britain and Zionism. In 1929, following Palestinian revolts, British analysis blamed the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate yet no attempt was made to amend either. The author summarises the situation thus: “In short, His Majesty’s Government will continue to support the Zionist colonisation of Palestine, and urges the ‘non-Jewish communities’ to acquiesce to being colonised.”
From 1933-1936, further land depletion due to colonisation triggered the Arab Revolts. Thompson notes that the first disappearances of Palestinian villages happened during that period, along with the displacement of 20,000 Palestinian families. The British quelled the uprisings, using tactics which included what would later become Israel’s mainstream punishment: the destruction of Palestinian property and forcing the owners to demolish their own homes.
Thompson also expounds on how the Second World War marginalised Palestine in terms of prominence on the international agenda. However, Zionist paramilitaries had embarked on specific missions: the Haganah was facilitating Jewish immigration, while the Irgun and Stern Gang terrorist groups carried out massacres and assassinations.
In the aftermath of the war and the Nazi Holocaust, the refusal of Western states, particularly America, to absorb Jewish refugees only strengthened Zionist colonisation in Palestine and brought an early end to the British Mandate, after which the issue was referred to the nascent United Nations, which more or less ensured the colonial project’s victory. Jewish immigration increased, while Israel implemented Plan Dalet, which was the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and displacement of 700,000 Palestinians between 1947 and 1949. Many Palestinians lost their lives as well as their land in the process.
There is much that readers not so well acquainted with the history of Palestine and Britain’s role in the creation of the state of Israel can glean from Gardner Thompson’s book. His discussion about colonialism towards the end of the text describes the process as the outcome of Zionism, showing the systematic planning – from land purchase to conquest and expansion – in line with David Ben Gurion’s definition of the ideology as meaning land loss for the Palestinians. The people of Palestine, meanwhile, have since been coerced into silence and suffering an imposition which, as the author rightly states, has been manipulated to achieve virtually worldwide acceptance.