Jewish Settlement Police during the 1936-39 Arab revolt

How Britain helped create Israel

Tony Greenstein and Thomas Suarez discussed ‘The Ottoman Empire, the 1917 Balfour Declaration and Zionism before 1948’. Kenneth Syme reports on the December 21 Why Marx? webinar

Tony Greenstein, author of Zionism during the Holocaust, began by briefly outlining the history of the Ottoman Empire in order to provide the context for the Balfour Declaration’s appearance in 1917 during World War I.

The Ottoman Empire conquered Syria (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) in 1516 and ruled vast swathes of Europe and the Middle East (including Palestine) until its collapse during (and in part as a consequence of) World War I in 1917. The crucial date for Palestine was 1858, which saw the introduction of the Land Code1 and began the move from collective ownership of land to individual registration (and confiscation) of land previously owned by communities - a pattern that would be later repeated by the Zionists after 1948. The Land Law also introduced western capitalist practices into the Ottoman Empire, and many Palestinians could not afford the rent required under the new legislation, with land often passing into the ownership of absentee landlords in Lebanon. European powers used religious interests - their favourite churches - to exert political leverage over the Ottoman Empire by buying up large tracts of land.

Emigration of Jews to Palestine significantly increased in 1882 after the Odessa pogroms - earlier Jewish settlements in 1878 had not been economically viable and were ‘rescued’ by Baron Rothschild. The difference between these settlements and the later Zionist settlements of 1904 was that while the first settlers and administrators did not want to work on the land themselves, but were content to employ Palestinians as cheap labour, the second wave evicted the Palestinians and worked the land themselves.

Consequently, explained comrade Greenstein, a number of settlers were assassinated and this in turn led to the formation of a number of Jewish Zionist militias, including Haganah, which in 1920 became the main Zionist terror army, heavily influenced by the Histadrut (General Federation of Labour) and continued to be active until 1948. The role of the left, or labour, under Zionism was quite specific: after some debate a faction led by Ben Gurion successfully argued that socialism only applied to those currently employed at the time (Jews) and therefore did not include Palestinians - an early example of Zionist apartheid.


Occasionally, the Ottoman Empire would put restrictions on the activities of Zionist circles, but these were not always enforced, often because of representations from European powers using the leverage they had established over the Ottoman Empire.

In the course of World War I (where the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary) the British promised independence to the Arabs. In 1917, however, Lloyd George’s war cabinet approved the Balfour Declaration2, which effectively gave the Zionists Palestinian land which the British did not own, betraying the promises made to Faisal Hussein by the British government and Lawrence of Arabia in negotiations between 1915 and 1916.

British double-dealing was compounded by the Sykes-Picot agreement, which arbitrarily divided up the rest of the Middle East, creating problems throughout the region - the British and French were entirely ignorant of the peoples that inhabited that part of the world.

Ironically, British Jews, including the then British Board of Deputies, were opposed to the Balfour Declaration and within Lloyd George’s war cabinet the only opposition came from its sole Jewish member, Edwin Montagu. After the war, the League of British Jews was formed in order to oppose the Balfour Declaration and Zionist settlement of Palestine. In the decade after the Declaration, there was a significant political opposition to it within the British establishment. The House of Lords passed a motion opposing it. Many felt it was a waste of money - why pay yet more to support Jews?

Others, like Churchill, saw strategic benefits. Greenstein outlined that among the many reasons, protection of the Suez Canal (best route to India - the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire) is the most likely rationale behind it - a view shared by Chaim Weizmann. As always, anti-Semites supported Zionism - it promised to provide a home for their unwanted Jews.

The Balfour Declaration led to the Palestine mandate, which ran from 1922 to 1948. Balfour himself, known as ‘Bloody Balfour’ because of the shooting of Irish demonstrators during his tenure as secretary of state for Ireland, was a committed imperialist and motivated solely by pursuit of what he thought to be the best interests of the British Empire, with a policy of divide-and-rule to control, as he thought, the Jews and Arabs. The Zionists successfully fought to prevent the establishment of a separate legislative assembly for the Palestinians, thus ensuring Palestinians were kept in a subordinate position with no effective mechanisms for establishing their rights.

Comrade Greenstein explained that during the Palestine mandate, 40,000 Zionists - who made up half of the Jewish population - were responsible for most of the assassinations and terrorism during that period. In fact, the majority of the victims of Zionist assassination were other Jews, not the British or the Palestinians. The Palestinians to a large degree adopted a policy of tolerating the oppression, on the basis that any significant attempt at self-defence or retaliation would be used as an excuse for further Zionist attacks.

The Hope-Simpson Enquiry, published in 1930, upheld the Palestinian perspective on Zionist atrocities - the only dissenting member of the enquiry was from the British Labour Party, “foreshadowing the open Zionism espoused by Keir Starmer”, said comrade Greenstein.

Despite the findings of the enquiry, the British continued to prepare, train and arm the Zionist militias so that in 1939 they were able to form the Jewish Settlement Police, heavily dependent on Haganah. Ultimately this enabled the Zionists to have sufficient strength to orchestrate the Nakba in 1948.

Biblical myths

Thomas Suarez, author of Palestine hijacked: how Zionism forged an apartheid state from river to sea, commented by condemning the Zionist idea that because there had never been a Palestinian state, what was happening in Gaza now was somehow justified. He saw this is harking back to the 19th century notion of the nation-state as the “gold standard” and also pointed out the absurdity of viewing the Hebrew lands of the Old Testament as the basis of a “nation-state”.

Tom reiterated that anti-Semitism was exploited by the Zionists, explaining that in 1916 Britain was not doing so well in World War I, at which point the Zionists decided to exploit the British anti-Semitic notion that the Jews were an international cabal controlling world affairs. He read out an extract from a December 1916 letter by Sir Edward Grey, Balfour’s predecessor as foreign secretary. Grey had expressed the fear that the indifference or hostility of the Jewish race to the British would prove a deadweight against it in the war; he cited an Alexandrine Jew who asserted that if only Britain were to give Palestine to the Jews, then it would gain all the support it needed to win the war. Tom admitted it was unclear how far the British believed this, but thought it might have contributed to the creation of the Balfour Declaration.

Tom went on to discuss Zionism as “marketing”. Although not ultimately religious, it used a messianic philosophy and emphasised its “biblical roots” to legitimise its demand for a Jewish homeland. They needed the name “Israel” or “Judea” as a key element of the brand. That was also the reason for choosing Hebrew as the vernacular, not Ladino or German. Indeed there were pogroms against settlers for speaking and writing in German.

The idea that Palestinians reject the opportunity of a state was another myth, said Suarez. The Palestinians recognised that partition was something the Jews wanted in order to legitimise themselves as a state - with no intention of honouring the partition of the land. Initially, Jews were given 55% of the territory, on the assumption that this might pacify them sufficiently to at least put off their attempt to annex even more of the land. In the event, this proved a forlorn hope. The Palestinians recognised partition as a scam.

A single-state solution had been considered, but was rejected on the grounds that it would unleash an uncontrollable wave of Zionist terrorism, a terrorism which 100,000 British troops had failed to subdue.

After the initial contributions from the two speakers there was a lively discussion and additional questions, including why America maintained its loyalty to Israel despite the apparent expense of doing so.

Sessions take place every Thursday at 7pm on Zoom, registration via whymarx.com. Speakers in the series include Ian Spencer, Yassamine Mather, Mike Macnair, Ghada Karmi and others.

  1. www.britannica.com/place/Palestine/The-Crusades#ref478921.↩︎

  2. www1.udel.edu/History-old/figal/Hist104/assets/pdf/readings/14balfour.pdf.↩︎