Saturday, June 26, 2004

Bible and Sword by Barbara Tuchman

In 1956 historian Barabar Tuchman published her first book: a history of Britain and Palestine up to the Balfour Declaration.

Instead, before Allenby entered Jerusalem, Britain, in an odd gesture known as the Balfour Declaration, declared that the country would be open to resettlement by the Jews. As a voluntary assumption of an obligation by a conqueror to a stateless people, the Declaration was something new in the pattern of protectorates.

The reasons why the British would do such a thing run deep in the national mythos and religion, despite the revisionist memoirs of Lloyd George which claimed that it was issued to curry favor with Russian and American Jews. "How could a Declaration favoring Zionism be expected to influence favorably the very people who would regard it with the most distaste?" The Russian Jews were completely powerless and the American Jews anti-Zionist.

The real history is much more interesting. Early on Joseph of Arimathea was claimed to have founded the church among the Britons, and the fable expanded in the telling, until it was accepted officially! In 1431

at the Council of Basle, precedence in seating and other sensitive matters of protocol were determined by the antiquity of the churches of the respective countries. The English cited Joseph as establishing their claim for precedence. In a furious quarrel with the Spanish delegates . . . the English insisted that Joseph had arrived in Britain before James in Spain . . .
and wrote an official document claiming that Glastonbury was the site of the chuch so founded. The embroidering of the legends claimed an early connection of Britain to the Christians of Palestine.

But this was just one piece of the puzzle. After the church spread, pilgrimages to the Holy Land were so popular among the Britons as to attract some notice (and a bit of disapproval). This dried up somewhat after the Moslem capture of the area--some rulers welcomed pilgrims (especially their money) but others enslaved them; and bandits and slavers made the long journey dangerous in any event. The Crusades formed another connection; even though the English contribution was not usually as great as France's. Still, the stirring story of Richard Lionheart's (actually quite professional!) campaign that almost won kept alive another sort of link in English memory. And trade slowly grew.

And then came the Bible in English, which had tremendous impact on the English culture. (It did in Germany too, but for other reasons Germany did not become the champion of the Jews.) For the first time the Old Testament became well known to the ordinary citizen, and the great stories were taken as emblematic of their own; especially of the story of such oppressed groups as the Puritans.

The Puritans were the first of many groups to look to the return of the Jews to Palestine as a necessary fulfillment of prophecy before return of Christ. Of course, it was expected that they would convert to Christianity first, but in any event the Puritans looked to the revocation of the order banishing the Jews and to giving them aid in returning to their ancient homeland. This went out of style with the Restoration, of course, but what came into style was the fashionable tour of the ancient world's sites (mostly Greek and Roman, but sometimes of the Holy Land).

And international politics has to play a role: to stifle French and Russian ambitions Britain committed itself to the support of the Turks. The British fleet destroyed Napoleon's, and their armies drove him out of the Middle East. Ever after Britain held the region strategic, especially as the India trade became more important.

The Evangelical Revival in Britain had influence "impossible to overestimate." Lord Shaftesbury's faith led him to successfully push through legislation such as "the Ten Hours Bill (the Factory Act), credited with staving off revolution in the industrial counties, as well as the Mines Act, the Lunacy Act, and the Lodging House Act, which Dickens called the finest piece of legislation ever enacted in England up to that time." And it led him to push for England to acknowledge its debt to the Jews and help restore them to Palestine.

He didn't ask the Jews, most of whom were poor and tried to lie low. The ones who weren't generally were trying to assimilate, and didn't want to rock the boat. Jews sometimes did try to go to Palestine, but since the land was in poor condition and no-one would give them jobs they usually teetered on the brink of starvation. But this began to change, as small amounts of money helped those who lived there, and events like the Damascus Incident (riots, murder, torture after an accusation of ritual murder) began to worry the better-off Jews. The Russian May Laws and pogroms (Hitler only added concentration camps and gas chambers) tried to make Jewish life impossible, and even in "civilized" France the Dreyfus Affair showed how deep ran the antiSemitism. Zionism finally appeared, though many of the Western Jews wouldn't believe (some until too late) that they were in as much danger as their eastern brothers.

Disraeli bought the Suez canal, which had of course to be defended--on both sides. So Britain needed Egypt in its sphere of influence, and eventually would need Palestine as well. When the Turks betrayed their old alliance in World War I the opportunity and necessity combined, and British forces eventually dominated much of the Middle East, excepting Lebanon and Syria under French control. But in the meantime, the confluence of Zionism, the sympathy for the Jewish homeland left by the old and new Evangelicals, plans for establishing a buffer state, and the search for a noble cause to back up the political necessity of controlling the Holy Land led to the acceptance of the watered-down Balfour Declaration. Mr. Balfour and others had clearly meant for the document to refer to a state, but there was opposition, and the final document was ambiguous:

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

And at this point Tuchman ends the story. She found that the subsequent history, with the British

betrayal of their own impulse in establishing the national home, the White Paper policy, the collusion with the Arabs, the ramming of the Exodus and detention of Jewish refugees from Hitler in new concentration camps on Cyprus, and finally the encouragement of the Arab offensive on the heels of Britain's departure was all impossible to relate without outrage. This is not a suitable condition for a historian.

You won't learn a great deal about the current Middle East from this book, but you will learn a lot about British history. Barbara Tuchman is a very readable historian. Go read it.

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