Nehru’s Word: How British imperialism created the Palestine problem
"Towards the end of the 19th century, the Zionist movement took gradual shape as a colonising movement, and many Jews went to settle in Palestine"
The latest violent turn that the century-long Israel-Palestine conflict has taken following Hamas’s attack on Israel has serious implications for the world as well as India. In a 1933 essay that is part of the Glimpses of World History, Jawaharlal Nehru sheds light on how the problem was created by Britain when it decided to set up a ‘Jewish national home’ by pushing out Palestinians from areas in which they were living. Hitler’s excesses against the Jews let to a greater exodus of Jews from Europe to Israel, thus adding to the competition for resources in Palestine.
Adjoining Syria is Palestine, for which the British government holds a mandate from the League of Nations. This is an even smaller country, with a total population of less than a million, but it attracts a great deal of attention because of its old history and associations. For it is a holy land for the Jews as well as Christians and, to some extent, even the Muslims. The people inhabiting it are predominantly Muslim Arabs, and they demand freedom and unity with their fellow-Arabs of Syria.
But the British policy has created a special minority problem here—that of the Jews. And the Jews side with the British and oppose the freedom of Palestine, as they fear that this would mean Arab rule. The two pull different ways, and conflicts necessarily occur. On the Arab side are numbers, on the other side great financial resources and the worldwide organisation of Jewry.
So, England pits Jewish religious nationalism against Arab nationalism, and makes it appear that her presence is necessary to act as an arbitrator and to keep the peace between the two. It is the same old game we have seen in other countries under imperialist domination. It is curious how often it is repeated.
The Jews are a very remarkable people. Originally, they were a small tribe—or several tribes—in Palestine, and their early story is told in the Old Testament of the Bible. Rather conceited they were, thinking themselves as the Chosen People. But this is a conceit in which nearly all people have indulged.
They were repeatedly conquered and suppressed and enslaved, and some of the most beautiful and moving poems in English are the songs and laments of these Jews as given in the authorised translation of the Bible. I suppose in the original Hebrew they are equally, or even more, beautiful. I shall give you just a few lines from one of the Psalms:
‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept ; when we remembered thee,
As for our harps we hanged them up: upon the trees that are therein.
For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody, in our heaviness: Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land?
If I forgot thee, O Jerusalem: let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth: yea,
if I prefer not Jerusalem in my mirth.’
These Jews were finally dispersed all over the world. They had no home or nation, and everywhere they went, they were treated as unwelcome and undesirable strangers. They were made to live in special areas of cities, apart from the others—these areas were called ghettos—so that they might not pollute others. Sometimes they were made to put on a special dress. They were humiliated, reviled, tortured, and massacred.
The very word ‘Jew’ became a word of abuse, a synonym for a miser and a grasping money-lender. And yet these amazing people not only survived all this, but managed to keep their racial and cultural characteristics, and prospered and produced a host of great men.
Today, they hold leading positions as scientists, statesmen, literary men, financiers, businessmen, and even the greatest socialists and communists have been Jews. Most of them, of course, are far from prosperous; they crowd in the cities of eastern Europe and, from time to time, suffer pogroms or massacres.
These people without home or country, and especially the poor among them, have never ceased to dream of old Jerusalem, which appears to their imaginations greater and more magnificent than it ever was in fact. Zion they called Jerusalem, a kind of promised land, and Zionism is this call of the past that pulls them to Jerusalem and Palestine.
Towards the end of the 19th century, this Zionist movement took gradual shape as a colonising movement, and many Jews went to settle in Palestine. There was also a renaissance of the Hebrew language. During the World War, the British armies invaded Palestine and, as they were marching on Jerusalem, the British government made a declaration in November 1917, called the Balfour Declaration.
They declared that it was their intention to establish a ‘Jewish national home’ in Palestine. This declaration was made to win the goodwill of international Jewry, and this was important from the money point of view. It was welcomed by Jews.
But there was one little drawback, one important fact seems to have been overlooked: Palestine was not a wilderness, or an empty, uninhabited place—it was already somebody else’s home. So that this generous gesture of the British government was really at the expense of the people who already lived in Palestine, and these people, including Arabs, non-Arabs, Muslims, Christians, and, in fact, everybody who was not a Jew, protested vigorously at the declaration.
It was really an economic question. These people felt that the Jews would compete with them in all activities and, with the great wealth behind them, would become the economic masters of the country. They were afraid that the Jews would take the bread out of their mouths and the land from the peasantry.
The story of Palestine ever since has been one of conflict between Arabs and Jews, with the British government siding with one or the other as occasion demanded, but generally supporting the Jews. The country has been treated as a British colony with no self-government. The Arabs, supported by the Christians and other non-Jewish peoples, have demanded self-determination and complete freedom. They have taken strong objection to the mandate and to fresh immigrants on the ground that there is no room for more.
As Jewish immigrants have poured in, their fear and anger have increased. They (the Arabs) have declared that Zionism had been an accomplice of British imperialism. Zionist leaders had constantly urged what an advantage a strong Jewish national home would be to the English in guarding the road to India, just because it was a counteracting force to Arab national aspirations. How India crops up in odd places!
The Arab Congress decided to non-cooperate with the British government and to boycott the elections to a legislative council that the British were forming. This boycott was very successful, and the council could not be formed.
The policy of non-cooperation of a kind lasted for several years; then it weakened to some extent and some groups gave partial cooperation to the British. Even so, the British could not get an elective council, and the High Commissioner governed as an all-powerful sultan.
(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.)