When the current Israeli ambassador, the able and amiable Daniel Taub, presented his credentials to the Queen, she asked him how it felt to be serving as an ambassador to the land of his birth. Taub, who comes across as very British – he’s an old boy of Haberdasher’s Aske’s and an Oxford graduate – replied that, in the 2,000 years in which his ancestors had wandered, nowhere had they found such opportunity as here.
In his monumental History of the Jews, Paul Johnson explains why this might be. England, he argues, was, prior to the establishment of the United States, the best place to be Jewish. Paradoxically, this was because there had been no Jews in England throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when European law had been largely ecclesiastical. Because church courts claimed no jurisdiction over non-Christians, Jews across Europe had been placed in a separate legal category, opening the door to all manner of discrimination and maltreatment.
In 1656, Oliver Cromwell, steeped in Old Testament Puritanism and keen to boost trade with the Netherlands, readily agreed to a proposal from an Amsterdam rabbi, Manasseh ben Israel, to allow his co-religionists to settle here. English Jews, peculiarly, found themselves in the same legal category as their Christian countrymen. Or, to be precise, in the same legal category as other non-Anglicans, subject to the same relatively mild restrictions as Catholics and Nonconformists – at least until the nineteenth century, when all such disabilities were lifted.
From Cromwell to Churchill, we find a Philo-Semitic tradition in Britain that had no equal in Europe. Perhaps it rested, in part, on having the same sorts of enemies. The authoritarians of Left and Right who sneered at “Anglo-Saxon liberalism” and “decadent English capitalism” were often also, and for similar reasons, anti-Semitic.
It’s unsurprising, in the circumstances, that the United Kingdom should have become the chief sponsor of Jewish statehood. Britain had backed the cause of national self-determination across Europe and South America, and was to go on to fight two monstrous wars in defence of the rights of small nations. Protestantism, Philo-Semitism and a sympathy for national causes blended naturally into Zionism. George Eliot’s last and most ambitious novel, Daniel Deronda, published in 1876, not only won over many gentiles to that cause; it advanced it enormously among English-speaking Jews.
Almost inevitably, it was the United Kingdom that moved to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and British officials who realised that ambition after 1920. It’s true that the implementation was messy. With hindsight, it is always possible to spot things that should have been done differently. The British ended up alienating both sides – Jews because they placed restrictions on the number of immigrants out of sensitivity to Arab opinion, Arabs because they allowed any immigration at all. But many of the criticisms aimed at the Mandate authorities are unfair.
British officials were doing their best, in almost impossible circumstances, to be equitable to all sides, facilitating the creation of a Jewish national home while safeguarding the rights of other communities. Then as now, neither side liked to accept that there was such a thing as a middle way. Then, as now, taking a compromise position led to both sides concluding that you were aligned with their foes.
The Mandate authorities, who had always understood that their presence would be short-lived, initially hoped that a Jewish state might take form through peaceful land purchases. When it became clear that a multi-ethnic state would be permanently violent, they proposed a partition; but that, too, proved unacceptable. By the 1940s, paramilitaries on both sides were targeting British soldiers and it was clear that no purpose was served by remaining. The Mandate forces withdrew, and the two sides have been intermittently fighting it out ever since.
I retell this familiar tale to make two points about Britain’s relationship with Israel. First, ours is an old and well-founded friendship, though not an uncritical one. When Israel behaves badly – as when, in a shocking breach of protocol, its agents were found to have been forging British passports in the 1980s – we respond. Second, British sympathy for Zionism was never seen as incompatible with our long-established alliances with Arab states in the region.
Winston Churchill, enthusiastic Zionist as he was, was also the man who gave the land and money to establish Regent’s Park Mosque, deeply conscious of the contributions that British Muslims were making to the war effort. Churchill had hoped that the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine would boost the economies of neighbouring states – as, indeed, it would do, even today, if local enmities could be put aside.
I’ve written this blog as a lengthy reply to those of my fellow-countrymen – by no means only Muslim Britons – who ask why Britain so often seems to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. If we’re honest, we do sometimes apply a double standard. It’s true, for example, as anti-Israel campaigners like to point out, that we are agitated about Iran acquiring nuclear technology while making no fuss about Israel doing so. But there is a pretty obvious reason for such inconsistency: we can’t imagine that Israel would ever aim its missiles at us.
When we look at Israel, we see a free-market, law-based, individualist democracy which has retained many Anglosphere characteristics – parliamentary rule, the common law and, at least when it comes to intellectual and commercial life, the English language. These things are bound to create, in the literal sense, sympathy: fellow-feeling rooted in common experience.
To repeat, none of this is to suggest that Israel should be beyond criticism or, indeed, that the current operation in Gaza should be beyond criticism. It is perfectly possible to believe that Israel has the right – the duty, rather – to protect its citizens, while doubting whether the number of civilian casualties is really compatible with the IDF’s claim to be engaged in maximum precision targeting. The refusal of some of Israel’s Western cheerleaders ever to accept any fault – a good example was their almost deranged insistence that Israel shouldn’t apologise for attacking a Turkish ship in international waters – damages the cause they think they’re advancing.
But when Israel’s critical friends look at the current protests about Gaza, we don’t see measured or balanced complaints. We don’t even, to be frank, see that much concern for Palestinians. What we see is a torrent of abuse against an “apartheid state”, an American military base, a racist entity and so on. We conclude that most of the protesters aren’t interested in any solution short of the dissolution of the Israeli state. And, given what our two countries have been through together over the years, that bothers us.