Brits and Israel

British relations with Israel have always been a bit sour, and of course in recent decades they have been coloured by the need for Middle Eastern oil and the selling of military equipment to Israel’s venomous neighbours in order to balance the books. Question is… why is the relationship with Israel a sour one? Some answers…:

The British withdrawal from the Mandated Territory in the late-1940s tended towards the humiliating. Between 1945 and 1947 alone, UK forces and police lost 103 dead, and sustained 391 wounded. In 1947, after two British sergeants were killed in retaliation for the execution of three Jewish militants, there were anti-Jewish riots in Liverpool over the course of several days, and these spread to other British cities, including London, Manchester, Cardiff, Derby and Glasgow. Some months after the declaration of the independence of the State of Israel which occurred in May 1948 – and during the course of Israel’s war of independence against the forces of the Arab League – British policy towards Israel was shouted loud and clear when the Royal Air Force conducted reconnaissance flights over Israeli positions, taking off from Egyptian air bases. Indeed, some of these flights were conducted alongside Egyptian planes. There is little doubt that once home again after their humiliation by pre-state Israel, senior UK military personnel, through the Ministry of Defence, had influenced government attitudes to the new state and these would persist until 1956 and the Suez Crisis.

The British government attitude to Israel wouldn’t just be influenced by the military establishment. Among the landed classes too and among British industrialists there had long been a sympathy towards the Arab and a sourness towards the upstart ‘yishuv’ (the Jewish population of pre-state Israel). Among the well-healed travellers of the rich ‘old money’ and the commercial ‘new money’ there was deep regard and respect for the complicated tribal hierarchy of ‘the Arab’. The Arab world offered exotic adventure and opportunity, and in the emerging post-war world Arab society offered the sophisticated class layering and deference that was so very familiar. In academia, the old British ‘Arabists’ expressed similar affection for these heirarchies. In contrast, across the earlier ‘yishuv’ and in the nascent Israeli state, a vibrant social democracy was emerging – a new society where these these complicated social layers were largely absent.

By 1967, the year in which the USA began to take Israel seriously after its June War victory, and to regard the tiny country as a substantial ally, the USA had become deeply embroiled in its escalation of the Vietnam War. And so it was that in the eyes of liberals and the left, Israel, after briefly enjoying the status of victim triumphant, began to be viewed through a new frame of reference. The newer liberal and left both in the UK and wider Europe identified with the emerging Palestinian national movement and with the continuing anti-colonial struggle (e.g. in Vietnam, South Africa and Rhodesia), and there was seen a deepening hostility towards Israel, now always to be viewed as a lynchpin ally of the USA. Today in the 21st century there isn’t a UK university campus that does not have a strident pro-Palestine solidarity committee, its members richly swathed in Palestinian scarves often expressing a hatred towards Israel and its Jewish character that would have made Goebbels proud.

Among British Christians too there is a sour and shaky relationship with Israel. Many have been taken in by the Yasser Arafat line that Jesus Christ (you know… the Judean, born in Bethlehem of Judea) was a ‘Palestinian martyr’. They have thrown in their lot with the Palestinian line, totally blind to the oppression of Christians in the West Bank and in Gaza, and blind to the fact that Israel’s minority population of Christians is the only one showing expansion in the whole of the eastern Mediterranean.


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