Britain’s Grave Historical Responsibility for the Palestine Tragedy

Arnold J. Toynbee

Arnold J. Toynbee (1889- 1975) was a renowned British historian, specialist of international affairs and philosopher of history. A prolific writer, he is perhaps best known for his twelve-volume work, A Study of History. During his lifetime he was one of the world’s most influential and widely read scholars. Toynbee wrote the following piece, dated June 1, 1968, as a foreword to The Palestine Diary 1914- 1945, a detailed two-volume work by Robert John and Sami Hadawi that was published in 1970.

‘Diary’ is a modest title for this massive work. It is a detailed narrative covering the history of Palestine during the period running from the outbreak of the First World War to the declaration of the establishment of the state of Israel and the outbreak of the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948. The narrative is supported by a very full documentation. As far as I know, so full an assemblage of pertinent documents is not to be found between the covers of any previous publication. The sub-titles are also apposite. The story is a tragedy, and the essence of this tragedy is that about 1,500,000 Palestinian Arabs have now become refugees as a result of the intervention of foreign powers in their country’s affairs. The might of these foreign powers has been irresistible, and the evicted Palestinian Arabs have been forcibly deprived of their country, their homes, and their property without having been allowed to have a voice in the determination of their own destiny.

Though the facts are public, there is a widespread ignorance of them in the Western World and, above all, in the United States, the Western country which has had, and is still having, the greatest say in deciding Palestine’s fate. The United States has the greatest say, but the United Kingdom bears the heaviest load of responsibility. The Balfour Declaration of 2nd November 1917 was the winning card in a sordid contest between the two sets of belligerents in the First World War for winning the support of the Jews in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and – most important of all – in the United States.

In promising to give the Jews ‘a national home’ in Palestine, the British Government was, I believe, using deliberately ambiguous language. As a citizen of the United Kingdom, I declare this belief of mine with feelings of shame and contrition, but I do believe that this is the truth. Throughout the First World War and after it, the Government of the United Kingdom was playing a double game. Perhaps a lawyer might be able to plead plausibly that there was no inconsistency between the respective pledges that Britain gave to the Arabs and to the Zionists, or between the inclusion of the Balfour Declaration in the text of the mandate taken by Britain for the administration of Palestine and the classification of this mandate in the ‘A’ class –a class in which the mandatory power was committed to giving the people of the mandated territory their independence at the earliest date at which they would be capable of standing on their own feet. Whatever the casuists might say, laymen – Arabs or Jews – would, I think, naturally infer, bona fide, from the British Government’s various statements and acts that it had made two commitments that were incompatible with each other.

At the same time when the mandate was drafted, offered, and accepted, the Arab Palestinians amounted to more than 90 per cent of the population of the country. The mandate for Palestine was an ‘A’ mandate, and, as I interpret the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, Palestine had not been excepted by the British Government from the area in which they had pledged themselves to King Hussein to recognize and support Arab independence. The Palestinian Arabs could therefore reasonably assume that Britain was pledged to prepare Palestine for becoming an independent Arab state. On the other side, the Zionists naturally saw, in the British promise of ‘a homeland’ in Palestine, the entering wedge for the insertion into Palestine of the Jewish state of Israel which was in fact inserted there in 1948.

To my mind, the most damaging point in the charge-sheet against my country is that Britain was in control of Palestine for thirty years – 1918-1948 – and that during those fateful three decades she never made up her mind, or at any rate never declared, what her policy about the future of Palestine was. All through those thirty years, Britain lived from hand to mouth, admitting into Palestine, year by year, a quota of Jewish immigrants that varied according to the strength of the respective pressures of the Arabs and Jews at the time. Those immigrants could not have come in if they had not been shielded by a British chevaux-de-frise. If Palestine had remained under Ottoman Turkish rule, or if it had become an independent Arab state in 1918, Jewish immigrants would never have been admitted into Palestine in large enough numbers to enable them to overwhelm the Palestinian Arabs in this Arab people’s own country. The reason why the state of Israel exists today and why today [1968] 1,500,000 Palestinian Arabs are refugees is that, for thirty years, Jewish immigration was imposed on the Palestinian Arabs by British military power until the immigrants were sufficiently numerous and sufficiently well-armed to be able to fend for themselves with tanks and planes of their own. The tragedy in Palestine is not just a local one; it is a tragedy for the World, because it is an injustice that is a menace to the World’s peace. Britain’s guilt is not diminished by the humiliating fact that she is now impotent to redress the wrong that she has done.

As an Englishman I hate to have to indict my country, but I believe that Britain deserves to be indicted, and this is the only personal reparation that I can make. I hope this book will be read widely in the United States, and this by Jewish as well as by non-Jewish Americans. The United States Government’s policy on the Palestinian question has been a reflexion of American public feeling and opinion. The opinion that has generated the feeling has been formed to a large extent in ignorance of the facts. If the American people are willing to open their minds to the truth about Palestine, this book will help them to learn it. If they do learn the truth, I hope this will lead them to change their minds, and if the American people do change their minds, I feel sure that their Government will change its policy to match. If the American Government were to be constrained by American public opinion to take a non-partisan line over Palestine, the situation in Palestine might quickly change for the better. Is this too much to hope for? We cannot tell, but at least it is certain that the present book will be enlightening for any reader whose mind is open to conviction.