Britain: Israel’s friend or foe?

Britain: Israel’s friend or foe?

I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God (Zechariah 8:8).

The history of the Jewish people chronicles 4000 years of almost constantly living under the sinister threat of impending attack by avowed enemies. And when the state of Israel has existed – for less than half of duration – that cloud has been frequently punctuated by the trauma of full-blown war. 

This has been the reality of the Hebrew people, a saga stretching back to when Abraham engaged in battle with the 4 kings of Genesis 14.

And consequently, throughout that continuum of history, the Jews have recognized few true friends, but numerous foes.

In the first half of the 20th century – shocking to many from our contemporary vantage point – Britain was both.

Here’s the stunning and implausible story. 

At the conclusion of World War I in 1918, Palestine – the modern nation of Israel – was placed under the control of Britain. Prior to the war, Palestine existed within the Ottoman Empire. With the defeat of Germany and its allies – Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottomans – the League of Nations appointed the United Kingdom as caretakers under the British Mandate over what today is Israel and Jordan.

This initially appeared to be good news for global Jewry. In 1917, the British government had passed the Balfour Declaration proclaiming their foreign policy objective: "the establishment in Palestine of national home for the Jewish people".

Globally, the next 2 decades saw a marked increase of overt anti-Semitism. As it intensified throughout Europe, pogroms resulted – riots of violence targeting Jewish civilians, their businesses and property. These incidents of venomous racism motivated Jews to immigrate to Palestine in the 1920s and 30s, and they did so, particularly from Eastern Europe, by the tens of thousands.

In an about face – and right at the juncture when Jewish people most needed sanctuary from violence – the British government backed away from their stated policy of assisting to create a Jewish state. In part – and before World War 2 had been launched – the Nazis were the cause of this reversal.

Here’s how.

Tensions mounted between these refugees coming to Palestine and their Arab neighbors who were threatened by the growing Jewish population and their need for land and hunger for resources. As mistrust evolved into hostility, the Brits found themselves in the middle of increasing conflicts and violence of which they wanted no part.

The British government strategized knowing that, with Hitler’s deserved reputation for bitter anti-Semitism, the Jews would never side with the Nazis. 

However, the Brits did not want to risk the Arab world running into the arms of Hitler. Consequently, they attempted to walk a political tight-rope, thereby appeasing the Arabs to hopefully keep them within the British sphere of influence.

The British government rationalized that diplomacy dictated they not strengthen Hitler’s hand. But as they began to implement policies aligned with this thinking, the British took massive strides backing away from former promises made to the Jews. They did so in full view of a watching world.

In 1931, the British government formally began to contemplate severely restricting Jewish immigration and land purchases in Palestine. That later became official British Mandate policy.

Historian Francine Klagsbrun observed what had evolved to this point: “The Jews of Palestine represented but a small, powerless people living under the rule of a government that had grown increasingly unfriendly toward them.”

Even so, in 1933, Jews numbering 35,000 entered Palestine; 1935 saw the arrival of 69,000 more. At the conclusion of that year, 400,000 Jews – or 33 percent of the total population – were living within British Mandatory Palestine.

Jews continued to be evicted – or worse – from many nations. And as the British began to drastically curtail the ability of Jewish refugees to enter the Holy Land, other countries of the world – including Canada – tightened their borders and refused entry at their ports.

British military muscle became unrelenting in intercepting and diverting Jewish convoys bound for the Promised Land, capturing 52,000 and imprisoning them behind barbed wire on the island of Cyprus under guard by UK soldiers.

At the same, time the Zionists engaged in clandestine – and illegal – measures to evade immigration quotas.

On balance, it must be recognized that during these years the so-called Kindertransports program saw 10,000 Jewish children – although separated from their parents – transported from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland to foster homes in the British Isles.

The global dark storm-clouds continued to gather.

Months prior to Germany invading Poland and the formal declaration of war by the UK and France, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared, “If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.”

Then, the Holocaust.

The Jewish capital of the world had formerly been Poland where Jews occupied thriving communities for 6 centuries; but 90% there were murdered as a result of Hitler’s animosity. 

Nazi malice was evidenced in proportions beyond what any world leaders could possibly have foreseen. When Victory in Europe Day was declared on the 8th of May, 1945, the unimaginably horrific consequence of what Hitler had achieved was nauseatingly evident: one-third of the world’s Jewish population was dead.

The statistics are staggering: 6 million Jews had been systematically slaughtered. Untold thousands more were liberated from concentration camps bearing the psychological scars that would plague them for life.

And they had nowhere to live, no place to call home.

The appalling tragedy of the Holocaust marked out the Jewish people and their future nation like no other event has defined any race.

Former Canadian PM Stephen Harper understood this contextual piece when he wrote last week of the events of October 7, 2023 triggering the recent conflict with Hamas in Gaza: “This may not have been a Holocaust in scale, but it was in kind. And, for the Israeli nation, born as it was in the shadow of the Holocaust, it can be interpreted in no other way.”

Subsequent to the 2nd World War, one dilemma achieved almost unanimous attention among the world’s political heads: the so-called “Jewish problem” needed resolution. 

And what was increasingly obvious to both sides – the Jews and the rest of the world – was that a Jewish homeland was the most viable option.

One question restrained global consent: what to do with the Arab peoples living in Palestine? Resulting disputes and quarrels between Jews and Arabs had at times become intolerable to international observers in general, and the government of the United Kingdom in particular.

British voters increasingly resented having 100,000 troops stationed in Palestine, often caught between violence of Arabs targeting Jews and vice versa.

But, how could a Jewish state possibly survive, and be peaceful and productive for both peoples?

Desperately wanting to wash their hands of their often grim involvement in the Holy Land, the British withdrew their troops and political presence on May 14th, 1948.

That very day, the Jews declared national independence and statehood.

So quickly did US President Harry Truman officially recognize the State of Israel – 11 minutes after the conclusion of the British Mandate – it was said his own State Department was stunned by the rapidity of the move. 

David Ben-Gurion was the modern state of Israel’s first Prime Minister. “In Israel,” he famously proclaimed, “in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles”.

However, the finally-realized Zionist euphoria was short-lived. The surrounding Arab nations commenced their assault on the fledgling nation at dawn the next day.

And the rest is history…

Takeaway: As students of the Bible, the rebirth of the Israel – 1878 years after its humbling annihilation at the hands of the Romans – has to be seen as vastly improbable and absolutely miraculous. 

But how does the past - including recent history - shape the future for the Covenant People? 

The Russian-born chemist and Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, before becoming Israel’s first president, noted: “A Jewish State, the idea of independence in Palestine, is such a lofty thing that it ought to be treated like the Ineffable Name, which is never pronounced in vain.”

Clear to the reader of Scripture is that Zionism as an historic global movement – the compelling, visceral Jewish desire to found a homeland again in their ancestral territory of Palestine – must be recognized as of divine design and biblical origin. 

The Old Testament Jewish prophet Zechariah framed the future of the Jewish people in a decidedly God-ordained context. The Jews would return to Israel. The city of Jerusalem would be re-populated with the descendants of Abraham.

But I will defend my house against marauding forces. Never again will an oppressor overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch (Zechariah 9:8).

And in a day still future to us, the Hebrew people will recognize that Jesus was their long-promised Messiah.

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son (Zechariah 12:10).

Today, Israel – containing Jews, Arabs and others as full-citizens – is a thriving Middle-Eastern geopolitical power at the intersection of Europe, Africa, Asia.

And although great global military pressure will again be applied to the Jewish state, the Lord will never again allow it to be obliterated.

Using Jerusalem as symbolic of the nation, Yahweh promises: Proclaim this word: This is what the LORD Almighty says: “I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they added to the calamity” (Zechariah 1:14,15).


~ graphic: nota on

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