Letter to a Parent of a British soldier in Palestine

Taken from the New Statesman archive, 16 August 1947

Sixty years ago British soldiers were trying to keep the peace in Palestine. The hanging of two captured British sergeants by Jewish terrorists was an especially horrific crime that incensed British public opinion. Arthur Koestler sought to justify such an act in this anguished piece, which is still of painful relevance for our own times. The argument to explain Jewish terrorism in 1947 could be applied equally to Arab terrorism in Palestine today.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Dear Sir,

Every morning when you open your paper you feel sick with fear that your boy might have been kidnapped or blown to pieces by Jewish terrorists. I am a person who sympathises with terrorists, and though I disapprove of their recent methods, I might have become one of them – by force of circumstances. I am writing to you to explain those circumstances.

I am not speaking lightly of terror; during several years I have lived in the same anxiety, for persons near to me, which you feel for your son. The persons were my mother and her family; the danger which threatened them, as Jews in German-controlled territory, was death by poison gas or quicklime. My mother was the only one who escaped. Her sister, her sister’s daughter and two grandchildren were gassed. My mother's brother managed to commit suicide. Every single Jewish terrorist in Palestine has a similar story. This is the first fact you have to let sink in; without this background you will understand nothing.

Obviously you will answer that these regrettable deeds were committed by the Nazis and not by the British; that one of the reasons your boy fought this war was precisely to save those unfortunates; and that there is no excuse for the criminal madness of the thugs who, instead of showing gratitude, throw bombs at their benefactors. As against this, allow me to mention some facts, based on official British sources, which, I submit, prove that the Jews of Palestine have no reasons for gratitude to your country, and many reasons for bitterness against it. There is a legend that in 1917 Mr. Lloyd George's government, in the kindness of their hearts, promised Palestine to the Jews; since then the Jews have insisted on this somewhat rash promise like Shylock on his pound of flesh; while the unfortunate British, caught between the conflicting claims and bullets of Arab and Jew, carried heroically the White Man's Burden.

This is the legend; the facts about the motives which prompted the Lloyd George Cabinet to launch the Balfour declaration were explained by Mr. Lloyd George himself in his statement before the Royal Commission in 1937. In the autumn of 1917, at the time of the Russian collapse, the Allies were in a critical position. "In this critical situation it was believed that Jewish sympathy or the reverse would make a substantial difference one way or the other to the Allied cause." Thus originated the promise of a "National Home"; the meaning of this term was interpreted by Lloyd George, President Wilson, Cecil, Smuts, Winston Churchill, etc., as equivalent to a future Jewish state (Royal commission Report, pp. 23-25). The Zionist leaders, according to Lloyd George's statement, promised in exchange "to rally Jewish sentiment and support throughout the Allied cause. They kept their word." (ibid., p.23). It was an honest deal, supported on both sides by long-standing sympathies, not an act of charity, and the question of gratitude does not arise.

The second part of the story is the period between the two wars. I have no space to go into details, only to point out some salient facts. It is not true that the Jews came to Palestine under the protection of British bayonets, or at the expense of the British taxpayer, or with British help under any form, as many countrymen seem to believe. The transformation of Palestine within twenty years from a malaria-infested stretch of swamp and desert into the most fertile country of the Middle East is due to Jewish labour and capital. The part played by the British Administration was to run the public services, on taxes mainly levied from the Jews.

"But," you will object, “after all we did let the Jews come to Palestine in spite of Arab opposition didn’t we? We could just as well have locked them out, and saved ourselves all this trouble…” You are again misinformed. Palestine never was a Colony or Protectorate of yours: your job and raison d’être in that country was to administer a Mandate on behalf of the League of Nations and that Mandate put you under the obligation “to facilitate Jewish immigration,” to help the “close settlement by Jews of the land “ and finally the establishment of the “National Home.” The deal, concluded in 1917 and known as the Balfour Declaration, had been ratified by fifty-two nations and had become the legal basis, and the only basis, of your presence in Palestine.

The third part of the story starts in 1939, with the White Paper which Mr. Morrison, in the name of the Labour Party, called "a cynical breach of faith, a breach of British honour," and Mr. Churchill "a base betrayal, the filing of a petition in moral bankruptcy." You have probably heard about this famous document which, leaving details aside, amounted to the barring of Palestine to the Jews (after a last batch of 75,000) for ever, and led to the prohibition of the buying and cultivating of land by Jews in 95 per cent of the country’s total area (Land Transfer Act of February 1940). Thus at the very moment when the extermination of the European Jews began, the doors of Palestine were slammed in their faces; while those already inside Palestine were condemned to live in one more cramped, Oriental ghetto. This policy was not only inhuman, it was apparently also illegal in the terms of International Law, and this point is essential for the understanding of all further developments in Palestine. For legally, as already mentioned, Britain’s presence in Palestine was based on the Mandate. The League’s Permanent Mandate Commission met on June 16th, 1939, and found unanimously that the new policy contradicted the terms of the British trusteeship. Now according to Article 27 of the Mandate "the consent for the Council of the League of Nations is required for any modification of the terms of this mandate." The Council of the League was to meet in September, 1939, but meanwhile the war broke out and it never met. As the Mandatory Commission (and leading politicians of all parties in this country itself) had found that the White Paper was not only a "modification" of the Mandate but directly contradicted it, it could only gain legal validity by the League’s consent; and this consent was never given. This is the reason why terrorists refuse to recognize the jurisdiction of British Military Courts and prefer to be hanged without defending themselves; and they claim that Britain’s status in Palestine is that of an occupying Power, based on force, not on law. For similar reasons the Jewish Agency denies the validity of any discrimination between "legal" and "illegal" immigrants.

I am not an expert in International Law, but it seems incontestable, as a matter of common sense, that the pretence of administering a Home which people are not permitted to enter, even when in danger of their lives, is a moral and legal perfidy. The story of Palestine from 1939 to this day is essentially the story of people struggling to save their skins, and of British efforts to prevent this by force and diplomatic pressure. Here are a few examples.

In March and April, 1939, three refugee ships – S.S. Assandu, Astir and Assimi, packed with Jews who had escaped, mainly from Germany, reached Palestine, and were refused permission to land. In the House of Commons Mr. Noel-Baker asked the then Colonial Secretary, Mr. Malcolm MacDonald, what would happen to these people. Mr. MacDonald said that they had been sent back from where they came. Mr. Noel-Baker: "Does that mean to concentration camps?" Mr. MacDonald: "The responsibility rests on those responsible for organising illegal immigration." (Debate in the House of Commons, April 26th-27th, 1939.)

Do you recognise the tune? It is unchanged to this day. The responsibility rests with the "racketeers" who tried to save these condemned people, not with those who sent them back to their death. There was also much talk in 1937 about the insanitary conditions on these hell-ships. The gas chambers, the quicklime – and the dry rot of the D.P. camps to-day, were and are doubtless sanitary.

Try to put yourself into the place of a Jew of your own age on the jetty of Haifa, shouting and waving to a relative – your son for instance – on the deck of one of those ships; he is not permitted to land; the ship lifts anchor to take its doomed hysterical load back to where it came from. The figure of your boy grows smaller; a few years later you hear that he has been gassed in Oswiecim. If, instead of Smith, your name were Schmulewitz, it might have happened to you. Something on the same lines happened, among others, to a man whom I met in Palestine two years ago; he told me that his mother and three brothers had been killed “by German sadism and the British White Paper.” His name is Friedman Yellin, and he is head of the so-called Stern Gang.

More examples? On November 24th, 1940, the passengers of the steamer Patria, who had been refused admission to Palestine, blew their ship up in Haifa harbour. Over two hundred people were blown to bits or drowned a hundred yards from the promised shore. They were not even to have been deported back to Europe, which, owing to the war, was impossible; only to a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. But these people had become allergic to barbed wire. When a person reaches that state, like the survivors in the D.P. camps to-day, he is past listening to the reasonable voice which tells him that he should never have escaped, or saved his wife and children, without a permit in triplicate to do so.

One last example. The year is 1942; the crematoria in Europe had started to work, when another hell-ship, the 180-ton cattle-boat Struma, hailing from Constanza, floundered into the harbour of Istanbul. There were 769 escapees on board, several of whom had lost their reason. The Turks were prepared to let them land in transit, on condition that the British would permit their entry into Palestine. This the Palestine Government, after consultation with London, refused; so the Turks sent the boat back to Rumania. The rest of the story you can guess: the ship blew up within a few miles of the Turkish coast; one man survived; all other passengers, including 250 women and 70 children were drowned.

The Black Sea was the Jews' main life-line of escape from the European crematorium. The Struma cut that life-line. Those who, against law and morality, refused to grant its passengers entry into Palestine, did not want them to be drowned. They were presumably even sorry and surprised. All they wanted was that they should be sent back to their "port of embarkation," where they could wash their hands of them, and thus discourage others from trying to save their skins. In the parliamentary debate of April, 1939, from which I have quoted, the Colonial Secretary had said that the Government had the fullest sympathy with Jewish refugees, but if they allowed one shipload, more would follow. This has been the guiding principle of British policy in Palestine from 1939 to this day. It was a policy of deliberately obstructing by active and passive measures, by force and by diplomatic pressure, the escape of Jews from extermination by a mass exodus into Palestine. I have quoted to you a few examples of this policy; they could be multiplied. Further evidence of the deliberate character of this policy is available, but cannot be published at this moment. But perhaps some future commission of inquiry into the administration of the Palestine Mandate will find it useful to ask, i.a., H.M. former ambassador in Anka to disclose the instructions he received during the critical period before and after the Struma episode.

The White Paper of 1939 has been described as the Palestine Munich. After the Labour victory of 1945 everybody expected that his last relic of Chamberlain’s policy would be wiped out. No party was so deeply committed to support Jewish immigration into Palestine as the Labour Party. On no fewer that eleven occasions, from 1917 to 1945, the Annual Party Conference had reaffirmed this obligation. In 1939 Philip Noel-Baker had prophesied that, if the White Paper was adopted, the only way to stop refugees would be "to tell those kindly British soldiers to shoot them down." In 1944, the Party conference had affirmed that "there is surely neither hope nor meaning in a 'Jewish National Home' unless we are prepared to let the Jews enter if they wish." In 1945, just before the Labour Government took office, this policy was once more confirmed, and Hugh Dalton declared that “it is morally wrong and politically indefensible to impose obstacles to entry into Palestine now of any Jews who desire to go there." You know the rest of the story. It is the story of yet another broken pledge; of the triumph of a Foreign Office clique and Ernest Bevin’s pigheadedness over Labour's honour.

But this time the Jews' patience is exhausted. On practically every hell-ship which approaches Palestine one or two survivor are shot down because they resist the boarding parties which carry them off to yet another cage, in the name of a policy which is "morally wrong and politically indefensible". As a result, the Jews have shown that they can fight as ruthlessly and as savagely as any other people driven to despair. Political terrorism has not been invented by them, as the penny press tries to make people in this country believe; it is as old as injustice and oppression, which is its cause. From the days of Spartacus to the French and Yugoslav maquis, the men who fought oppression by violence were called bandits by those who turned Law and Order into a mockery; and patriots and heroes if they succeeded. But this romantic halo is only given them by posterity, or distant sympathisers. Looked at from close to, the deeds of the Paris Commune, or the Russian Social-Revolutionaries, or Tito's Partisans, all shows the same ugly and revolting details: retaliations, expropriations, armed robberies, bombs, execution of hostages. And it is always the innocents who foot the bill, like Sergeants Martin and Paice, like your boys, who have to carry out a loathsome and immoral policy; for they are under orders, and they know not what they do.

The reason, according to Mr. Bevin, for using men o' war and paratroopers to fight the inglorious battle of the Palestine beaches, is Britain's duty to protect Arab interests – another version of the White Man's Burden. In fact, the situation between Jew and Arab in Palestine is much the same as between Moslem and Hindu in India. The proportion of Moslem to Hindu is roughly 1 to 3; of Jew to Arab roughly 1 to 2. In some fields, where their interests are parallel, they collaborate; in all major points their culture and political aspirations clash. As there is no hope of reconciling these for a considerable time, the inevitable solution is to partition the country. This is hard luck on the Arabs; but they have thrived on this hard luck and grown in health and prosperity as never before in history. It is also hard luck on the Jews; for the Mandate gave them Palestine including Transjordan, and now they will have to be content themselves with a fraction of one-half of it. It may be argued that it was wrong to promise in 1917 a predominantly Arab country to the Jews, but this argument leads nowhere; for to-day the Jewish third in Palestine is a fact which cannot be undone, nor can their fields and orange groves be reconverted into desert and marsh. Since the Royal Commission recommended partition in 1937, every level-headed observer has agreed to this – except the Labour Party, which urged a Jewish State in the whole of Palestine.

But, you will object, all this may be true and very regrettable; however, now that we have passed the whole problem on to Uno it is for them, and no longer for us, to decide. Again you have been misled. The Uno Commission is not the first which has been asked to suggest a policy for Palestine – it is, if I remember rightly, the seventeenth or eighteenth. The Royal Commission in 1937 suggested partition; the Chamberlain Government issued the White Paper instead. Last year we had the Anglo-American Commission; your Foreign Secretary pledged himself to carry out their suggestion if they were unanimous; they were unanimous; they were not carried out. The methods which Mr. Bevin used to sabotage any constructive solution, to get out of his Party’s, his Government’s, and his personal commitments, sounded more than anything like the subterfuges of a Jewish pettifogger. The terms under which he passed the matter on to Uno contain the same loopholes as the previous invitations to other bodies to make “suggestions.” He referred to Uno as an International Tribunal – but reserved the right to accept or reject the Tribunal’s verdict. In the light of their past experiences, it is not surprising that the Palestine Jews suspect this latest move of being another subterfuge to gain time and to continue a policy based on principles which Mr. Bevin’s colleagues in the Cabinet have branded as morally and politically indefensible. The one proof of the honesty of his intentions would be for him to state unequivocally that Britain will either accept Uno’s verdict or surrender the Mandate and clear out.

Meanwhile two things can be done to stop the vicious circle of terror and retaliation. The first is to go to Uno with constructive proposals for a just partition of the country, to be enforced if need be with international help – instead of presenting a record of impotency and bankruptcy. The second is to raise the monthly immigration quota from 1,500 to 5,000 during the period of transition without political conditions, as a minimum gesture of good will. I can assure you, on the strength of many years of experience in Palestine, that this alone would be enough to lead to an immediate suspension of terrorism and at least to a kind of armistice while Uno’s decision is pending.

Is it as simple as that? It is as simple as that. And if public opinion still has a say in your country, now is the time to stop disaster. For the Jews of Palestine fight for one thing only, for the oldest slogan in their history: Let My People Go. There were six million of them in Europe; only one of ten is left. Your countrymen are very fond of the word decency; if you have any left, let them go.

If you refuse, you will have to take the consequences, which may be more serious than you think. For you should understand that there is more at stake here than meets the eye. A great Empire which rules the seven seas can afford to flaunt the world’s opinion. But you are no longer that; you cannot afford to put might before right; and you have already antagonised on this issue public opinion in just the two countries you need most: the U.S.A. and France. The future of a country which is on the downward grade in terms of power depends more than on anything else on its moral integrity. Palestine is a test for your integrity; and in more than one sense your fate is linked with hers.

Yours truly,

ARTHUR KOESTLER