By Oscar Clarke
Lately, I have been reading Bartley Crum’s Behind the Silken Curtain, published in 1947 and included as a Left Book Club choice that same year. The author, a member of the Anglo-American Joint Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, was tasked with collecting evidence to help inform his government and ours in deciding what to do about the displaced Jews of Europe.
Of the book’s revelations, one of the most curious emanates from the author’s conversations with Chaim Weizmann. The first cataclysm of Zionism, Weizmann reflected, was the historical coincidence by which the Bolshevik Revolution occurred literally days after the Balfour Declaration.
After the Revolution of February 1917, during the brief liberal regime of Alexander Kerensky, Russian Zionists had raised hundreds of millions of roubles to fund emigration to Palestine (the country’s Jews had suffered terribly at the hands of the Black Hundreds, inspired, like the Nazis after them, by what Norman Cohn called a Warrant for Genocide, the outrageous Protocols of the Elders of Zion).
In 1917, Palestine’s Arab population was little more than half-a-million. There could have been, Weizmann claimed, a Jewish majority in Palestine by the early 1920s, and a largely frictionless solution to the problem of the disputed land. But the Balfour Declaration had convinced Lenin that Zionism was a tool of British imperialism. After the October Revolution, Zionism was banned in the USSR; the state confiscated all the money that the Zionists had raised and forbade Jewish emigration. The major consequence of this failed opportunity was not that the Zionist project was stalled, nor even that European Jews didn’t have a place of escape after 1933. The lasting legacy of Lenin’s appropriation was that intellectuals and regimes in the Arab world were given the time they required to embrace the same toxic ideology that had made Jewish life unlivable in Russia and Europe.
The bitter fruits of anti-Semitism, which has since burrowed so deeply into Arab culture, are borne not chiefly upon Israelis, but Palestinians. In the book, Crum recalled an observation of Wendell Willkie’s: that anti-Semitism is a virus, and that any society that practiced it would self-destruct. A few pages on, Weizmann is addressing the committee: “We warned you,” he said, “that the first flames which licked the synagogues of Berlin would set fire to the whole world.” In a disturbing remark quoted in Sebastian Haffner’s biography of him, Hitler promised to punish the Germans if they failed in their historical duty to eradicate the Jews. In his last testament, he admitted defeat in his imaginary war with international Jewry, then, with almost every German city reduced to ruins, he shot himself.
Crum’s book affirmed with moral clarity the Jewish people’s right to a homeland; it denounced the sordid imperialism of the British government, which was more concerned with acceding to the demands of Arab despots than abiding by the promises it had made to Europe’s long-suffering Jews; and it contained a message of hope, based upon the observation that Jewish immigration had improved the lot of Palestine’s Arabs. Crum contended that when freed from the toxic politics of cynical Arab rulers, Jews and Arabs demonstrated that they were not enemies.
It is dismaying to reflect that the above represented progressive opinion in 1947. For Behind the Silken Curtain was a Left Book Club Choice, and the Labour Party’s official position on the same subject, in 1944, was this:
“There is surely neither hope nor meaning in a Jewish National Home unless we are prepared to let the Jews, if they wish, enter this tiny land in such numbers as to become a majority. There was a strong case for this before the war, and there is an irresistible case for it now, after the unspeakable atrocities of the cold-blooded, calculated Nazi plan to kill all the Jews of Europe.”
It is dismaying because seventy years have passed, and progressive opinion in 2017 has regressed beyond comprehension. Today’s bien pensants are interested only in the victimhood of the Palestinians and the cosmic evil of the Israelis. Whilst well-meaning celebrities put their names to open letter after open letter, decrying Israel, none of them stop to ask themselves if seventy years of Arab intransigence has made life better or worse for the Palestinians – if anti-Semitism is the virus they continue to suffer from. And another, incredible phenomenon: in 2017, at a demonstration in Central London, a large male crowd call for war against the Jews – “Khaybar Khaybar, ya yahud, Jaish Muhammad, sa yahud” (“Jews, remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning”) – and nobody is there to condemn it.