Strangely, to gauge the depth of the family of nations’ predisposition against the family of Israel, we should embark on a detour to faraway Guyana, or as it was once known – British Guiana. The forgotten “New Balfour Declaration,” that earmarked that crown colony as an alternative to the Jewish National Home in this country, is particularly relevant on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It encapsulated all the “goodwill” that the family of nations could once muster toward the beleaguered Jewish people. Things are still no better.
Yesteryear’s Guiana unexpectedly contextualizes the ongoing unique bias towards the Jewish state today and its depiction as an outlaw occupier (even in tiny stretches of its own homeland, directly contiguous to its own miniature independent domain).
Indeed, the bias that preceded the very founding of the Jewish state pretty much foreshadowed the antagonism it would arouse decades later.
That antagonism doesn’t derive from aversion to Israel’s supposed strength (i.e. our so far insufferably successful self defense). It fulminated most shamefully when the Jewish people couldn’t conceivably have been more helpless – on the eve of the Holocaust. Worse yet – this antagonism wasn’t merely rife in the Third Reich. It also thrived among the democracies, even if in a sinisterly duplicitous guise.
In Germany, anyone who read Hitler’s Mein Kampf was in no doubt about what’s in store down the line. Concentration camps already operated; Jewish heads were busted in the streets; Jewish businesses were vandalized; Jewish property was robbed; Jewish books were burned; Jewish children were kicked out of school; all Jews had to don yellow-star patches and add either Sara or Israel to their Germanized given names.
Nonetheless, this didn’t really change churlish attitudes towards Jews in democratic societies, though it annoyingly ramped up the discomfiture quotient. Jews were attempting to escape and the free world resented them for knocking at its gates. The British Foreign office, in rare candor, referred to them as “unwanted Jews.”
Fiendishly mocking western hypocrisy, Hitler tauntingly invited the flustered democracies to shelter his Jews, if they were so fretful about them. He knew that for all their feigned piety, these countries wouldn’t take his provocative dare.
In July 1938 their put-upon representatives conferred in Evian-les-Bains, on Lake Geneva’s French shore, to deliberate what to do about refugees whom they pointedly refrained from calling Jews, so as not to offend the fuehrer. But, to Hitler’s unconcealed delight, it all turned into an unabashed contest to find the most remote and inhospitable exile for Nazism’s desperate outcasts – no improvement to speak of on Hitler’s initial intent to banish the Jews to Madagascar.
Britain resentfully refused to allow Jews into the land mandated to it as the Jewish National Home. The Nazi-sympathizing forebears of today’s Arab/Palestinian terrorists made sure that vulnerable Jews wouldn’t be rescued. His Majesty’s appeasement-minded government willingly acquiesced.
Jews were likewise excluded from the immense unpopulated spaces of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. American benevolence notwithstanding, Jewish refugees weren’t wanted in the Land of the Free either (i.e. the St. Louis episode).
In the spirit of Uncle Sam’s effusive kindness, though, FDR proposed dumping German Jews in Ethiopia or Central Africa. Others suggested that the Siberian arctic might be a preferable hardship to the rigors of the tropics for urbane Jews.
But when Evian’s aimless pseudo-humanitarian travesty adjourned, Britain was left with the hot potato because it kept on vigorously preventing Jews from finding refuge in their own historic homeland. As such, Britain appeared to shoulder a greater onus than other indifferent nations.
That was when British Guiana suddenly loomed as an irresistibly alluring alternative. In February 1939 – shortly before the May publication of the White Paper that drastically further limited already restricted Jewish immigration into Eretz Yisrael – London dispatched to Guiana members of an international investigating committee under the sponsorship of the Evian-initiated Inter-Governmental Commission on Refugees.
Its task was to explore the feasibility of the Neville Chamberlain government’s idea to designate Guiana’s hinterland as a new destination for Jewish immigration and settlement. In other words, rather than honor its Balfour Declaration commitment, Whitehall sought exotic substitutes for it. Rather than support the already vibrant Jewish National Home, it plotted to replace it bizarrely. For that purpose, His Majesty’s officials homed in on the rain forests and swamps of Guiana’s interior. Habitable coastal terrains were out-of-bounds for Jews.
Chamberlain hyped this as the incarnation of generosity, but conveniently omitted mention that only a few years earlier the very same area was decreed unsuitable for other refugees. A notion of settling nearly 20,000 persecuted Iraqi Assyrians in that very spot was nixed in 1935 by both an international commission and by London.
But what wasn’t fit for Iraqis was judged as good enough for Berlin Jews in 1939. Thus the Evian Commission recommended a two-year trial period during which a vanguard of 3,000–5,000 refugees would be shipped off to Guiana ahead of larger-scale Jewish resettlement.
The US Ambassador to the Court of St. James, one Joseph Kennedy (not renowned for his love of Jews), was especially active in promoting this scheme. He estimated it might eventually remove to Guiana some 10,000-20,000 Jewish families.
Yet even this hardly compassionate contrivance wasn’t expedited. British bureaucracy was in no rush. Chamberlain himself admitted on November 21, 1938 (during a parliamentary debate on “the question of minorities in Europe”) that development of the virgin Guianese tracts under consideration “has hitherto been prevented by unfavourable conditions and lack of communications. It would, therefore, be essential that careful surveys by experts should be made…
“Provided that the results of the surveys are satisfactory, His Majesty’s Government would contemplate the lease of large areas of land on generous terms under conditions to be settled hereafter.”
In the interim, the Brits staunchly refused to let Jewish refugees disembark in British Guiana, British Honduras or Trinidad. Their anti-Jewish injunctions spanned the globe, extending far beyond the shores of the embryonic Jewish state.
By May 12, 1939 the Guianese Jewish resettlement ploy hadn’t been advanced one bit except for Chamberlain’s announcement in the House of Commons that London would help its colony absorb Jews “insofar as that may be practicable,” pending a successful two-year trial colonization which was many months away from even starting. Much preparatory work still needed to be undertaken since “opening up an undeveloped country is a long and expensive business.”
Foot-dragging and abundant excuses moved the Earl of Selborne to issue his prophetic warning: “Don’t wait until a plan is found and agreed upon by all the Governments and parliaments of the empire… The Jews will be all dead by then.”
Millions had indeed been exterminated by December 30, 1942 when David Ben-Gurion delivered a scathing address to the Assembly of Representatives (Israel’s proto-Knesset). The British Mandatory censor, however, forbade the publication in print of much of that milestone speech, which inter alia constituted a passionate epilogue to the Guianese alternative to the Zionist endeavor in the Land of Israel.
The original typed text was belatedly discovered in the IDF Archives and released in digitalized form last year, replete with numerous blue-pencil erasures and stamped: “Passed and Corrected by Censor.”
Calling for the establishment of a Jewish army (as distinct from the auxiliary Jewish Brigade), Ben-Gurion warned the British that “as long as our land’s gates are shut to Israel’s refugees, your hands will be soaked in Jewish blood, spilled in the Nazi inferno.”
The slaughter of “hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of victims,” he asserted, is “the product of bias against the Jewish nation… a nation which has no country and no independence. We demand repair of this inequity: an equal national status, a country and independence for the Jewish people.”
“…Not the Nazis, but you, civilized nations, impinge on our honor when you impinge on our right as a nation… We want to fight Hitler as a Jewish army. All Jews who aren’t subject to conscription in another military force, all free Jews demand their human right. We demand the right of our national honor to enlist in a Jewish army, under a Jewish flag, as an equal ally among all the Allies.”
All this culminated in the punch line:”And we demand not only our right to fight as Jews, we demand the right that every nation in world has, be it big or small, the right to an independent homeland.”
In a sense we still do. Our struggle to this day is for the same rights.
In our own eyes we had realized our dream. We have our independence, buttressed by the Israel Defense Forces. But what‘s obvious to us isn’t necessarily accepted by others.
It’s scarcely astonishing that the Arab world, which avidly and actively collaborated with Hitler, rejects rights that to us are inalienable. This is what Ramallah’s refusal to recognize the very legitimacy of a Jewish state is ultimately all about.
But the bias that pervaded the world’s democracies when they conspired to unload “unwanted Jews” in British Guiana still pervades them 75-years later. That persistent bias continues to cast doubts in seemingly friendly societies about the justice of our case.
That’s why the “New Balfour Declaration” and “the alternative homeland” remain relevant for our perspective. Cynical promises still dispensed by members of the family of nations to us in the Jewish state are as disingenuous as the promise of a haven in the inaccessible jungle proved to be for stateless Jews sentenced to die because they were Jews.
Under one pretext or another many among the dysfunctional family of nations would still rather have us out of their sight – dispatched somehow to some God-forsaken somewhere – than see us where we are, sovereign in our own land.
To them we should speak in Ben-Gurion’s forthright words to the “civilized nations”: “As long as the bias against the Jewish people continues, we will not believe the sincerity of your pronouncements about justice, freedom and truth.”