Hard Leftist Tom Segev attended a lecture by Sir Martin Gilbert (pictured) at Tel Aviv University this past week, and from reading this account, I got the impression that Segev resents the fact that Gilbert is so strongly pro-Israel.
Gilbert, 75, has written more than 80 books, which makes him one of history’s most prolific historians. He authored Winston Churchill’s most comprehensive biography and a number of other important books. He and Crossman met at the Weizmann Archive in Rehovot, related Gilbert, telling another story he heard from him: In one of the DP camps, two of the Anglo-American commission members saw a Jew from Poland tearing up a U.S. immigration certificate. He was afraid the Holocaust could repeat itself there too, he said.
Crossman believed most of the camp inmates were interested in settling in the Land of Israel, but he also asked himself what the refugees would decide if the United States were an option. America had not invited them; they had to choose between Palestine and their countries of origin, including Poland, which had become a communist and anti-Semitic state. They preferred Palestine. Crossman’s question has remained open; Gilbert did not mention it.
It was a fine lecture, organized in chronological order. In the conflict between his country and Zionism seven decades ago, Gilbert is on Zionism’s side. This is not a black-and-white story, he noted, and he quoted certain British officials who evinced sympathy for the Zionist alternative, including the British ambassador in Poland in the 1940s. However, most of his references reflected great hostility to Zionism and even to the concentration camp survivors. Those of the latter who wound up under British occupation in Germany and Austria were put into detention camps and their food rations restricted, as though they were not victims of the Nazis but rather captive enemy soldiers.
Many years later Gilbert met the British diplomat George William Rendel, who wanted to deliver a confession. “There is something I regret,” he said. Gilbert pricked up his ears. “I regret I didn’t do more to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel.” Gilbert did not say that the British officials’ hostility reflected anti-Semitism: Apparently they simply preferred Arab oil.
Ultimately the British left Palestine, in response to growing Arab terror. Gilbert did not mention the Arab Revolt, which had already given the British their fill of the Land of Israel at the end of the 1930s, as though it had no part in this story.
Gilbert’s criticism of his country was very bitter. In Britain, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe is speaking in a similar tone, but he is attacking Zionist policy there. The difference between the two is this: Many Israelis consider Pappe to be a self-hating traitor. Sir Martin received a noble title from his queen and among those present at his lecture this week was Matthew Gould, the United Kingdom’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel.