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The British in Palestine, A Conveniently Forgotten Holocaust

In the years that followed the Second World War, Lord Beaverbrook’s old Sunday Express would regale its readers with the secret history of the 1939-45 conflict: “What Hitler would have done if England was under Nazi occupation”; “How Ike almost cancelled D-Day”; “Churchill’s plans for using gas on Nazi invaders.” Often–though not always–the stories were true. After war come the facts. It’s not so long ago, after all, that we discovered that Nato’s mighty 1999 blitz on Serbia’s army netted a total of just 10 tanks.

But it took Eric Lowe of Hayling Island in Hampshire to remind me of the inversion of history, the way in which historically proven facts, clearly established, come to be questioned decades later or even deleted from the record for reasons of political or moral weakness. Eric runs a magazine called Palestine Scrapbook, a journal for the old British soldiers who fought in Palestine–against both Arabs and Jews–until the ignominious collapse of the British mandate in 1948. In Mr Lowe’s magazine, there are personal memories of the bombing of British headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem–a “terrorist” bombing, of course, except that it was carried out by a man who was later to become Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin.

Dennis Shelton of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps writes a letter, recalling an Arab attack on a British Army lorry in Gaza. “We opened up on them, the ones who could still run away. We found two [British] army bods under the wagon, both badly wounded. I went in the ambulance with them to Rafah hospital. I was holding the side of one’s head to keep his brains in. I often wondered if indeed they recovered.” Mr Lowe has asked for information about the soldier whom Dennis Shelton tried to save.

But he’s probably wasting his time, because the British Army’s first post-World War Two war–the 1945-48 conflict in Palestine–has been “disappeared”, sidelined as something that no one wants to remember. According to Mr Lowe, many of the British campaign medals for Palestine were never issued. Dennis Peck, of the Sherwood Foresters, only realised he’d been awarded one in 1998. Until two years ago, the campaign was never mentioned at the Armistice parade in London. There’s not even a definitive figure for the British troops who died–around 400 were killed or died of wounds. And it took over 50 years for British veterans to get a memorial for the dead: in the end, the veterans had to pay for it from their own pockets.

But in the late Forties, all Britain was seized by the war in Palestine. When Jewish gunmen hanged two British sergeants, booby-trapping their bodies into the bargain, Britons were outraged. The British, it must be added, had just hanged Jewish militants in Palestine. But now– nothing. Our dead soldiers in Palestine, far from being remembered at the going down of the sun, are largely not remembered at all.

So who are we frightened of here? The Arabs? The Israelis? And isn’t this just a small example of the suppression of historical truth which continues over the 20th century’s first holocaust? I raise this question because of a recent and deeply offensive article by Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times. Back in 1915, his paper–then an honourable journal of record–broke one of the great and most terrible stories of the First World War: the planned slaughter of 1.5 million Christian Armenians by the Turkish Ottoman government. The paper’s headlines, based in many cases on US diplomats in Turkey, alerted the world to this genocide. By 16 September, a New York Times correspondent had spoken of “a campaign of extermination, involving the murdering of 800,000 to 1,000,000 persons”.

It was all true. Save for the Turkish government, a few American academics holding professorships funded by Turkey and the shameful denials of the Israeli government, there is today not a soul who doubts the nature or the extent of this genocide. Even in the 1920s, Winston Churchill himself called it a “holocaust”. But not Mr Kinzer. Over the course of the past few years, he’s done everything he can to destroy the integrity of his paper’s brilliant, horrifying, exclusive reports of 1915. Constantly recalling Turkey’s fraudulent claim that the Armenians died in the civil unrest in Asia Minor at the time, he has referred to the genocide as “ethnic cleansing” and treated the figure of 1.5 million dead as a claim–something he would surely never do in reference to the 6 million Jews later murdered by the Nazis.

Recently, Mr Kinzer has written about the new Armenian Genocide museum in Washington, commenting artfully that there’s “a growing recognition by advocacy groups that museums can be powerful tools to advance political causes”. In other words, unlike the Jewish Holocaust museum–and the Jewish Holocaust itself, which would never be used by Israel to silence criticism of its cruel behaviour in the occupied territories–there might be something a bit dodgy about the Armenian version. Then comes the killer. “Washington already has one major institution, the United States Holocaust Museum, that documents an effort to destroy an entire people,” Mr Kinzer wrote. “The story it presents is beyond dispute. But the events of 1915 are still a matter of intense debate.” Are they hell, Mr Kinzer.

But why should we be surprised at this classic piece of historical revisionism? Israel’s own ambassador to present-day Armenia, Rivka Cohen, has been peddling more or less the same rubbish, refusing to draw any parallels with the Jewish Holocaust and describing the Armenian Holocaust as a mere “tragedy”. She is, in fact, following the official Israeli Foreign Office line that “this [Armenian Holocaust] should not be described as genocide”.Israel’s top Holocaust scholar, Israel Charney, has most courageously campaigned against those who lie about the Armenian genocide–I advise readers to buy his stunning Encyclopaedia of Genocide–and he has been joined by many other Jewish scholars. But with Turkey’s alliance with Israel, its membership of Nato, its possible EU entry, and its massive arms purchases from the United States, the growing power of its well-paid lobby groups has smothered even their efforts.

Which raises one last question. Armenian academics have been investigating the identity of those young German officers who were training the Ottoman army in 1915 and who in some cases actually witnessed the Armenian Holocaust–whose victims were, in some cases, transported to their deaths in railway cattle-cars. Several of those German soldiers’ names, it now transpires, crop up again just over a quarter of a century later–as senior Wehrmacht officers in Russia, helping Hitler to carry out the Jewish Holocaust. Even the dimmest of us might think there was a frightening connection here. But not, I guess, Mr Kinzer. Nor the modern-day New York Times, which is so keen to trash its own historic exclusives for fear of what Turkey–or Israel–might say. Personally, I’d call it all a form of Holocaust denial. And I know what Eric Lowe would call it: cowardice under fire.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

February 19, 2019
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