Namier, Zionism and the Palestine Question: A Case Study of Objectivity, Truth, and Balance in the Writing of History

Alexander Lyon Macfie. Rethinking History. Volume 20, Issue 4. December 2016.

Lewis Namier was one of the best known and most respected historians of the first half of the twentieth century and beyond, noted for his stubborn pursuit of objectivity, truth and historical balance. This article offers a survey of Namier’s attitude to Zionism and the Palestine Question, and considers the extent to which he and a number of his friends and admirers were able to maintain such objectivity, truth and historical balance in the face of the threat posed to them and to others by the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in the inter war years and the resulting holocaust. The answer, not surprisingly, is: not very far. Though a number of philosophers of history might well argue that, in this particular case at least, questions of objectivity, truth and balance were not relevant, as the case Namier makes for Jewish emigration to Palestine was essentially practical (as defined by Michael Oakeshott in his Experience and Its Modes, 1933 and On History, 1983) and not historical (again as defined by Oakeshott in the same books).

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Lewis Namier (1888-1960), the noted historian of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century English and European history, son of a Polonised Jewish landowner who no longer practised the Jewish religion, wrote a series of essays, articles and commentaries on Zionism and the Palestine question. These writings, considered by the historian J. L. Talmon to be among the most moving in Jewish literature (240), provide a fascinating insight into the intellectual and political history both of the movement itself and of the period more generally. At the same time, they raise a number of questions regarding the issue of (ethical) responsibility, the responsibility of the historian to maintain the conventional standards of objectivity, truth and balance.

In the 1920s—towards the end of which he was appointed Professor of Modern History at Manchester University, a post that he was to hold until near the end of his career—Namier wrote two major works on English history, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III and England in the Age of the American Revolution, both noted for their strict adherence to the conventional values of objectivity, truth and balance. But it was the fate of his own people, mainly in Eastern Europe, that inspired him to write about a third, probably his most deeply felt, subject, namely Zionism—the movement associated with an attempt to establish or re-establish a Jewish state or nation state in Palestine. As he explained in an article on the subject, published in the New Statesman of 5 November 1929, for more than eighteen hundred years the Jews had awaited the Messianic miracle and the return to their own land. Indifferent to the world around them and to their own sufferings, they had tried to ‘found’ no ‘permanent existence’ anywhere, and they had made no plans. But now that Messianic faith was dying fast, and Israel had to face the practical problems of its own existence and an uncertain future: a ‘stupendous process of reorientation’ was in progress in the ‘oldest and most tenacious of races’. Orthodox Jewry, in short, was a ‘melting glacier’ and Zionism the river that sprang from it (New Statesman, November 5 1927).

In Namier’s view, a principal source of the ‘river’ of Zionism lay in Eastern Europe, amongst the seven million or so mainly Yiddish-speaking Jews who lived there. The Jewries of Western and Central Europe, the ‘fringes of the glacier’, were unlikely to contribute much, as baptism, birth control and inter-marriage were leading to their rapid dissolution and potential disappearance. Nor would American Jewry, which in recent years had taken over the intellectual and financial leadership of world Jewry, contribute significantly, as they too were suffering from dissolution. In other words, the main body of Jews, whose existence formed the ‘real Jewish question’, remained in Eastern Europe, while the Jews primarily called upon to deal with the problem lived in America and England. As for the political leadership of ‘Jewish nationalism’, that must now be located in London, close to the authority mainly responsible for the administration of the Palestine Mandate (New Statesman, November 5 1927). (In 1920 Great Britain had been granted a mandate by the League of Nations to administer Palestine).

Namier’s own commitment to the Zionist cause was slow to develop. Though he is said to have inquired of Lionel Curtis, an Oxford friend and an acquaintance of Herbert Samuel, the prominent Anglo-Jewish politician—Namier attended Oxford University in 1908-12—whether in the new circumstances created by the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War on the side of the Central Powers something might be done for the Jewish people in Palestine, it was not until he met Dr Chaim Weizman, the charismatic leader of the Zionist movement, at the Paris peace conference in 1919, that he became fully convinced of the viability of the Zionist programme, now more than ever made necessary by the instability of the post-war situation in Eastern Europe (Namier, 141). Thereafter, though at times he disagreed with the tactics of the Zionist leadership, Namier never again lost confidence in the ultimate objectives of the movement, and worked, in one capacity or another, for the rest of his life for their attainment.

In his writings on the Jewish question, Namier’s analysis changed little in the course of the years. The essential elements remained throughout the attachment of a people to its land, the nation and the state. In order to attain ‘full moral stature and intellectual poise, to enjoy life and be socially creative’ a man must belong to a nation, and that nation must have a place in the world (Namier, 125). An attachment to a particular place gives a man the will to fight. Without that attachment he remains morally disarmed, helpless against a hostile attack. For the Jewish nation there was but one such place, Palestine.

Namier gave short shrift to those who argued in favour of alternative solutions to the Jewish question, whether expressed in terms of assimilation or territorial settlement elsewhere: ‘ toleration’ or ‘Timbuktu’, as he frequently referred to them (138). On assimilation he wrote:

For the desire to be ‘assimilated’ is a confession of inferiority, an attempt to divest oneself of one’s own inheritance in order to share in that of others. He who does that submits, without the will or means to stand up for himself, to the scrutiny and judgement of people for whom he feels attachment and an often uncritical admiration, but who do not necessarily feel any for him. (127-128)

And on Timbuktu:

For countless generations we waited for the Messianic miracle to accomplish the Return: if it is to be achieved by the work of men, this must be done in the tradition and faith which have made us live and bid us survive. To find rest we have to go back to ‘the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein’; elsewhere the earth is waste and void, and the heavens have no light. (157-158)

The establishment of a ‘national home’ for the Jews in Palestine would, as Namier pointed out in his New Statesman article on Zionism of 5 November 1927, provide substantial benefits not only for those Jews who chose to reside there but also for those who chose to remain in the Diaspora, possibly a majority. It would give them a standing among other nations, just as the existence of the Irish Free State did for the many Irishmen scattered throughout the world; and above all it would give them normality—every nation must somewhere have its own ‘territorial centre’.

Namier’s attitude to implementation of the Zionist programme, on the other hand, changed with the circumstances of the time and with his own awareness of the difficulties involved. In 1927, in his New Statesman article on the question, he proposed, somewhat naively perhaps, that a Palestinian state, with a mixed population of Jews and Arabs, should be set up as a seventh dominion of the British Empire; though he recognized that such a ‘healthy symbiosis’ would require that the Arabs give up their dreams of pan-Arabism (Namier, 201-202). Such a solution, as he pointed out in an unpublished essay written about the same time, would be advantageous to both the Jews and the British: ‘Palestine as the common home of the Jews and Arabs, associated with the British Commonwealth as the Seventh Dominion, would supply a cover to the Suez Canal, better than any naval base or military garrison, and would, at the same time, become the foremost cultural and economic outpost of Europe in the Near East’ (Rose, 32-33).

Arab attacks on Jewish settlements in Palestine (mainly in August 1929), together with what Zionists saw as British attempts to whittle away the Balfour Declaration in the Passfield White Paper of 1930), soon cast a shadow over such expectations; but he continued to believe, as he wrote in a memorandum composed for private circulation in 1936 entitled ‘Palestine and the British Empire’, that Zionist objectives could best be attained in association with Britain. Ultimately, however, Jewish prosperity in Palestine would depend on the Jews reaching an understanding with the Arabs: ‘They [the Jews] cannot be truly safe, even if they are a majority in Palestine, with a vast and discontented minority in their midst, which can, moreover, appeal for help to the surrounding countries’ (91).

Concessions made by Britain to the Arabs in the Royal Commission Report of 1937—where it was proposed that Jewish immigration into Palestine should be further restricted—and in the Macdonald White Paper of 1939, further diminished Namier’s confidence in Britain as a champion of the Jewish cause. Nevertheless, as Europe descended into the abyss, he saw no alternative for the Jewish people but to remain loyal to the British. As he wrote in an introduction to his 1936 memorandum, republished in In the Margin of History in 1939: ‘The fate of Jewry is bound up with that of the British Empire, now more closely than ever: a defeat of the British empire at the hands of the dictators would spell annihilation both to European and to Palestinian Jewry’ (84). Even in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War, as Britain’s ability to control the situation in Palestine weakened, Namier continued to hope for the creation in Palestine of a Jewish Commonwealth, within the framework of the British Empire, or even of an Atlantic Union that would somehow differentiate the future of the Jews from their past. Such a solution, he believed, was now more than ever feasible as, following the decimation of European Jewry in the war and the incarceration of most of those Jews remaining in the Soviet Union, the core of the Jewish problem (55% of world Jewry) was now to be found in the English speaking countries (Manchester Guardian, 8 March, 1946). Only in November 1947, when the United Nations voted for partition and the effective creation of a Jewish state, did Namier finally lose confidence in his prognosis and come to accept that if the Jewish settlers in Palestine were to have any hope of establishing an independent state there, they would have to do so by their own efforts, deprived of the active support of many of the great powers.

Namier’s writings on Zionism in the late twenties, thirties and forties contain many fine passages on the background to the movement, and on the peculiar conflux of forces, political, cultural and historical, that threatened the very survival of his people. On the impact of Zionism on the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab world in general, on the other hand, he has little or nothing to say. In his New Statesman article of 5 November 1927 he recognizes only economic obstacles to Jewish immigration into Palestine; and these, he declared, could in time be overcome: ‘The ways to increase the possibilities for immigration will be found; under modern conditions the possibilities of each country are what men make them.’ In his introduction to Arthur Ruppin’s book, The Jews in the Modern World, reprinted in In the Margin of History, he mentions Palestine only once, as the Promised Land (the ‘half-promised land of Mandatory politics’), a place where it might be possible to build a ‘National Home’ (57). True, in his memorandum of 1936 he does draw attention to the need for an understanding with the Palestinian Arabs: neither race should ever be reduced to a minority status in the land they own in common. Yet paradoxically there should be no limitation on Jewish immigration, other than that inherent in the economic position: ‘We must be allowed to develop the resources of Palestine and bring in immigrants to the limit of the absorptive capacity of the country’ (91). In a review of Arnold Toynbee’s Survey of International Affairs, 1938, originally published in The Nineteenth Century and After in 1942, and reprinted in Conflicts, a part of which is concerned with ‘The Administration of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1938-9’, he merely suggests, amongst much other detailed comment and analysis, that the neighboring Arab states (Iraq and Egypt) had no right to be represented at the London Conference, and rejects out of hand Arab demands, supposedly based on promises made to the Arabs in the MacMahon Letters and other documents, for an abrogation of the Palestine Mandate and cancellation of the Balfour Declaration.

Nor does Namier’s attitude change much following the outbreak of the Second World War. In ‘The Jews’, an article published in The Nineteenth Century and After in 1941, reprinted in Conflicts, which consists of sixteen closely argued pages, he does not even mention the Arabs, while in ‘Numbers and Exodus’, an article published in The New Judaee in 1942, also reprinted in Conflicts, he mentions Palestine but two or three times and the Palestinians hardly at all. It is true, he admits, that there had always been Arab hostility to the British mandate and the idea of a Jewish national home, but he could not believe it beyond the range of statesmanship to ‘square the equation between the Arabs and the rest of the world which through Palestine alone can find a solution to the Jewish question: national independence and unity within the vast Arab territories, and extensive help in developing them, must surely count as sufficient compensation for a strip of country the size of Wales which even now is bi-national, and is to the Jews the one and only place in the entire world which they claim as their national heritage’ (162). Even in ‘The Jewish Problem Re-argued: A Palestinian State the Only Solution’, an article published in the Manchester Guardian of 16 November 1943, in which he did pay some small attention to the aims and aspirations of the Palestinian and other Arab peoples (‘The basic Arab aims are complete independence, national unity, and the elimination of European political influence and interference’), Namier continued doggedly to concentrate on what he saw as the overriding need of the Jewish people to create a nation state in Palestine: ‘To the Jew, Palestine is all in all, for which he could not be compensated; to the Arab, Palestine is only a ‘small notch’ in his vast territories which have been liberated for him by Allied arms in two world wars. The Jew, if deprived his state in Palestine (sic), is deprived of all independent natural existence, the Arab enjoys it in a number of states.’ If at the price of Palestine the Arabs obtain complete independence everywhere else, plus ample financial compensation, they would strike a not unfavorable bargain. ‘Palestinian Arabs might object, but nowhere can the fate of empires be made to depend on the willing consent of a ‘Tyrone and Fermanagh’ [two disputed counties in Northern Ireland]’ (Manchester Guardian, 16 November 1943).

In one respect only was Namier’s general disregard of the Arab aspects of the Palestine question seriously qualified. Throughout the twenties, thirties and forties, in a series of letters, notes and memoranda, he constantly drew attention to the need for Jewish colonists in Palestine to prepare to defend themselves against Arab attacks. As he wrote on 6 September 1919, in a letter to Philip Kerr, written well before he became fully committed to the Zionist cause: ‘The colonists who are to enter Palestine once it is opened up, ought to be a disciplined force, composed of well-trained men and not an unorganized mob of unskilled refugees …. The settlers must be capable of defending themselves …. All the world over people get most easily reconciled to a successful fait accompli; in the East, I understand, this is the case to an even higher degree. Our aim ought to be to realize the policy laid down in the Balfour Declaration in the most efficient and quickest manner and with the least friction possible. For this a military organization of the Jewish colonization seems to me essential’ (Rose, 22-24). And in 1936, he wrote: ‘Our immigrants in Palestine should receive military training. Colonies might be placed in such a way as to cover essential strategic points and lines …. We should create an armament industry in Palestine, or at least industries that might easily be converted for that purpose’ (90-91). Somewhat more bluntly (according to Isaiah Berlin), in interviewing a candidate for a post in English at the University of Jerusalem, he is said to have inquired: ‘Mr. Levy, can you shoot? Because if you take this post, you will have to shoot. You will have to shoot our Arab cousins. Because, if you do not shoot them, they will shoot you.’ (Berlin, 37). As Namier remarked in 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (no doubt following Bismarck): ‘States are not created or destroyed, or frontiers redrawn or obliterated, by argument or majority votes; nations are freed, united, or broken by blood and iron’ (1948: The Revolution of the Intellectuals, 31).

Much of the literature inspired by Namier, not surprisingly perhaps, reflects the disregard for the Arab aspects of the Palestine question generally displayed by Namier in his various writings. Arnold Toynbee, in ‘Lewis Namier, Historian’, whilst recognizing that for Namier, Zionism was the ‘true master-passion’ of his life, makes no mention of the Arabs. J.L. Talmon, in ‘The Ordeal of Sir Lewis Namier: the Man, the Historian, the Jew’ likewise makes little or no mention of the Arabs, as does John Brooke in ‘Namier and Namierism’. Henry R. Winkler, in ‘Sir Lewis Namier’—an article mainly concerned with Namier’s studies in English and European history—recognizes Namier’s passionate commitment to Zionism and briefly describes his contribution to the Zionist cause, but makes no mention of the Arabs. Isaiah Berlin, in ‘L.B. Namier: A Personal Impression’—an article based almost entirely on Berlin’s memories of Namier—makes little or no mention of the Arabs, though he does write quite a lot about Zionism and Namier’s opinion of the fate of world Jewry. Julia Namier, Namier’s second wife, in her biography of her husband, Lewis Namier, concentrates her attention on the personal aspects of Namier’s life. Such attention as she does give to Namier’s political work is concerned almost entirely with his relations with the Jewish Agency and the British government. Arab aspects of the issues raised are for the most part simply ignored. Similarly, Linda Coley, in Lewis Namier—a book again mainly concerned with Namier’s role as a historian—almost never mentions the Arabs, though she does write briefly about Namier’s involvement in Zionist politics. For the most part this almost total disregard of the Arab aspects of the Palestine question in the Namier literature is understandable. What is not so understandable is that Namier, a historian who, in his historical work, almost always advocated a thorough review of all the circumstances of a given situation, should have so narrowed his own field of enquiry in investigating the Arab aspects of the Palestine Question as to almost entirely eliminate them from his consideration.

Namier’s evident disinclination to discuss the consequences for the Arab/Palestinian people of Jewish immigration into Palestine can be variously explained. First, it can be explained (probably by a conventional historian) by Namier’s lack of detailed knowledge and understanding of the area (the Middle East). And second, it can be explained by a willful intention to ignore. There is something to be said for both arguments. But I would argue that the latter explanation is by far the most convincing. It is true that, as a student primarily of European history, Namier had no particular reason to become deeply involved in the history of the Middle East; and intellectual insight gained in one area of expertise is not invariably transferable to another. The historian who wrote with such authority and understanding on the history of national and religious conflict in Europe may have failed to appreciate fully the ‘frantic, almost insane resentments’ that dispossession of territory would in all probability provoke in the Middle East (Manchester Guardian, April, 26, 1933). But the charge that, in his writings on the Zionism/Palestine Question Namier frequently and intentionally ignored the potential long-term effects of Jewish settlement in Palestine is I think much more convincing. The desire to convince Western opinion of the viability of the Zionist project remained a significant factor motivating his work throughout. In this respect, it can be said that Namier’s writings on the Zionism/Palestine question fulfill all the requirements of a certain sort of ‘practical history’, as defined by Michael Oakeshott in his Experience and Its Modes and On History. These are that history be used, not to inform the reader about the historical past (strictly defined as ‘what the evidence obliges us to believe’), but rather to argue, persuade, make a case and convince, entirely present and future oriented. To do this, in his writings on the Zionism/Palestine Question, that is to say, Namier assembled every rhetorical device that he could muster, including the repeated citing of supposed ‘historical’ facts, the skillful use of emotive language, and the suppression of inconvenient fact. In such a world, it may be remarked, issues of objectivity, truth and balance are hardly relevant, except as rhetorical devices. Nor, it may also be remarked, are the other failings of the historical process, identified in the last half century or so by a series of ‘postmodern’ philosophers of history, such as the constructed nature of all history, the absence of narrative structure in historical events, and the multiple failures of empiricism—weaknesses, alas, all too evident in this article.

Other (mainly postmodern) philosophers of history would go a great deal further in their questioning of the histories written by Namier, both in his essays On Zionism/the Palestine Question and in his other works. Keith Jenkins, for instance, in At the Limits of History, argues that over the last fifty years or so the historical past has been shown to be devoid of all meaning—purpose, significance, teleology. Meaning in history is not found but constructed, by the historian. Like memory, it is ontologically different from the past. History, in short, is inexpugnably relativistic (3-5). Alun Munslow similarly argues that history is not, as it was once thought to be, an empirical, analytical and representationalist way of engaging with the past. It is rather a fabricated, factious, fictive and figurative discourse. To create or read a history is to make contact with an irreal world of science and signification. The once concrete world is now only constituted by words, sentences, arguments, emplotments, tropes, ideological implications, textual timings and all the other innumerable, authorial provocations (183-184). It may be assumed then, that Jenkins and Munslow would wholeheartedly endorse Oakeshott’s view that Namier’s account of the Zionism/Palestine Question was primarily rhetorical. But they would go a great deal further and assert that all history is rhetorical. In making this assertion, therefore, they would have disagreed fundamentally with Namier, who despite his reservations about scientific history—he thought history was essentially an art—was inclined still to cling to the conventional, nineteenth century, view that, as he wrote in History, an essay on history published in Avenues of History, the subject matter of history is ‘Human affairs, men in action, things which have happened and how they happened; concrete events fixed in time and space, and their grounding in the thoughts and feelings of men—not things universal and generalized; events as complex and diversified as those men who wrought them, those rational beings whose knowledge is seldom sufficient, whose ideas are but distantly related to reality, and who are never moved by reason alone’ (1).

One does not need to go on. Here, in a nutshell is Namier’s summary of the conventional nineteenth century view of history: the view that the historian can meaningfully describe the past, access a concrete reality, and understand what happened, using the conventional instruments of chronology, narration and metaphor. No wonder that some modern philosophers of history considers Namier, despite all his considerable learning, to be a philosophical simpleton, an inadequate historian and a victim of his own prejudice.

It has been suggested that Namier’s long-standing commitment to the Zionist cause owed much to his own emotional needs and there is no doubt some truth (defined here as commonly believed to be the case) in this. According to Julia Namier, her husband first became aware of the ambiguity of his position, as a Polonised Jew with a sentimental attachment to Christianity, at the age of ten, when he was deeply shocked and embittered by what he saw as his parents’ deceit and his own loss of identity (35). At one point in an argument with his father he was told that in a religious sense he was in fact neither a Christian nor a Jew. ‘Nothing … nothing’, he later recalled, resounded in his mind and reverberated in his memory, opening up a ‘numinous void’ that was to remain with him for the rest of his life (Namier, 35). Following such a loss of faith, it is not surprising that Namier should have adopted a cause that offered him both a practical programme for survival in a dangerous and hostile world and the basis of a secular faith. But such an interpretation does not do justice to the high seriousness with which he approached the task of understanding the critical situation his people faced in Central and Eastern Europe in the period of the First and Second World Wars. Nor does it do justice to the toughness and vigor of his own response to the situation, which as Isaiah Berlin makes clear, in his account of his relations with Namier, was considerable. According to Berlin, what ultimately motivated Namier’s commitment to Zionism—the ‘deepest strain’ in his being—was pride: a determination to live a dignified existence, free from all forms of humiliation (Berlin, 35).

Namier’s commitment to the Zionist cause was not undertaken without personal sacrifice. In his youth his determination to reject assimilation led to conflict with his father. His later adoption of the cause, combined with what his father saw as his betrayal of Austria-Hungary in the First World War and his support for the Ukrainian and Ruthenian people at the peace conference, led in 1922 to his disinheritance, an experience so traumatic that it caused, so he believed, a psychosomatic ailment, the partial paralysis of his right hand (Rose, 27, note 62).

In the closing years of his life, Namier achieved both success and recognition. In 1944 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy, and in 1948 an Honorary Fellow of Balliol. In 1952 he was knighted, and in the same year invited to deliver the prestigious Romanes Lecture in Oxford. Finally, in 1958, during a visit to Israel (his first for more than twenty years), he was invited to address the Modern History seminar in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Throughout these years he remained as firm as ever in his commitment to Zionism and, following its foundation in 1948, to the State of Israel. Yet, paradoxically, though deeply moved during his visit to that country, he appears never to have contemplated settling there. As he once remarked to a friend: ‘I would not be able to feel at home there.’ Everything would be ‘rough and ready’, with no roots, with no organic cohesion, ‘so provisional’ (Talmon, 241).