Filmmaker Probes Britain's 'Forsaken Promise' to the Jews

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Britain's broken promise to the Jewish people to establish a homeland for them in the early 20th Century contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Holocaust, the producer of a newly released documentary said.

"The Forsaken Promise" tells the story of Britain's promise in 1917 to help establish a Jewish homeland and its subsequent reneging on that pledge in the decades to come, until the State of Israel finally was established in 1948.

Produced by the Hatikvah Film Trust, a Christian organization based in Britain, the film recently premiered at the former British Detention Camp at Atlit on the Mediterranean Sea just south of the Israeli coastal city of Haifa. (An abridged version also was shown in Jerusalem.)

The British used Atlit to imprison "illegal" Jewish immigrants fleeing Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Many hoped they would find a safe haven in what was then British Mandate Palestine. But instead of finding refuge, they met with stiff resistance. Those caught were shipped out to detention camps, mainly in Cyprus.

Producer and director Hugh Kitson, a British Christian, said the purpose of the film was to "bring about repentance" in Great Britain over a little known part of history.

"We were given probably the greatest privilege as a Gentile nation to be part of the restoration of the nation of Israel," said Kitson.

"We broke a promise, and the breaking of that promise resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews who could have otherwise escaped the Holocaust had they had an escape route to come to here in Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel]," he said.

The three-episode film incorporates archival film footage from the World War II concentration camps and pre-State Israel, woven together with interviews from eyewitnesses and participants in the events as well as Jewish and Christian historians.

The film explains how following World War I, Great Britain was given a mandate by the League of Nations to rule what was then called Palestine, which included all of modern day Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The area had been ruled for hundreds of years previously by the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

In a letter dated November 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote to the leader of the British Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, telling him that the British government viewed "with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object..." In other words, Britain promised to help the Jewish people establish a Jewish State.

The letter, which became known as the Balfour Declaration, infuriated the Arab population in Palestine (and surrounding countries), and they did everything in their power to stop the pledge from being fulfilled.

Throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s, periodic Arab rioting and the murder of Jews was widespread throughout Palestine and largely overlooked by the British authorities.

One of the chief instigators of what became known as the 1920 Easter riots was Haj Amin Al Husseini, a close ally of Adolph Hitler and a relative of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat. The British appointed him as the Mufti of Jerusalem.

A turning point came when the British, under the government of Neville Chamberlain, issued a policy known as the White Paper of 1939. It abandoned the idea of partitioning British Mandate Palestine to give the Jewish people their own homeland; and it severely limited the number of Jewish people who were allowed to immigrate to British Mandate Palestine.

One of those interviewed in the film was Yossi Harel, the captain of the Exodus (a ship made famous in a novel and movie by that name).

In 1947, the real Exodus left France with more than 4,500 Jewish emigrants, most of them Holocaust survivors. When the ship neared Palestine the British Royal Navy rammed the unarmed boat and boarded it, killing three passengers and wounding more than 100 others, Harel said in the film.

The ship was then taken to the port of Haifa, its passengers removed and deported to Cyprus, he said.

A lesson for today

"I believe the other nations and particularly the United States and the European Union can learn from the mistake that Britain made," Kitson said.

Jewish scholar and former British Royal Air Force pilot Meir Abelson was one of those interviewed in the film. He told Cybercast News Servicethat the film's strong message is relevant today.

"The message has been the same for the last 70-80 years: Appeasement does not pay," Abelson said. "We're seeing it today -- appeasement all over again. It's tragic."

"It started with the appeasement of Hitler and [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini and we know what happened after that. As far as Britain is concerned, it continued with the appeasement of the Arabs," said Abelson, who settled in Israel 35 years ago.

"Now we see it all over again with a third world war in the offing with Islam," he said. "I don't believe...there is any possibility of arriving at a solution when one side believes that their world is the world of Islam... and the other part of the world is...the world of war."

British Bible teacher David Noakes, who has been involved with the film, said he hopes to get it onto mainstream British television, but he admits that its message might meet with some resistance.

"This film is in no way anti-Islamic. We're not trying to deal with Islam. We're trying to deal with Britain... Nevertheless, I think mainstream television would find it very hard to show it, without leaving themselves open to some kind of accusation from those who have an ax to grind," Noakes said.

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