A British identity crisis in Palestine

Sat side by side, 7 internationals looked on into a dimly lit room. Four swedes, one Norwegian and two Brits huddled together on a worn out sofa that was creaking under the collective weight. Our host, Ahmed Jaber welcomed us into his house which was due for demolition any time in the coming days. He was anxious and he eyes darted between us. As is customary he started by asking his guests to introduce themselves:

Swede 1: “My name is Alex, I am from Sweden”
Ahmed: “You are welcome and thank you for everything you and your country is doing”
Swede 2: “My name is” etc etc
Ahmed: (laughing) “Your country does so much, they send many people”

The perceived comedy in this situation is amplified as a third and then fourth person introduce themselves as Swedish. Eventually though the introductions moved on:

Norwegian: “My name is Helene and I am from Norway”
Ahmed: “You are welcome and thank you for all that your country has done – apart from Oslo of course” (Cue a little bit more laughter)
Me: “My name is Steve and I am from Britain”
Ahmed: “Oh” (awkward silence) “You know this is all your fault, do you know about Balfour”

I smiled, nodded and let the proceeding silence, accompanied as it was with a wee bit of awkwardness fill the room.

This awkward “you know it is all the British fault” moment wasn’t a new experience for me. Believe or not, a couple of centuries of imperialistic foreign policy have left some less than positive impressions around the world. Almost a century later most Palestinians have not forgiven our then Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, for offering Zionists a homeland in what was then British Mandate Palestine.

What makes the Israel/Palestine conflict different though is that both sides seem to hate the British – our history does not lend itself to friendship with either side.

Things could be worse though, I could be German. A German colleague I worked closely with regularly had the uncomfortable situation of being told by Palestinians, “I love Germany, Hitler was great but he should have finished the job”. How do you respond to that? On occasion I responded saying, “please don’t joke about such things” knowing all too well that many were not joking.

These experiences left me with a minor identity crisis. Was I English, British, White, Christian, European or what? I tried a couple of times, “my name is Steve and I am from the people’s free republic of Gloucestershire” but this was invariably met with a look of confusion.

The problem is that I don’t feel very “British” – I have little or no connection with 50% of Britain (Wales and Northern Ireland). My father’s Scottish and I have a ginger beard as a result, but I don’t feel very Scottish. Yet, in many ways I have more in common with my Scottish family than I do with most people living in England. This is without starting on the sociological question of what makes someone “English/Scottish/British”.

I don’t have anything in common with Balfour other than the fact that we were born on the same Island. This connection, nearly a century later, is enough to define my relationship with a Palestinian man whose house was about to be knocked down by the “Israeli Defence Force”. Somewhere in this anecdote there is all the material you need for illustrating just how mad the concept of nationalism is.

Throughout the meeting with Ahmed I sensed hostility towards me. I might have been being over sensitive but I know from experience that the hatred of the role Britain played in Palestine’s history is part of the modern national psyche. Ahmed’s darting eyes spent the rest of the meeting occasionally fixing themselves on others in the room, but interestingly never me.

My name is Steve, I was born in Gloucester hospital, I like cups of tea and walks in the countryside. If this makes me English/British then so be it but I don’t feel it.


Filed under Middle East, Social comment

5 responses to “A British identity crisis in Palestine

  1. Harvela

    Perhaps your German colleague should have responded by leaving the room , pointing out the fact that he doesn’t engage with antisemites having been told that ‘Hitler should have finished the job . This would have been infinitely preferable to staying put and merely telling the Palestinian not to joke about such things .
    Unfortunately antisemitism is intrinsic to the Palestinian narrative not to mention the Hamas Covenant .
    It’s disingenuous to state that it is a result of Israels creation . It was a theme of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who spent the war years in Germany as a guest of Hitler . Perhaps that was what influenced your German colleagues Palestinian friend .


  2. Colin

    Why aren’t Arabs grateful that the Allies gave them 90% of the Turkish Empire cake and only a thin slice to, perhaps less, to Jews? Why should a Brit feel ashamed about that? I’m neither an Arab Brit nor a Jewish Brit but the deal seems fair to me.


  3. You all ought to try to say, “Ana min Amrikiya.” Trust me. It’s not better. We had some awkward moments. However, the hospitality of the people overcame the stereotype. I found that the Palestinian people were able and more than ready to distinguish one’s nationality from one’s convictions, given the EAPPI vest and our own personal comments from day to day. Thank heaven for people who see us as members of the family of humanity. If only we all could do this.


  4. Thanks for this, Steve. I also dread saying that I’m British here. I try saying I’m Welsh, but usually no-one has heard of Wales, and anyway guess who the Prime Minister was at the time of the Balfour Declaration – Lloyd George of course! And from a book I read recently – ‘The Dragon and the Crescent’ he was fully in favour of the Zionist project. I even met an elderly gentleman in the Jordan Valley yesterday who smiled at me when I admitted ‘ana min bretania’, and then told me that his grandfather was shot by a British soldier during the Mandate Period when he went out to the fields to pray!
    Perhaps it’s right for us to feel a bit uncomfortable here. The boot has been on the other foot all too often in Britain’s hihstory, and although we haven’t been personally complicit and are trying to do something to right wrongs, surely this process begins with us all taking responsibility? I shall therefore – reluctantly – continue to squirm. All the best



  5. Leah Levane

    exactly – I have not yet heard anyone say the terrible thing about HItler but I have already (after about two weeks) had the Balfour comment a few times, mostly half jokingly. I have had one man saying that everyone should go back to Europe or America and although it is not the same thing as immigration into the UK, it still leaves a nasty taste in my mouth….But I really love your take on the nonsense of nationalism. I hate that I have to put that I am British – not that I am ashamed (that would be almost as silly as being proud – it is literally an accident of birth) but I really do not feel British (whatever that means) – I used to think it was because my fairly recent antecedents were born in Eastern Europe, but I think it is much more about hating nationalism and really believing that we are all connected. So I was born in England, I live in London (that is a choice) and this makes me a British Citizen, and for the privileges that bestows on me, I am grateful, but I did nothing to earn that. I try to be a good citizen but that is because I want to get on with people and for life to be as easy and smooth as possible.


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