A speech by Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of the British armed forces in Afghanistan.

Colonel Richard Kemp
Colonel Richard Kemp

The Atlit Detention Camp held illegal immigrants who between the years 1934-1948, were transported from Europe and Arab countries to Israel's shores in spite of the British blockade. Many were survivors of the Holocaust. Once they arrived, they were detained in camps.

A special reconciliation event commemorating the events of the British Mandate period in Palestine/Eretz Israel was held at Atlit Detention Camp on 7th May and a speech was given by Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of the British armed forces in Afghanistan. This was his speech:

Ladies and Gentlemen it is a huge privilege to be able to be here today, both this morning at Haifa port and here this afternoon. I think this is an incredibly poignant and powerful event, which none of us are likely to forget in our lives. It's a particular honour to be present here with some of the survivors of the terrible events we've been commemorating here today and also with some of the very brave men of the Jewish brigade who fought in the Second World War for Great Britain and of other members of the British forces who are here today. I think in particular I find it an honour to be present with members of the Israel Defence Force who are serving and defending this extraordinary country tonight.

Ladies and gentlemen, by her hard fought victories in the liberation of the Holy Land from the Ottoman Empire a century ago, Great Britain was endowed with an historic and momentous opportunity to be the hand that restored Eretz Israel to the Jewish people after 2000 years. Instead, to the shame of the British people, from 1918 onwards our country failed in its political, moral and sacred duty. By forsaking the promise that the British government made in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to establish a national home for the Jewish people, our country betrayed the Jews of Palestine, of Europe and of the world over the following three decades.

As a British soldier for 30 years I have witnessed first-hand the terrible suffering of civilians subjected to beatings, bombings, shootings, brutal deprivation and forceful expulsion from their homes and their communities. I can therefore begin to imagine the horrors that the Jewish people endured when the British army so frequently abandoned them to their fate at the hands of the marauding and murderous Arabs who were intent on driving them from their land.

It is even more sickening to contemplate the fate of the hundreds of thousands of European Jews who, desperate to find refuge from the greatest savages in the history of the world, were denied sanctuary in their historic homeland. Lifesaving sanctuary that they could so readily have been granted by the British Government.

Sickening also is the desolation of those wrenched, ragged, half-starved people who were brutalised, bludgeoned, beaten, kicked, threatened and humiliated by the SS in the camps; who had been betrayed and pillaged by their own countrymen; who had seen their beloved family and friends viciously murdered; who had been herded in despair across Europe from country to country, broken, homeless, wanted by nobody and with nowhere to go. Only to be turned away from their rightful homeland by the Royal Navy and the British Army and sent back into the darkness of their captivity. In some cases, horrifically, they were even sent vindictively back to Germany, the lair of their tormentors. As a former soldier I can only feel that it is abhorrent when I hear of the beatings, humiliation and harsh abuse of these poor desperate people at the hands of my forebears in the British Army. And when I consider the overwhelming hideousness of the treatment of your countrymen by mine over these years, it is hard to take much comfort from the accounts of kindly sympathetic and generous behaviour, even though this seems mercifully to have been the more prevalent disposition of individual British soldiers towards Jews here in Palestine.

My own regiment was here at various times between 1917 and 1948 and many were killed. Some members of my regiment served alongside the Christian soldier Orde Wingate, a beacon light, who took it upon himself to befriend the Jewish people of Palestine in the late 1930's and who saved so many lives by training them and leading them in defending their communities against the assault of the Arabs who sought their destruction.

One soldier of my regiment serving here in 1948, John Watson, was appalled by what he expected to be the imminent destruction of the emerging State of Israel, under attack and left undefended by the British army. He thought it morally wrong that Jews who had suffered so much already should again be slaughtered. Rifle in hand as the regiment was about to leave this country, John Watson went over the wall to take part in front line combat and was wounded fighting with the Haganah in the siege of Jerusalem. After the conflict he returned to Britain and turned himself in, was court marshalled for desertion and imprisoned; a fate that he accepted as his due and as a price worth paying for standing up for what he believed to be his moral duty.

As I said these things are of little consolation, but at least we are able to see some pin pricks of light in the shameful blackness of the British nation's conduct over these years.

I know that all of my countrymen who are here today bow their heads as I do at the conduct of our nation during this period of our shared history.

I know also that we stand firmly with you today as the miraculous Jewish State continues to face the unmitigating hostility of your neighbours and of so many people around the world. I take heart from the knowledge of how close the nations of Britain and Israel are today. There is undoubtedly the need for greater improvement, including the extent of support that our Government afford your country in International bodies like the European Union and the United Nations.

You may not realise quite how warm are the relationships between Britain and Israel in the military and intelligence fields, where few countries in this world enjoy closer mutual cooperation than Britain and Israel. I know for sure, from personal experience that over recent decades, Israeli soldiers lives have been saved by British support to Israel and British soldiers lives have been saved by Israeli support to Britain. Above most other armies the IDF (Israel Defence Force) is profoundly respected and admired among British soldiers. Despite the most tremendous physical onslaught in the history of mankind at the hands of the Nazi's; despite the unendingly savage and murderous depredations of the Arabs; despite the shameful perfidy of successive British Governments brought about by anti-Semitism and the ill-judged urge to appease the Arab nations; despite the callous indifference and hostility of so much of the world, in 1948 Lord Balfour's promise to the Jewish people was finally realised in the miraculous rebirth of Israel! A towering example to us all, the State of Israel has endured and flourished even in the face of so many assaults and so much malevolence over the succeeding 67 years.

And in the words of the Hatikvah sung by the Jewish legion as they marched through London to fight for the land of Israel against the Ottomans in 1917; sung by Czech Jews as they entered the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1944; sung by the survivors of Bergen Belsen after their liberation by the British at the end of the war; the Haganah and the Israel defence forces as they fought for their historic homeland and survival of their nation, the 2000 year old hope will not be lost. It will not be lost, guarded today by the shield of David and the sword of Gideon in the form of the Israel defence forces, the flag of Israel that glorious symbol of hope and of valour will fly forever. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.