by Apollon Davidson and Irina Filatova
Published by: Human and Rousseau/Combined Book Services 287 pp. £17.99
When we were at school 70 years ago, a quarter of the World's map was coloured red to denote the territories of the British Empire on which the sun never set. Britain did not acquire this largest Empire in history by chance, or by mere luck, Britain fought its way at every turn in the face of jealous rivals such as Russia, France, Spain and Germany.
Even when transport was slow and the motorcar and aeroplane were not yet in service, Britain could despatch half a million troops to South Africa to protect the long route to India via the Cape. Jews played a major part in Britain's ascendancy in the 19th Century.
Benjamin Disraeli whose family were members of the Sephardi Bevis Marks Synagogue, acquired the shares of the Suez Canal with the help of the Rothschilds and he made Victoria Empress of India.
Educated Baghdadi Jews likewise helped to further the extent of the British advance in the Far East to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.
At the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899, Tsar Nicholas wrote to his sister, ŒI am wholly pre-occupied with the war between England and the Transvaal. Every day I read the news in the British newspapers from the first to the last line.... I cannot conceal my joy at Boer success.
Britain's hold on South Africa was significant for the Russians partly because the route to India lay via the Cape, and as Governors of the Cape were only too aware, Russia had its own designs on India.
In 1879 the British feared that Russia might take advantage of the Zulu War and strike in Central Asia - or even send arms to the Zulus. The young Jan Smuts, conscious of this Russian interest, advised his Boer colleagues on the eve of war to prevail on the Russians to foment an anti-British rising in India. In fact, Kruger, thinking along similar lines, had already sent the Russian Jewish emigre financier Benzion Aaron to represent the Transvaal at Nicholas's coronation in 1896.
Russian interests clashed with Britain's in central Asia, Iran, the Bosphorus, the Mediterranean and the Balkans as well as over India; and in addition to her vengeful feelings about the Crimean War, Russia felt herself blocked at every turn by Britain. Wildly excited at the thought that the Boers might at last have created the vital crack in the wall of the British Empire, Nicholas rushed off to see the Kaiser (both grandsons of the reigning Queen Victoria). 'I intend to set the Emperor on the British - while the Russian Foreign Minister tried to interest the French in an anti-British alliance. In order to increase the pressure, Russia built up its Mediterranean and Atlantic fleets and even courted provocation with the dispatch of four cruisers to the Channel. At the same time, Russian troops were moved up to the borders of India and Afghanistan.
The Tsar was, in fact, quite carried away. 'You know, my dear,' he told his sister, but it is pleasant for me to know that I and I only possess the ultimate means of deciding the course of the war in South Africa. It is very simple - just a telegraphic order to all the troops in Turkestan to mobilise and advance towards the Indian frontier. Not even the strongest fleet in the world can keep us from striking England at this her most vulnerable point.' Such was Nicholas's 'dearest dream' but it came to nothing. The Germans and French scuttled away; Russia was in no position to take on Britain without their help.
Several hundred Russians came out to fight for the Boers and to be their nurses and doctors. It is difficult to be precise about the size of this group because many thousands of Jews, fleeing from the pogroms in Russia, had already joined the great gold rush to the Transvaal in the latter part of the 1880's. A good number of these left the Transvaal at the outbreak of war, some to join the British forces; but many fought for the Boers and probably accounted for the majority of the entire Russian contingent. The problem was that in the eyes of the often anti-Semitic Russian nationalists who flocked to the Boer cause such people were not Russians at all: the nationalists formed a separate Russian Commando unit in the Boer Army and refused to allow Russian Jews to join it. On the other hand, the British, enraged that such recent emigres should take up arms against them, found it convenient to regard them as Russians and deported large numbers of them back to Russia to face the pogroms again, an act of callousness which has never attracted the attention - or opprobrium - it deserves. (In 1946, Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin repeated this heartless procedure by returning Jewish refugees trying to reach Palestine back to detention camps in Germany.)
Not much is known about the Russian Jews who fought on the Boer side, though several rose to significant rank; we find a Commandant Kaplan and a Commandant Isaac Herman, while two others, Josef Segal ('Jackals') and Wolf Jacobson ('Wolf'), who acted as scouts, were legendary figures in their time; Segal became a special adviser and secret agent for the Boer general, Christiaan de Wet. Benzion Aaron, by now a very wealthy man and a personal friend of Kruger, set up a Jewish Ambulance Corps and bankrolled whole depots for the Boers. The anti-Semitism of the Russian nationalist volunteers doesn't seem to have caused any difficulties. Wounded nationalists were shown great solicitousness by Aaron's ambulance corps while the members of the anti-Semitic Russian Commando, according to their own reports, were greeted as compatriots on their arrival by Russian Jews who showered them with fruit, cigars and good wishes.
Last July, the remains of Tsar Nicholas and his family were ceremoniously buried at St Petersburg, exactly 80 years after they were murdered by the Bolsheviks at Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, for fear of the advancing white Russians. The opposition of King George V in 1917 to grant his deposed cousin asylum in Britain, may have sealed the imperial family's fate.
The British Empire came to an end after W.W.II. It did so in an orderly manner as no other empire in history. Overnight, it became The Commonwealth. Even without "British" and without the crown, it goes from strength to strength.
South Africa that had left it earlier came running back under Mandela. This augurs well both for South Africa as well as for the Commonwealth.
Just like the Jews, by sheer tenacity and obduracy, the British have left their mark in the world. The one has given half of mankind its religious beliefs; the other has given half mankind the nearest thing to an international language, as well as, the tradition of Parliamentary democracy.