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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1996, pg. 24

In Memoriam

Erskine Childers, 1929-1996

by Ian Williams

In 1974 Yasser Arafat sent condolences on the death of a great friend of the Palestinian people, Erskine Childers. Then, at least, the rumors were, as Mark Twain said, greatly exaggerated. It was Erskine’s father, the president of Ireland, who had died.

This Aug. 25, however, the rumors were entirely accurate, and the Erskine Childers who had died just after a speech in Luxembourg was indeed the one who had documented the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, exposed the perfidy of the British, French and Israelis over Suez in 1956, and who fulminated against what he saw as the abuse of the United Nations during the Gulf war.

A long-time resident of Manhattan with his son, yet another Erskine, and his wife, Mallica, Childers had come from a long line of squeaky wheels. His grandfather, also Erskine Childers, had written the prototype of the modern spy story, The Riddle of the Sands, which warned Britain against Imperial Germany’s expansionist ambitions at the turn of the century.

It was only many years later, after he had already done so much work on Palestine, that Erskine discovered that his grandfather had flown a primitive version of a spy plane in World War I, mapping Turkish-held Palestine for the advancing British forces. Like Lawrence of Arabia, he had assumed that he was doing so for the sake of Arab independence. Then, exasperated with Britain’s treatment of Ireland, he fought in the Irish war of independence, only to be summarily shot by what became the winning side in the civil war that followed the partitition of Ireland.

Those Irish events—the partition, the diplomatic double-crossing—became the very useful intellectual framework against which his grandson assessed events in the Middle East, as when he discovered that the Zionist movement had specifically, and successfully, asked the British to transfer the notoriously brutal “Black and Tan” counter-insurgency units from Ireland to the new mandate of Palestine to control the Arabs.

His writing on the Middle East began with an exposé of the ultimatum to Nasser over Suez in 1956one event in the region in which the U.S. was on the side of the angels. Soon the controversy that followed, and the difficulty he had getting publishedone publisher simply broke the contract under government pressure showed that while liberals were prepared to defend human rights in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, they were muted about the Palestinians.

Whisperings and Mutterings

He discovered that the whisperings and mutterings that greeted his work on Suez became loud cries of outrage when he applied his writings to the events of 1948. Golda Meir “raved” at him for what he thought was a very even-handed article on the Arab-Israeli dispute, calling him an anti-Semite. Undeterred, he continued his mission, which was to discover whether there was any evidence that the Palestinians had voluntarily fled at the behest of their leaders.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry library would not provide the positive evidence they had claimed to the United Nations. Going to an alternative source, he discovered that the BBC had monitored and transcribed every single broadcast in the Middle East in 1948, and not one recorded any single such order from Arab leaders to the Palestinians—indeed, there were numerous requests for them to stay exactly where they were.

Now, almost half a century later, Israeli historians like Benny Morris have confirmed Childers’ thesis, but when he published his research as “The Other Exodus” in the Spectator magazine in 1961, it ran counter to the Hollywood version of Leon Uris’ “Exodus,” just being released. It led to a storm of protestbut not one shred of evidence to substantiate the still-repeated stories of Arab radio broadcasts urging the voluntary departure of the Palestinians.

Right up to the end of his life, one response in particular could bring Childers to the verge of apoplexy. The Jerusalem Post carried an article showing that one of his ancestors, two hundred years ago, had married the daughter of a Sephardic Jew who had converted to Anglicanism, and therefore, it claimed, Childers owed a “lineal obligation” to Israel.

His proposed book could find no publisher, in London or New York. Editors admitted the irrefutability of the facts, yet confessed their inability to face the adverse consequences of publishing it.

Sadly for the Arab world, Erskine Childers began to work for the U.N. Development Program in 1966. He later discovered that this was only after assurances had been sought by the Israeli embassy in Washington that he would not be employed in any capacity touching the Middle East.

While the U.N. benefitted from this experience, one cannot be sure that either the Middle East or Erskine did well from it. It silenced his voice on the issue during a period when many other writers and journalists were rediscovering the perils of speaking the truth.

When he eventually retired from the U.N., he was soon in the limelight again. Jointly with Sir Brian Urquhart, he authored a series of proposals for making the United Nations work, culminating in the latest, “A World in Need of Leadership,” published just five days after his death.

The Gulf war provided yet another subject for his indignation. While not being a particular fan of Saddam Hussain, Childers felt that the United Nations was shamefully abused and misused by the Western powers to provide a cover for an attack on Iraq that was motivated more by a desire to cut the Arab world down to size than by any great altruistic desire to preserve the independence of small nations like Kuwait. He called it the “Ninth Crusade,” and spoke out vigorously against it.

The episode fueled his own crusade to reform the United Nations so that the developing world could have an effective voice in it. It was the constant theme of his speeches, and was very likely on his lips when he died, in action, as it were, at the World Federation of U.N. Association meeting at the age of 67. He will be missed by all who want a just peace in the Middle East that tries to undo the historic injustice to the Palestinians.