‘One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate’ by Tom Segev, translated by Haim Watzman, published by Little Brown and Co., pp 612
Tom Segev writes good books – and this is no exception. Their structure is a hybrid between academic endeavour and journalistic seduction. The outcome is a raising from the dead of subjects which have been ‘turned and turned again’ so that all seventy faces are revealed. The British Mandate is such a subject.
Segev emphasises both British benevolence and the fundamental irreconcilability of the two national movements, the Jewish and the Palestinian. It is indeed more story-telling than popular history since the strength of his soothsaying lies in seeing this tale of passionate devotion to the land and the violent means to win it through the eyes of symbolic participants. Several diaries, memoirs and letters back to Blighty have been mustered to create this landscape. It is a kind of literary theatre rather than history and Segev moves his actors on and off stage with great skill.
12000 British soldiers died in the conquest of Palestine, more were to die in the decades to come. They showed no qualms in expelling the German residents of Jerusalem and permitting British officers to appropriate their homes. Both Arabs and Jews welcomed the British and were glad to see the departure of the Turks who had treated them with equal inhumanity. It was a period when local Arab patriotism was being turned into overt Palestinian nationalism. When Zionists felt that they were on the brink of a realisation of their dreams following the Balfour Declaration. Yet both had played the game under Ottoman rule. The imams of the Al Aqsa mosque had called for a jihad in Turkey’s name while the Jews of Tel Aviv had celebrated Lord Kitchener’s loss at sea.
The British evinced a wide range of political sympathies from Christian Zionism to imperial antisemitism. Some were just indifferent while others attempted to find a way out of the labyrinth and satisfy the national claims of both Jews and Arabs. ‘I am not for either, but for both,’ wrote the Governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, ‘Two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the synagogue while after an intense course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.’
This sensitivity of the situation was all too evident. When Edward Keith-Roach, the Jerusalem District Commissioner, from a window at a Muslim religious court, observed the use of a makeshift mechitzah on Kol Nidrei to separate the sexes at the Western Wall, he commented aloud that he had never seen this before. Such an innocent chance remark conveyed to the court officials another example of the annexationist tendencies of the Zionists. This set in chain a series of protests and attacks which led to the Betar acts of bravado at the Wall on Tisha B’Av in 1929 – and finally to the massacre of the innocents – and ironically anti-Zionist innocents – in Hebron.
Yet some also believed that the Jews were a mystical subterranean group who could manipulate both Capitalism and Communism at will – and with whom an alliance could and should be struck. Weizmann was sometimes mistaken for Lenin. Or perhaps they were part of the same Jewish conspiracy. Shortly after Louis John Bol’s arrival as an administrative official in 1919, he described the Zionist Commission as ‘a tyrannical and Bolshevik organisation’. Several years later, General Sir Evelyn Barker, head of the British Forces in Palestine during the period of the revelations of the extermination camps, wrote to his lover, Katy Antonius ‘Just think of all this life and money being wasted for these bloody Jews. Yes I loathe the lot – whether they be Zionists or not. Why should we be afraid of saying we hate them – it is time this damned race knew what we think of them – loathsome people’ An interesting palliative to warm beer, cricket on a Sunday afternoon and the ‘everything stops for tea’ gentility of the English way of life.
Although the administration attempted to govern a turbulent province and to impose a distinctly English civility upon it, the British upper class were not about to educate the ‘natives’. Only three out of every ten Arabs went to school. The imperial legacy to the rest was a romanticised illiteracy. This manifested a lack of national cohesion for which the Palestinian cause paid so dearly in 1948.
While the dramatis personae in this book carry out their tasks of conveying the ordinary everyday views of symbolically ordinary people, this can dilute the political complexity of the situation – and even lead to inaccuracies. For example, Jabotinsky and Begin were said to demand the Land of Israel as delineated in the Bible – ‘from the Nile to the Euphrates’.(p456) The Nile is not mentioned in God’s promise to Abraham, Jabotinsky was not in any way religious and both men adhered to the original borders of the Greater Israel of the British Mandate of 1919 rather than the Bible.
Segev recalls several black spots in the Zionist saga through a trawl of Israeli archives. Unfortunately there are no sources from Arab archives and Segev relies on the Hebrew translation of Khalil al-Sakakini’s memoirs and English language recollections to allow the Palestinian members of the cast to say their piece.
As the current intifada has injected a degree of Zionisation into the Israeli body politic, Segev views the Mandate through essentially post-Zionist spectacles for an Israeli audience re-examining their history. The original version in Hebrew therefore had a raison d’etre to reclaim history and to further the debate within Israel about the history of the Zionism movement.
It can, of course, be argued, that such history has been written in hindsight, after the event. The American writer Michael Andre Bernstein described this as ‘backshadowing’ – ‘a kind of retroactive foreshadowing in which the shared knowledge of the outcome of a series of events by a narrator is used to judge the participants in those events – as though they too should have known what was to come.’ Even so, Segev has performed a valuable service if Israelis and Jews reconsider the past.
The English language version, however, is portrayed as a history of both Israeli and Palestinian history during the Mandate period – a different agenda from the Hebrew version. There are no Palestinian black spots based on Arab archives and sources for British and American readers in this book – only Israeli ones. Symmetry may not matter and this is not an argument against the publication of ‘difficult’ material outside Israel – of course, it is both important and insightful. However, the conundrum of different understandings and thereby different perceptions remains.