A History of Palestine

A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel, by Gudrun Kramer, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008, xiii þ 357 pp., ISBN 978-0-691-11897-0

This work is an overview of the history of Palestine up to 1948. The author, Gudrun Kra¨mer, a distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies in Berlin, first published this book in German in 2002 and this is an updated translation in English. The author’s approach is to cover all the communities of Palestine, “to give adequate expression to their entangled histories” and to write “a relational history” while focusing on the Arab majority population under both the Ottomans and the British. The account starts with biblical references to the Land and much attention is paid to the issue of the borders of Eretz Israel – “mined territory” – and the “invented tradition” of the biblical exodus. Millennia of events are competently traversed. The Samaritan revolts of 484 and 529, the occupation of Jerusalem by Khwarezmian troops in 1244, and the defeat of the Mongols by the Mamluks at Ain Jalut in 1260 are all duly noted.

An interesting second chapter is devoted to an examination of the traditions of the three faiths, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, towards “the holiness of the Holy Land.” Indeed, Kramer points out that the very term “Holy Land” was essentially a Christian innovation and while Rome was indeed the center of the Christian world, Jerusalem began to gain in prominence from the twelfth century onwards. The next couple of chapters on the domination of the Ottomans and the Tanzimat reforms of the mid-nineteenth century play to the author’s strengths and reveal much about Palestine before the arrival of the Biluim in 1882. For example, she remarks that the first paved road between Jaffa and Jerusalem was completed as late as 1868.

The prevalence of cholera and malaria in Palestine – there was even a leper colony just outside Jerusalem in the 1920s – testify to the inefficiency and indolence of the Ottoman regime. A British doctor, Ernest Masterson, working in Jerusalem on the eve of World War I, is quoted as stating that “There is no proper public water supply, no sewers worth the name, vaccination is not enforced even when smallpox is epidemic and there is no attempt to isolate those suffering from infectious diseases.”1 While several pages are devoted to the lack of sanitation and generally the terrible conditions which the inhabitants of Palestine were forced to endure, Kra¨mer argues that this was to some extent the reflection of Western Victorian views about the “filth, squalor and neglect” of the Orient (p. 76). She also adds that while European and American institutions contributed to the improvement of health conditions, they also created a major obstacle to the implementation of Ottoman reforms in this area due to the complications effected by the Capitulation treaties.

A quarter of the way through this work, the Zionists walk onto the stage of history. The work is then transformed in part into the effect of this immigration on the Arab population. While the author attempts to be as authoritative in this area as she is in Islamic history, there are often misinterpretations and inaccuracies.

There is, for example, no real differentiation between religious proto-Zionists such as Alkalai and Kalischer and the upholders of traditional ultra-Orthodoxy such as the Hatam Sofer, whose spiritual heirs formed the backbone of opposition to Zionism. There is no mention of the three oaths in the Talmud which should characterize emigration from the diaspora to the Land of Israel.2 Alkalai and Kalischer are said to “have reacted to the progressive emancipation of the Jews” in Europe to produce “a spiritual redemption” rather than a national one (p. 103). Yet Kalischer famously praised the Risorgimento in Drishat Zion (1862) and berated his fellow Jews for not taking note of the struggles for independence of other small nations.3

Moses Hess is depicted as not writing “under the fear of physical threat” and that his work Rome and Jerusalem was seemingly published before the rise of modern anti-Semitism (p. 103). Yet as Shlomo Avineri has remarked, Hess was one of the first writers to confront “racist antisemitism” in Germany following the defeat of progressive forces after the revolutions of 1848.4 Moreover, Avineri correctly comments that conventional liberals tended to gloss over this development or play it down. Hess regarded German patriotism as reactionary with “no root in the life of the people.”5 While it is true that the term “anti-Semitism” did not exist in 1862, in his fourth and fifth letters in Rome and Jerusalem, Hess was clear in his analysis:

The German opposes Jewish national aspirations because of his racial antipathy, from which even the noblest Germans have not emancipated themselves. The publisher, whose “pure human” conscience revolted against publishing a book advocating the revival of Jewish nationality, published books preaching hatred to Jews and Judaism without the slightest remorse, in spite of the fact that the motive of such works is essentially opposed to the “pure human conscience.” This contradictory action was due to inborn racial antagonism to the Jews. But the German, it seems, has no clear conception of his racial prejudices; he sees in his egotistic as well as in his spiritual endeavours, not German or Teutonic, but “humanitarian tendencies”; and he does not know that he follows the latter only in theory, while in practice he clings to his egotistic ideas.6

The author writes convincingly about the emergence of the new Yishuv, the early Jewish settlements in Palestine, yet there is no explanation of the development of the doctrine of “Hebrew labor” which effectively prefigured the partition of Palestine. Yet this decision, by the socialists of the Second Aliyah, the author contends, was taken on national grounds rather than on Marxist ones. There is no discussion of the issue that the employers wished to exploit the situation in hiring cheaper Arab labor while dismissing Jewish workers. There is no sense of the Jews’ desire to build a socialist society and their hope for the eventual emergence of an Arab proletariat.7

The founding of Tel Aviv earns a mention (p. 118), yet Kra¨mer believes that Ahuzat Bayit was the name of the plot of the land that eventually became the city rather than the building society which purchased the territory.8

The author rightly depicts European policies towards Palestine within the broader framework of colonial history. Yet the expectations of Jewish history should not be seen as a subsection of this. Both Palestinian Arabs and Zionist Jews fought anticolonial struggles against the British – as well as against each other. Moreover, Israel after 1948 had no desire to join the British Commonwealth of nations as did other former colonies. Yet there was undeniably a philo-Semitic and pro-Zionist presence within some British circles. Zionist fortunes soared when the window of opportunity opened between the political tenures of Asquith and Curzon, permitting Arthur Balfour – mysteriously ennobled in this work some five years before it actually took place – to write his famous letter to Lord Rothschild. Moreover while the author writes interestingly about the Hussein –McMahon letters, the two memoranda of Hebert Samuel to the British cabinet in January and in March 1915, which are really the precursors to the evolution of the Balfour Declaration, are omitted.

Kramer believes that Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement was so named because it wished to revise the exclusion of Jordan – the East Bank – from Mandatory Palestine (p. 191). This was certainly a factor, but a more important fact was a desire to return to Herzlian Zionism which had been polluted in Revisionist eyes by the political stagnation of the mainstream.9 It was Weizmann and his followers who were the real revisionists as Jabotinsky pointed out in his testimony to the Shaw Commission in 1930. Jabotinsky took issue with Weizmann’s perceived belief that the attitude of the Mandatory administration was acceptable as long as the Jews were allowed in:

We demanded the revision of this point of view, saying that a large scale colonisation cannot be conducted independently of a government, that it is government enterprise by nature and can only be completed by legislative and administrative action if the government supports the colonisation.10

Too often, the author leaves statements hanging in the air without any relevant explanation. For example, the brown shirts of Betar in the 1920s were not based on imitating European fascist youth movements, but on the soil of the Land of Israel. The model for Betar was not Mussolini’s Ballila, but the Sokol of the Czech Masaryk. Martin Kolinsky’s account of the riots and killings of 1929 11 is described as “detailed but biased.” But there is no explanation for this claim. The killings were “not a pogrom” which the author defines as “persecution of Jews carried out under government auspices” (pp. 230 –34). While many modern dictionaries will extrapolate a wider meaning from the original definition, many Jews in Palestine in 1929 related this experience to recent Jewish history in Eastern Europe. Ironically, this event catalyzed the radicalization of the Revisionist movement and the emergence of a far right under Menachem Begin in Poland which Jabotinsky was ultimately unable to control.12

Indeed Kra¨mer depicts the Irgun as Jabotinsky’s creation even though he resisted attempts to co-opt him for many years.13 Moreover although he accepted the post of head of the Irgun while residing in Europe during the last part of his life, 1937 – 40, recent research suggests that he had great reservations and moral qualms about its actions under its commander, David Raziel.14 The author clearly telescopes Jabotinsky with the views of his maximalists.

Simplification reaches its apogee in the author’s rendition of the 1948 war when Benny Morris’s works are selectively harvested. One paragraph on page 311 is a prime example.

The author notes Zionist pleasure with the “unmixing” of the two populations and quotes Ben-Gurion’s remark in February 1948 that Jerusalem was more Jewish that it had been since the Roman destruction of the city. Yet the context is omitted. Morris mentions that hostilities began in Jerusalem with Arab sniping at the Jewish neighborhoods and the stranglehold imposed by an Arab blockade of the main road westwards. The cycle of terror commenced with both sides committing acts of violence such as the Haganah’s bombing of the Semiramis hotel. This led to the depopulation of Arab communities along the disputed seam and Ben-Gurion’s summary of the situation to a meeting of the Mapai Council on 7 February 1948.15 Kramer comments that “a few days later, Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah High Command to clear the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem and settle Jews there instead.” This seems to be a slight variation of Salim Tamari’s comment “to conquer and settle Jews in Arab districts.” which is given as a reference.16 In turn, both Kramer and Tamari cite Benny Morris’s first work on the origin of the Palestinian refugee question. Yet Morris’s commentary actually states: “Ben-Gurion ordered the new OC (David Shaltiel) to conquer Arab districts and to settle Jews in the abandoned and conquered Arab districts.”17 Moreover Morris states that this order was given a few days before Ben-Gurion’s speech to the Mapai Council rather than a few days after it as the author maintains.

Kramer notes that following the murder of an Arab woman, a Haganah-owned truck drove through Talbiyeh, ordering the residents to leave or be blown up. Morris, who is given as the reference, mentions the shooting of a Jewish woman and records the arrest of the passengers of a Haganah car by the British army.18 Kra¨mer then mentions that the Haganah carried out “the first systematic destruction of an entire town in Caesarea whose Arab and Jewish residents had previously lived in harmony.” Yet Morris’s recording of the events in Qisarya states that until the end of March 1948 the Haganah’s policy was not to expel Arabs from their villages. The expulsion at Qisarya was the only authorized expulsion – the exception not the rule.19 Yet this explanation is omitted. The village’s inhabitants lived on Jewish (PICA) and Greek Orthodox Church lands. Most of the population had left for Tantura following a Lehi attack on 31 January. Morris argues that the Haganah occupied the village because it was PICA land. Having done so, the Haganah then feared that the British would eject them. The Haganah commanders asked for permission to level the village. Yitzhak Rabin opposed the destruction of the village, but he was overruled. Morris writes:

On 19 – 20 February, the Palmah’s Fourth Battalion demolished the houses. The 20-odd inhabitants who were found at the site were moved to safety and some of the troops looted the abandoned homes. A month later, the Arabs were still complaining to local Jewish mukhtars that their stolen money and valuables had not been returned.20

The combination of loose language, selective quotations, a lack of context, and accompanying explanation does an injustice to recording the terrible and disputed events of 1948. Benny Morris’s belief in working solely from documents and attempting to elevate historical truth beyond personal views does not seem to have been transmitted in this history. Much of the contemporary material is taken from secondary sources – perhaps this is unavoidable in painting such a broad historical canvas. Works in Hebrew tend not to have been consulted.

The author is extremely incisive and instructive when explaining, for example, the rationale behind Palestine as a waqf or the emergence of numerous Palestinian Arab parties in the 1930s. However, it was probably a mistake to have included the rise of Zionism in this work and certainly the case when negotiating the quagmire of the conflict of 1948. The latter undoubtedly diminishes the former in this work.

Notes 1. The author quotes from Judith Mendelsohn Rood, Sacred Law in the Holy City: The Khedival Challenge to the Ottomans as seen from Jerusalem, 1829-1841 (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 28 – 29. 2. Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 111a. 3. Walter Laqueur, The History of Zionism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003), 54 – 55; Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1997), 114. 4. Shlomo Avineri, Moses Hess: Prophet of Communism and Zionism (New York: New York University Press, 1985), 196–97. 5. Moses Hess, Rome and Jerusalem: A Study in Jewish Nationalism (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1943), 231. 6. Ibid., 57 – 58. 7. Colin Shindler, History of Modern Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 30 –34; Yehuda Harell, Tabenkin’s View of Socialism, trans. Hanna Lash (Ramat Efal: Yad Tabenkin, 1988). 8. Akiva Arieh Weiss, “Keitzad nosad ‘Ahuzat Bayit’” (How “Ahuzat Bayit” was founded), in Tel Aviv be-reshitah, 1909– 1934 (The beginnings of Tel Aviv, 1909– 1934), edited by Mordechai Naor (Tel Aviv: Yad Ben-Zvi, 1934), 2 – 3. 9. Colin Shindler, The Triumph of Military Zionism: Nationalism and the Origins of the Israeli Right (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 85 – 92. 10. Report on the Palestine Disturbances of August 1929, Command Paper 3530 (March 1930), 108– 9. 11. Martin Kolinsky, Law, Order and Riots in Mandatory Palestine, 1928– 35 (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 31 – 70. 12. Shindler, The Triumph of Military Zionism, 104– 32. 13. Shmuel Katz, Lone Wolf: A Biography of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky (New York: Barricade Books, 1996), 1542– 49. 14. Joseph Heller, The Stern Gang: Ideology, Politics and Terror, 1940– 1949 (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 42 – 55. 15. Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947– 1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 49 – 52. 16. Salim Tamari, Jerusalem 1948: The Arab Neighbourhoods and Their Fate in the War (Jerusalem: Institute of Jerusalem Studies, 1999), 102. 17. Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 52. 18. Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 152. 19. Ibid., 129 –30. 20. Ibid., 130.

Journal of Israeli History: Politics, Society, Culture vol. 28 no.1 2009

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