A Post-Zionist History of the British Mandate

One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate by Tom Segev. Translated by Haim Watzman. New York, Metropolitan/Henry Holt. 612 pages. $35/NIS 149Tom Segev writes good books Рand this is no exception. They are hybrids between academic endeavour and journalistic seduction. The outcome is a resurrection of subjects which have been turned and turned again̢ so that all seventy faces are revealed. The British Mandate is such a subject.

Segev emphasizes both British benevolence and the fundamental irreconcilability of the two national movements, the Jewish and the Palestinian-Arab. 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 have been mustered to create this landscape. It is a kind of literary theater rather than history, and Segev moves his actors on and off stage with great skill.

Twelve thousand British soldiers died in the conquest of Palestine and 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 realization of their dreams following the Balfour Declaration. Yet both had played the game under Ottoman rule. The imams of Al-Aqsa mosque had called for a jihad in Turkey’s name while Tel Aviv Jews 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.”

When, in 1928, Edward Keith-Roach, the Jerusalem District Commissioner – from a window at a Moslem religious court – observed the use of a makeshift partition on Kol Nidre 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. The Arabs insisted the screen be removed. “The battle,” says Segev “was never-ending, conducted in every arena.”

On the eve of the Ninth of Av, August 14, 1929, thousands of Jews gathered at the Wall. The next day, “several hundred young people demonstrated at the Wall… some were probably from Betar.”

The protesters violated an arrangement with the British police when “they made political speeches, waved the Zionist flag, and sang the Hatikva.” The atmosphere grew more tense and the Arabs reacted violently. Segev implies that this incident helped spark the Hebron massacre.

Among the British, some 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 Bols arrived as an administrative official in 1919, he described the Zionist Commission (which later became the Zionist Executive) as “a tyrannical and Bolshevik organization.”

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.”

Although the administration attempted to govern a turbulent province and to impose a distinctly English civility upon it, the British upper class was not about to educate the “natives.” Only three out of every ten Arabs went to school. The imperial legacy to the rest was a romanticized illiteracy. This manifested a lack of national cohesion for which the Palestinian-Arab cause paid so dearly in 1948.

Segev, a columnist for Ha’aretz and author of The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust , 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-Arab members of the cast to say their piece.

Segev views the Mandate through essentially post- Zionist spectacles. The original version in Hebrew therefore had a raison d’etre: to further the debate within Israel about the history of the Zionist movement.

It can, of course, be argued, that such history has been written in hindsight, after the event. 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-Arab 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 therefore of different perceptions, remains.

Jerusalem Post 9 February 2001

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