One Palestine, Complete

One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate
Tom Segev
Little, Brown, £25, 612pp

When General Allenby entered Jerusalem in December 1917 to claim the Holy Land for the Empire, he inaugurated a 30-year period of political confusion which culminated in the establishment of the state of Israel and the large-scale exodus of one of its national communities. As many as 12,000 British soldiers died in the conquest of Palestine; more were to die in the decades to come. The German residents of Jerusalem were expelled and British officers appropriated their homes. Both sides welcomed the British and were glad to see the backs of the Turks, who had treated them with equal inhumanity.

Yet both had played the game under Ottoman rule. The imams of the Al Aqsa mosque had called for a jihad or holy war in Turkey’s name, while the Jews of Tel Aviv had celebrated Lord Kitchener’s loss at sea. A few weeks earlier, the British government had issued the Balfour Declaration, which had promised “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. This was, in part, due to the diplomatic contacts that CP Snow, the editor of the Manchester Guardian , had facilitated for Chaim Weizmann, later the first President of Israel.

Tom Segev’s extremely interesting book tells the story of the British mandate, emphasising both British benevolence and the fundamental irreconcilability of the two national movements, Jewish and 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. 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.

Many political figures in this drama, such as Lloyd George, based their support for Zionism on Victorian education and Christian dispensationalist understanding of the Jewish return – as well as a determination to keep the French out of Palestine. Indeed, the Governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, uses the Hebrew word “shechina” – divine presence – in his memoirs. Yet some also believed that the Jews were a mystical all-powerful group which manipulated both capitalism and communism, and with whom an alliance could and should be struck. 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 after Hitler’s war, wrote to his mistress, “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.”

Yet many were indifferent, or professed to seek a way to satisfy the legitimate claims of both Jews and Arabs. “I am not for either, but for both,” Storrs wrote. “Two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the synagogue while after an intense course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.” It was perhaps more a question of getting the job done. The British left Israel in much better shape than they had found Ottoman Palestine; yet they had not instituted compulsory school attendance, and only three out of every 10 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.

Segev’s use of diaries portrays the human qualities of all sides, the individual friendships of Arab and Jew who nonetheless professed unremitting belief in the justice of their causes. It is about idealism, but it is also about ordinary – and sometimes extraordinary – people expressing ordinary concerns.

Segev has utilised Israeli archive material to document further black spots in Zionist history. The reputation of Orde Wingate, the British commander of the Jewish “special night squads”, receives a battering after revelations of the killings at the village of Hitin. Unfortunately there are no sources from Arab archives; 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.

The writer Michael Andre Bernstein defined “backshadowing” as a “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.” Segev views the mandate through post-Zionist spectacles for an Israeli audience examining their history.

Such selectivity adds to our knowledge of the period, but the full history remains to be stripped of its secrets – at least on the Arab side. That history in all its complexity would perhaps not make such exciting reading, but Segev’s use of eccentric anecdotes, bizarre facts and fascinating vignettes certainly achieves that end.

Guardian 3 February 2001

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.