At a time when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is again in deep crisis, it is useful to revisit the experience of the British, who played a critical role in shaping this conflict. Tom Segev’s wonderful book analyzes the central influence of Great Britain and the mandate period in the creation of Israel and the triumph for Jews and tragedy for Palestinians it brought.
Segev weaves a fascinating tale that brings to life the struggle between Jews and Arabs in Palestine under British rule from the perspective of all three parties. Drawing on newly mined archives and personal diaries of major and minor participants, he adds color and human drama to this tragic conflict, and makes some controversial but well-supported judgments. Segev’s approach is sometimes acerbic, but it is also compassionate and nonpartisan, true to his reputation as one of Israel’s leading “post-Zionist” writers.
Segev faults both the British and the Jews for their early assumption that creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine could be reconciled with the interests of the Arabs who regarded the area as their homeland. He attributes this to Eurocentric myopia and colonialist arrogance by both the British and the Jews, who at first believed the Arabs would welcome Jewish immigration as a beneficial, civilizing influence – or that they could be bought off or intimidated by force if they resisted. But by the 1930s, Arab opposition and growing violence made it clear that Jewish and Palestinian nationalism were fundamentally in conflict. Besides vague promises to protect the interests of both sides, the British had no effective or consistent policy to deal with the dilemma they had done so much to create.
The Jews were more focused and determined. David Ben-Gurion and other Jewish leaders understood the need for a Jewish majority to win a Jewish state and overcome the Arabs’ huge demographic advantage. They knew that the Zionist slogan “a land without people for a people without land” was propaganda. Immigration was their main strategy to build a majority. But Segev also cites ample evidence that “transfer” of Arabs was deeply rooted in Zionist ideology and a logical outgrowth of the desire for a state, based on European culture, segregated from the Arabs, and of Arab opposition to a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. Involuntary transfer of Arabs was widely, albeit quietly, discussed by the Jewish leadership, and the Jewish Agency created a “Committee on Population Transfer.” (The British also considered transfer of Arabs as a means of accomplishing the first partition scheme recommended in the abortive Peel Commission plan in 1936.)
While Segev portrays Ben-Gurion as a maximalist, determined to redeem all of Palestine for the Jews, he credits him with a clear understanding of the Arab position. Ben-Gurion bluntly acknowledged to colleagues in the late 1930s the unbridgeable chasm between Jewish and Arab national goals. “Were he an Arab, he wrote, he would also rebel, and with even greater intensity, and with greater bitterness and despair. Few Zionists understood the Arab feeling, and Ben-Gurion found it necessary to warn them ...the Arabs had launched a national war. They were battling the expropriation of their homeland.” The fact, acknowledged by Ben-Gurion, that the conflict was between two competing nationalisms was obscured in later decades by Israeli propaganda that denied the reality and force of Palestinian nationalism and by the myth of pan-Arabism. Otherwise, the path toward Israeli-Palestinian compromise might have been begun years earlier.
As for the Arabs, Segev cites weak leadership, internecine divisions, the absence of political and social organization that could compete effectively against the Jews and win British support, and absentee owners who sold land to the Jews at the expense of Arab tenant farmers. He argues that intentional British neglect of education for the Arabs, while the Jews ran a system of universal education for their people and created the Hebrew University, may have been the single most fatal aspect of British policy for the Arabs.
Segev challenges conventional Israeli historiography that the British were, for the most part, hostile to the creation of a Jewish state. He argues and documents persuasively that Great Britain, by issuing the Balfour Declaration in 1917, allowing massive Jewish immigration until the late 1930s, and cooperating closely with the building of an emerging Jewish proto-state in Palestine, was actively pro-Zionist during most of the mandate. True, British policy vacillated, and many mandate officials were pro-Arab, especially at the lower levels. But until the late 1930s, policy at the top in London tilted heavily toward the Zionists. The first and longest-serving high commissioner, Herbert Samuel, was a Jew and a faithful Zionist. (Segev describes him as honest and capable but naively optimistic about Jewish-Arab peace.)
Among many examples Segev cites of London’s partiality toward the Zionists was the quick abandonment of the Passfield Report’s recommendation in 1930 for curbing Jewish immigration and giving equal treatment to both Jews and Arabs, after Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist movement objected. Segev argues that the political, economic and military foundations of the Jewish state were firmly laid in the ’20s and ’30s with British support. By the late 1930s the Yishuv, the Jewish “state within a colony,” had gained such weight and momentum that independence was already on the horizon. As World War II approached, the British abandoned their belief in Jewish power, and their Zionist sympathies cooled. The famous “White Paper” policy curbed immigration and called for a binational state after ten years. Anti-British terrorism by the Irgun and the Stern gang further alienated the British, who ultimately voted against the U.N. partition resolution in 1947. But when Britain withdrew in 1947 and the first Arab-Israeli war erupted, the stage had long been set for the birth of Israel.
Segev therefore rejects the popular notion that Israel owes its creation to World War II and the Holocaust. Indeed, he argues that the Holocaust, by decimating European Jewry, robbed Israel of the mass immigration it hoped to attract. Segev makes this case persuasively. Nevertheless, one can only speculate on when and how Israel might have emerged had not World War II and the Holocaust occurred, and without the international support it enjoyed in 1948 as a result of Hitler’s war and the plight of the Jews.
Segev attributes Great Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration supporting “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” to a bizarre mix of Christian fundamentalism and antisemitism. Prime Minister Lloyd George and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, both staunch Christians, became genuine converts to Zionism in the belief that the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland would fulfill a biblical prophecy. (“Christian Zionism” is still alive and vigorous among many politically active Christian conservatives in the United States.)
Another less lofty motive, in Segev’s view, was the antisemitic belief, widely held in British officialdom, that the Jews, who were in fact powerless, divided and frequently abused, were immensely powerful in world affairs. (In an odd letter to Prince Faisal, British diplomat Mark Sykes argued that the Jews would be valuable allies, not enemies, saying, “...this race, despised and weak, is universal and all powerful and cannot be put down.”) This theory held that British support for a Jewish home in Palestine would win support from “the Jews,” who the British believed, quite mistakenly, were supporting the Germans, the Bolsheviks in Russia and even the “Young Turks” in Constantinople and served as a strategic anchor for the British Empire in the Muslim Middle East. It was also argued that support from American Zionists could also bring the Yanks into the war against the axis powers, although in fact Zionism at that time had little support among American Jews.
Segev places less importance on other elements of British strategy in conquering Palestine and fostering Jewish settlement there, such as creating a land link on the way to Iraq and India and thwarting French ambitions to control Palestine as part of the Greater Syria the British had promised them under the short-lived Sykes-Picot agreement. In any case, Segev considers Britain’s thinking behind the Balfour Declaration muddled, naïve and devious as well, since it had already appeared to promise Palestine to the Arabs in the famous 1915 McMahon letter to Sharif Hussein of Mecca.
The leader who looms largest in Segev’s narrative is Chaim Weizmann, the Russian- born Jew who tirelessly promoted British support for Zionism. Weizmann was responsible for inspiring the Balfour Declaration and incorporating it into the Versailles Treaty. He also built up the international Zionist organization and, through the early 1930s, skillfully guided the development of the Zionist Commission, the Jewish quasi-government in Palestine, which, from the beginning, was given wide latitude and responsibilities by the British.
A brilliant diplomat, propagandist, fundraiser and tactician, Weizmann had unique access to the British leadership and profound influence over its policies in Palestine. He kept close watch on senior appointments in Palestine and pressed the British to remove officials who were anti-Zionist or just evenhanded. (“Churchill removed Palestine from the defense jurisdiction of General Walter Congreve in Cairo, an outspoken anti-Zionist, at Weizmann’s request.”) Weizmann was ultimately eclipsed by Ben-Gurion, who had emerged as the leader of the Yishuv in Palestine. Today Israelis view Ben-Gurion as the leading Zionist hero, but Weizmann probably did more than anyone to ensure the ultimate birth of Israel.
Modern Israel is distinctive as a Jewish state, but it inherited much, both good and bad, from the British. Israel’s parliamentary democracy, orderly bureaucracy, rule of law and highly professional diplomatic service are British legacies. On the dark side, British colonial condescension toward the Arab masses reinforced similar views in the Yishuv that linger in Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens today. (Segev points out that the early generations of European Jewish settlers also looked down on Sephardic and ultra-orthodox Jews, a cause of continuing social cleavage.) Draconian British emergency laws and military tactics used to crush the Arab revolt in the late 1930s, including torture, house demolitions, collective punishment and administrative detention, were also inherited and have been used by Israel against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. For the most part, the British did not apply these practices to Jewish criminals or terrorists, a duality that Israel has perpetuated.
“One Palestine, Complete” (the title is from a receipt the British gave the Turks when they conquered Palestine) is neither pro-Jewish nor pro-Arab. It is unsparing of all sides. By illuminating a formative chapter of the conflict, this book should help Israelis and Palestinians understand themselves and their history more clearly and honestly, as they struggle to come to terms with each other.