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Palestine: How Bad, & Good, Was British Rule?

Crossman’s attitude is important to note. Sympathy for Zionism on the left in Europe—and it is hard now to believe that it had ever existed—derived in great measure from the belief that the Jews in Palestine were realizing a socialist utopia. For many leftists, it was this idea that drew support for Zionism, perhaps more so than the return of the Jews to their homeland. This attitude on the left stands in sharp contrast to the attitude of the first generation of the British officials in Palestine who were still under the spell of Christian Zionism. The return of the Jews to the Holy Land strongly suggested to them a vindication of biblical prophesies.

We tend to forget that the ferocious support of Israel by the extreme evangelical right in the United States today originated in the Christian Zionism of nineteenth-century Britain—a movement that envisaged the return of the Messiah to Palestine and still influenced British public opinion before and just after World War I. But there is one crucial difference between the American Christian Zionists and the British Christian Zionists, such as the Earl of Shaftesbury. Unlike their American successors, the British movement was reformist and in no way “culturally conservative.” It was consumed with the idea of the “ingathering” of the Jews in the Holy Land as a necessary redemptive step in the “Second Coming.”

At the beginning of the Mandate, Zionism was backed by Christian utopianism. At the end of the Mandate, Zionism was backed by socialist utopianism. Indeed, Christian Zionism was the ideological underpinning of the British Mandate. When the Mandate was established, it was prefigured by the pro-Zionist Balfour Declaration of 1917, whose preamble stated: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The “restoration” of the Jews to the Holy Land was advocated very strongly by the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish in the war cabinet of Britain, all of whom were sympathetic to Christian Zionism. And so it was with the first generation of the colonial officials in Palestine, who cherished the vicarious biblical nostalgia of the return of the Jews to Zion.

In reflecting about the past, Lazar’s British interviewees try hard to keep an ironic distance. Lazar is a good observer, quick enough to notice that the Jews in Palestine soon got on the nerves of the British administrators. They saw the Jews as single-minded fanatics (“obsessive” is Sir Beeley’s term). But I don’t believe that Jewish single-mindedness really explains their irritation. The British, with their keen nose for snobbism, sniffed correctly, I believe, an air of inverted snobbism in the attitude of the Jews toward them—the air of intellectual superiority.

Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, a kibbutz member and an immensely impressive labor leader and the secretary-general of the Histadrut, was definitely “one of us” by my mother’s criterion, yet unlike my parents’ generation, he had a great deal of experience with the British. A volunteer officer in the British army during World War II, he was captured by the Germans in Greece and spent the entire war in a grueling prisoner-of-war camp. His fellow prisoners were upper-class British officers—both socially and humanly. Ben-Aharon, a fervent socialist, spent these trying years with Tories and struck up friendships with some of them. “When I got back from the war I was half-English,” he says of his return to the kibbutz, still in British uniform.

When Lazar asks him if the British he encountered in Palestine were of the same circle as his friends in the POW camp, his answer is very telling: “They were almost of a different nation,” he says. “My estimation of them was the same as that of the British themselves: They were colonial elements no one had any use for, trash with which England filled the empty spaces of the world. But there are two Englands.” Ben Aharon contrasts the British colonial rulers in Palestine not only to the officers he knew in the prison camp but to the Arab intelligentsia, which he calls “first-rate.” But I don’t believe that the Palestinian intelligentsia ever thought, let alone spoke, of the British rulers as high-status white trash the way the socialist Ben-Aharon does. In fact, they thought highly of the British officials they met.

This creates a historical puzzle: if the attitude and policy of the British in the closing years of the Mandate veered as strongly in favor of the Arabs in Palestine as Bevin and Beeley suggest, why did the Palestinians remain so much more bitter toward “Perfidious Albion” than the Jews in Palestine? My friend the journalist Danny Rubinstein once asked me, “How come you can still find today in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem major streets with British names, such as King George or Allenby [the British commander who conquered Palestine in 1917], but you can’t find any such street names in any of the Palestinian towns?”

Here again, Beeley may provide an answer. He says that Bevin had a plan to establish one state in Palestine with an assured Arab majority but he couldn’t find supporters for his plan among the Palestinian leadership. One reason, according to Beeley, was the Palestinians’ belief that they had a good chance of winning a military fight against the Jews over Palestine. Why compromise? Bevin’s plan was the Palestinians’ best shot—and they botched it.

How good were the British as colonialists in Palestine? This is the tacit question of Lazar’s book. The two obvious retorts are: In comparison to what? Good to whom, or good for what? “Good” may mean in promoting British interests, but the interests of the British in Palestine were always puzzling. There was a view that the Empire needed a buffer zone between the Suez Canal in the south and Russia in the north, and that Palestine was meant to serve as this buffer. This geostrategic talk was quite common at the time, but I don’t believe it carried much conviction.

Another view, which was strongly held but not stated publicly, saw Palestine as the Holy Land for the Christian world—a precious gem worth stowing in the Empire’s trove, even if it wasn’t the jewel in the crown like India. There was nothing tentative and transitory in the Mandate notwithstanding the promises that the British made to all sides. The British were determined, in my view, to stay in Palestine forever and a day. They didn’t. Does the fact that they left after thirty years mean that they betrayed their interests?

After World War II, the vague, lingering religious sentiments of Christian Zionism were not strong enough to sustain an increasingly secular British effort. But there’s another way to answer the question about the British as colonialists, and that’s to examine whether they improved the daily life of the people in Palestine. Being colonialists, it is clear that they weren’t good for the collective aspirations of the two clashing communities, but were they good, on the whole, for the lives of the individual members taken together? Those who remember the British Mandate would grudgingly admit that they were.

It is fair to assume that the British were more benign in Palestine than in many other places they ruled. Since they were in the Holy Land, they were under the scrutiny of world opinion more so than in, say, Nigeria. But perhaps the most important implicit question raised by Lazar’s book, and the one that gives it its political aspect, is how British colonial rule in Palestine fares in comparison to Israeli colonial rule over the Palestinians during the last forty-five years.

For its first six years, Israel was as good to the Palestinians as Britain was. There was a genuine effort on behalf of the Israelis in charge of the Palestinian territories, especially under Moshe Dayan, to be so-called good colonialists. In his 1970 book, The Cursed Blessing, the writer Shabtai Teveth tells the story of the Israeli effort to be enlightened colonialists. One can be suspicious about the generosity of their attitudes but not about their deeds. In one stroke, Dayan removed all restrictions on the movements of the Palestinians between Gaza in the south to Mount Hermon in the north, and an unprecedented economic boom followed in the Palestinian community.

No doubt the hardships and humiliations of being under occupation were there all along, as was the exploitation of Arab labor. But for individuals, at least, Dayan’s colonial rule was cunningly benign. It was especially effective in modernizing Palestinian agriculture, and in allowing the opening of Palestinian universities that were prohibited under the Jordanian rule. Dayan had an image of himself as a ruler from the Book of Judges—a local chieftain who addresses local problems without the use of heavy-handed bureaucracy—but he also viewed himself as a sort of high commissioner in the British mold.

But all that utterly changed after the war of 1973, and a terrible ugliness of Israeli colonial rule was born. There are many reasons for the difference between the relatively benign rule before 1973 and what happened after: the economic oil crisis, the shrinking of the Palestinian labor market, terrorism, the two intifadas. The list goes on. But one of the main reasons behind the change was that Israeli settlements were built in the West Bank and Gaza. British colonial rule in Palestine never threatened to displace the indigenous population and to disinherit it (though it did infamously prohibit Europe’s displaced Jews from entering Palestine). But Israeli colonial rule did threaten and disinherit the Palestinians, and continues to do so.

Israel’s colonial rule is today geared exclusively toward supporting the settlement movement. This shift in Israeli policy after 1973 makes it not only inexcusably repressive. In today’s postcolonial world, it also makes it an incomprehensible anachronism.

Lazar’s book is not about comparative colonialism. It is about the Mandate. There is an intrinsic value in historical memories and when they have seemed relevant she has used them for morality tales. But the content of the book is such that it almost begs an object of comparison to other colonial rules. My parents used to think that the Mandate was not a good time in many ways. They were right. But they also sensed that it was, relatively speaking, a pretty benign system of rule.


Palestine: What the Mandate Said March 7, 2013

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