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

Library of Congress
The King David Hotel in Jerusalem, headquarters of the British Mandate Administration, after it was bombed by the Irgun paramilitary group, July 22, 1946

The British rule over Palestine lasted roughly thirty years, from 1917 until 1948. In a country that has three thousand years of recorded history, thirty years is a tiny fraction. If we conceive of three thousand years on a scale of one day, the period of British rule takes barely eight minutes. In comparison, Turkish Ottoman rule over Palestine, which lasted four hundred years, takes an hour and forty minutes. Yet the influence of these thirty years was deep and wide-ranging.1 Under British rule, Palestine became a political unit, not a marginal province of something else. The British made Jerusalem the capital city of Palestine; they introduced the idea of professional civil service, and they encouraged a lively civil society; they built roads and airfields, and provided sound legal institutions and reliable police.

The legal frame for British rule was based on a mandate conferred on Britain by the League of Nations. It was meant to be a transitory trusteeship so as to prepare the country to be a “national home for the Jews,” without impairing the civil and religious rights of the indigenous Arab people. This contradictory task is at the heart of the story of the British Mandate. It is this mandate of the League of Nations that makes us call the political and military rule of the British over Palestine “The Mandate.” And it’s the Mandate that revived the old term “Palestine” (already used by Herodotus in his writings) to describe the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Before then the Ottomans divided the region into their own units, including, for example, the “Sanjak of Jerusalem.”

The Mandate didn’t provide collective liberty—namely, political independence. It didn’t provide for elections for local administrations that would ultimately be under British control. But it did provide a great deal of personal freedom. Following the Ottoman Empire’s Millet system, the Mandate left a great deal of internal autonomy to the various religious communities to conduct their life.

Hadara Lazar has written a remarkable book dedicated not so much to the British Mandate as to some of the people who were strongly involved with it. The book first appeared in Hebrew in 1990, under the telling title The Mandatorians: The Land of Israel 1940–1948, and has now been published in English under the rather misleading title Out of Palestine: The Making of Modern Israel. It consists of interviews with British, Jews, and Arabs who recount life in Palestine under the British Mandate in its last eight years.

In the heart of my childhood neighborhood in Jerusalem, so evocatively sketched by my kindergarten mate Amos Oz, stood a British garrison. On May 15, 1948, the British soldiers evacuated their…

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