in the garden

 

Dec 2007 Journal

next article:Danger! Enemy Alien!

The British and the Mandate

Ninety years ago this month, in December 1917, British forces took control of Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. So began the period of the British Mandate, which ended with the War of Independence and the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. Some Jewish commentators portray the years of the Mandate as a heroic era of struggle against the British, out of which the Jewish state was born. But was it quite like that? Did the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, throw off the yoke of British colonialism as, say, the American colonists did in the late eighteenth century?

The British were hardly involved in the war of 1948: they simply concentrated on extricating themselves from the mess they had created in Palestine. Indeed, the British had formally abandoned authority over Palestine some months previously, when they handed their Mandate to the United Nations. Once they had given up India in 1947, they had no strategic reason for staying in Palestine, no need to safeguard the route to the sub-continent. In 1948 the Jews were not fighting for independence against an occupying or colonial power; they fought the Arabs, who had also been under British rule. For these reasons, it is more accurate to refer to the war of 1948 as the Arab-Israeli War, though less stirring in tone.

Nor had the British Mandate begun in a spirit of conflict between Jewish interests and British rule. On the contrary, it was Britain that proclaimed the establishment of the ‘Jewish national home’ in Palestine in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. Without the protection of a major power, Jews could never have settled in substantial numbers in Palestine; at the time of the Balfour Declaration, they formed about a tenth of the territory’s population and would almost certainly have been expelled (or worse) by the Arab majority once the latter felt threatened by Jewish immigration.

The first High Commissioner, heading the British administration in Palestine, was Herbert Samuel, a leading British politician, a Jew and a convinced Zionist. The second most important figure in the administration, the Chief Secretary, was Wyndham Deedes, a devout Christian who believed profoundly in the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. When he died in 1956, AJR Information called him ‘a true, dedicated friend’ of the Jewish people: ‘He was one of the famous company of Englishmen who were inspired by the visions of the Bible. He staunchly believed that it was the privilege of England to help the Jewish people to a new dispensation.’ Attorney General Norman Bentwich was another British Jew and Zionist at the apex of the administration.

Evidently, though, British policy was not identical with Zionist interests. The Balfour Declaration itself stated that the Jewish national home was to be established without prejudice to the civil and religious rights of the existing Arab population. In accordance with this, the British strove to balance the rights and interests of the two communities in a reasonably fair and even-handed manner. Neither community saw it like that, of course: both were convinced that Britain favoured the other. Zionists saw any concession to Arab claims, however justified in British eyes, as disadvantaging their cause - as indeed it did, for their interests and those of the Arabs were fundamentally and irreconcilably opposed.

The Zionist goal - that of building a Jewish community numerous, cohesive and powerful enough economically, politically and militarily to live in security - could be achieved only at the expense of the Arabs, as the latter saw it. The error underlying British policy in Palestine was the refusal to acknowledge that by permitting the establishment of the Jewish national home, they were setting Jews and Arabs on a collision course that made war virtually inevitable. No commissions of inquiry, no white papers, not even the mailed fist of military power could remove this primary cause of conflict: mass Jewish immigration into Palestine galvanised the Arabs into rejecting Jewish settlement, for all the technological and economic benefits that it promised to bring them.

During the period of the Mandate, the Yishuv undeniably flourished. The Jewish population of Palestine increased by more than tenfold during those years, the Jewish economy was dynamic and progressive, and the Jewish educational system provided a literate, highly skilled workforce for a rapidly modernising society. The Israeli historian Tom Segev has listed the advances made under British rule in his book One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate (London: Abacus, 2001): ‘The Jews were permitted to purchase land, develop agriculture, and establish industries and banks. The British allowed them to set up hundreds of new settlements, including several towns. They created a school system and an army; they had a political leadership and elected institutions; and with the help of all these they in the end defeated the Arabs.’

Plainly, the primary credit for these achievements must go to the Jews themselves. But the British for the most part did nothing to stop them. By contrast, the British allowed Arab society to remain backward and primitive, with a high rate of illiteracy, slow to modernise and to develop an educated political class and an effective political leadership.

Even in the highly contentious area of immigration, British and Zionists co-operated to some extent, at least until the mid-1930s. Initially, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish government-in-waiting, wanted free immigration into Palestine. But Herbert Samuel pointed out that this would also mean free immigration for Arabs; far better, he argued, for the British to agree an annual quota with the Jewish Agency on a bilateral basis, shutting the Arabs out. Though these annual negotiations were often very heated, the quota nevertheless brought one priceless advantage to the Jewish Agency: it could control the process of immigration. Jews who wished to leave their native lands to go to Palestine never went to the nearest British consulate; they went to the local offices of the Jewish Agency, which selected those to be given immigration permits.

That antisemitic attitudes were common among the British in Palestine is beyond doubt. They were part of the casual racism of the day, part of the British sense of superiority over colonial peoples – which included Arabs, despite the romantic attachment of the British to the free-roaming desert Bedouin. But the British administration in Palestine was bound to follow government policy - and that remained the establishment of the Jewish national home, which favoured the Jews, not the Arabs. The harsh suppression of the Arab rebellion of 1936-39, an episode often overlooked, showed to what lengths the British would go; 25,000 men were sent to Palestine, a very substantial force by interwar standards, and in 1938 General Bernard Montgomery, no less, arrived to command them. The draconian measures adopted against Arab terrorism effectively broke the back of Arab fighting capacity, thus unintentionally boosting the chances of a Jewish victory a decade later.

In the conflict between the British and the Jews that came to a head after 1945, both sides behaved with a measure of restraint; incidents like the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 were the exception. The British took the usual measures, imprisoning, interrogating and sometimes executing those convicted of terrorist offences, while also resorting to illegal means like torture, and imposing curfews and forcible searches on the Jewish population, like the notorious ‘Black Sabbath’ arrests of June 1946. But Jews, however scorned, were Europeans and their lives were not as expendable as those of ‘natives’. Nothing the British did in Palestine compares with the massacre of hundreds of peaceful Indian civilians in Amritsar in 1919, or with the wholesale brutality employed in the suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s.

The issue that arouses the strongest emotions - the British refusal to admit into Palestine Jews fleeing the Holocaust - demonstrated heartlessness rather than active brutality; Britain was not the original perpetrator of the evil, though its reaction was one of callous disregard for the victims. The spectacle of Jews fleeing the Nazis from Black Sea ports, risking their lives on ramshackle ships, only to be stopped from entering Palestine by the Royal Navy, has not lost its power over the years. The case of the Struma, which sank in the Black Sea with the loss of over 700 Jewish lives, was the worst. Of those who arrived in Palestine on board the Patria, some 300 lost their lives in a botched Haganah bombing; the British saw fit to intern the survivors in Mauritius.

The hostility of the British towards the Jews increased as they came to see Jewish immigration into Palestine as the destabilising element in a situation where, with war approaching, they urgently needed stability. From about 1944, Jewish attacks on British soldiers and officials not surprisingly caused British attitudes to harden further. Ultimately, the British were forced to acknowledge that their Mandate had ended in ignominious failure. It was the crucible in which the war of 1948 and what followed was forged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ninety years ago this month, in December 1917, British forces took control of Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. So began the period of the British Mandate, which ended with the War of Independence and the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. Some Jewish commentators portray the years of the Mandate as a heroic era of struggle against the British, out of which the Jewish state was born. But was it quite like that? Did the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, throw off the yoke of British colonialism as, say, the American colonists did in the late eighteenth century?

The British were hardly involved in the war of 1948: they simply concentrated on extricating themselves from the mess they had created in Palestine. Indeed, the British had formally abandoned authority over Palestine some months previously, when they handed their Mandate to the United Nations. Once they had given up India in 1947, they had no strategic reason for staying in Palestine, no need to safeguard the route to the sub-continent. In 1948 the Jews were not fighting for independence against an occupying or colonial power; they fought the Arabs, who had also been under British rule. For these reasons, it is more accurate to refer to the war of 1948 as the Arab-Israeli War, though less stirring in tone.

Nor had the British Mandate begun in a spirit of conflict between Jewish interests and British rule. On the contrary, it was Britain that proclaimed the establishment of the ‘Jewish national home’ in Palestine in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. Without the protection of a major power, Jews could never have settled in substantial numbers in Palestine; at the time of the Balfour Declaration, they formed about a tenth of the territory’s population and would almost certainly have been expelled (or worse) by the Arab majority once the latter felt threatened by Jewish immigration.

The first High Commissioner, heading the British administration in Palestine, was Herbert Samuel, a leading British politician, a Jew and a convinced Zionist. The second most important figure in the administration, the Chief Secretary, was Wyndham Deedes, a devout Christian who believed profoundly in the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. When he died in 1956, AJR Information called him ‘a true, dedicated friend’ of the Jewish people: ‘He was one of the famous company of Englishmen who were inspired by the visions of the Bible. He staunchly believed that it was the privilege of England to help the Jewish people to a new dispensation.’ Attorney General Norman Bentwich was another British Jew and Zionist at the apex of the administration.

Evidently, though, British policy was not identical with Zionist interests. The Balfour Declaration itself stated that the Jewish national home was to be established without prejudice to the civil and religious rights of the existing Arab population. In accordance with this, the British strove to balance the rights and interests of the two communities in a reasonably fair and even-handed manner. Neither community saw it like that, of course: both were convinced that Britain favoured the other. Zionists saw any concession to Arab claims, however justified in British eyes, as disadvantaging their cause - as indeed it did, for their interests and those of the Arabs were fundamentally and irreconcilably opposed.

The Zionist goal - that of building a Jewish community numerous, cohesive and powerful enough economically, politically and militarily to live in security - could be achieved only at the expense of the Arabs, as the latter saw it. The error underlying British policy in Palestine was the refusal to acknowledge that by permitting the establishment of the Jewish national home, they were setting Jews and Arabs on a collision course that made war virtually inevitable. No commissions of inquiry, no white papers, not even the mailed fist of military power could remove this primary cause of conflict: mass Jewish immigration into Palestine galvanised the Arabs into rejecting Jewish settlement, for all the technological and economic benefits that it promised to bring them.

During the period of the Mandate, the Yishuv undeniably flourished. The Jewish population of Palestine increased by more than tenfold during those years, the Jewish economy was dynamic and progressive, and the Jewish educational system provided a literate, highly skilled workforce for a rapidly modernising society. The Israeli historian Tom Segev has listed the advances made under British rule in his book One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate (London: Abacus, 2001): ‘The Jews were permitted to purchase land, develop agriculture, and establish industries and banks. The British allowed them to set up hundreds of new settlements, including several towns. They created a school system and an army; they had a political leadership and elected institutions; and with the help of all these they in the end defeated the Arabs.’

Plainly, the primary credit for these achievements must go to the Jews themselves. But the British for the most part did nothing to stop them. By contrast, the British allowed Arab society to remain backward and primitive, with a high rate of illiteracy, slow to modernise and to develop an educated political class and an effective political leadership.

Even in the highly contentious area of immigration, British and Zionists co-operated to some extent, at least until the mid-1930s. Initially, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish government-in-waiting, wanted free immigration into Palestine. But Herbert Samuel pointed out that this would also mean free immigration for Arabs; far better, he argued, for the British to agree an annual quota with the Jewish Agency on a bilateral basis, shutting the Arabs out. Though these annual negotiations were often very heated, the quota nevertheless brought one priceless advantage to the Jewish Agency: it could control the process of immigration. Jews who wished to leave their native lands to go to Palestine never went to the nearest British consulate; they went to the local offices of the Jewish Agency, which selected those to be given immigration permits.

That antisemitic attitudes were common among the British in Palestine is beyond doubt. They were part of the casual racism of the day, part of the British sense of superiority over colonial peoples – which included Arabs, despite the romantic attachment of the British to the free-roaming desert Bedouin. But the British administration in Palestine was bound to follow government policy - and that remained the establishment of the Jewish national home, which favoured the Jews, not the Arabs. The harsh suppression of the Arab rebellion of 1936-39, an episode often overlooked, showed to what lengths the British would go; 25,000 men were sent to Palestine, a very substantial force by interwar standards, and in 1938 General Bernard Montgomery, no less, arrived to command them. The draconian measures adopted against Arab terrorism effectively broke the back of Arab fighting capacity, thus unintentionally boosting the chances of a Jewish victory a decade later.

In the conflict between the British and the Jews that came to a head after 1945, both sides behaved with a measure of restraint; incidents like the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 were the exception. The British took the usual measures, imprisoning, interrogating and sometimes executing those convicted of terrorist offences, while also resorting to illegal means like torture, and imposing curfews and forcible searches on the Jewish population, like the notorious ‘Black Sabbath’ arrests of June 1946. But Jews, however scorned, were Europeans and their lives were not as expendable as those of ‘natives’. Nothing the British did in Palestine compares with the massacre of hundreds of peaceful Indian civilians in Amritsar in 1919, or with the wholesale brutality employed in the suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s.

The issue that arouses the strongest emotions - the British refusal to admit into Palestine Jews fleeing the Holocaust - demonstrated heartlessness rather than active brutality; Britain was not the original perpetrator of the evil, though its reaction was one of callous disregard for the victims. The spectacle of Jews fleeing the Nazis from Black Sea ports, risking their lives on ramshackle ships, only to be stopped from entering Palestine by the Royal Navy, has not lost its power over the years. The case of the Struma, which sank in the Black Sea with the loss of over 700 Jewish lives, was the worst. Of those who arrived in Palestine on board the Patria, some 300 lost their lives in a botched Haganah bombing; the British saw fit to intern the survivors in Mauritius.

The hostility of the British towards the Jews increased as they came to see Jewish immigration into Palestine as the destabilising element in a situation where, with war approaching, they urgently needed stability. From about 1944, Jewish attacks on British soldiers and officials not surprisingly caused British attitudes to harden further. Ultimately, the British were forced to acknowledge that their Mandate had ended in ignominious failure. It was the crucible in which the war of 1948 and what followed was forged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ninety years ago this month, in December 1917, British forces took control of Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. So began the period of the British Mandate, which ended with the War of Independence and the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. Some Jewish commentators portray the years of the Mandate as a heroic era of struggle against the British, out of which the Jewish state was born. But was it quite like that? Did the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, throw off the yoke of British colonialism as, say, the American colonists did in the late eighteenth century?

The British were hardly involved in the war of 1948: they simply concentrated on extricating themselves from the mess they had created in Palestine. Indeed, the British had formally abandoned authority over Palestine some months previously, when they handed their Mandate to the United Nations. Once they had given up India in 1947, they had no strategic reason for staying in Palestine, no need to safeguard the route to the sub-continent. In 1948 the Jews were not fighting for independence against an occupying or colonial power; they fought the Arabs, who had also been under British rule. For these reasons, it is more accurate to refer to the war of 1948 as the Arab-Israeli War, though less stirring in tone.

Nor had the British Mandate begun in a spirit of conflict between Jewish interests and British rule. On the contrary, it was Britain that proclaimed the establishment of the ‘Jewish national home’ in Palestine in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. Without the protection of a major power, Jews could never have settled in substantial numbers in Palestine; at the time of the Balfour Declaration, they formed about a tenth of the territory’s population and would almost certainly have been expelled (or worse) by the Arab majority once the latter felt threatened by Jewish immigration.

The first High Commissioner, heading the British administration in Palestine, was Herbert Samuel, a leading British politician, a Jew and a convinced Zionist. The second most important figure in the administration, the Chief Secretary, was Wyndham Deedes, a devout Christian who believed profoundly in the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. When he died in 1956, AJR Information called him ‘a true, dedicated friend’ of the Jewish people: ‘He was one of the famous company of Englishmen who were inspired by the visions of the Bible. He staunchly believed that it was the privilege of England to help the Jewish people to a new dispensation.’ Attorney General Norman Bentwich was another British Jew and Zionist at the apex of the administration.

Evidently, though, British policy was not identical with Zionist interests. The Balfour Declaration itself stated that the Jewish national home was to be established without prejudice to the civil and religious rights of the existing Arab population. In accordance with this, the British strove to balance the rights and interests of the two communities in a reasonably fair and even-handed manner. Neither community saw it like that, of course: both were convinced that Britain favoured the other. Zionists saw any concession to Arab claims, however justified in British eyes, as disadvantaging their cause - as indeed it did, for their interests and those of the Arabs were fundamentally and irreconcilably opposed.

The Zionist goal - that of building a Jewish community numerous, cohesive and powerful enough economically, politically and militarily to live in security - could be achieved only at the expense of the Arabs, as the latter saw it. The error underlying British policy in Palestine was the refusal to acknowledge that by permitting the establishment of the Jewish national home, they were setting Jews and Arabs on a collision course that made war virtually inevitable. No commissions of inquiry, no white papers, not even the mailed fist of military power could remove this primary cause of conflict: mass Jewish immigration into Palestine galvanised the Arabs into rejecting Jewish settlement, for all the technological and economic benefits that it promised to bring them.

During the period of the Mandate, the Yishuv undeniably flourished. The Jewish population of Palestine increased by more than tenfold during those years, the Jewish economy was dynamic and progressive, and the Jewish educational system provided a literate, highly skilled workforce for a rapidly modernising society. The Israeli historian Tom Segev has listed the advances made under British rule in his book One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate (London: Abacus, 2001): ‘The Jews were permitted to purchase land, develop agriculture, and establish industries and banks. The British allowed them to set up hundreds of new settlements, including several towns. They created a school system and an army; they had a political leadership and elected institutions; and with the help of all these they in the end defeated the Arabs.’

Plainly, the primary credit for these achievements must go to the Jews themselves. But the British for the most part did nothing to stop them. By contrast, the British allowed Arab society to remain backward and primitive, with a high rate of illiteracy, slow to modernise and to develop an educated political class and an effective political leadership.

Even in the highly contentious area of immigration, British and Zionists co-operated to some extent, at least until the mid-1930s. Initially, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish government-in-waiting, wanted free immigration into Palestine. But Herbert Samuel pointed out that this would also mean free immigration for Arabs; far better, he argued, for the British to agree an annual quota with the Jewish Agency on a bilateral basis, shutting the Arabs out. Though these annual negotiations were often very heated, the quota nevertheless brought one priceless advantage to the Jewish Agency: it could control the process of immigration. Jews who wished to leave their native lands to go to Palestine never went to the nearest British consulate; they went to the local offices of the Jewish Agency, which selected those to be given immigration permits.

That antisemitic attitudes were common among the British in Palestine is beyond doubt. They were part of the casual racism of the day, part of the British sense of superiority over colonial peoples – which included Arabs, despite the romantic attachment of the British to the free-roaming desert Bedouin. But the British administration in Palestine was bound to follow government policy - and that remained the establishment of the Jewish national home, which favoured the Jews, not the Arabs. The harsh suppression of the Arab rebellion of 1936-39, an episode often overlooked, showed to what lengths the British would go; 25,000 men were sent to Palestine, a very substantial force by interwar standards, and in 1938 General Bernard Montgomery, no less, arrived to command them. The draconian measures adopted against Arab terrorism effectively broke the back of Arab fighting capacity, thus unintentionally boosting the chances of a Jewish victory a decade later.

In the conflict between the British and the Jews that came to a head after 1945, both sides behaved with a measure of restraint; incidents like the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 were the exception. The British took the usual measures, imprisoning, interrogating and sometimes executing those convicted of terrorist offences, while also resorting to illegal means like torture, and imposing curfews and forcible searches on the Jewish population, like the notorious ‘Black Sabbath’ arrests of June 1946. But Jews, however scorned, were Europeans and their lives were not as expendable as those of ‘natives’. Nothing the British did in Palestine compares with the massacre of hundreds of peaceful Indian civilians in Amritsar in 1919, or with the wholesale brutality employed in the suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s.

The issue that arouses the strongest emotions - the British refusal to admit into Palestine Jews fleeing the Holocaust - demonstrated heartlessness rather than active brutality; Britain was not the original perpetrator of the evil, though its reaction was one of callous disregard for the victims. The spectacle of Jews fleeing the Nazis from Black Sea ports, risking their lives on ramshackle ships, only to be stopped from entering Palestine by the Royal Navy, has not lost its power over the years. The case of the Struma, which sank in the Black Sea with the loss of over 700 Jewish lives, was the worst. Of those who arrived in Palestine on board the Patria, some 300 lost their lives in a botched Haganah bombing; the British saw fit to intern the survivors in Mauritius.

The hostility of the British towards the Jews increased as they came to see Jewish immigration into Palestine as the destabilising element in a situation where, with war approaching, they urgently needed stability. From about 1944, Jewish attacks on British soldiers and officials not surprisingly caused British attitudes to harden further. Ultimately, the British were forced to acknowledge that their Mandate had ended in ignominious failure. It was the crucible in which the war of 1948 and what followed was forged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anthony Grenville

next article:Danger! Enemy Alien!