Leo Baeck 2


May 2001 Journal

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Reputations reviewed


When General Allenby entered Jerusalem in December 1917 to claim the Holy Land for the Empire, he inaugurated a thirty-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.  Tom Segev tells the story of the British Mandate and emphasises both British benevolence and the fundamental irreconcilability of the two national movements, the Jewish and the Palestinian. Several diaries, memoirs and letters back to Blighty have been mustered to create a kind of literary theatre, rather than history, in which Segev skilfully moves his actors on and off stage. 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. 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 find a way to satisfy the legitimate claims of both Jews and Arabs. I am not for either, but for both, the Governor of Jerusalem Ronald 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 more perhaps a question of getting the job done and running the country well. Indeed, the British left Israel in much better shape than they had found Ottoman Palestine. Yet they had not instituted compulsory school attendance. Only three out of every ten 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, while professing their unremitting belief in the justice of their causes. It is about idealism, but also about ordinary, and sometimes extraordinary,  people expressing ordinary concerns. Segev has utilised Israeli archival 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 and 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.

Segev views the Mandate essentially through post-Zionist spectacles for an Israeli audience examining its history. Such selectivity certainly 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 not make exciting reading, but Segev’s use of eccentric anecdotes, bizarre facts and fascinating vignettes certainly achieves that end.

This review has been abridged from The Guardian.
Colin Shindler.

previous article:ANNUAL REPORT 2000
next article:Central Office for Holocaust Claims