On Trying to Be Portugal

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

  • ‘A Senseless, Squalid War’: Voices from Palestine 1945-48 by Norman Rose
    Bodley Head, 278 pp, £20.00, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 07938 9
  • Major Farran’s Hat: Murder, Scandal and Britain’s War against Jewish Terrorism 1945-48 by David Cesarani
    Heinemann, 290 pp, £20.00, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 434 01844 4

Why should the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians absorb the attention of the world, as it does? It makes no sense when you look objectively at the Holy Land (a convenient term to describe the territory between Jordan and the sea: British Mandatory Palestine from 1920 to 1948 and controlled by Israel one way or another since 1967), which is about the size of New Hampshire or Wales, and has a smaller total population than Portugal or Ohio. And yet for decades that conflict must have filled more newspaper column inches and broadcasting airtime than tropical Africa, with nearly half a billion inhabitants, or India, with more than a billion. The violent death of more than 1600 Israelis and 6500 Palestinians over the last 20 years is lamentable, yet it compares with 70,000 killed over the same period in Sri Lanka, which has a population only twice the size, and at least 40,000 in Chechnya, which has a smaller population than Gaza. Such comparisons are indeed sometimes made by indignant partisans who think the media ‘gang up on Israel’, but then both sides in this bitter conflict have had reason to feel sorry for themselves.

In Europe over the past generation there has been an unmistakable turn of opinion against Israel, especially on the ‘progressive’ side, and there are now signs of a shift even in America. In Disenchantment: The ‘Guardian’ and Israel, the Israeli writer Daphna Baram describes this turn using the example of one British newspaper, beginning at the moment when C.P. Scott, its famous proprietor-editor, took up the Zionist cause. No one would now say, as Orwell did late in 1945, that the left was ‘strongly committed to support the Jews against the Arabs’, and a long memory is needed to recall the days when what Gerald Kaufman calls ‘the beautiful democratic Israel’ was revered by liberals, the New Statesman hero-worshipped Ben-Gurion as a model social democrat and the left barely knew that the Palestinians existed.

That sentiment persisted until the 1967 war. Even two years after it, when the young Max Hastings visited Israel, he, like so many, was ‘thrilled by the brilliance of Israel’s military achievement’, as he said in his recent Leonard Stein lectures, in which he went on to describe his subsequent disillusionment. Tony Judt is now an incisive critic of Israeli policy but as a youthful Zionist he flew out to help the Jewish state during the war, and remembers – this by way of contrast with his students 40 years later at New York University – that opinion at Cambridge was ‘overwhelmingly pro-Israel’. And so it was at Oxford.

What changed? One answer might be that the enthusiasm was always transient, a spasm of guilt inspired by terrible persecution, and that anti-semitism is an incurable bacillus in the Gentile bloodstream. That was what some Zionists thought all along, and they argued that the only expedient was a state that would ‘normalise’ the Jewish people and make them ‘a nation like all others’, as unnewsworthy as, say, Wales or Portugal. Another possibility is that Zionism and Israel were virtuous but have become vicious, which is what Kaufman and Hastings, among so many others, imply.

But maybe the story is less simple. It’s at least arguable that, whether or not the recent criticism of Israel is excessive, the earlier adulation was, and that an answer to present woes may be found in the history of Zionism, including the period just before the birth of the state described in Norman Rose’s ‘A Senseless, Squalid War’ and David Cesarani’s Major Farran’s Hat. Both books deal with the last years of the Mandate, when the rightist nationalists of the Irgun and the Stern Gang waged a fierce campaign against British forces and the Arab population, provoking an increasingly harsh and sometimes criminal British response.

After the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the British took control of two new adjacent imperial territories under the specious guise of League of Nations Mandates. Having artificially created Iraq to the east they managed to extricate themselves from there, but the land to the west proved trickier. By 1921, London was getting cold feet, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was redefined in more restrictive terms, and the original territory was partitioned to make Transjordan east of the river and, between the river and the sea, what was known for more than a quarter-century as Palestine, the biggest headache in late imperial history.

Shortly after the partition, Vladimir Jabotinsky created the World Union of Revisionist Zionists (and what a wonderfully adaptable word ‘revisionist’ has been, from German Marxism to Hungarian nationalism to Irish historiography). Although Jabotinsky had acquiesced in the partition, as Rose says, the name of his movement came from its ambition to ‘revise’ or rescind it and create ‘a Jewish state with a Jewish majority on both banks of the Jordan’. By the time he died in American exile in 1940, his uniformed youth movement, Betar, had given birth to the Irgun.

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