Vol. 8 No. 8 · 8 May 1986

Search by issue:

Making truth

SIR: In successive sentences of his fascinating contribution to your issue of 17 April, Professor Rorty endorses the view that ‘great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens,’ and asserts that ‘there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself.’ If the second of these sentences is true, how can one description serve the purpose of prediction more usefully than another? In what, indeed, does Professor Rorty take prediction to consist?

A.J. Ayer
London Wl

SIR: I like Richard Rorty’s voice and think I would try to protect him if he were to need my protection; but would not entirely trust him to protect me well were I in danger. I have found that, having Yeats’s poems available to me, I am not less interested in reading some of Rossetti’s. Poetry helps to admit me to kinship with strange fellow-speakers. I fancy that, like song, it re-opens the infantile state of preparedness to understand speech not yet understood. Something that leads on, and something that is still elusive: metaphors, phrases like actes gratuits, constructions like ‘For the idealists confused the idea that nothing has such a nature with the idea that space and time are unreal – with the idea that human beings cause the spatio-temporal world to exist.’ Thus I am tempted on ‘from utterance to utterance’, convergingly. Much of our world remains in a constant relationship to our needs. Theories that better help us survive are the profits of our experiences of nature. The ‘native of an exotic culture’ who indicated that I should avoid mangoes and pluck boa constrictors would be a poor scientist in that respect. But such a one does not exist. Boa constrictors may not be indifferent to our descriptions of them.

Michael Fenn
London N4

Zionist History

SIR: I was surprised that Sir Ian and David Gilmour should respond as they did to my suggestion that they, as leading representatives of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, were hardly in a position to pass moral judgment on Joan Peters’s book From Time Immemorial, and that their CAABU activities merited inclusion in the biographical note accompanying their review (LRB, 7 February 1985; Letters, 23 January).

I am grateful to the Gilmours for the invitation to comment on their article, even though that was not my original intention. It gave me the opportunity to check their statements against the documentary material which they cite as authority. Their analysis is valuable in so far as it disproved Joan Peters’s more extreme claims and reveals the many inadequacies in her work. But a bad book, however misleading and inaccurate, does not warrant an inaccurate review.

The Gilmours’ analysis is inadequate in three major respects: an apparent lack of understanding of primary material; the oversimplification of complex issues; and the distorted analysis of historical material through the apparent influence of present-day political considerations. These flaws in Peters’s own work are the object of sustained criticism by the Gilmours. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that they should mar the Gilmours’ own contribution.

Let us take one passage as an example and a test of the Gilmours’ representation of their source material. They mention Joan Peters’s ‘apparent ignorance of the terms of the League of Nations Mandate’ for Palestine, particularly relating to the status of Trans-Jordan, and dismiss ‘the specious claim that Jordan is in fact a part of Palestine.’ We shall see that this is by no means a simple problem, but here is the Gilmours’ version. ‘Ms Peters’s claim that Transjordan was set up “in violation of the Mandate" is likewise based on an ignorance of the words actually used. Transjordan had never been “Eastern Palestine" and the fact that Britain administered the territories on both sides of the River Jordan for three years does not make them the same land. There was no “violation" because the Mandate specifically granted Britain discretionary power to remove Transjordan from the scope of the Mandate and to place it under separate administration.’

There are three problems raised here. First, whether the Balfour Declaration (and the Mandate in which the Declaration was later incorporated) considered Palestine to include Trans-Jordan or ‘Eastern Palestine’ to the east of the Jordan River; second, whether the claim that ‘Jordan is in fact a part of Palestine’ is as ‘specious’ as the Gilmours suggest; and third, whether Britain was empowered to ‘remove Transjordan from the scope of the Mandate’ and recognise the establishment there of an independent kingdom under King Abdullah.

The Balfour Declaration is unclear on the question of Trans-Jordan, as it was issued without any definition of the boundaries of Palestine. However, Article 25 of the Mandate refers to ‘the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine’, indicating that the River Jordan did not itself constitute such an ‘eastern boundary’. The Report of the High Commissioner for Palestine 1920-25, written after Trans-Jordan had been established, still emphasises that ‘although Trans-Jordan is under an administration separate from that of Palestine … it forms part of the same Mandatory area.’ The Mandate certainly included Trans-Jordan, though the phrasing of this Report suggests that by 1925 it was regarded as distinct from Palestine. Did this distinction exist before the Mandate was drawn up?

A central problem in trying to answer this question is the imprecise geographical implications of the term ‘Palestine’. The Mandate refers to ‘the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined’, as the area of the Mandate was still subject to doubt as late as 1922. Perhaps the most striking contemporary indication of the inadequacy of ‘Palestine’ as an exact geographical term is that the word does not appear in the crucial Hussein-McMahon correspondence of 1915 which was to form the basis for British obligations to the Arab peoples following the defeat of Turkey. Even though the King provides precise latitudes and vectors in order to define the area he wishes to see developed under independent Arab rule, he uses the names of vilayets and sanjaks of Ottoman administrative usage. McMahon describes the area as ‘Syria’. The term ‘Palestine’ is entirely absent.

The lack of clarity surrounding the term is reflected in the major documents of the time. The Report of the High Commissioner quoted above refers to the annex by which the Mandate was amended in September 1922, ‘making it clear that the Articles which related to the establishment of a Jewish National Home did not apply to Trans-Jordan,’ which would indicate that before September 1922 there was at least the possibility that they did. The need to clarify the situation arose from the very confusion, which the Gilmours do not admit, in connection with the term ‘Palestine’. In August 1922 the British administration west of the River Jordan was established by an Order in Council, Article 86 of which states that the Order ‘shall not apply to such parts of the territory comprised in Palestine to the east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea’.

The ‘specious claim that Jordan is in fact a part of Palestine’ was embodied in the Mandate, the Order in Council and other documents of the period, reflecting the thinking of the time. The connection between Palestine and Trans-Jordan continued to be recognised even after the establishment of the kingdom. As late as 1937, the Peel Commission referred to the idea of Partition in Article 20 of their Report, recognising that ‘there are many who would have felt an instinctive dislike to cutting up the Holy Land. The severance of Trans-Jordan, they would have thought, from historic Palestine was bad enough.’ Would the Peel Commission have described as ‘historic’ a connection which only lasted for three years and referred to the ‘severance’ of two elements which were never connected?

This ‘severance’ of Trans-Jordan from Palestine began in September 1922, when the Council of the League of Nations approved an annex to Article 25 of the Mandate submitted by Britain. In April 1923 the High Commission announced British recognition of the government of King Abdullah in Trans-Jordan. But the Gilmours’ attempted reference to these events is inadequate in two major respects, particularly their attempt to paraphrase Article 25, which did indeed given Britain the right to place Trans-Jordan ‘under separate administration’. The original document reads thus: ‘In the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined, the Mandatory shall be entitled, with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations, to postpone or withhold application of such provisions of this mandate as he may consider inapplicable to the existing local conditions, and to make such provision for the administration of the territories as he may consider suitable to those conditions, provided that no action shall be taken which is inconsistent with the provisions of Articles 15, 16 and 18.’ The Gilmours’ reading of this text claims that it ‘granted Britain discretionary power to remove Trans-Jordan from the scope of the Mandate’, which is inaccurate. Britain was permitted to withhold the application of specific provisions of the Mandate subject to specific conditions. The Mandate as a whole continued to stay in force in Trans-Jordan. The League of Nations and the British Government recognised Article 25 as referring specifically, in the words of the High Commissioner, to ‘the Articles which related to the establishment of a Jewish National Home’, and it was only these provisions which were withheld from application in Trans-Jordan by the annex of September 1922. Of 28 Articles in the Mandate, six were suspended in full and three were partly suspended, as were two of the seven Recitals in the Preamble. The remaining provisions of the Mandate – the vast majority of its text – continued to be applied in Trans-Jordan. Movever, the text of Article 25 quoted above states quite clearly the conditional nature of Britain’s powers with regard to withholding these provisions in Trans-Jordan. Above all, the new administration was bound to adhere, under continued British supervision, to Articles 15, 16 and 18, which safeguarded arrangements relating to customs tariffs and guaranteed religious rights, together with the protection of all faiths and nationalities in Palestine, against discrimination.

The Gilmours misrepresent the complex nature of Britain’s mandatory obligations by failing to mention that the ‘discretionary power’ was both partial and conditional. However, more crucial still is the fact that Britain was not granted ‘power to remove Transjordan from the scope of the Mandate’ as the Gilmours claim, but was explicitly required to keep Trans-Jordan within the Mandate, albeit with the right to establish a separate administration. Indeed, the High Commissioner reported that he was only empowered to recognise the government of King Abdullah in April 1923 ‘provided that such Government … places His Britannic Majesty’s Government in a position to fulfil its international obligations in respect of the territory by means of an agreement to be concluded between the two Governments.’ The Gilmours’ misreading of British policy and obligations here is fundamental, yet it is they who accuse others of ‘ignorance of the terms of the Mandate’.

In addition to their misunderstanding of documentary material, the Gilmours’ analysis of historical events is frequently distorted by political considerations. One example is their treatment of the flight of Palestinian Arabs from Palestine/Israel in 1947-48. Their ‘Bad King John, Good Queen Bess’ approach to history reaches its pinnacle as with mounting hatred they accuse Palestinian Jews of driving out the Arabs, massacring them on the way. To be sure, they cite a few irrefutable texts to demonstrate that some atrocities did occur and that some leaders intended to drive out the Arabs. But this is not enough for them: in three pages the Gilmours return to this theme no less than 13 times, depicting a consistent and largely successful Zionist policy to drive out hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs, under threat of massacre if necessary, and to subjugate those few who stayed.

There has been considerable discussion among scholars as to whether the Palestinian Arabs who left did so because they were expelled, because they were urged to leave by their own authorities, or because they fled in terror from real or feared atrocities. The Gilmours pounce on one standard claim made by Peters concerning alleged radio broadcasts made by the Arab Higher Committee urging their people to leave, and repeat the convincing charge made by Erskine Childers in the 1950s that no such broadcasts existed. The idea that all the Arabs left under instructions from their own leadership has rightly been consigned to the dustbin of Zionist propaganda by many of the genuine scholars who have reviewed, and condemned, From Time Immemorial, most recently by Hebrew University Professor Yehoshua Porath, who is perhaps the leading non-Palestinian authority on Palestinian history. However, the Gilmours expand their refutation of this item of Zionist propaganda to the full-blown thesis that no such instructions were ever issued by any Arab authority at any time; all the refugees were expelled by the Jews, while the Arab leadership instructed them to stay.

As with other theses of the Gilmours, the situation illustrated by contemporary documents was far more complex and quite different. British police reports from Haifa in April 1948, for example, show that while some Arabs were indeed driven out, others were evacuated by the Arab authorities, while ‘every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives … and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe.’ Conditions differed from place to place.

Matthew Kalman

The Gilmours write: Invited to refute our review of From Time Immemorial, Mr Kalman makes no attempt to defend the book or to deal with the main points we made. Instead, he concentrates on one short paragraph on Transjordan and then claims to have proved our ‘lack of understanding’, ‘distorted analysis’ and so on. Unfortunately, his argument is weak and pedantic, and its great length seems to be a way of disguising the fact that he has nothing useful to say. To our criticism of ‘the specious [Zionist] claim that Jordan is in fact a part of Palestine,’ Mr Kalman answers that our view was contradicted by ‘the Mandate, the Order in Council and other documents of the period’. What is this meant to prove? Surely he is not suggesting that the authors of the Mandate were infallible guides on the matter, particularly since the claim is easily refuted by historical evidence? Before the British Mandate, the relationship between the two banks of the Jordan was a curiously distant one, perhaps largely the result of ethnic differences: the Transjordanians were mainly descended from the tribes of the Arabian peninsula while the Palestinians are descendants of all the races which have settled in Palestine since the time of the Canaanites. Moreover, the two areas had long been administered separately. In the Ottoman period Transjordan, unlike Israel, was part of the Vilayet of Syria and even afterwards, until the beginning of 1920, it was included in the Occupied Territory Administration of Syria. Mr Kalman claims great inaccuracy for our contention that ‘the Mandate specifically granted Britain discretionary power to remove Transjordan from the scope of the Mandate and to place it under separate administration,’ but then admits that the Mandate ‘did indeed give Britain the right to place Transjordan “under separate administration" ’ – the very point we were making! His complaint merely concerns the words ‘from the scope of the Mandate’, which he appears to have deliberately misinterpreted. If the application of a Mandate’s provisions to a mandated territory is withheld, and if, furthermore, that territory is given a new and separate administration, then surely it is obvious that the territory in question is being removed from the scope of the original Mandate?

From Transjordan, Mr Kalman turns to 1948 and attacks us for allegedly putting forward a ‘thesis’ that ‘all the [Arab] refugees were expelled by the Jews.’ In fact, we did not say that. We merely refuted yet again the long-exploded Zionist myths which Mrs Peters sought to resurrect. We argued that ‘the major responsibility for the refugee problem lies with the Zionists.’ Our claim has been endorsed by an Israeli historian’s publication of extracts from a report of the Israeli Defence Forces Intelligence Branch (dated 30 June 1948). If Mr Kalman turns to it (Middle Eastern Studies, January 1986), he will discover that, according to the best-placed Israeli intelligence sources, nearly three-quarters of the Palestinian refugees were expelled by Zionist military action, by Zionist terrorist action or by Zionist expulsion orders. If Mr Kalman thinks that the Israeli intelligence sources also produced a ‘distorted analysis’ and showed a ‘lack of understanding of primary material’, he had better pursue his quarrel with them.


SIR: I have only just seen Joseph Alsop’s letter to you (Letters, 23 January). He takes me to task on two counts: for saying (in my book The Airman and the Carpenter) that he had written ten thousand words a day while covering the Hauptmann trial of 1935, and for disputing the guilty verdict. As regards the first charge, I was given this (admittedly astonishing) figure by his wife and therefore saw no need to check it. As regards the second, I do not for a moment doubt that he and his fellow reporters at the trial all believed Hauptmann to be guilty. Unfortunately for them, they did not know what the files of the FBI, the New Jersey State Police, the New York City Police, and the papers of Governor Hoffman have since revealed: that the vast bulk (some 90 per cent) of the prosecution evidence was perjured. Mr Alsop says he has not read the copy of my book which I sent him last year, and which contains the new evidence. I am not surprised. In the light of his letter to you, he clearly does not wish to run the risk of having to admit to himself that he has been living I under an illusion these past fifty years.

Ludovic Kennedy
London Wl

Ford Madox Ford

SIR: I have been commissioned by Oxford University Press to write a critical biography of Ford Madox Ford (originally Ford Madox Hueffer). I would be glad to receive, or to hear about, any letters, manuscripts, memorabilia, photographs or other information concerning him. Any originals would be carefully returned.

Max Saunders
Selwyn College, Cambridge

Jean Rhys Review

SIR: For the first issue of the Jean Rhys Review, to be published bi-annually, I would like to receive annoucements, queries, critical articles and reviews concerning the work of Jean Rhys.

Nora Gaines
Apartment 503, 243 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10025

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences