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.

This right-wing Revisionist tradition has been described by Perry Anderson as intellectually more distinguished than Labour Zionism, a tribute from an unlikely source but true enough, and Jabotinsky was without doubt more intellectually honest than other Zionists. In effect he agreed with those Arabs who insisted that they would never voluntarily accept ‘Jewish colonisation’: it had either to stop or to proceed ‘behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach’. But there were other paradoxes. He said that he had no wish to oppress the Arabs, still less to ‘transfer’ or expel them, and he may have meant it. And yet not only did he insist that a Jewish majority should be created by mass immigration, he also assumed that this work of colonisation, and presumably the business of imposing it on the ‘native’ population, would be carried out by the British. The British neither wished nor were able to do so, either in the 1920s or when the war against Hitler ended, leaving a desperate remnant from the murdered millions of Europe. By this point the Zionists were formally demanding a Jewish state, and also the immediate admission of 100,000 Jews into Palestine.

And so the Holy Land became one of the most pressing problems for Attlee and his colleagues in the new Labour government, particularly Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary. Before the 1945 election, Labour had adopted a resolution demanding that Jews become a majority in Palestine: ‘Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in’ (which was what happened in 1948, in a manner of speaking). It was drafted by Hugh Dalton, the imperious, unlovable Etonian socialist who became Attlee’s first chancellor and who, it should be noted, stood well to the left of any member of the present government – a striking confirmation of Orwell’s claim.

Once in office Labour was obliged to forget the resolution. The government ruled out the admission of the 100,000 Jews and tried to thwart clandestine immigration. An Anglo-American commission investigated and, like others before it, found that the problem had no solution. Even the most moderate Arabs, such as the scholar Albert Hourani, insisted on an independent Arab state, ‘with full rights for the Jewish citizens’, while the most eirenic Jews, such as Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, hoped for a binational state, ‘a common motherland for these two semitic peoples’, as Magnes called it, though he too expected large-scale Jewish immigration. Richard Crossman, who was a member of the commission, concluded that Magnes ‘represented nothing real in Palestine’. This was sadly confirmed by Hourani’s saying that a binational state could work only ‘if a certain spirit of co-operation and trust exists and if there is an underlying sense of unity to neutralise communal differences. But that spirit does not exist in Palestine. If it existed, the whole problem would not have arisen.’

Events were now spiralling out of control, as Zionist violence increased. In July 1946, the Irgun blew up the King David Hotel, killing 91 people, British, Arab and Jewish. The following year, after three of its men had been condemned to death, the Irgun captured two British sergeants and hanged them in reprisal. The atmosphere grew dark; Sydney Silverman and Barnett Janner, two Jewish Labour MPs, told the Commons of their ‘sense of deep shame and humiliation’. Many British officials had long sympathised with the Arabs, and did so now more than ever, while ordinary soldiers, most of them young conscripts, sometimes took their own random revenge. But the true mood of the British army was less hatred than angry frustration, best expressed by a graffiti exchange on a wall in Jerusalem described by Piers Brendon in The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (2007). Under the Zionist slogan ‘Tommy Go Home,’ one such Tommy replied: ‘I Wish I Fucking Well Could.’

These events are judiciously related by Rose, a professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He makes excellent use of contemporary sources to give a generally dispassionate account, which is sometimes all the more hair-raising for that, whether he is describing what Owen Tweedy, a journalist who served for a time as press officer to the Palestine government, called the blatant anti-semitism of some British officials, or the behaviour of the Zionist ultras who sent letter bombs to British politicians and planned to infect the London water supply with cholera.

Meanwhile the great game of international politics was played out. Reviewing Nicholas Bethell’s The Palestine Triangle 30 years ago, A.J.P. Taylor said that no Englishman could contemplate the story of the last years of Mandatory Palestine without some sense of shame. And he added, just as truly, that ‘the role of the American administration was despicable throughout.’ One man who knew what he meant was Attlee, who comes out well from Rose’s account and not only because of his ‘Attleeisms’ (after listening to a half-hour Zionist harangue from Crossman, the prime minister sat in silence for a while, before saying: ‘I saw your mother last week’). Attlee’s real anger was ‘with the Americans who forever lay heavy burdens on us without lifting a little finger to help’. After Truman’s ‘Yom Kippur speech’ of October 1946, timed for the midterm elections, in which he demanded the admission of more Jews to Palestine, Attlee lost patience. He bitterly rebuked Truman for not having consulted the prime minister ‘of the country which has the actual responsibility for the government of Palestine in order that he might acquaint you with the actual situation and probable results of your action’. But then Attlee had early stumbled on the truth about the ‘special relationship’, which Gerhard Schroeder has said is so special that only the English know it exists. No American president who has to choose between supporting his loyal British ally and pleasing an important domestic constituency will ever side with London, as Tony Blair’s career more than once illustrated.

What made Truman’s conduct so base was that, like Roosevelt before him (both men, by the way, were at least mildly anti-semitic in private), he harried the British while refusing any practical assistance – as Truman breezily said, ‘I have no desire to send 500,000 American soldiers there to make peace in Palestine’ – and going to every length to prevent all but a handful of Jews from reaching American soil. Speaking with his usual bluntness, Bevin said that the American campaign for admission was pursued ‘from the purest of motives. They did not want too many Jews in New York.’ This caused much anger in America, and it was certainly an offensive thing to say. It was also quite true.

At the same time, the Zionist mythos was entering American popular culture. The name of one of the ships bringing clandestine immigrants to Palestine later gave Leon Uris the title for his rubbishy 1958 novel Exodus, which was made by Otto Preminger into a lurid movie. Well before that, in September 1946, A Flag Is Born had opened in New York, a work of ‘blatant propagandist melodrama’, in Rose’s words, violently anti-British in tone, written by Ben Hecht, an ardent Irgun supporter, and starring the 22-year-old Marlon Brando. A quainter showbiz connection came when American arms were secretly acquired for the incipient Jewish state and smuggled out by Teddy Kollek, later mayor of Jerusalem, with the help of Meyer Lansky, the mobster whose associates controlled the New York waterfront; Frank Sinatra, who had Zionist sympathies as well as Mafia connections, acted as bagman.

As leader of the opposition, Churchill was less impressive than Attlee, chiding the government either for following his own example or for not doing what he himself could have done when he was in power. His is the phrase which gives Rose his title, and anyone might agree that the conflict was squalid. But was it senseless? Rose makes no excuses for the brutality of the Irgun, which culminated in April 1948, some weeks before Israel was declared independent, with the massacre of more than a hundred villagers in Deir Yassin. The name became a slogan for Palestinians, and the killings produced an unseemly reaction from some Englishmen. They ‘are too horrible for words’, Sir Henry Gurney, chief secretary of the Palestine government, wrote in his diary. ‘Belsen pales besides them.’ As Rose says, there was no need for such hyperbole: the truth was bad enough. Few who read his account will take Israeli denunciations of Palestinian terrorism quite so seriously. The sombre truth is that violence is not always senseless. Sometimes it works, if not always in the way its practitioners intend. For a terrorist group to provoke the ruling forces into more bloody reprisals can be a rational strategy.

One grim episode is recounted in Major Farran’s Hat. Alexander Rubowitz was a 16-year-old boy fighting with the Sternists in Jerusalem when he vanished in May 1947, abducted, beaten and then murdered by Major Roy Farran, who then fled the country. Farran had been a rip-roaring war hero who admitted cheerfully that shooting prisoners was one of those things that sometimes had to be done; he was lucky to have been on the winning side, which had the privilege of punishing the defeated as war criminals. If his murder of Rubowitz was outrageous, so was the official cover-up. Farran returned to face the music, or rather a rigged court martial, during which senior officers perjured themselves and even Attlee was ignobly involved. It’s a gripping as well as a bleak story, though it isn’t clear that it really merits a full-length book.

Although Cesarani plainly has Zionist sympathies, he tries to be even-handed. Not only have there been worse atrocities than those committed by the Irgun, but much more ferocious methods than those used against them had been employed, and would be again, by the British against others. Cesarani concedes that nothing the British did in Palestine was as brutal as their repression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya a few years later, though he attributes this difference to the ‘vibrant local democracy’ the Jews had created in Palestine, which enabled them ‘to protest effectively at a local and an international level’.

Or perhaps they were just white. When a visitor to Oxford in the 1930s held forth over dinner at All Souls about Germany’s right to reclaim the African and Asian colonies lost after the Great War, he was silenced by the historian Lewis Namier with the words: ‘Wir Juden und die anderen Farbigen denken anders.’ Some Zionists tried to persuade themselves that they counted among Namier’s ‘other coloured peoples’, or even that Zionism was an anti-colonial movement. The indefatigable Martin Peretz of the New Republic insists even now that ‘Israel was an anti-imperialist creation,’ whose original ‘decolonisation struggle looks very much like other decolonisations, in the Indian subcontinent, for example’.

Much the same language has been used by Irish nationalists, though in Ireland and Empire (2000) Stephen Howe points out that if Irish history was ‘colonial’, then ‘it was as part of a picture in which, literally, all European history is colonial history,’ that before the 1960s most Irish nationalists simply ‘did not use the colonialism/anticolonialism model’, and that other anti-colonial movements did not claim Irish inspiration. As it happens, there is one interesting exception. When Yitzhak Shamir was an underground leader of the Stern gang he took the nom de guerre Michael in homage to Michael Collins, and the Irgun’s campaign of 1946-48 was consciously inspired by the IRA’s activities in 1919-21.

There are other telling comparisons. At the time of that original IRA violence, the infant Royal Air Force was bombing defenceless Iraqi villagers into submission. Can anyone imagine the RAF bombing villages in West Cork or Kerry in 1921? The ferocious means used in Palestine to put down the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 have been described by Matthew Hughes (see the English Historical Review, April 2009). Could anyone suppose that the Zionist revolt ten years later would have been put down with the same ferocity? The execution of five Irgun men caused much rage in the United States. How many Americans have heard of the 108 Palestinians hanged by the British during the Arab Revolt?

After noting the Western left’s instinctive support for Jews against Arabs, Orwell had gone on to say that this was not the end of the matter: among other things, ‘the Palestine issue is partly a colour issue,’ in which ‘an Indian nationalist, for instance, would probably side with the Arabs.’ Two years later his words came true. There had been one last attempt to solve the conundrum, and yet another committee, under the auspices of the newborn United Nations, had visited the Holy Land and recommended partition. This pleased the Zionists, who were now ready to accept a bird in the hand whatever their aspirations; it also enraged the Arabs, and dismayed Bevin. He was determined not to divide the country, and rashly assured Parliament that the UN itself would not approve the plan. But it did.

In the autumn of 1947 the General Assembly, with its modest 56 member states, debated the partition of Palestine at its temporary headquarters in the suburbs of New York, with London still hoping that the vote in favour would fail to reach the requisite two-thirds of votes cast. The debate was described by Harold Beeley, a British official: ‘The galleries were packed with an almost exclusively Zionist audience. They applauded declarations of support for Zionism. They hissed Arab speakers. They created the atmosphere of a football match, with the Arabs as the away team.’ After the Americans had twisted every arm and used all means fair and foul to persuade European and Latin American governments to support partition, the home terraces got the result they wanted, by 33 votes to 13.

The real significance lay in the way the vote divided. For whatever reasons of realpolitik, the Soviet Union (which had three votes, thanks to the absurd compromise allowing Stalin representatives of the ‘sovereign’ Belorussian and Ukrainian SSRs) supported the Zionists. Along with the US, the majority also included 11 other countries which are present-day members of Nato, while nine of the minority of 13 were Muslim countries. Even more telling was the division within the British Commonwealth, until then usually a cohesive diplomatic bloc. The ‘white Commonwealth’, for the first time inclining towards Washington rather than London, backed the Zionists, with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa voting for partition. But less than four months earlier, the old Raj had become independent and both India and Pakistan voted in the minority.

And there you have it, a lightning flash that illuminates the whole story since. If Orwell’s phrase now seems a little anachronistic, it was true enough: this was ‘a colour issue’ – and it has remained one. Whatever one thinks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s oration at the UN conference in Geneva earlier this year, it was hard not to notice that those who walked out were without exception white men from Europe or countries created by European settlement, while the whole of Asia and Africa stayed put.

If there is a ‘tragedy of Zionism’ it is surely this. Without wanting to or even realising what was happening, the Jewish state has found itself on the wrong side of a much greater divide than the mere dispute between Jew and Arab. The reason for the global obsession with the Holy Land is that it has become a crucible, an epitome, a distilled version of a ‘clash of civilisations’, or at any rate a Kulturkampf, with the world miserably split and Israel, whether it likes it or not, cast as a European settler state. That is why, whatever other achievements Zionism may claim, it has palpably not created a ‘nation like all others’, normalised the Jewish people, or removed them from the pages of history. And whatever pious hopes are expressed for the resolution of this miserable and intractable conflict, it’s hard to see that there is now more trust, spirit of co-operation, or more of an underlying sense of unity, than when Hourani spoke 60 years ago. If such a spirit existed, the problem would not have arisen.