A. J. Sherman. Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 264 pp. $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8018-6620-3.
Reviewed by Daniel C. Williamson (Department of Humanities, Hillyer College, University of Hartford)
Published on H-Diplo (December, 2002)
Frustration in the Holy Land
Frustration in the Holy Land
A. J. Sherman's book Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948 examines the lives and attitudes of British civilian and military officials who served in Palestine through the medium of their own letters and other writings. Sherman does not attempt to provide a detailed analysis of Britain's imperial policies and actions in Palestine. Rather, the purpose of the book is to present an intimate look at what it was like to serve in the Mandate, what the British subjects thought about Palestine and their service there, and how their lives and attitudes changed over the roughly thirty years of British rule.
The first part of the work places the Palestine Mandate in the overall history of the British Empire. Sherman finds London's brief rule over Palestine particularly evocative because it began when the empire achieved its greatest size and ended when the rise of nationalism in the colonial world was threatening to destroy the empire. Another interesting theme pursued in the book is that of the "largely unconscious and unexamined assumptions of natural authority that pervaded the entire imperial enterprise" (p. 15). These feelings of superiority were very much in evidence at the start of the Mandate but were eroded by the time the last High Commissioner left Palestine in chaos.
In addition to its importance in the general history of the British Empire, the Palestine Mandate represents an interesting case study of British Imperialism in practice during the twentieth century. Some aspects of Palestine were unique, particularly the Balfour Declaration's promise to assist in the creation of a "National Home" for the Jewish people in Palestine without dispossessing local Arabs which placed the British in the middle of a conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Zionists. London never settled on a policy that made both the Jews and the Arabs happy.
However, in some ways Palestine shared features of other parts of the Empire. While the Mandate was a responsibility given to Britain by the League of Nations it was run essentially like a Crown Colony with no local assembly and all important posts held by British nationals. Britain's interest in Palestine served a strategic purpose due to its strategic location near the Middle East's oil field and the Suez Canal. Another imperial feature common to Palestine was the practice of British colonial officials to informally divide indigenous populations into "good" and "bad" groups. In Palestine the Arabs (romanticized as courageous Bedouin tribesmen) were the "good" locals, while the Jewish Zionists (whom the British characterized as pushy and grasping) made up the "bad" element. Of course, both groups were considered inferior by the British and in need of the aid of an advanced nation.
Palestine fell into British hands in December 1917 when General Allenby captured Jerusalem from the Turks. The first task of the occupying forces was to provide food for the impoverished residents of Palestine who had suffered neglect at the hands of the Ottomans. Wartime occupation turned to formal responsibility in 1920 when the League of Nations granted authority in Palestine to Britain until the territory was deemed fit for self-rule. Despite the Balfour Declaration, and the official Mandate policy of establishing a homeland for the Jews, the Jewish community joined the Arabs in mistrusting their new rulers.
London's policy of promoting Zionism worried the British officials in Palestine. Humphrey Bowan, Mandate Director of Education, noted in his diary that "It is indeed difficult to see how we can keep our promise to the Jews ... without inflicting injury on nine-tenths of the population" (p. 54). London, however, still clung to the conflicting ideas of creating a Jewish homeland and keeping the Arab population content.
The first decade of British civilian rule passed in relative peace. The first civilian High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, oversaw the transformation of the Mandate into something resembling a typical British colony. Sherman's book provides a look at the thriving social life of the military and civilian servants of the Palestine Mandate. For the officers and higher ranking officials drawn from Britain's upper classes, hunting, tennis, picnics, teas, concerts, endless rounds of parties and functions at exclusive British clubs filled their leisure hours. For the small number of enlisted military personnel and British police officers, bars and cafes provided entertainment and limited interaction with the locals.
Under the surface, however, Palestine was troubled. As Sherman points out, the British plan to create a Palestine where Jews and Arabs would share power never got off the ground. The Jewish population of Palestine, which grew to 108,000 by 1925, regulated its own affairs through a Jewish Agency which actively cooperated with the Palestine Administration. The Zionist settlements were left largely autonomous by the British. On the other hand, the Palestinian Arabs, who were increasingly concerned by the rising number of Jewish settlers, refused to cooperate with the Palestine Administration. Despite the cool welcome by the Arabs, the British saw it as their mission to help the local population. As the High Commissioner's son, District Officer Edwin Samuel, put it, "There'd been a war, the Turks had been defeated, the Middle East was divided up between France and England and it was the white man's burden" (p. 66).
High Commissioner Samuel was placed in the difficult position of trying to appease both communities. This task was complicated by the fact that Samuel himself was Jewish, while his officials were becoming increasingly anti-Zionist if not outright anti-Semitic. One officer wrote of the Zionists, "Their belief in what they are doing is terrible and selfish in its intensity.... They ask bounty and protection from England, but never pause to consider how many troubles they have heaped upon us in the past few years" (p. 73). When serious inter-communal rioting broke out in 1929, leaving almost 250 dead, the British critics of Whitehall's policies saw this as proof that the Jews and Arabs would never be able to live together peacefully.
London's response to the rioting was to issue a White Paper in October 1930 which stipulated that further Jewish immigration would be limited by the ability of Palestine's economy to absorb them. The Arab community was not placated by these changes and when the policy was revised in February 1931 to be more favorable to Zionism the Arabs were outraged. The problem became more acute when Zionism was given a boost by the rise to power of the Nazi Party. Thousands of German Jews fled to Palestine to avoid persecution. Arab unhappiness with Zionism and British rule led to a full-scale revolt by Palestinian Arabs in 1936. While the Arab Revolt was defeated with harsh military measures, conciliation was soon offered to the Arab community. With war approaching in Europe, Whitehall wanted to insure Arab loyalty. London assumed that Jews would be anti-fascist regardless of British policy in Palestine. A new White Paper issued in May 1939 called for the eventual creation of an independent Palestine containing both Jews and Arabs, although the size of the Jewish population would be limited. Jewish immigration would be capped at 75,000 people for the next five years, after which any further influx would have to be approved by the Arabs.
As London's policy on Palestine shifted during the 1930s, Sherman points out that the officials in the Mandate were left with the impossible task of ruling over the mutually antagonistic Arabs and Jews. High Commissioner Sir John Chancellor, who was harshly criticized by both communities, complained to his son that, "I knew of no one who would be a good High Commissioner of Palestine except God" (p. 85). Sherman himself doubts that even a divinity could have handled the task.
British attempts to mediate between the two communities were hindered by the fact that the officers in Palestine were not balanced in their view of the Jewish-Arab conflict. Even during the Arab Revolt, British opinion in the Mandate still tended to favor the Arabs who were often portrayed as valiant foes. The British residents of Palestine tended to see the revolt as more anti-Jewish than anti-British. There were exceptions to the general pro-Arab sentiment, like Colonel Orde Wingate who led a special counterinsurgency unit of the security forces composed of Jewish recruits, but most British officials were anti-Zionist. Typical of British opinion was C. G. Eastwood, Private Secretary to General Sir Arthur Wauchope, who wrote that he was becoming "more and more--not anti-Jewish but pro-Arab everyday" (p. 88).
During World War II, Palestine was relatively peaceful compared to the rest of the Middle East. However, problems still mounted for the Mandate government. There was a flood of Jewish refugees arriving from Germany, Poland, and Romania, with Zionist assistance, despite the best efforts of the British to keep to the limits set by the 1939 White Paper. In a sinister development, the number of refugees only declined in 1942 when the Nazis decided to implement the "Final Solution" and therefore stopped the refugees from leaving Axis territory. While the Jewish community was upset that the British authorities were not permitting more refugees to enter Palestine, the threat of a German victory in North Africa kept most Zionists cooperating with the British. In return for the support of the Jewish Agency, the mainstream Jewish defense force, the Haganah, was allowed to arm and train in contravention of the law, as long as they were discreet. On the other hand, the more extreme Zionists and their military organizations, the Irgun and the so-called Stern Gang, advocated the immediate creation of a Jewish State. As the war drew to a close the Haganah joined the Irgun and the Stern Gang in launching attacks on the British.
Sympathy for the plight of Europe's Jews during the war did not override the anti-Zionist stance of most Mandate officials who worked hard to keep out illegal refugees. "I'm sorry for the Jews, I must say, but I cannot believe that the outlined policy is anything but just," is how one official described his feelings (p. 135). Sherman reports that once cooperation between the Zionists and the Mandate authorities turned to violence near the end of the war, the British attitude toward the Jews hardened even more. Colonial Administrative official Ivan Lloyd Phillips wrote to his father that "I quite enjoy the thrill of all the excitement.... On the other hand it would be a great relief to get away from the Jews! Palestine would be almost ideal if there were only the Arabs and ourselves here!!" (p. 173).
Jewish hopes rose when the war ended and the Labour Party came to power, but Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did not prove to be the ally that the Zionists expected. Anxious to avoid angering its valuable Arab allies, London refused to allow large-scale resettlement of Jewish refugees to Palestine and opposed the creation of a Jewish State. With no support for their aims forthcoming from London, the various Zionist military formations began an active terrorist campaign to drive the British from Palestine. Illegal immigration of Jewish refugees to Palestine, with the active support of the Jewish community in the Mandate, increased dramatically. Assassinations, attacks on police and military bases, bombings, and sabotage increased during 1946. One of the most spectacular attacks was the Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel in July 1946. Designed to destroy the wing of the hotel which housed the offices of the Palestine Administration, the blast killed over ninety people, Britons, Jews, and Arabs alike. British authorities could not quell the violence despite deploying 100,000 police and soldiers, and the security forces increasingly withdrew into fortified camps mockingly dubbed "Bevingrads" by the Jews. The situation became so dangerous that in early 1947 non-essential personnel were evacuated by the British.
By this time the British public was tired of the bloody, and seemingly pointless, war in Palestine. The Truman Administration's support for the partition of Palestine further undercut London's desire to retain the Mandate. In late 1947, after the UN General Assembly approved a plan to divide Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, the British announced that they would end their administration of the Mandate on May 15, 1948. The last few months of British rule in Palestine saw a steady deterioration of public services and security as troops and administrators were withdrawn. The United Nations had not sent an adequate organization to replace the British and Palestine fell into civil war. The "scuttle" from Palestine was not a proud moment for the British Empire. "Withdrawing without designating a successor, the British had not so much transferred power as abandoned it," Sherman concludes.
The British soldiers and civil servants who served during the chaotic last few years of the Mandate were almost uniformly bitter about the experience. Even as the campaign to defeat the Zionist guerrillas was continuing, one officer wrote that, "To my way of thinking the writing on the wall is plain; the Jews are going to get their country sooner or later ... we have made a most tragic mistake, with untold consequences in the Middle East" (p. 176). The British expressed frustration at the Americans as well. MP Richard Crossman asked "why should these people from a safe position across the Atlantic lambaste my country for its failure to go to war with the Arabs on behalf of the Jews?" (p. 189). Sherman contends that this sentiment was shared by many Mandate officials. Sir Henry Gurney, last Chief Secretary of Palestine, spilled out his frustration in a diary he kept of the last days of British rule. Surveying the history of the Mandate from its unseemly end he wrote, "In fact, the last thirty years in this country have seen nothing but fluctuations of policy, hesitations, or no policy at all.... It is this continual surrender to pressure of one sort or another--American Jewry or Arab rebellion--that has made British policy in Palestine, with all its first-class administrative achievements, unintelligible to, and mistrusted by both sides" (p. 223).
While diplomatic historians will have little use for Mandate Days, as it only briefly touches on the complex international component of the story, Sherman's book does have great value for students of British imperialism. Through an examination of private letters and diaries, the author reveals men and women who were firm and sincere supporters of the mission of empire, which they saw as bringing the blessings of British civilization to lesser developed people. While the trials of service in Palestine eroded their morale and their support for the continuation of the Mandate, no evidence is supplied that they lost faith in the value of the British Empire as a whole. Sherman himself expresses sympathy for the British occupiers of Palestine, if not for the idea of imperialism, when he concludes that "There was no lack of exertion by the British in Palestine; providential good fortune, however, was always in short supply" (p. 245).
While one might wish that Sherman had provided more of his own opinions and analysis on controversial issues such as anti-Semitism among the British, he cannot rightly be criticized for this as his intention was to let the British speak for themselves. For achieving that goal he must be congratulated.
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Daniel C. Williamson. Review of Sherman, A. J., Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948.
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