The Bride: An Illustrated History of Palestine 1850-1948
by Roger Hardy
Anthony Eyre, £15, 320 pages
This account of a momentous century in the history of the Holy Land takes its title from Palestine itself, a bride who attracted many suitors. A Victorian Archbishop of York, William Thomson, declared starkly that the place of “our Redemption” belonged “to you and to me”. In a classic expression of Christian imperialism, he declared that Britain had a sacred duty to rescue it from darkness by means of a new crusade. As heir to the Crusaders, France too claimed a stake in Palestine; so did Russia as the guardian of Orthodoxy. The Kaiser asserted German influence by opening the Church of the Redeemer in the old city of Jerusalem in 1898, when he was accused of trying to set himself up “as a sort of Protestant Pope”. American millennialists were drawn to Palestine in order to witness the Second Coming. By dint of long occupation Arabs claimed the land from which Muhammad had ascended into heaven; Jews saw it as the land of Israel, at its heart the city of David. All told, Palestine was, to adopt the words of St John, “a bride adorned for her husband”.
The great merit of Roger Hardy’s book is that it provides a clear narrative illustrated with excellent photographs and vivid personal vignettes, many of them taken from unpublished sources. The camera was initially a tool of biblical and archaeological research, presenting Palestine as a “landscape with ruins”. Later photographers focused on its people, offering romantic images of Abrahamic shepherds, Bedouin tribesmen and Levantine houris. As Hardy says, these figures were invariably “crude caricatures replete with the cultural prejudices of the age”. Later still, as he shows, pictures of happy kibbutzniks making the desert bloom were overtly propagandist. They are all revealing nonetheless, as are written observations of contemporaries. One Englishman witnessed a pilgrimage of Russian peasants in 1912: “They take their death-shrouds to Jordan, and wearing them, bathe in the sacred river. All in white, on the banks where John baptised, they look like the awakened dead on the final Resurrection morning … They mostly hope to die in the Holy Land.”
Turkish rule, which was tempered by interference from Western consuls, lasted until 1917 when Edmund Allenby became the first Christian soldier to capture Jerusalem since the Middle Ages. In the same year the Balfour Declaration gave British government support to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Its aim was to enlist “world Jewry”, itself an anti-Semitic trope, on the side of the Allies at a perilous moment in the First World War. But it contained the contradictory proviso that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”. In fact the Declaration virtually ensured that any substantial influx of Jews would be at the expense of the Arabs, who then constituted 90 per cent of the population. Furthermore, the Arabs themselves had been offered independence in return for rebelling against their Turkish overlords, while Britain and France had made secret plans to carve up the Ottoman Empire between themselves. The Promised Land would be a land of broken promises.
Mandated by the League of Nations, Britain established a “Palestine Raj”. Its prime purpose was to guard the Empire’s lifeline, the Suez Canal, and it was administered by a cadre of colonial officials whose society was, Hardy says, “snobbish, gossipy and hierarchical”. During the 1930s they could not quell the unholy strife that engulfed the Holy Land. Then Nazi persecution of the Jews caused a surge of immigration, while the purchase of Arab land from absentee owners led to widespread dispossession of the fellaheen.
The British, often assisted by Haganah paramilitaries, suppressed the grassroots Arab revolt with ruthless force, not least blowing up Jaffa’s Arab quarter while claiming that it was a measure of urban renewal. But in 1939 a White Paper tried to conciliate the Arabs, limiting Jewish immigration and land purchases and holding out the prospect of an independent, bi-national Palestine. Hardy says that the White Paper was “the product of a Labour government”, but this is an extraordinary misapprehension since a National government, dominated by Tories, had been in power since 1931. There are other errors and omissions, among them a failure to elucidate the atavistic anti-Semitism fuelling Balfour’s conviction that Jews could not be assimilated into Gentile society and should thus return to Zion.
Nevertheless, this is a fair guide to the complexities of the final years of British rule. Ben-Gurion famously declared that Jews would fight for Britain against Hitler “as if there were no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there were no war”. In practice the Haganah was divided and organisations such as the Irgun and the Stern gang resorted to terrorism. It intensified after the war, most horribly in the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946. Jerusalem became once more, as Josephus had described it, “a golden bowl full of scorpions”.
Clement Attlee’s government, which eventually handed over the whole problem to the United Nations, faced an impossible task. It had to keep the peace in Palestine, which required 100,000 men and cost £40 million a year when Britain was almost broke. To avoid alienating Arab opinion, it felt obliged to restrict the immigration of survivors of the Holocaust – Ben-Gurion said that his greatest allies were these “refugees from hell”. It also had to prevent what Arabs were to call the Nakba. This was the catastrophe by which, when the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, 700,000 Arabs were ethnically “cleansed” (Ben-Gurion’s word) from Palestine. In Israeli eyes the Bride had now contracted a heaven-blessed marriage; those forcibly divorced, however, saw her as the victim of rape.
Dr Piers Brendon is an Emeritus Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge
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