If history is properly the literature of what did happen, "What if?" is the literature of what might have happened, ifâ€¦
For example, what if a chance wind had blown the Spanish Armada southward instead of eastward - might the Duke of Parma have vanquished the British fleet, marched on Elizabeth's London, and restored the Catholic throne? Or, what if, after the debacle of Brooklyn Heights, George Washington and his battered army had failed to escape Manhattan under the cover of a sudden fog, thereby avoiding almost certain entrapment and surrender - would the United States have arisen? Or, what if Hitler, desperate for fuel, had decided after conquering Greece, to seize the Middle East oil fields through Turkey, as advisers urged, and only then invade the Soviet Union - would not his chances of victory been magnified?
Entering into this realm of conjecture is not the mere fantasizing of an overwrought imagination. It is called in academia counter-factual thinking - an exercise in the invention of plausible circumstances to answer plausible "What ifs?"
Such a flash of historical fantasy thrust itself at me with collision force, its hold on my imagination compelling, when I recently leafed through a faded copy of the 1937 Royal Commission of Inquiry - the Peel Report. The following is why:
In 1936, an Arab revolt rocked British-ruled Palestine in a violent reaction to the growing influx of Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany. Whitehall, intensely rattled by the rising casualty toll, established a Royal Commission, headed by one Lord Peel. It was charged with coming up with a radical solution to the vexed question of the future of Palestine. Boiled down to its essentials, the Peel Report's findings, which were presented to the British cabinet in July 1937, were that the British mandate was unworkable, and that the country should immediately be partitioned into a Jewish state and an Arab state, just as the United Nations was to do 10 years later.
David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency, seized upon the initiative and unhesitatingly urged it upon an extraordinary meeting of the 20th Zionist Congress, convened in Zurich, in August 1937. Never before had the Zionist movement debated the concrete idea of a Jewish state, and the very notion of partitioning Palestine threw the assembly into ideological confusion.
Battle lines were decisively drawn between the aye-sayers and the nay-sayers, between those who, as the fortunes of European Jewry worsened, were willing to accept a vastly truncated Eretz Yisrael in return for immediate statehood, and those who passionately believed in the territorial integrity of the Land and in the imperative to hold Britain to its promise of a Jewish national home in the whole of the country, as the Balfour Declaration envisaged.
When the Jewish Agency chairman rose to speak the hall was astir with high emotion. David Ben-Gurion, then 51, squat, short, with beetling eyebrows and white tufts of hair, gave poignant expression to his feelings when he said in his staccato voice, "I am all atremble knowing that we stand before events likely to change the course of our history, events of a type that have occurred only two or three times in the course of our long chronicles."
He went on: "For it is a great and awesome thing we are debating. The Royal Commission has unanimously declared the mandate unworkable and the British cabinet has announced it accepts its findings. The only concrete question which Zionism is concerned with now is how to bring the greatest number of Jews into Eretz Yisrael in the shortest possible time [400,000 then dwelt in the Land].
"This is the only way to transform Palestine into Eretz Yisrael. And if the capacity of the British mandate to bring about the rapid multiplication of Jews in this country is weaker than that of establishing a state, then I unhesitatingly choose the state."
"That is a dishonorable breach of trust," heckled a man from the floor, his voice trenchant and his eyes accusing. "Surrendering a part of Eretz Yisrael in favor of a dwarf state is a betrayal of all the Jewish generations who have prayed and wept for the return to Zion."
A rumble of approval burbled around the hall.
Ben-Gurion stared back at him, his eyes daggers, and in words full of bite, shot, "Do you think the borders of the Peel Commission will be our final boundaries?"
"What else?" badgered the man. He wore a tab identifying him as a Mizrachi delegate from Warsaw, named Moscowitch.
"If the Arabs attack we shall expand those borders," thundered Ben-Gurion. "The Arabs view our enterprise as dangerous to their national future, so they will surely fight the Jewish state whatever its borders. And we shall defend our state in whatever extended borders we can possess."
"But how will your dwarf state defend itself against such attacks?" shouted the man defiantly. "And how will it absorb the hundreds of thousands of refugees who will want to come?"
"We will turn to world Jewry for help. We will mobilize our every last resource. Every newcomer will create jobs for two more. Every able-bodied newcomer will be a soldier."
Then, wagging a pugnacious finger at the whole assembly, he declared in a sonorous and trembling tone, "Time is of the essence. The English may change their minds under Arab pressure. Whether or not to establish a Jewish state is our decision to make. We must not procrastinate. We must act now."
GREAT WAVES of applause and remonstration rose and clashed in a roaring din of conflicting passions, while in 10 Downing Street two weeks later, prime minister Neville Chamberlain, tall, gaunt and imperious, convened an unofficial consultation of trusted cabinet ministers and advisers to look again into the Peel Commission's findings - this in response to the mounting Arab terrorism and the rising atrocity toll, some of the victims British.
Colonial Secretary William Ormsby Gore, a soft-spoken, old-worldly aristocrat, was the first to speak: "I still believe, prime minister," he said in his top-drawer accent, "that the Peel Report is a most lucid and penetrating analysis, and I accept without hesitation its diagnosis as to the root cause of the trouble in Palestine. It is a conflict of irreconcilable national aspirations, as simple as that. So I again strongly advise we accept the partition idea as the best hope of a permanent solution, drastic and difficult though its implementation will be."
Even before his last words were out, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, suave, handsome and fastidious, butted in: "And that I say would be unmitigated folly."
Offended, Ormsby Gore muttered, "We are all aware of the Foreign Office proclivity to the Arab side."
"The Arabs are not merely a handful of aborigines," countered Eden. "And if Arab nationalism needed a stimulus it is hard to imagine a better way than the creation of a tiny, dynamic state of hated foreign immigrants on their seaboard, with a perpetual urge to expand inland. For the Arabs, Palestine is an Arab country, the best area of which is being handed over by the Peel Report to an alien and dangerous invader. Indeed, it has been suggested to me that there is only one way we can now make our peace with the Arabs, and that is by reassuring them that the Jews will never be given any territory exclusively for their own use."
"Balderdash!" Thus Ormsby Gore to Eden, and then to Chamberlain, "Prime minister, the Arabs in Palestine have never regarded themselves as 'Palestinians,' but as a part of Syria. That is to say, they are not a national entity as such."
Chamberlain promptly intervened. "Gentlemen," he snapped, "I recognize that a Jewish state, minuscule though it may be, can accentuate Arab hostility. But I also recognize that if we totally abandon the Jews they, in their utter despair, confronted as they are by Arab violence at home and persecution abroad, not least in Nazi Germany, will also rally in rebellion against us. Then we shall be caught in the crushers of the proverbial nutcracker."
"Not if we transfer military contingents from the Suez Canal Zone to Palestine," said Anthony Eden crisply. And needless to say" - his voice dropped to a mellow and conciliatory pitch - "we have a responsibility to protect the Jews from the Arab onslaught. Which is why I suggest two things: bring in military reinforcements forthwith to back up our police, and appease the Arabs by radically reducing Jewish immigration."
LISTENING IN sullen concentration, Ormsby Gore shook his head in disbelief, and muttered, "Appeasement will only aggravate Arab hostility. It is the continuance of the present uncertainty that exacerbates Arab intransigence. Therefore, I say it is in our own long-term best interests to go ahead with partition."
Anthony Eden, arms folded tightly, turned to his colleagues, some of whom were following this exchange through half-closed eyes, long versed in keeping their noses clean on a subject so feckless and unrewarding as Palestine, and said, "You know, there are many in Whitehall who are convinced that if out of the present Palestine chaos a Jewish mini-state emerges it would be swiftly overrun by an Arab military victory. So it is, surely, in the best interests of the Jews not to commit such recklessness, don't you think?"
It was at this point that the distant bell of a tramcar tolled its warning as George Rendel, head of the Foreign Office Eastern Department, handed the Foreign Secretary a typed page. "Ah," said Eden brandishing it, "I have here the testimony of Lord Hailey before the League of Nations Permanent Mandate's Commission in Geneva. Lord Hailey, you will recall, recently served as our governor of two major Indian provinces, so he has some knowledge of imperial affairs. Allow me to quote one passage: 'The British public would never with any conviction support a scheme which involved the subordination of an indigenous Arab population to a new population largely consisting of Polish and German colonialists.'"
Then, turning to the head of the Foreign Office Eastern Department, Eden said, "You might want to enlarge upon that, George."
George Rendel obliged. "Yes, minister," he said blithely. "The culture of the leading Jews in Palestine, as I know from personal experience, is predominately German. The Jewish immigrants of the better class are mostly of German origin or tradition, and have not only kept a culture of a strongly German character, but have even retained a certain loyalty to Germany and to German ideals. A Jewish state is therefore likely to acquire a very Teutonic complexion. And it is by no means inconceivable that if there was some turn of the wheel in Europe, a no-longer-actively Jew-baiting Germany might find a ready-made spiritual colony awaiting her in a key position in the Middle East."
And so it went on, until prime minister Neville Chamberlain summed it all up by saying, "Gentlemen, if we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs. We have to appease them."
What followed was a British White Paper virtually slamming shut the doors of Palestine to Jewish immigration, Hitler invaded Poland, World War II began, and European Jewry faced a future that might not have been.
It might not have been had the 20th Zionist Congress seized the moment. What if Ben-Gurion had won the day? What if Jewry had rallied behind him? What if he had declared statehood, as he did 10 years later, 10 years too late?
To these "What ifs" the answers will never be known.
The writer is a veteran diplomat.