British mandate 88 248.
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
A Senseless, Squalid War
Voices from Palestine 1945-1948
By Norman Rose
Bodley Head, 278 pp., $54.95
The more one reads about the struggle for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, the more one sees parallels with today's situation vis-a-vis the Arabs. And how depressing that is.
The Arabs never wanted any official Jewish entity in what they considered "their" land, and their leadership, fragmented as it was - and still is - made no secret of it. The promise of economic advantages meant nothing to them, a lesson that former British prime minister Tony Blair, Middle East envoy for the Quartet, and even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu might care to ponder.
Norman Rose, in his lively recounting of that period of history, puts it thus: "One notion, professed by some Zionists, held that economic growth that benefited Arabs and Jews alike would somehow unravel the political stalemate. This was idle speculation. The stumbling-block was political: It overshadowed everything."
There is, to put it mildly, no shortage of books about the history of this period, but what Rose has tried to do is to supplement the recounting of the major events that led up to the ending of the British Mandate and the creation of the State of Israel - such as the Exodus, the blowing up of the King David Hotel, the Deir Yassin massacre and many others - with telling comments from the major players of the day - Jewish, Arab, British, American - extracts from hitherto unpublished correspondence and archive material.
In the book, despite its subtitle, the story does not begin in 1945 but many years earlier, and one comment - from 1921 - foretells the attitude of many British officials. Herbert Samuel, a Jew and the first British high commissioner in Palestine, told Chaim Weizmann in 1921: "It is quite true that a great many, I might almost say all, of the British officials in Palestine are not sympathetic to a Zionist policy which would be detrimental to the Arabs...."
In 1946, Sir Evelyn Barker, general officer commanding Palestine, noted that "it is impossible to subjugate a country by force, especially a virile and intelligent people like the Jews." After the blowing up of the King David Hotel, he spoke - in less flattering terms - of punishing the Jews "in a way the race dislikes as much as any - by striking their pockets and showing our contempt for them."
The description of the battle for a Jewish state as "senseless and squalid," in relation to these events (from which the book derives its title) came from none other than Winston Churchill in a speech in Parliament in 1947. After reading Rose's graphic account of the hanging of two British soldiers and the reaction to that controversial and tragic act, one cannot but agree with that epithet. "What we need is gas chambers" and "Hitler didn't finish the job" were among the slogans yelled at Jews by British soldiers.
But Rose also records less gloomy events, such as the surprise pro-Zionist speech by the Soviet Union's United Nations representative, Andrei Gromyko, in which he argued that there could be "no one-sided solution" that ignored "the legitimate rights of the Jewish people."
Even more fascinating is the cameo role played by none other than Frank Sinatra, a Zionist sympathizer. Teddy Kollek, later to become the legendary mayor of Jerusalem, a key figure in smuggling arms and cash to the Jews in Palestine, had numerous contacts with the Jewish underworld in New York. Kollek needed to hand over a large amount of cash to an Irish ship captain who had agreed to transfer arms to a ship waiting nearby. Kollek knew that he was under surveillance by the authorities so he gave the money in a paper bag to Sinatra, who handed it over to the Irishman. "Perhaps for the only time in his career," comments Rose, "Sinatra had played an unscripted role, that of bagman for the Hagana."
Rose, who holds the chair of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has written a scholarly book, as the 40 pages of notes and bibliography at the back attest. But it is no dry academic account, as the incidents and comments quoted above illustrate.
Before making aliya seven years ago, the reviewer was deputy editor of the London-based Jewish Chronicle.