Book Review: Mandatory reading?

Monty Penkower sheds light on the tumultuous period of 1933 to 1939 in Palestine, when the British turned anti-Zionist and the Zionists were split by internal feuds.

An unpaved road to Jerusalem, circa 1936. During the period the book covers, tens of thousands of Jews immigrated to Israel. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
An unpaved road to Jerusalem, circa 1936. During the period the book covers, tens of thousands of Jews immigrated to Israel.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In Palestine in Turmoil: The Struggle for Sovereignty, author Monty Penkower masterfully covers multiple theaters of action – in Mandate Palestine and its surrounding countries, as well as Great Britain, Germany and the United States – and numerous actors, including Zionists from all parties, Arabs of all divisions, the local Mandate officials, British government officials, the Nazis, and American politicians.
Penkower proves to be a historian of the first order, one who marshals hundreds of sources to present a cogent, almost weekly chronological record of six years of men’s failures and successes, their ideas, their ideals, their hatreds and their irrationalities.
In a recent UK Telegraph piece, historian Benny Morris summed up the period Penkower covers – 1933-1939 – writing that “given the triple challenges to Britain from the predatory regimes of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, [then-British prime minister Neville] Chamberlain opted to appease the Arabs (as well as appeasing Hitler) and... reversed Britain’s course and turned anti-Zionist.”
As the world slid down the corrupt slope of appeasement and cruel indifference in the face of Hitler’s rise – which would result in the sacrifice of six million Jews on the altar of an immoral English attitude of presumed self-preservation – the Zionist movement, split by internecine contretemps, lost practically every political battle. Nevertheless, the movement expanded its territorial presence and brought in tens of thousands of immigrants, most extra-legally.
The reader will be, I think, disheartened to read of the Zionist leaders’ unwillingness to unite – or at least agree on a loose cooperation – in the face of the dangers stemming from Britain’s evolving betrayal of Balfour, the planned extermination of European Jewry, and the growing sophistication of Arab terror that Penkower charts.
One example: After calling Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky “Vladimir Hitler” on February 18, 1933, and his followers “Jewish Hitlerites” on March 29, David Ben-Gurion told the Mapai leadership that “if only he could, Jabotinsky would do to us what Hitler is doing to the socialists in Germany.” And he maintained that hateful attitude up until the outbreak of World War II, despite the 1934 rapprochement between the two Zionist leaders – which the Histadrut rejected.
For Ben-Gurion, Zionism’s nationalist wing could be a partner in world Zionism (as the later United Resistance Movement of 1945-46 proved), but it would still be “fascist.”
Little escapes Penkower, even the minor instances that others have considered insignificant – such as the anti-Semitism of diplomat George Rendel in the Foreign Office’s Eastern Department; British interference to prevent Jewish land purchases in Transjordan; and FDR’s vacillations prior to 1939, including his 1937 estimation to Rabbi Stephen Wise that Palestine had only enough room for 150,000 Jews.
The author includes, too, an editorial published in Egypt’s Al-Ahram on March 2, 1936, which declares Palestine as inseparable from Syria – thus shoring up the opinion that a distinct “Palestinian Arab nationality” was a late development, one fashioned to counter Zionism.
I was disappointed, however, that the author and other historians overlooked a little- known episode: the visit by US senators Royal S. Copeland of New York, Warren R.
Austin of Vermont, and Daniel O. Hastings of Delaware to Mandatory Palestine with their wives in August 1936, during which they even ascended the Temple Mount.
The senators concluded that the United States – a signatory with Great Britain on the 1924 convention that ratified the mandate – must accept a share of the blame in the “horrible record of murders and destructive acts” in Palestine, the fact “that the mandate is not being administered as it should be,” and the “lax” security measures. Not only do these conclusions have an uncanny contemporary echo, but if the Zionist movement had taken better advantage of the opening the three presented, America could perhaps have exerted a stronger influence on the policies of Great Britain instead of having to wait almost a decade for president Harry Truman’s pro-Zionism. If that had happened, Penkower would have had a different book to write, one with a more positive outcome.
Penkower points out Winston Churchill’s anti-partitionist stance in the summer of 1937. He does not, though, note that Jabotinsky met with him on July 16 to prep him. As Jabotinsky biographer Shmuel Katz details, Churchill’s speech during the July 21 House of Commons debate that year followed a point-by-point identification with the case the Revisionist leader presented.
The author also includes certain gems that transform dry history into memorable history and echo contemporary times. He informs us, for instance, that Ben-Gurion told Judah Magnes, arch-concessionist, that he could not sacrifice immigration, even for peace.
And Penkower quotes J. Hawthorne Hall of the Colonial Office as writing to Jerusalem mufti Haj Amin Husseini in June 1936 that the latter’s appeal to “religious achieve political aims” would yield “unfortunate results” and excite Arabs to “violent acts.” The mufti’s testimony before the Peel Commission on January 12, 1937, resonated with the voices of today when he said that the ultimate aim of Zionism was to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple while defacing and trespassing on the sanctity of the Dome of the Rock.
I believe visuals such as maps, photographs and reproductions of documents would have improved the reader’s attention, but perhaps budget constraints prevented their inclusion. In addition, there appears to be an error in one of the footnotes: On page 72, when the author writes that “Haaretz’s editor, Moshe Glickson, had equated revisionism with Fascism from 1938 onward,” that should be, I think, 1928.
Palestine in Turmoil seamlessly moves from continent to continent, party to faction, person to personality, event to event, and despite the required hundreds of footnotes, it still allows the reader to follow the complicated story. It is a depressing retelling of a wide sweep of human machinations, a period of Zionist frustration and self-injury.