Book review: Getting the world to sign off

A masterful chronicling of the battle for global support for Israeli independence.

BRITISH SOLDIERS in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
BRITISH SOLDIERS in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Continuing his previous trenchant and detailed history of the Palestine Mandate which covered the years 1933-1939 in his 2014 two-volume Palestine in Turmoil: The Struggle for Sovereignty, Monty Penkower – former professor of Jewish History at Rutgers University, Bard College, Touro College and New York University – now allows the reader again to be able to grasp the intertwined elements of the sub-history of that era. We are led along as the British Mandatory ruler, facing a post-Holocaust reality (the Holocaust period was covered in an earlier 1994 volume, The Holocaust and Israel Reborn), a determined and increasingly militant Jewish community in the Jewish Yishuv community and its need to maintain proper relations with the United States as well as balanced ones with the Arab world. Ultimately, it failed to maneuver itself to a successful conclusion of its administration of the territory the international community decided in 1922 would be the reconstituted Jewish national homeland and awarded it rule over Palestine.
Penkower’s trilogy has marshaled the facts from the documents, memos, diaries and newspaper reports of the time as well as providing an up-to-date collection of the historical research that has been published. We are presented with off-the-cuff remarks, protocols, speeches and the more cached away notations at the time.
This volume, as with the others, is tightly framed in a chronological procession. Month by month, week by week and day by day, Penkower has his reader delve into the at times frenetic and at times frustrating attempts by all the major actors to push their policies, most times in a competing and contradictory fashion. Penkower, to his credit, does not allow the reader to lose the greater picture and provides analysis in an objective style of relating history as it happens.
If there are major lessons to be derived for those wondering what is happening today, the book reveals the utter reversal of British policy from the League of Nations intent in that senior British officials not only reformulate their 1922 charge but express horrible anti-Jewish views in complete opposition to the events they were caught up in.
Here, for example, on April 28 1948, is UK foreign minister Ernest Bevin in the presence of Clement Atlee, the prime minister, telling US ambassador Lewis Douglas that “all this aggression came from the Jews” and “after all, Palestine was an Arab country.” Three years earlier, on October 22 1945, Bevin had declared himself “against a Jewish state” (p. 90) and shortly thereafter, cursed Harold Laski, Labour Party chairman, who retorted, “you hate me because I am Jewish” (p. 100-101). He couldn’t accept a “religious state” and Jewry is only a religion (p. 348). And to think Jeremy Corbyn is a new phenomenon in British socialism.
Another quotation that brings history to life are the words of General E. Barker, British army commander of Palestine, to his paramour Katy, widow of Arabist George Antonius, “your people do not appreciate their problems with a Western mind. A pity.” That situation has dramatically altered with the West having lost its linguistic mind.
AS THE theater of operations increasingly moved to America, what becomes obvious from Penkower’s account is that the Zionists faced a double challenge in their maneuvering. Besides antisemitism, Penkower writes that there were on the one hand many powerful anti-Zionist Jews, such as Joseph M. Proskauer and The New York Times’ A.H. Sulzberger, while on the other, the senior Nahum Goldmann consistently ran his own independent and, at times, seriously divergent diplomacy with the US administration leading to clashes with the Zionist camp.
Penkower does not skip over the “little people” such as Samuel Danziger who was killed by German police at the Stuttgart DP camp on March 29 1946. Danziger, his pregnant wife and two children all had spent four years at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He also mentions Asher Itzkowitz, beaten to death after mistakenly entering the Temple Mount during Passover 1947 (p. 395).
The role of the pressure brought to bear, especially in the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, by the situation of the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust behind fences in Europe and the resulting heroic clandestine immigration-by-boat campaign are given proper treatment, which also buttresses the attention played by the Jewish armed resistance operation, whether by the Irgun and Lechi or by the United Movement which was joined by the Haganah and the Palmach.
Penkower’s crescendo is the careful following of the UN deliberations throughout 1947 and 1948. The visits to Palestine and the subsequent reports, the plenum debates, procedures, the committee meetings and the inevitable lobbying behind closed doors, of both sides, Jews and Arabs as well as the US State Department’s opposition, which US president Harry Truman eventually quashed.
What is clear from the presentation of the cumulative work of his years of research is that Jewish pressure, insistence and, despite all odds, a belief in the justness of the cause they were pursuing – that is, the reestablishment of a Jewish state among the nations – were the crucial elements that led to the May 14 proclamation of the state of Israel.
I should note that one more proofreading effort was needed to catch several unnecessary errors as an “is” instead of in (p. 102), or Gadi instead of Gidi (p. 244) and Kimchin in place of Kimchi (p. 326). In addition, I found “reigning in” instead of reining in (p. 565) as well as “commend” instead of command (p. 646). And I would take issue with terming the Acre prison break of May 1947 “greatly flawed” (p. 416).
In the end, Penkower’s retelling is the best account for those seeking to relive history as it was accomplished.
The writer is a research fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.