THE BRITISH MANDATE

1920–36

THE MUFTI VERSUS THE MAYOR: AMIN HUSSEINI VERSUS RAGHEB NASHASHIBI

The man they chose as mayor was the very personification of the Arab boulevardier: Ragheb Nashashibi smoked cigarettes in a holder, carried a cane and was the first Jerusalemite to own an American limousine, a green Packard, always driven by his Armenian chauffeur. The debonair Nashashibi, the heir to the orange-groves and mansions of the most recent but richest of the Families,* fluent in French and English, had represented Jerusalem in the Ottoman Parliament, and had hired Wasif to arrange his parties and giveoud lessons to him and his mistress. Now that he was mayor, he gave two parties a year, one for his friends, and one for the high commissioner. As a veteran campaigner against Zionism, he took his role seriously as Jerusalemite seigneur and Palestinian leader.

The man they chose as grand mufti was Nashashibi’s wealthy cousin, Haj Amin Husseini. Storrs introduced the young rabble-rouser of the Nabi Musa riots to the high commissioner who was impressed. Husseini was ‘soft, intelligent, well-educated, well-dressed with a shiny smile, fair hair, blue eyes, red beard and a wry sense of humour,’ recalled the mayor’s nephew Nassereddin Nashashibi. ‘Yet he told his jokes with cold eyes.’ Husseini asked Samuel, ‘Which do you prefer – an avowed opponent or an unsound friend?’ Samuel replied, ‘An avowed opponent.’ Weizmann commented drily that, ‘in spite of the proverb, poachers-turned-gamekeepers are not always a success.’ Husseini turned out be, in the words of the Lebanese historian Gilbert Achcar ‘a megalomaniac who presented himself as the leader of the whole Islamic world’.

Inconveniently, Husseini did not win the first ever election for mufti, which was won by a Jarallah. He only came fourth so the British, who prided themselves on their ‘totalitarianism tempered with benevolence,’ simply overruled the election and appointed him even though he was only twenty-six and had never finished his religious studies in Cairo. Samuel then doubled his political and financial power by sponsoring his election as president of a new Supreme Muslim Council.

Husseini belonged to the Islamic tradition; Nashashibi to the Ottoman. Both opposed Zionism but Nashashibi believed that, faced with British power, the Arabs should negotiate; Husseini, in a meandering and capricious journey, ended up as an intransigent nationalist opposing any compromise. At first, Husseini played the passive British ally, but he would ultimately reach far beyond the anti-British stance of many Arabs to become a racial anti-Semite and embrace Hitler’s Final Solution to the Jewish problem. The most enduring achievement of Samuel was to promote the most energetic enemy of Zionism and Britain. Yet one could argue that no one proved such a divisive calamity for his own people, and such an asset for the Zionist struggle.18

THE MUFTI: THE BATTLE OF THE WALL

The first generation of British proconsuls congratulated themselves that they had tamed Jerusalem. In June 1925, Samuel returned to London, declaring, with Olympian delusion, that ‘the spirit of lawlessness has ceased.’ A year later, Storrs left a peaceful, much embellished city and was promoted to the governorships of Cyprus and then of Northern Rhodesia – though he sighed, ‘There’s no promotion after Jerusalem.’ The new high commissioner was Viscount Plumer, a walrus-moustached field marshal nicknamed the Old Plum or Daddy Plummer. Thanks to cuts in his funding, the Old Plum had to keep order with fewer soldiers than Samuel, but he radiated a reassuring calm by cheerfully walking on his own around Jerusalem. When his officials reported on political tensions, he embraced ostrichism. ‘There is no political situation,’ he replied. ‘Don’t create one!’

The Old Plum retired due to ill-health but the new commissioner had not yet arrived when the ‘political situation’ duly materialized. On Kol Nidre, eve of the Jewish Day of Atonement, in 1928, the Jewish shames – beadle – at the Western Wall (who gloried in the name William Ewart Gladstone Noah) put up a small screen to divide men and women worshippers in accordance with Jewish law. The screen and chairs for elderly worshippers had been allowed in previous years, but now the mufti protested that the Jews were changing the status quo.

The Muslims believed that the Wall was the place Muhammad tied up his steed with the human face, Buraq, during the Night Journey, yet in the nineteenth century, the Ottomans had used the adjacent tunnel as a donkey stable. Legally it had belonged to the Abu Maidan waqf dating back to Saladin’s son Afdal. Therefore it was ‘purely Muslim property’. The Muslim fear, however, was that Jewish access to the Wall would lead to a Third Temple on the Islamic Haram, the Jewish Har-haBayit. Yet the Wall – the Kotel – was Judaism’s holiest site and Palestinian Jews believed that the British restrictions, and indeed the cramped space available for worship, were relics of centuries of Muslim oppression that demonstrated why Zionism was necessary. The British even banned the blowing of the shofar – the ram’s horn – on the Jewish High Holy Days.

The next day, Storrs’ successor as governor, Edward Keith-Roach, who liked to call himself the Pasha of Jerusalem, ordered his police to raid the Wall during the Yom Kippur service, the holiest of the Jewish year. The policemen beat praying Jews and pulled chairs from under elderly worshippers. It was not Britain’s finest hour. The mufti was jubilant but warned that ‘the Jews’ aim is to take possession of the Mosque of al-Aqsa gradually.’ He therefore launched a campaign against Jewish worshippers, who were bombarded with stones, beaten up and harassed with loud music. Jabotinsky’s Betar youths demonstrated for access to the Wall.

Both sides were changing the Ottoman status quo, which no longer reflected reality. Jewish immigration and land purchases had understandably raised Arab anxieties. Since the Declaration, some 90,000 Jews had arrived in Palestine. In 1925 alone, Jews had bought 44,000 acres from the Families. A tiny minority of Jewish religious nationalists did dream of a Third Temple, but the overwhelming majority simply wanted to pray at their own holy site. The new high commissioner, Sir John Chancellor, who was said to resemble ‘a good-looking Shakespearian actor’, asked the mufti to sell the Wall in order that the Jews could built a courtyard there. The mufti refused. To the Jews, the Kotel was the symbol of their freedom to pray and exist in their own homeland, to the Arabs, the Buraq became the symbol of resistance and nationhood.

Foreboding and claustrophobia hung over the city. ‘It is the haughty and desolate beauty of a walled-in mountain fortress in the desert, of tragedy without catharsis,’ observed Arthur Koestler, a young Hungarian Zionist living in Jerusalem and writing for Jabotinsky’s newspaper. The ‘tragic beauty’ and ‘inhuman atmosphere’ gave him ‘Jerusalem sadness’. Koestler longed to escape to kitsch Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem he felt ‘the angry face of Yahweh, brooding over the hot rocks’.

In the summer of 1929, the mufti ordered the opening of a doorway that made the Jewish Wall an Arab thoroughfare for donkeys and passers-by while muezzin calls to prayer and Sufi chanting were amplified over the Jewish prayers. Jews were attacked in the nearby alleyways. Across Palestine, thousands of Jews demonstrated under the slogan ‘The Wall is Ours’. Chancellor was away when, on 15 August, a 300-strong Zionist demonstration, led by the historian Joseph Klausner (the uncle of Amos Oz, the Israeli writer) and including members of Betar, marched to the Wall in silence, guarded by British police, and raised a Zionist flag and sang songs. The next day, after Friday prayers, 2,000 Arabs descended from al-Aqsa and attacked Jewish worshippers, chasing them from the Wall and beating up any they caught. On the 17th, a Jewish boy kicked a football into an Arab garden and, on going to fetch it, was murdered. At his funeral, Jewish youths tried to attack the Muslim Quarter.

At Friday prayers on 23 August, encouraged by the mufti, thousands of worshippers swept out of al-Aqsa to attack Jews. The mufti and his Nashashibi rivals tried variously to incite and to restrain the crowds: some brave Arab leaders stood up to the mob – to no avail. They attacked the Jewish Quarter, the Montefiore neighbourhood and the suburbs, where thirty-one Jews were killed. In one Jerusalem household, five members of the same family were slaughtered; in Hebron, fifty-nine Jews were massacred. The Haganah, the Zionist militia founded in 1920, fought back. There were only 292 British policemen in the whole of Palestine, so troops were flown in from Cairo. Altogether, 131 Jews were killed by Arabs, while the 116 Arabs who died were mainly shot by British troops.

The riots, which the Arabs called Thawrat al-Buraq the Buraq Uprising – confounded the British. ‘I know of no one who would be a good high commissioner of Palestine except God,’ Chancellor told his son. The Balfour policy was unravelling. In October 1930, the White Paper of Colonial Secretary Lord Passfield (formerly Sidney Webb, the Fabian socialist) proposed restricting Jewish immigration and retreat from a Jewish national home. The Zionists despaired. The Buraq Uprising inflamed extremism on both sides. The violence and Passfield’s White Paper discredited Weizmann’s Anglophile style: the Zionists could no longer depend on the British and many turned instead to Jabotinsky’s harsher nationalism. At the Seventeenth Zionist Congress, Jabotinsky attacked Weizmann who was canvassing the British prime minister Ramsay Macdonald to overturn the White Paper. Macdonald wrote him a letter, read out in Parliament, reconfirming the Balfour Declaration and reopening Jewish immigration. The Arabs called it ‘the Black Letter’ but it was too late to save Weizmann who was then deposed as Zionist president. Immensely hurt, he returned temporarily to science. The Haganah still concentrated on guarding the rural settlements, but it started to arm itself. Frustrated with this restraint, militant nationalists splintered off and founded the Irgun Zvai Leumi, National Military Organization, inspired by Jabotinsky, though it remained very small. Jabotinsky was expelled from Palestine for his provocative speeches, but became increasingly popular among Jewish youths in Palestine and eastern Europe. But it was not he who replaced Weizmann: it was David Ben-Gurion who emerged as the strongman of the Jewish community just as the mufti became the strongman of the Arabs.

In December 1931, the mufti emerged onto the world stage when he presided as a pan-Islamic and unrivalled national leader at his World Islamic Conference on the Temple Mount: it was his finest hour and it went to his head. He remained radically opposed to any Zionist colony in Palestine, yet his rivals, Mayor Nashashibi, the Dajanis and the Khalidis argued that conciliation would be better for Arabs and Jews. The mufti would tolerate no opposition and accused his rivals of being pro-Zionist traitors and the Nashashibis of secretly having Jewish blood. Nashashibi tried to unseat him on the Supreme Muslim Council but failed and the mufti started to exclude his opponents from all the organizations he controlled. The British, weak and unsure, leant towards the radicals instead of the moderates: in 1934, the new high commissioner, Sir Arthur Wauchope, withdrew his backing from Nashashibi and backed the election of one of the Khalidis as mayor. The rivalry between Husseinis and Nashashibis became ever more vicious.

The world was darkening, the stakes rising. The growth of Fascism made compromise seem weak, and violence not just acceptable but attractive. On 30 January 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany.* On 31 March, just two months later, the mufti secretly visited the German consul in Jerusalem, Heinrich Wolff, to declare that ‘Muslims inside Palestine welcome the new regime, hope for the spread of Fascist antidemocratic leadership’; he added that ‘Muslims hoped for a boycott of the Jews in Germany.’

European Jews were alarmed by Hitler. Immigration, which had slowed down, now accelerated in a way that forever changed the demographic balance. In 1933, 37,000 Jews arrived in Palestine; 45,000 in 1934. By 1936, there were 100,000 Jews in Jerusalem, compared to 60,000 Christian and Muslim Arabs.19 Just as Nazi aggression and anti-Semitism threatened Europe, and the tension in Palestine intensified,* Sir Arthur Wauchope presided over a new Jerusalem, capital of the short-lived Golden Age of the British Mandate.

WAUCHOPE’S CAPITAL: HUNTS, CAFÉS, PARTIES AND WHITE SUITS

Wauchope, a wealthy bachelor, loved to entertain. Flanked by two scarlet-clad kavasses brandishing gilded wands, the feather-helmeted general welcomed guests to the new Government House, a baronial-cum-Moorish palace on the Hill of Evil Counsel, south of the city, with an octagonal tower, all set amid fountains, and groves of acacia and pine. The mansion was a mini English world with its parquet-floored ballroom, crystal chandeliers and a gallery for the police band, dining halls, billiard rooms, separate bathrooms for English and locals – and Jerusalem’s only ever dog cemetery for a nation of dog lovers. The guests wore uniforms or top hat and tails. ‘Money and champagne’, recalled one, ‘flowed like water.’

Wauchope’s residence was the centrepiece of a modernist Jerusalem created by the British at dizzying speed. The old Earl of Balfour himself had come for the opening of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, near the new Hadassah Hospital. A YMCA in the form of a phallic tower was built by the architect of the Empire State Building. The Rockefellers raised a Gothic-Moorish museum just north of the walls. King George V Avenue, with its ‘splendid shops, cafés with high chandeliers, and rich stores’, reminded a young Jewish Jerusalemite, Amos Oz, later a famous Israeli writer, of ‘that wonderful London Town I knew from films where culture-seeking Jews and Arabs mixed with cultivated Englishmen, where dreamy long-necked ladies floated in evening dress’. This was the Jazz Age in Jerusalem, where flappers combined fast cars with millenarian evangelism. ‘HAREM BEAUTIES DRIVE FORDS THROUGH JERUSALEM’ declared the Boston Herald, interviewing Bertha Spafford – who, it reported, was ‘introducing Flivvers [American cars] and Vacuum bottles to the Turk and says God not Balfour will send the Jews back to Palestine’.

Jerusalem still lacked the luxuries of a major city, but in 1930, she got her first world-class hotel. The majestic King David Hotel, backed by wealthy Egyptian Jews and the Anglo-Jewish financier Frank Goldsmith (father of Sir James), which instantly became the city’s stylish hub, noted for its ‘biblical style’ with Assyrian, Hittite and Muslim ornamentation, and its ‘tall Sudanese waiters in white pantaloons and red tarboush’. One American tourist supposedly believed that it was the renovated Temple of Solomon. Ragheb Nashashibi had his hair cut there every day. The hotel helped make Jerusalem a luxury resort for the rich Arabs of Lebanon and Egypt, whose decadent royal family were often in residence. Abdullah, Amir of Transjordan, stayed regularly – the King David could cope with his camels and horses. In October 1934, Churchill came to stay with his wife and his friend Lord Moyne, himself later a victim of the Palestinian conflict. Not to be outdone, the mufti built his own hotel, the Palace, using Jewish contractors, on the site of the ancient Mamilla cemetery.

When an American Jewess, a former nurse, opened the first beauty parlour, peasants stood and stared, expecting the mannequins in the window to speak. The best bookshop in town was run by Boulos Said, father of the intellectual Edward, and his brother near the Jaffa Gate, while the finest haute couture emporium belonged to Kurt May and his wife, typical German Jews fleeing Hitler. When he created the shop – the name ‘May’ was emblazoned above the door in Hebrew, English and Arab – he imported all the fixtures from Germany and soon it attracted the rich wives of Jewish businessmen and British proconsuls – and of Abdullah of Jordan. Emperor Haile Selassie and his entourage once took over the entire shop. The Mays were more cultured Germans than Zionists – Kurt had won the Iron Cross in the Great War – and they were totally irreligious. The Mays lived over the shop: when their daughter Miriam was born, she was breastfed by an Arab wetnurse but when she grew up, her parents discouraged her from playing with the Polish Jews next door who were ‘not sufficiently cultured’. Jerusalem was still small though: sometimes in spring, Miriam’s father would take her on walks out of the city to pick cyclamen on the blooming Judaean hills. Friday nights were the height of their social week: when the ultra-Orthodox Jews were praying, the Mays went dancing at the King David Hotel.

The British behaved as if Palestine were a real imperial province: Brigadier Angus McNeil founded the Ramle Vale Jackal Hounds Hunt which chased the fox and the jackal with a pack of hounds. At the Officers Club, Zionist guests noticed that all conversation was about duck shooting, if not the latest polo game or race meeting. One young officer flew into town in his own private aeroplane.

The British public schoolboys, raised on the complexities of their own aristocracy, revelled in the hierarchies of Jerusalem, especially the social etiquette required for dinner parties at Government House, where Sir Harry Luke, John Chancellor’s deputy, remembered how the toastmaster welcomed high commissioners, chief rabbis, chief judges, mayors and patriarchs: ‘Your Excellency, Your Honour, Your Beatitudes, Your Eminences, Your Lord Bishops, Your Paternity, Your Reverends, Your Worship, Ladies and Gentlemen.’

This thriving new Jerusalem, with 132,661 inhabitants by 1931, proved that British rule and Zionist immigration did help create a flourishing economy – and rising Arab immigration: more Arabs immigrated to Palestine than Jews and the Arab population of Palestine increased by 10 per cent, twice as fast of that of Syria or Lebanon.* In ten years, Jerusalem attracted 21,000 new Arabs and 20,000 new Jews – and this was the glamorous heyday of the Families. The British sympathized with the Arab dynasties, Nusseibehs and Nashashibis, who still owned 25 per cent of the land, and who ‘fitted into the social order imported by the British as if tailor-made’, wrote Sari Nusseibeh, later the Palestinian philosopher. ‘The men belonged to the same gentleman’s society and in private English officers tended to prefer them to the Russian Jewish upstarts.’

The Families had never lived more luxuriously: Hazem Nusseibeh’s father owned two ‘palatial residences, each one with 20–30 rooms.’ The fathers had been educated in Constantinople, the sons would attend St George’s public school in Sheikh Jarrah and then Oxford. Hazem Nusseibeh, who was Sari’s uncle, recalled that ‘It was amusing to watch the effendi aristocracy of Arab Jerusalem, attired during summer in well-pressed white silk suits with polished shoes and silk ties.’ Hazem’s brother, Anwar Nusseibeh, cruised Jerusalem in a gleaming Buick, the city’s first.

Many of the Arab middle class, Muslims and Orthodox, worked for the Mandate. They lived in pink stone villas in the Ottoman world of Sheikh Jarrah, Talbieh, Bakaa and Katamon, the suburbs of what Amos Oz called ‘a veiled city, heavy with crosses, turrets, mosques, and mysteries’ and filled with ‘monks and nuns, qadis and muezzins, Notables, veiled women and cowled priests’. When Oz visited a well-off Arab family, he admired the ‘moustachioed men, jewelled women’ and ‘charming young girls, slim-hipped, red-nailed with elegant hair-dos and sporty skirts’.

‘Sumptuous parties, lunches, dinners and receptions, the year round’ were held by the historian George Antonius, an aesthetic ‘Syrian patriot with the lucidity of a Cambridge don’, and his ‘charming, beautiful’ and irrepressible wife, Katy, daughter of a Lebanese proprietor of Egyptian newspapers.* Their Sheikh Jarrah villa, which was owned by the mufti and filled with 12,000 books, was the social headquarters for Arab grandees, British elites and celebrity visitors, as well as a political salon for Arab nationalists. ‘Pretty women, delicious food, clever conversation: everyone who was anyone was there at the best parties in Jerusalem,’ remembered Nassereddin Nashashibi, ‘and they always had the most delightfully louche atmosphere’. Their marriage was said to be open and Katy was notoriously flirtatious, with a taste for Englishmen in uniform: ‘She was naughty, curious about everything,’ recalled an old Jerusalemite; ‘she would start gossip; she was always matching people up.’ Antonius later told his daughter about a party with a dance band given by a local socialite where he shocked and thrilled the other guests by proposing a swinging Jerusalem party game of his own: he would invite ten couples but each person would bring a member of the opposite sex who was not their spouse – and then they would see what happened.

The cooling of British enthusiasm for Zionism increasingly alienated the Jews. Perhaps High Commissioner Sir John Chancellor was typical when he complained that Jews were ‘ungrateful people’. Each Jewish neighbourhood belonged in a different country: Rehavia, home of secular German professors and British officials, was the most desirable suburb, civilized, calm and European; the Bokharan Quarter belonged in Central Asia; the Hasidic Mea Shearim was shabby, impoverished and redolent of seventeenth-century Poland; Zikhron Zion was heady with the ‘poor Ashkenazi cooking smells, of borscht, garlic and onion and sauerkraut,’ recalled Amos Oz; Talpiot was ‘a Jerusalemite replica of a Berlin garden suburb’, while his own home was in Kerem Avraham, built around the old house of the British consul James Finn, which was so Russian ‘it belonged to Chekhov’.

Weizmann had called Jerusalem ‘a modern Babel’ but all these different worlds continued to mix, despite spasms of violence and clouds of foreboding. That cosmopolitan Jerusalem, wrote Hazem Nusseibeh, was ‘one of the most exhilarating cities in the world to live in’. Cafés opened all the time, enjoyed by a new class of intellectuals, boulevardiers, and flâneurs, funded by family orange groves, newspaper articles and civil service salaries. The cafés presented respectable belly-dancing, as well as the saucier suziversion, cabaret-singers and traditional balladeers, jazz bands, and Egyptian popular singers. During early Mandate years, just inside the Jaffa Gate next to the Imperial Hotel, the flamboyant intellectual Khalil Sakakini held court at the Vagabond Café, where over puffs ofnargileh water pipes and shots of Lebanese arak firewater, this soidisant ‘Prince of Idleness’ discussed politics and expounded his hedonistic philosophy, the Manifesto of Vagabonds – ‘Idleness is the motto of our party. The working-day is made up of two hours’ – after which he indulged ‘in eating, drinks and merriment’. However, his indolence was limited when he became Palestine’s inspector of education.

Wasif Jawhariyyeh, the oud-player with the municipal sinecure, had long embraced laziness: his brother opened the Café Jawhariyyeh on Jaffa Road by the Russian Compound where a cabaret and band performed. One regular denizen of the nearby Postal Café recalled ‘the cosmopolitan clientele; a Tsarist officer with a white beard, a young clerk; an immigrant painter, an elegant lady who kept talking about her properties in Ukraine, and many young men and women immigrants’.

Many of the British enjoyed this ‘real blend of cultures’, not least Sir Harry Luke, who presided over a typical Jerusalem household: ‘The nanny was from south England, the butler a White Russian,* the servant a Cypriot Turk, Ahmed the cook was a rascally black Berber, the kitchen-boy was an Armenian who surprised us by turning out to be a girl; the housemaid is Russian.’ But not everyone was so charmed. ‘I dislike them all intensely,’ said General Sir Walter ‘Squib’ Congreve. ‘Beastly people. The whole lot are not worth a single Englishman.’

BEN-GURION AND THE MUFTI: THE SHRINKING SOFA

The mufti was at the height of his prestige but he struggled to control the wide range of Arab views. There were liberal Westernizers like George Antonius, there were Marxists, there were secular nationalists and there were Islamic fundamentalists. Many Arabs loathed the mufti but the majority were becoming convinced that only armed struggle could stop Zionism. In November 1933, the ex-mayor Musa Kazem Husseini, who was no fan of his cousin the mufti, led demonstrations in Jerusalem that sparked riots in which thirty Arabs were killed. When Musa Kazem died the next year, the Arabs lost an elder statesman respected by all: ‘people wept a lot over Musa Kazem,’ wrote Ahmed Shuqayri, a later Palestinian leader, ‘whereas Haj Amin (the mufti) made a lot of people weep.’ More than a quarter of a million Jews arrived in Palestine during the second decade of the Mandate, twice as many as during the first. The Arabs, whether they were the most sophisticated of the Jerusalem elite, educated at Oxford, or whether they were the Islamicist radicals of the Muslim Brotherhood, all now sensed that the British would never halt the immigration, nor hold back the ever more sophisticated organization of the Yishuv, as the Jewish community was known. They were running out of time. In 1935, at the height of the immigration, 66,000 Jews arrived. In that morbid age when war was often regarded as a purifying national ritual, even the intellectual Sakakini and the aesthete Jawhariyyeh now believed that only violence could save Palestine. The answer, wrote Hazem Nusseibeh, was ‘armed rebellion’.

This was confronted by the ageing Weizmann, again Zionist president, but the real power lay with David Ben-Gurion, recently elected chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, the highest authority for the Yishuv. Both men were autocratic and intellectual in style, dedicated to Zionism and Western democracy. But they were opposites. Ben-Gurion was a gruff working-class man of action, equipped to lead in war and peace. He lacked all small talk (except about history and philosophy) and was humourless – the only joke the diminutive Ben-Gurion told was about Napoleon’s height. Its punchline was: ‘no one was bigger than Napoleon, just taller.’ Married with two children, a dissatisfied husband, he enjoyed a discreet love-affair with a tall, blue-eyed Englishwoman in London. But he was a brooding loner and thoughtful strategist, always obsessed with the cause, who collected books, spending any spare time in second-hand bookshops. The Old Man, as he was already known, learned Spanish to read Cervantes and Greek to study Plato; when he planned statehood, he read Greek philosophy; when he made war, he read Clausewitz.

Weizmann was Zionism’s grand seigneur, dressed in Savile Row suits, more at home in the salons of Mayfair than on the sunbeaten farms of Galilee and now well off from founder-shares in Marks & Spencer, donated by his friends, the Sieff family. ‘You’re now King of Israel,’ Ben-Gurion told him, but he would soon turn against ‘Weizmann’s regime of personal fetishism’. As for Weizmann, he knew that, unlike Ben-Gurion, he was not cut out to be a warlord, but he half respected, half disdained the younger man’s militancy. In his 600-page memoirs, he mentioned Ben-Gurion’s name just twice. Weizmann was mistaken for Lenin in looks but Ben-Gurion emulated the Bolshevik’s ruthless pragmatism.

He had started as a socialist, risen in the labour movement and had not quite lost his belief that a new Palestine should be created through the cooperation of the Jewish and Arab working classes. Ben-Gurion may have dreamed of a Jewish state but that seemed totally unlikely and remote. Since he appreciated that ‘the Arab national movement was born at almost the same time as political Zionism,’ he believed that an Arab–Jewish confederation was the best the Jews could hope for at that time. Both he and the mufti probed each other with plans for a shared state: in retrospect, a compromise was still possible. In August 1934, Ben-Gurion started to meet Musa al-Alami,* a lawyer working for the British, and George Antonius, the writer – both moderate advisers to the mufti. Ben-Gurion proposed either a Jewish–Arab shared government or a Jewish entity within an Arab federation that would include Transjordan and Iraq. Surely, Ben-Gurion argued, Palestine was like a sofa: there was room for both. The mufti was impressed, but noncommittal. Later Alami reflected that the mufti and Ben-Gurion shared the same harsh nationalism but the Jewish leader was much more flexible and skilful. He regretted that the Arabs never produced their own Ben-Gurion. Meanwhile, the mufti and his fellow aristocrats were losing control of their movement.

In November 1935, a Syrian preacher named Sheikh Izzat al-Din al-Qassam, who worked as a junior official in the mufti’s sharia court in Haifa and was constantly urging him to reject any political compromise, rebelled against the British. He was far more radical than the mufti, a puritan fundamentalist who believed in the sanctity of martyrdom, a precursor of al-Qaeda and today’s Jihadists. Now he led the thirteen mujahidin of his Black Hand cell into hills where, on 20 November, he was cornered by 400 British police and killed. Qassam’s martyrdom jolted the mufti closer to revolt. In April 1936, Qassam’s successor launched an operation outside Nablus that killed two Jews – but released a German who claimed to be a Nazi ‘for Hitler’s sake’. This lit the spark. The Irgun, Jewish nationalists, killed two Arabs in response. As the shooting started, Sir Arthur Wauchope was totally unqualified to respond. A young officer noticed that he ‘doesn’t know what to do.’20

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