A Golden Bowl Full of Scorpions

The Holy Land

As the imperial legions withdrew from India, Burma and Ceylon after the war, Britain tried to shore up its ascendancy in the Middle East. In April 1945 Anthony Eden declared that the defence of the eastern Mediterranean was “a matter of life and death to the British Empire.”1 Labour’s Prime Minister Clement Attlee had his doubts about this but Eden’s successor as Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, agreed—he was said to have dropped nothing from Eden’s policies except the aitches. Bevin saw the region primarily as an oil-rich stronghold protecting African colonies which needy Britain could exploit for many years to come. The Levant, to be kept in the British sphere of influence by fresh treaties, was vital to “our position as a great Power.”2

By this time, of course, Communism presented the gravest menace to that position, the Red Army having smashed its way to the heart of Europe. The Soviet juggernaut now threatened to roll south, towards Greece, Turkey and Persia. Ironically, the first statesman to rally anti-Communist forces was the new leader of His Majesty’s loyal opposition. In 1945 Winston Churchill advocated a “United States of Europe” whereby the Continent would be conjoined “in a manner never known since the fall of the Roman Empire”3—a project of which Bevin would memorably remark, “If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan ’orses will jump out.”4 The following year, in his “iron curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, Churchill called for “a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.”5 As the Cold War began to heat up, America did indeed provide tacit support to the British Empire, giving it a brief new lease of life. In March 1947 President Truman took over Britain’s role in sustaining Greece and Turkey against Stalin’s thrust. This historic initiative, formulated as the Truman Doctrine, helped Bevin to exert imperial influence elsewhere in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. But that proved a frustrating endeavour, notably in Palestine, where the conflict between Jew and Arab caused a rift between London and Washington. Britain’s subsequent exodus from the Holy Land would mark a further stage, and a particularly inglorious one, in the dissolution of the Empire.

Ever since the Great War, of course, Britain’s contradictory pledges had bedevilled the situation in Palestine. The country had been declared the site of a national home for the Jews. But the Arabs had been assured that they would have the right to self-government. The Promised Land had been promised once too often. And it seemed that the British would only honour their word to the Jews. The League of Nations incorporated the Balfour Declaration into Britain’s 1923 mandate to rule Palestine. Balfour and Lloyd George privately told Chaim Weizmann that by a national home they had “always meant an eventual Jewish state.”6 At the same time Winston Churchill secretly approved Jewish gun-running whereby an underground army, the Haganah (meaning “Defence”), was equipped: “We won’t mind it, but don’t speak of it.”7 Even the cosmos seemed to be on the side of the Jews, science apparently combining with religion to ensure the survival of the worthiest. Secular Zionists liked to justify their creed on Darwinian grounds. Arthur Koestler, for example, said that the Palestinian Arabs lived in “a primitive, anachronistic way which carries its own doom. To ask whether this premise is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is meaningless. History carries a whip in its hand, and in this case the Jews, its traditional victim, were the whip.”8

The Old Testament also provided sanction for the ending of the second Babylonian exile and the building of a New Jerusalem. Some Christians, indeed, augured the second coming of Jesus from the return of the Chosen People to the Holy Land. Certainly they were moved by the spectacle of Jews arriving with tears of joy, songs of praise and cries of “Zion.” A British policeman wrote, “There was a strange glory about this shambling procession of dirty, wan-faced people. A majesty showed in their eyes.”9 For they were marvellously fulfilling the prophecy in Chapter 11 of Isaiah:

And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people…And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

No wonder David Ben-Gurion, the socialist Zionist who became first Prime Minister of Israel, declared: “The Mandate is not our Bible; rather, it is the Bible that is our mandate.”10 No wonder, too, that Jews saw the Arabs as Moses had seen the Canaanites—mere instruments in God’s plan for the children of Israel.

Arabs interpreted this messianic programme as a challenge to their faith that could only be met by firm resistance, perhaps by jihad. They believed that the Jews aimed to establish sole possession of the Holy Land. The Chosen People could only enter into their scriptural inheritance at the expense of Muslim claims. So the Star of David must triumph over both the Crescent and the Cross. Similarly, Arabs thought, the flood of Jewish immigrants would dislodge the native peasantry from its holdings. However legally vague, the Arab title to the soil was of this world rather than the next, resting as it did on long occupation and deep attachment. To quote their ablest advocate, the Christian George Antonius, “there is no room for a second nation in a country that is already inhabited.” And the League of Nations had no right to place the burden of alleviating the ills of the Jewish diaspora upon Arab Palestine. “No code of morals can justify the persecution of one people in an attempt to relieve the persecution of another.”11 The Jews amounted to 8 per cent of the population in 1918 and the Arabs maintained that Palestine “by no means consents to its mountains being converted into volcanoes spitting fire, and the waters of its Jordan being turned into blood.”12 Any significant attempt to increase Jewish immigration would spark off “an unpredictable holocaust of Arab, Jewish and British lives.”13

The first British High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, soon found that his countrymen had completely underestimated the degree of Arab opposition to the Jewish presence. It had, he wrote, “the irritating effect of an alien body in living flesh.”14 Zionism inflamed Arab nationalism. It threatened “to reproduce in Palestine,”15 others observed, the conditions of Ireland—“two peoples living in a small country hating each other like hell.”16 Jews from Europe often treated the “natives” with European arrogance, quickly adopting settler attitudes. But the new Zionist dispensation differed from the old colonial order. For whereas the British occupation of Palestine proposed to be temporary, the Jewish expropriation promised to be permanent. Samuel did his best to reconcile the irreconcilable communities. An Oxford-educated Liberal who thought that life was “one Balliol man after another,”17 he was high-minded to the point of naïveté. Moreover, he had a refined aversion to autocracy, not wanting to govern a land “flowing with licensed milk and registered honey.” But the Arabs could only regard him as a Zionist Jew, one whose well-trimmed black moustache “exuded a kind of military vigour and frigid aloofness.”18 In 1921 they shattered his emollient policy with riots and disturbances. Samuel therefore restricted immigration, inaugurating the first in a series of British attempts to dilute the Balfour Declaration without obviously betraying its beneficiaries. In the words of one British officer, also a Jew, their aim was “to hold the balance very evenly so as not to offend Muslim opinion which would endanger the whole Empire, or Jewish opinion either, which would raise difficulties throughout the world.”19Incensed by what they saw as the High Commissioner’s treachery, Jews called Samuel “Judas.”

In fact, most British soldiers and officials sympathised with those they saw as the underdogs. The army was supposed to be neutral, said its commander in the Middle East, General Congreve, but Arabs were the “victims of an unjust policy forced upon them by the British Government.”20The military view was summed up in a chorus sung by his troops in Jerusalem:

And they sold the Holy City

To the Zionist Committee.

Senior civilians echoed the sentiments if not the verse, noting that the “ancient dwellers of the land would eventually have to give place to Zionists who were backed by big financial concerns.”21 What lay behind these opinions? The pro-Zionist Colonel Meinertzhagen accused his fellow officers of “hebraphobia”22 and there is no doubt that many were more or less anti-Semitic, including Meinertzhagen himself. G. K. Chesterton epitomised their aversion with his attack on Orthodox Jews in fur-trimmed hats and “grand but greasy robes of bronze or purple,” whose ringlets prompted him to describe Jerusalem as a “fantasia for barbers.”23 But if Catholics were British, the British were catholic, in their prejudices. The Palestinian Arabs, especially townsfolk reviled as the Levantine detritus of the Ottoman Empire, were also subject to discrimination. Racist administrators abused the people in their care as “a tiresome gaggle of yids and wogs.”24 According to Leo Amery, the second-rate official was most objectionable, “the Clerk in the Telegraphs, who stands arms akimbo in the doorway of the Malta Club, just to show he is an English white man with the entrée.”25 However, in the eyes of the authorities, immigrant Jews were the least preferred. They were the “babus” or “mission boys” of the Holy Land. Most of them were literate and urbanised—only about 10 per cent worked on kibbutzim. Many had practical or professional skills and spoke two or more languages. They wore western clothes and appreciated European culture. Education made them unamenable to colonial discipline. This was the main charge that Lord Northcliffe levelled against refugees who were recoiling from the bondage of the ghetto. Apparently “obsessed by a nightmare of crooked hands clutching scimitars in defence of the Holy Land,”26 he condemned “the over-pushfulness of the Zionists.”27

The Arabs, by contrast, were clearly inured to oppression and unspoilt by civilisation. “When an Arab is dirty he is picturesque,” said the wife of a British official, “when a Jew is dirty he is filthy.”28 In their 850 villages Arabs carried on a way of life apparently hallowed by the ages. For all that they worshipped Allah instead of Jehovah, it vividly conjured up scenes from the Old Testament. Their patriarchal form of existence appealed to the imagination of romantic and religious Britons. So did the oriental pageant on display in the old city of Jerusalem. This was a honey-coloured labyrinth smelling of dung and wood smoke. The din of crowing cocks, barking dogs and braying donkeys competed with the blare of commerce and the clamour of piety. Burnoused Bedouin in camel-hair cloaks and turbaned fellaheen wearing sheepskin coats and blue-and-white-striped gallabeahs overflowed from narrow lanes, roofed alleys and steep defiles. They rubbed shoulders with Kurdish porters bearing huge packs, effendi in scarlet fezzes and dervishes in high cylindrical hats. Ladies in black muslin veils and copious white draperies bought cucumbers from sable-robed, velvet-jacketed countrywomen with tattooed chins and lips and tinkling silver jewellery. Little Arab boys with baskets strapped to their shoulders darted between booths heaped with silk and kiosks piled with spices. Merchants in keffiyehs or faisaliyehs (brown service caps) plied their trade amid hawkers, beggars, eaters of sweetmeats, smokers of hubble-bubbles and “coffee-sellers clashing their brazen saucers.”29 This was a world that might have been conjured up by the tongue of Scheherazade. But Britons foresaw its destruction in the Jewish resurrection. If Zionists rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, they would encompass the ruin of what was still a “Saracen city.”30

After all, the relics of other creeds and civilisations were buried in the fabric of Jerusalem like fossils embedded in veins of rock. The ancient city, set on its rugged Judean plateau overlooking the deep blue expanse of the Dead Sea, had endured “forty sieges and destructions.”31 In their turn had come Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great, Ptolemy I and Judas Maccabaeus, Pompey and Herod, Caliph Omar and the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II, who indulged in the “profane thought that if Jehovah had seen the kingdom of Naples, he would never have selected Palestine for the inheritance of his chosen people.” Much of the past was interred in grottoes, vaults, crypts, ossuaries and catacombs. From Golgotha to Gethsemane, above “the sacred ground of mystery and miracle,”32 shards of every epoch testified to “the transience of religions and empires.”33 There was Hebraic limestone, Roman marble and Saracen porphyry. There were Greek arches, Persian tiles and Byzantine piers. Each victorious ruler, each triumphant priest, had sought to efface the monuments of his predecessors. Thus Titus ordered the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, a reconstructed wonder in white that the Jewish historian Josephus likened to “a mountain of snow.”34 Hadrian built a new city, raising a shrine to Jupiter on the site of Calvary and a temple to Venus over the tomb of Christ.

In due course, Constantine replaced that with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which itself became the focus of rivalry between Greek, Latin, Armenian, Coptic and other branches of Christianity—so much so that each seemed to worship a local deity. And where Jehovah and Jove had been venerated, Saracen caliphs erected Islamic sanctuaries, the great Al Aqsa Mosque and the sublime Dome of the Rock. The Crusaders, riding through the city “in blood up to their knees and bridle reins,”35 made the mosque a palace and converted Omar’s lustrous gem into a chapel. But the Dome was rescued by Saladin (who himself turned the Church of St. Anne into a madrasseh) and renovated by Suleiman the Magnificent. They and their ilk set a Muslim mark upon the face of Jerusalem. In Herbert Samuel’s time it remained a medieval mosaic of towers, cupolas, minarets, pinnacles and battlements. But the dense geological encrustations, the overlaying of synagogue by temple and church by mosque, told their own story. The city was a parable in stone. Arabs became convinced that Jews aimed to recreate the Temple of Solomon on the rubble of the Dome of the Rock. As the chief Ashkenazi rabbi proclaimed in 1928, “The Holy Sanctum is consecrated to Israel for ever and it should in the end revert to Israel and the Temple be rebuilt with great splendour, as promised by the Prophet Ezekiel.”36 Once restored to its altar, the Ark of the Covenant would obliterate the footprint of Mohammed.

Until the rise of Hitler, Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land generally held their fire. Immigration was only a trickle and during the late 1920s more Jews left the country than arrived. Neither community was united. Many Jews, secular as well as religious, opposed Zionism. Feuding among rural clans and urban factions hindered the development of Arab nationalism. The British treated Palestine as a colony and ruled it with a tiny garrison. Possessing no artillery for a Remembrance Day salute on 11 November 1925, the army borrowed an ancient cannon which the Islamic authorities fired to signal the start of the fast of Ramadan. High Commissioners presided in state, first from a Kaiser-inspired “Wagnerian schloss37 on the Mount of Olives and later from a square-towered, purpose-built Government House, complete with ballroom and minstrels’ gallery, on the Hill of Evil Counsel. As usual the British kept to themselves and followed their own pursuits. They hobnobbed in the exclusive Jerusalem Sports Club. They chased jackals with the pink-coated Ramleh Vale Hunt. They took picnics in Galilee where the air was limpid and the earth was carpeted with wild flowers—anemone, narcissus, cyclamen, asphodel and ranunculus. Beside the Dead Sea, with Moab rising beyond it like a wall of brass, they played on the briny, sandy nine-hole course of the Sodom and Gomorrah Golf Club, competing annually for the prize of a marble statuette known as “Lot’s Wife.” They kept the peace and suppressed disturbances, the bloodiest of which occurred over a dispute about the Western (“Wailing”) Wall in 1929. They attended to matters like justice, health and education. They promoted agriculture, helping Jews to make the desert “blossom as the rose”38 and assisting Arabs, who still reaped with the sickle and used asses to trample out the corn. Inspired by Lutyens’s New Delhi, they even planned to build their own new Jerusalem. But if the British were making Palestine “cleaner, richer and duller,” they were not making it happier, said Sir Ronald Storrs, Governor of Jerusalem and Judea. “Thou hast multiplied the harvest but not increased the joy, is my epitaph for the British Empire.”39

Successive proconsuls failed to achieve political cooperation between Jews and Arabs, who ran parallel administrations. The Jewish Agency consolidated its hold on strategic areas, especially the coastal plain and Galilee where Jews bought land (which absentee owners sold even though thousands of their Arab tenants were evicted). From afar Weizmann guided the Agency with consummate skill, though even he could be provocative. He wrote, for example, that “the only rational answer” to dissension over the Wailing Wall was “to pour Jews into Palestine.”40 The Supreme Muslim Council was led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, whom Samuel had appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, a pre-eminent religious and legal office. Mild-mannered, soft-spoken, red-bearded and black-robed, with a white turban around his scarlet tarbush, the Mufti had the rare gift of immobility. But his impassive and dignified exterior concealed a burning ambition to maintain the Muslim majority in Palestine. Amin believed that the Balfour Declaration had stemmed from a Jewish intrigue with the British and he reminded one High Commissioner that a Jewish intrigue with the Romans had led to the judicial murder of Christ. No mean intriguer himself, the Mufti tried to destroy the Jewish national home first by treating with the British and later by embracing Muslim militants. Initially he shunned any council or congress that might give legitimacy to the Jewish presence. During the early 1930s he temporised, recognising that Arabs would dominate an elected assembly by dint of numbers. This was precisely why Weizmann and his allies rejected proposals to form such a body. All round the world Jews faced hostility from majorities in their adopted countries. It was the prime goal of Zionism that Jews in Palestine should “cease at last to lead a minority life.”41

That goal was to be achieved as a result of the most terrible tragedy in Jewish history. As anti-Semitism became more virulent in Germany, Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe during the years before the Holocaust, many more of its victims sought to reach the Promised Land. After the riots of 1929, the British had made a further effort to restrict the immigration of Jews and their acquisition of acres. But the effort was not sustained thanks to Zionist protests in London, the Labour Party’s sympathy for the Jews and the Foreign Office’s view that repudiation of the Balfour Declaration would damage imperial prestige. So between 1933 and 1936 166,000 Jews arrived in Palestine, swelling their share of the population to more than a quarter. Tension increased accordingly. An English archaeologist observed the symptoms during a showing of the film Ben Hur at a cinema in Jericho. “For ‘Roman’ everyone read English of course,” he wrote. And when the Roman officer Messala told Ben Hur that he was “a snivelling sneaking Jew” whose race would always be trodden in the dirt, Arabs in the audience shouted and stamped with glee. Jews in turn let out a “splendid seditious cheer” at Ben Hur’s reply: “My afflicted nation has shaken off its other persecutors before now, and the day will come, be sure, when it will rise up and shake off the yoke of Rome.”42

Those who now sat in the seat of Pontius Pilate faced a hideous dilemma. To keep out Jews was to condemn them to persecution, if not extermination—several years before embarking on the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann himself told a prominent English Jew that Zionism was “the only rational solution of the Jewish question.”43 To let in Jews was to threaten the existence of the Arab community and thus antagonise the entire Muslim world. As George Antonius wrote, for Arabs the matter was “essentially one of self-preservation.”44 So it was for Jews, who were denied asylum in Britain, America and elsewhere. In 1936 their influx into Palestine crystallised Arab resistance. This took the form of attacks on Britons as well as Jews. Arab strikes, boycotts, riots, assassinations and bombings multiplied. They were met by collective punishments and acts of counter-terror, which intensified hatred for the government. The British blew up much of the old city of Jaffa in an effort to dislodge guerrillas, adding insult to injury by claiming that the destruction was part of a town-planning scheme. As unholy strife engulfed the Holy Land, a constitutional agreement became impossible. “We and they both want the same thing,” said David Ben-Gurion. “We both want Palestine. And that is the fundamental conflict.”45 As a result, an official observed, there was more hatred to the square mile in Palestine than in any other country on earth. One Arab demagogue, “prying into history’s cess-pits,”46 even demonstrated British barbarity by citing the Tasmanian genocide. Christians compared the atmosphere in Jerusalem to that prevailing at the crucifixion of the Prince of Peace.

The Zionist strategy was to retain favour with the mandatory power. Ben-Gurion had assured the High Commissioner that “the Jews wanted Palestine to become a fraction of the British Empire; there alone safety lay.”47 A tiny man with a huge, craggy head, a mass of curly white hair and penetrating green-brown eyes, Ben-Gurion was a ruthless politician who spoke in “barks and grunts”48 but knew when to dissimulate—in the first Israeli census he entered his occupation as “agricultural worker.”49 His assurance fulfilled the naïve ambition of British Zionists such as Josiah Wedgwood, who wanted to make Jews “proud to be English…the goal should be a 7th Dominion.”50 But what Ben-Gurion meant was that Jews would remain imperial auxiliaries until they could muster the strength to forge their own state. So instead of taking an eye for an eye, he said, they should respond to Arab provocations with restraint (havlagah). Weizmann also conciliated Britain, asserting that the Arab revolt was part of an age-old struggle between civilisation and the desert. Arabs “are a destructive element,” he declared. “We build!”51

For pragmatic reasons Zionists even accepted the conclusion of the Royal Commission led by Lord Peel, which investigated the causes of the uprising. Among others giving Peel secret advice was that champion of the Balfour Declaration, Leo Amery, who proposed to cut “out of Palestine an ‘Ulster,’ a completely Arab area which should be set up as a separate Administration or attached to Trans-Jordan.”52 In 1937, deciding that Jews and Arabs were irreconcilable, the Commission duly recommended partition. Weizmann and, even more, Ben-Gurion had grave reservations about it. They were especially dissatisfied by the minuscule size of their prospective state, though Peel allotted Jews a third of Palestine when they only owned about 5 per cent of the land, and allowed for the expulsion of the Arab inhabitants, who comprised 49 per cent of the population. However, at least and at last it would be a state. It might grow from Dan to Beersheba. It might even expand, as “Revisionist” Jews such as Vladimir Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin envisaged, “from the Nile to the Euphrates.”53 The Negev Desert was not going to run away, quipped Weizmann. What mattered was the first step. This was not an end, said Ben-Gurion, but a beginning.

For that very reason the Arabs dismissed partition out of hand. In desperation they concluded that Peel’s plan had to be fought. During the autumn of 1937 their rebellion, which had died down during the previous year after costing five hundred lives, once more burst into life. Although encouraged by the Mufti (who fled to Lebanon) and assisted from Iraq and Syria, it flared up from the grass roots. This was essentially a revolt of the villages, where over a fifth of Arabs were now landless and nearly all were denied employment by Jews. Their front-line irregulars, some three thousand of them, attacked buses, trains, bridges, orange groves, telephone exchanges, police posts, government offices, the oil pipeline from Iraq to Haifa, even the new airport at Lydda. They robbed banks and arsenals. Ambushes, explosions and assassinations became everyday events. The violence was unconfined. Arabs killed those deemed traitors on their own side as well as Jews and Britons. Jewish militants, members of what became known as Irgun and the Stern Gang, also murdered those deemed traitors as well as carrying out terrorist atrocities. They consciously acted in the spirit of the Sicarii during the time of Herod, so called because they carried a dagger (sica) under their cloaks and stabbed collaborators with Rome. They also let off bombs in the Arab markets in Haifa, the old city of Jerusalem and elsewhere. The young poet Yaacov Cohen summed up their faith: “In blood and fire Judea will be restored.”54 Like an inferno throwing off sparks, the civil war kindled battles and skirmishes throughout Palestine.

The British tried to snuff out each blaze piecemeal. But their intelligence was poor, despite the establishment of “Arab investigation centres” at which police, some recruited from the Black and Tans, tortured suspects. Finding guerrilla tactics hard to counter, they stepped up reprisals. After the bombing of a coffee bar frequented by his colleagues, one policeman wrote: “We then descended into the sook & thrashed every Arab we saw, smashed all shops & cafés, & created havoc and bloodshed…running over an Arab is the same as a dog in England except we do not record it.”55Needless to say, Italian and German propaganda exaggerated the degree of British coercion, which was modest by Fascist and Nazi standards. But when the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem complained of atrocities carried out by the army in the northern village of Bassa, the general commanding the 8th Division, Bernard Montgomery, shocked him by replying to every question: “I shall shoot them.”56

The Colonial Secretary, William Ormsby-Gore, was driven to despair by the communal violence and he eventually wished a plague on both houses: “the Arabs are treacherous and untrustworthy, the Jews greedy and, when freed from persecution, aggressive.”57The new High Commissioner, Sir Harold MacMichael, immaculate in his pale tussore suitings, complete with waistcoat and gold fob watch, did not improve matters. He aimed to mete out justice with an even hand, “never wavering, never forgiving58—a concept of law derived from the Romans which was, in his view, incomprehensible both to orientals and to women. Cool and cynical as ever, he held so aloof from the fray that he earned the title “Simon Stylites.” By the summer and autumn of 1938 his writ had ceased to run in much of Galilee and Judea and for a time rebels actually controlled major towns, including Bethlehem and Jerusalem. So in October MacMichael surrendered civil power to soldiers, subjecting Palestine, in all but name, to martial law.

The British Army pioneered many of the techniques which the state of Israel later employed against Arabs. These included corralling them with fences and pillboxes, attacking them from the air, raiding their villages and blowing up their houses. Sweeps, searches and arrests led to the detention of many thousands in concentration camps. Over a hundred were hanged. However, small bands of Arabs travelling after dark proved elusive. To quell them the British increased their surreptitious enlistment of volunteers from the illegal Haganah. Many of them served in Special Night Squads commanded by the so-called “Lawrence of Judea.”59 He was Captain Orde Wingate, Sir Reginald’s nephew, one of the last in a long line of nonconformist heroes who made such an idiosyncratic contribution to Britain’s imperial saga. A slim figure with a slight stammer, pale blue eyes and a beaky nose jutting from a bony face, Wingate converted to Zionism with all the ardour of one brought up among Plymouth Brethren. The new creed was said to devour him like an inner fire. Yet it might easily have been dismissed as a fad for the eccentricities of this violent, caustic and unkempt soldier were legion. He would massage his bare toes with a pencil at dinner and hold interviews while lying naked on a bed and combing his body hair with a toothbrush. For long periods he would eat nothing but onions. He once demanded rams’ horn trumpets to blow against the walls of a hostile village, as used by Joshua against Jericho and Gideon against the hosts of Midian. However, Wingate’s very peculiarities helped to make him a charismatic leader. As often as not he and his patrols beat the guerrillas at their own homicidal game. Weight of men and metal crushed them. It was clear by 1939, after a death toll of over three thousand, that the Arabs had lost the war. But in May they seemed set to win the peace.

This was because the British government, facing an imminent explosion in Europe, once again changed direction over the Holy Land. It issued a White Paper reversing the policy of partition and imposing strict limits on Jewish immigration and land purchase. It also promised an independent, Arab-dominated Palestine within ten years. Jewish Zionists were incensed, blaming the new Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, whom they described as “so anti-Semitic as to be almost demented.”60 Weizmann himself accused MacDonald of betrayal, remarking contemptuously that “you can spit in his face and he’ll say it’s raining.”61 Gentile Zionists such as Churchill denounced the White Paper as a fatal capitulation to force. The policy of appeasement had spread to the Middle East. By sacrificing another small people to Nazi Germany, Ben-Gurion said, Neville Chamberlain had produced “a new edition of Munich.”62 Moreover, it followed an earlier edition, the “Jewish Munich”63 at Evian-les-Bains the previous summer, when an international conference had barred nearly all the world’s doors against the victims of pogroms. Having inflamed Arabs, the British Empire antagonised Jews. They proved a more implacable foe. The Arab revolt itself had made them “stronger and more determined.”64 The White Paper established “a virtual ghetto” in Palestine, said Ben-Gurion, and the Jews would fight it “even if their blood be shed.”65

It was now the turn of Jews to assert, as Arabs had asserted in 1936, that their only option was to employ terrorism against the mandatory power. Zealots blasted the Law Courts in Tel Aviv and the offices of the Palestine Broadcasting Service in Jerusalem. Illegal immigration grew apace, sustaining the campaign of violence. The Gestapo initiated the exodus of Jews from Europe while the Haganah smuggled them into Palestine aboard decrepit freighters, leaky tramp steamers and stinking cattle boats, meeting British attempts to stop them with bombs and bullets. In August 1939 the Zionist Congress at Geneva encouraged Jewish belligerence. But when war broke out in Europe there was a lull in the struggle for the Holy Land. Arabs as well as Jews declared against Hitler, though both the Mufti and the Stern Gang came to favour an alliance with the Third Reich against the British Empire. The Mufti, whose assassination Churchill approved in 1940, tried to prevent transfers of Jewish children from Europe to Palestine during the Holocaust as part of the “battle against world Jewry.”66 Abraham Stern wanted Jews to wage war on Britain and “shout ‘Heil Hitler’ in Jerusalem.”67 Ben-Gurion condemned “Jewish Nazis,” among them members of the Irgun, as “bubonic plague.”68He famously pronounced that Jews would fight the war on Britain’s side “as if there were no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there were no war.”

Ben-Gurion’s injunction proved as contradictory as Balfour’s Declaration. It was, as one of his colleagues said, an epigram not a programme. And it aggravated emotional turmoil among the Jews of Palestine during the war. On the one hand they yearned to strike at Nazi Germany. On the other, they ached to assail Britain for barring from Zion the pathetic few who managed to escape the clutches of Hitler. They also rioted against the so-called “Nuremberg Laws”69 controlling Jewish land purchase. The Haganah itself was divided. Many of its fighters served with the Allies, some assisted illegal immigrants, a few did both. Occasionally they acted with British connivance, often not. On 25 November 1940, for example, Haganah agents blew up the Patria in Haifa Harbour to stop the British deporting 1,800 Jewish refugees to Mauritius. The explosion was apparently intended to cripple the twelve-thousand-ton vessel but it killed some 260 Jews plus about a dozen British policemen. The Jewish Agency explained the incident as a despairing act of mass suicide. This seemed plausible in view of the plight of European Jewry, which sharpened the horns of Britain’s own dilemma.

Churchill and others in his government wanted to scrap the White Paper for reasons of common humanity. Duff Cooper said in New York that the Nazi atrocities imposed a moral obligation on Britain to “do more rather than less for the Jews than she ever promised or intended.”70However, General Wavell, commanding British forces in the Middle East, warned that any concession to the Jews would, by incensing the Arabs, jeopardise his already precarious position. This was an argument that the embattled Churchill could not ignore. It became still more persuasive in 1941, when Wavell had to crush a rising in Iraq. Furthermore, MacMichael, demoralised by official vacillations, told his superiors that the Jewish Agency was exploiting the tragedy in Europe to create a state in Palestine. So the London government hardened its heart. For example, it refused to admit the 769 Romanian Jews crowded in cages on the narrow deck of the Struma. After a prolonged diplomatic wrangle this rusting hulk was sunk in the Black Sea on 24 February 1942 with the loss of all but two lives. Soon a poster appeared in Palestine announcing that MacMichael was “Wanted for Murder.”

Escaping assassination attempts, Micmac himself finally decided that a Jewish state was desirable. As evidence accumulated about the Nazi genocide, others concluded that Jews could never be safe inside an alien society. In America, where Roosevelt had introduced Jews to high office, a Zionist Conference held at New York’s Biltmore Hotel in May 1942 endorsed Ben-Gurion’s resolution that “Palestine be established as a Jewish commonwealth.”71 In Britain the case for the assimilation of Jews among Gentiles, made and exemplified by Disraeli, was rebutted by his successors. In 1943 Lloyd George stated, “The revolting treatment of the Jews by the Nazis has made any other solution than a Jewish State in Palestine unthinkable.” In December the following year Clement Attlee took the same view. Indeed, the Labour resolution went further, maintaining that a stable settlement required the transfer of population. “Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out,” it said, “as the Jews moved in” to a Palestine that might expand across the Jordan.72 This was too inflammatory for Ben-Gurion himself, since Attlee seemed to confirm the worst fears of the Arabs. They would have to pay the debt Europeans owed to Jews for their suffering. Muslims would be punished for Christian sins while Jews used their moral capital to acquire Lebensraum in Palestine from people they treated as Untermenschen. The state of Israel would be atonement for the Holocaust. The Middle East would be sacrificed on the altar of imperialism to assuage the guilty conscience of the West.

Furthermore, it seemed that Attlee was bowing to force. For nearly a year the Irgun, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, had been attacking British installations. At the same time remnants of the Stern Gang were taking British lives. Their most prominent victim was Britain’s Resident Minister in the Middle East, Lord Moyne, a close friend of Churchill, who became disillusioned with Zionism as a result of the murder and allowed his scheme for partitioning Palestine to lapse. Abraham Stern himself, known as “the Illuminator,” or “Yair,” the heroic foe of Roman oppression, had been shot by this time. But his violent spirit lived on in extremists such as Itzhak Shamir, the planner of Moyne’s murder and the future Israeli Prime Minister, who saw Germany as the enemy but Britain as the arch-enemy. Nazis killed Jews but the mandatory power, like the Emperor Titus, destroyed Jewish sovereignty. Modern zealots thought that “Britain was playing the role of Titus in our age.”73 Begin glorified the role of insurrectionist: “To stand against today’s Rome, the British Empire, that was about as revolutionary as one could get.”74

The death of Moyne provoked such revulsion in Palestine, however, that the Jewish Agency made a show of cooperating with the British authorities until the end of the war. The Haganah even helped to hunt down Jewish terrorists. A few they abducted, imprisoned and brutalised themselves. Others they turned over to detectives. Begin denounced this policy as fratricide. The Haganah was Cain, subjecting its brothers to “Gestapo-like tortures in orange groves” before delivering them to the “Nazi-British secret police,” whose hands were “stained with the blood of millions thrown back from the homeland’s shore into the foundries of Majdanek.”75 In fact the Haganah was often settling personal and political scores, and its assistance to the British was equivocal at best. After Germany’s defeat it concentrated on organising the illegal immigration of as many as possible of the million Jews remaining in Europe. Most escapees from the gas chambers, often still behind barbed wire in Displaced Persons’ camps, regarded that continent as “one vast crematorium.”76 They yearned to reach the Promised Land, despite the harsh words of Ben-Gurion addressed to them. He said that their war was just beginning and that in the struggle for a Jewish state they must operate as a “political factor.”77 They were to be his moral Praetorian Guard.

The Haganah prosecuted the struggle all the more vigorously as the new Labour government at first hesitated over Zionist demands and then reneged on its previous commitments. Ernest Bevin, to whom Attlee often deferred over foreign policy, was chiefly responsible for the volte-face. A burly trade unionist with thick glasses and flashing eyes, he exuded power from every pore. In his ministry he galvanised suave diplomats and generated an “electric atmosphere.”78 Formidable in any mood, he veered between elephantine jollity and tigerish rage. Bevin had broad sympathies but his knowledge hardly extended beyond England. Asked whether he would admit that the Scots had made the Empire, he replied: “I’ve ’eard they made the ’ippodrome, and that’s about it.”79However, the Foreign Secretary learned from the Foreign Office. He became convinced that a Jewish state would be unjust to the Arabs, whose oil was of vital importance to Britain, and dangerous, perhaps as a Communist bridgehead, to the Middle East. Favouring the federal union of Palestine and Transjordan (itself given nominal independence in 1946), Bevin restricted Jewish immigration. This brought him into conflict with President Harry S. Truman.

Appalled by the Holocaust, the President disregarded the State Department and Roosevelt’s pledges to the Arabs. Instead, lacking Arab constituents (as he acknowledged) and heeding voters “anxious for the success of Zionism,”80 he demanded that 100,000 European Jews should be allowed into Palestine. Bevin was outraged and his gross utterances exposed him to charges of racial prejudice. To conciliate Truman, he agreed to send an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry to Palestine but his only remark to one of its members, Richard Crossman, was to ask whether he “had been circumcised.”81 When Truman endorsed the Committee’s recommendation that the 100,000 refugees should be admitted but ignored its view that Palestine should become a joint Jewish–Arab state, Bevin made his most notorious gaffe. He said that the American immigration demand had been made for “the purest of motives. They do not want too many Jews in New York.”82 Bevin’s point was that Zionism often stemmed from anti-Semitism. But no remark was more calculated to reinforce American support for the Haganah, now secretly allied with the Stern Gang and the Irgun, in its assault on the British Empire.

The assault grew more violent in the spring of 1946, when Attlee refused entry to the 100,000 refugees unless the “illegal armies”83 of Palestine were disbanded. As well as smuggling in Jews, Zionist forces had promoted strikes, riots, demonstrations and attacks. They now stepped up the offensive against the mandatory power’s ships, trains, barracks, offices and officers. With one soldier to every five Jews, the British conducted extensive operations to track down arms and round up terrorists. Several thousand suspects were arbitrarily arrested through emergency regulations so draconian that observers deemed Palestine “a police state.”84 Jews made manifest their anger. They taught their children to spit at British Tommies and to scream “Nazis” and “Gestapo.” Cries of “Anemone” greeted men of the 6th Airborne Division, an allusion to their distinctive red berets and their putative black hearts. The troops duly retaliated, sometimes shouting “Heil Hitler” and daubing swastikas on the walls of Jewish houses. The cycle of provocation and reprisal became more vicious. Arthur Koestler said that Britain was creating “a second Ireland in the Levant.”85

The worst atrocity occurred on 22 July 1946 when members of the Irgun blew up Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, a caravanserai so luxurious that one tourist thought it was the renovated Temple of Solomon. Such was the force of the blast that an entire corner of the building collapsed and Gerald Kennedy, the Postmaster General, was hurled across Julian’s Way into the YMCA—his body had to be scraped off the wall of the recreation hall. Among the dead were forty-one Arabs, twenty-eight Britons and seventeen Jews. Then and later members of the Irgun asserted that they were “freedom fighters, of the highest moral standards.”86 But the Haganah publicly condemned the bombing which it had privately approved. Having broken the Jewish Agency’s codes, the British knew that it was implicated in terrorism despite the denials of Weizmann, Ben-Gurion and others. Yet the Haganah remained ambivalent. Sometimes it helped the security forces and denounced terrorist organisations for sustaining themselves by “gangsterism, smuggling, large-scale drug traffic, armed robbery, organising the black market and thefts.”87 Anyway, the King David bombing should have won global sympathy for Britain. Instead it became a propaganda disaster, especially in America, thanks to an outburst from the army commander. General Sir Evelyn Barker ordered his troops to shun Jews and to punish them “in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt for them.”88

As the mandatory power entered the last phase of its struggle to square the circle in Palestine, it was outmanoeuvred and demoralised. When the army flogged Jews the Irgun kidnapped soldiers and repaid them in kind, thus preventing further recourse to that degrading punishment. When the British barricaded their own people inside barbed-wire enclosures known as “Bevingrads,” they were mocked for having rounded themselves up. Faced with electrically detonated roadside mines and booby traps disguised as steel helmets, they evacuated civilians early in 1947, only to be accused of cowardice. Even by turning Jerusalem into a fortress the British could not stop bombings. In March 1947 Begin’s men smashed a lorry filled with explosives into their Officers’ Club, causing twenty deaths. Despite cordons, curfews, passes, searches and collective punishments, General Barker found it impossible to paralyse the “cells of evil.”89 All tactics, indeed, from planned military crackdowns to spontaneous acts of vigilantism by exasperated troops, prompted charges of tyranny. They were also used to justify widespread sabotage and bloody revenge.

When the authorities executed terrorists, the Irgun hanged two British sergeants and booby-trapped their bodies, an action that outraged the Jewish Agency almost as much as the public in Britain, where swastikas were painted on synagogues. When the Royal Navy intercepted ships carrying illegal immigrants, most of whom were sent to Cyprus, Ben-Gurion stated that terrorism was “nourished by despair.” Making an accusation echoed in the United States, he said that Britain had “proclaimed war against Zionism” and that its policy was “to liquidate the Jews as a people.”90 Nothing seemed to dramatise imperial cruelty better than the long-running saga of the Exodus 1947. This was the name given to a converted river steamer arrested that summer with its 4,500 Jewish passengers, who were then shipped to Hamburg. The British convoy was said to be a “floating Auschwitz,”91 a charge on which Zionists played variations in their propaganda. When a baby died at sea they issued a statement saying “The dirty Nazi-British assassins suffocated this innocent victim with gas.” As they acknowledged sotto voce, this “satanic lie”92 (as one British officer called it) was aimed not at their captors but at the world’s press. Such poisoned barbs weakened the resolve of the mandatory power. Ben-Gurion had rightly judged that his strongest allies were the “refugees from hell.”93

So whereas the British had used main force to crush the Arab revolt during the late 1930s, they now had no stomach for a full-scale colonial conflict against the Jews. Other constraints hampered Bevin and his colleagues. Their own country was in extremis. It was afflicted by financial crises, bread rationing and fuel shortages. Power cuts had even blacked out Anglo-Jewish talks during the arctic early months of 1947, prompting one of Bevin’s ponderous jokes—“there was no need for candles as they had the Israelites.94 Yet Britain was paying £40 million a year to keep 100,000 men in Palestine. Writing to Attlee, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, persuasively called for the nation to cut its losses:

I am quite sure that the time has almost come when we must bring our troops out of Palestine altogether. The present state of affairs is not only costly to us in man-power and money but is, as you and I agree, of no real value from the strategic point of view—you cannot in any case have a secure base on top of a wasps’ nest—and it is exposing our young men, for no good purpose, to abominable experiences, and is breeding anti-Semites at a most shocking speed.95

The arguments for quitting India and Burma equally supported a British withdrawal from Palestine.

Disengagement there was even more desirable since Palestine divided Britain from America when they needed unity against Russia at the start of the Cold War. Moreover, after interminable plans and negotiations, Bevin concluded that he could not solve the Palestine problem despite having wagered his political future on doing so. The Arabs were weak, divided and poorly led (the Mufti having been internationally discredited by seeking support from the Axis) but they refused to give ground. The Jews were likewise intransigent, especially as Weizmann’s power waned while Ben-Gurion’s waxed. There were also sinister indications, among them the attempted bombing of the Colonial Office and the discovery of an Irgun explosives factory in London, that Jewish terrorists would bring the war home to their foes. In America Jews even assailed their best friend, President Truman, who exclaimed to his cabinet: “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?”96

Throughout 1947 Britain’s own fortunes faded. At the start of the year Bevin had lamented that his compatriots had lost the will and the skill to live up to their imperial responsibilities. Without the resources of the Middle East, he saw “no hope of our being able to achieve the standard of life at which we are aiming in Great Britain.”97 But having failed to find agreement with Jews or Arabs, he had referred the Palestine question to the United Nations, which succeeded to the League’s authority over mandated territories. “Bevin throws in the towel,” wrote Dean Acheson, the American Under-Secretary of State.98 Actually Bevin reckoned that the UN would create a single state in Palestine with Britain as the arbitrating power. But he had certainly surrendered the initiative and the outcome took him by surprise. It seems that Stalin wanted to break a “weak link”99in Britain’s chain of imperial defences, for Russia, unexpectedly siding with America, voted for the partition of Palestine. So did a number of smaller countries, responding to intense Jewish and American pressure. On 29 November 1947, therefore, despite Arab opposition and British abstention, the General Assembly passed by a comfortable majority the resolution dividing the Holy Land into two states. The Jews got eastern Galilee, most of the fertile coastal plain and the Negev Desert, with a Red Sea port. The Arabs were allotted Judea, Samaria, most of Galilee, Gaza and the region around Acre. Jerusalem was to be at the centre of a UN enclave. Bevin thought that the split was grossly unfair to the Arabs and refused to impose it. On 11 December Britain confirmed its decision, announced earlier but almost universally disbelieved, to quit Palestine. Moreover, at the insistence of Attlee, who had the Indian model in mind, a firm date was set for the withdrawal. Come chaos or bloodshed, the British would surrender the mandate on 15 May 1948. When Bevin heard that the RAF wished to remain and keep the peace he responded brusquely, “if they want to stay, they’ll ’ave to stay up in ’elicopters.”100

This exodus marked a fresh stage in the disintegration of the British Empire. The Chief Justice of Palestine lamented,

it is surely a new technique in our imperial mission to walk out and leave the pot we placed on the fire to boil over…India, Burma, and now Palestine! Can the lesson be doubted? Socialist sentimentalism in England has caused more deaths and misery among the common people than all the exponents of our so called imperialistic expansion were ever responsible for, since the ancient Briton first launched his skin canoe on the waters of the English Channel.101

The final six months of the mandate were especially damaging to Britain’s morale and prestige. As Jewish–Arab hostilities intensified, the last High Commissioner, Sir Alan Cunningham, washed his hands of the conflict. Although secretly a Zionist, he had to remain neutral. His duty was “to allow both sides to defend themselves”102 and to resort to force only when British lives were at risk. Cunningham also had to govern Palestine until the end without handing over to any other authority—UN representatives were barred because the British would have to protect them and would thus be acting as midwife to partition, which the Arabs aimed to abort. The Chief Secretary, Sir Henry Gurney, likened the task to cutting off the branch on which one was sitting. Cunningham himself asked Creech Jones plaintively, “Is the last soldier to see the last locomotive into the engine shed, lock the door and keep the key?”103 The High Commissioner and his staff tried to sustain an illusion of continuity, now opening a British sports clubhouse in Jerusalem, now prohibiting the establishment of dance floors near the Sea of Galilee. But as everything came under attack—railways, courts, newspapers, hospitals, reservoirs, abattoirs—it was clear that the British had responsibility without power. As both Americans and Jews also observed, in the hands of Attlee’s socialists the Empire was visibly losing its grip.

This state of affairs was especially repugnant to the army and the police. They handed over the control of Tel Aviv and Jaffa to Jews and Arabs respectively. Elsewhere they intervened less and less except in self-defence. When Arabs burned down the Jewish Commercial Centre in Jerusalem, for example, British troops stood around their green armoured cars smoking cigarettes and taking photographs. Often, though, they were caught in the crossfire and sometimes they were deliberately attacked for their weapons. Usually their riposte was muted. Soldiers sang “Baa, baa, black sheep” to the tune of the Jewish national anthem “Hatikva” (“the Hope”). Underneath a Jewish graffito saying “TOMMY GO HOME” one soldier wrote, “I WISH I FUCKING WELL COULD.”104But rogue elements in the army, as a senior official noted, “openly approve of the policy of Hitler.”105 They carried out vicious acts of counter-terrorism, the worst being the detonation of a lorry bomb in Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street, which killed more than fifty people. Equally repulsive was the Arab habit of mutilating Jewish corpses, exhibiting handfuls of severed fingers, parading heads round the Holy City. Yet Jews, Cunningham observed, in their mood of “mixed hysteria and braggadocio” conveyed through radio broadcasts “remarkably like those of Nazi Germany,” inflicted “many more casualties on the Arabs than the reverse.”106 The most frightful atrocity, starkly demonstrating the collapse of the mandatory regime, occurred near Jerusalem. At the village of Dir Yassin, on 9 April 1948, the Irgun and the Stern Gang murdered more than 250 Arabs, many of them women and children. According to a recent Israeli historian, this and other massacres were “aimed at securing all Palestine for the Jews.”107 Certainly Ben-Gurion talked of an ethnic “clean out”108 as organised resistance to the Haganah crumbled. All told, some 750,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from the new state of Israel—proclaimed on 14 May and at once recognised by Truman.

Meanwhile, the British departed amid humiliation and confusion. At home that old member of Milner’s kindergarten, Leo Amery, who had read Gibbon at the age of fifteen, lamented this new sign of imperial decline.

What I cannot respect is our simply throwing over the work of 30 years to destruction and washing our hands of all responsibility for either Jews or Arabs…It looks as if our whole moral, as well as material position in the Middle East has been disastrously weakened. We shall not win any favour from the Arabs over this. After all, their passionate resentment against the Jews is only part of their more general xenophobia, and we shall find them more difficult in Egypt and Iraq than ever.109

In Palestine, during the last days of the mandate, the army got into a muddle, simultaneously evacuating troops and calling for reinforcements. Living in and leaving behind a vacuum, the administration could do nothing and had nothing to do. Towards the end Gurney played a lot of tennis and dwelt on the contrast between natural glories and man-made horrors in the Holy City. He was struck by the coruscating brilliance of the “sunlight in which every stone and tree becomes a jewel—urbs Sion aurea, Jerusalem the golden; or, as Josephus put it, a golden bowl full scorpions.” At sunset the towers of the city and “the deep obscurities of the valleys had the colours of a Japanese print.”110 But red tracers streaked across the pale blue sky. Most civilians kept their heads down and had their cars stolen. The High Commissioner was an exception. After inspecting a guard of honour drawn from the Highland Light Infantry, Cunningham drove through the Damascus Gate and out of the city in an armour-plated Daimler with one-inch-thick glass loaned to him by King George VI, for whom it had been built during the Blitz. Even so Cunningham was stopped at both Jewish and Arab checkpoints. The majesty of his vehicle scarcely compensated for the ignominy of his exit.

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