We are back in Palestine as the summer heat builds to a crescendo. I’ve posted some more letters and the poem I copied last time. However here we also have Dad’s explanation for writing it.
Since starting on these posts I have been reading ‘The Palestine Triangle: the struggle for the Holy Land, 1935 – 1948′ by Nicholas Bethel. Bethel tries to unpick this period of the British Mandate focusing in on the events around the Second World War. It makes for a fascinating and depressing history. As I write this post a 72 hour cease fire called between Hamas and the Israeli forces has collapsed again into recriminations and the inevitable deaths. So many have lost their lives. Neither side cares a fig, apparently, for world opinion and continues to push and provoke the other. And a conflict that arose from a fundamentally irreconcilable situation with a seemingly intractable history continues along what appears to be its almost predestined course to disaster.
In my last post I was critical of the British expediency around the time of the First World War in promising to both Jew and Arab a future that is, to our eyes now (and to some at the time) utterly unachievable. Does Britain have an excuse? It was in the middle of a war where millions died. Is it any wonder they made promises to achieve the short term ends of stopping the conflict? What would any other nation have done, then or now?
It is far too easy to oversimplify the history, but there are so many questions, so many moments when things might have been different. It has been axiomatic for many Jews throughout the last 2000 years since the Romans drove them out of the Holy Land, that this place is their home. They were wrongly dispossessed; they never gave up their claim. Equally the then current occupant as we entered the 20th Century, the Palestinian Arabs had been there for centuries, under the auspices for several hundred years of the Ottoman Empire. Jerusalem is home to the most sacred site in Judaism and the third most sacred (after Mecca and Medina) in Islam. This is the birth place of Christianity. Is it any wonder then that people believe in their right to be there? Is there anywhere else in the world that would be such a magnet?
Despite all of this, as Britain settled into its mandate responsibilities it had reasonable hopes it could allow the Jews, under Chaim Weizmann, to carve out a homeland while allowing the majority Arab population to have the independence they craved.
What Bethel brings out is how such a difficult situation was made infinitely worse because of the politics of the late 30s and 40s.
Consider this. As the 30s progressed and Hitler’s Germany began to proscribe its Jewish citizens, eventually taking citizenship away, the number of refugees began to grow and the clamour for more and more immigration to their promised homeland increased. It increased well beyond the numbers contemplated by the Arab governments in the region, the Arab families that maintained power in Palestine, the Mufti of Jerusalem, in exile in the Lebanon and indeed the Western powers running the League of Nations (under whose auspices Britain ran Palestine). While Hitler expanded, into the Rhineland, then Austria then Czechoslovakia, the pressure to allow more and more Jews to find a new safe home became huge.
Of course Palestine (or Eretz Israel as they called it) was only one such possible destination. Not every refugee wanted to be a hewer of wood or a carrier of water and carve a living out of a desert. Some would have gone to France, or Britain or, indeed the US where there was a large and vocal Jewish lobby. Had they been allowed. But they were not welcome there, especially after the problems caused by the Great Depression – governments were not keen on yet more people wanting jobs and thus disaffecting locals (sound familiar, doesn’t it?).
The moral high ground at this point was with the Jews – to find somewhere for those being persecuted was critical. And rather than take these poor souls on to their own shores the various governments preferred to push them at Palestine and leave it to the British and the League of Nations’ Mandate committee to resolve. And the Palestinian Arabs would just have to be understanding.
There were several attempts, several conferences. The Jewish side pressed for an increase in immigration, citing the obvious distress of their fellow Jews; the Palestinians feared becoming a minority and wanted the British out (so they could govern themselves), if the British would not control the numbers of Jews coming in.
And the British? They feared a strong Germany and the increasing likelihood of another war. They felt the need to find a way to neuter the Mufti, responding as he was to the German overtures. In the mid 1930s there was a significant amount of Arab violence and resistance which the British crushed ruthlessly. At that point the pro Jewish parts of the British establishment held sway and indications of more immigration were given to the Jewish Agency.
But an alternative policy view was looming. Partly to drive a wedge with the Mufti, agitating from exile, the British began to court the moderate Arab families in Palestine who, they felt needed to be reassured about their future. After all Palestine was strategically important to the British; the main oil pipeline from Iraq, the main source of oil to Britain ended in Haifa. If there was war and if the Arab nations sided with Germany, the strategic loss of oil, as well as control over the Suez canal that gave the swiftest access to India would have been huge.
So the pro Jewish sentiment that was apparent in 1935 gradually dissipated, despite the increasing problems stemming from German policy. The favourable indications given to the Jewish leaders about immigration were gradually eroded and there was an increased diplomatic effort put in to keeping the Arab nations happy. Bethel quotes Malcolm MacDonald, Colonial Secretary in the vital period and so in charge of the Mandate, as saying: ‘If war came, we knew the Jews would be on our side anyway. They had no alternative. But the Arabs were doubtful.’
Indeed that was true. Of course the Jews would want to defeat Germany but that didn’t mean they would ever trust the British again. War came and the Jewish leaders espoused support for their one ally, fighting the horrors of first forced expulsion and then the Holocaust. The problem was, Britain wanted to defeat Germany and in its eyes that came above everything including, at times, basic humanitarian behaviour. This is best exemplified by the tragedy of the Struma. This was a refugee boat full of Romanian Jews that made it to Turkey, was turned back and sank with all but two dead from a total of 750 odd persons. Britain, who clearly didn’t want to inflame Arab opinion at a time when the war in the desert was reaching a critical phase, hmm’ed and haa’ed about letting the boat sail to Palestine. In the eyes of the Jews, it was British duplicity that caused the loss. Of course the Nazi machine was behind it but it hurts more and the anger is more bitter when you are so badly let down by those you think of as your friends.
The war period is an odd one when viewed from Palestine. Of course everyone wanted the German war machine rolled back, but as soon as it was, the two opposing faction, neither of whom trusted the British wanted to be ready to both defend themselves and, now, take the fight to the British. The Haganah had been formed as essentially a Jewish defensive force and, in part, was armed during the War by the British. But by 1945 they were seen more as fomenting terrorism. Behind their quasi official position sat the Irgun Zwei Leumi, who were equally unwilling to fight the British during the war but had no qualms trying to fight the Arabs. And at the back, but with the most bitter ideology came the Stern Gang or the Lehi (‘fighters for the freedom of Israel’). To them while Germany might be the enemy, the British were the arch enemy as they were the ones preventing the Homeland from taking off. And as such it was against them that their violence was directed. They looked at groups such as the IRA and how it had fought for its beliefs even while Britain was at war with a common enemy. It too could do the same with the British.
On May 8th 1945 the war in Europe ended. Britain was worn out. It needed to sort out the Japanese and then lick its wounds and rebuild its Empire. The last thing it needed was a Mandate in the Middle East with a ton of historic and unresolved bitterness to sort out.
So we arrive at the mess that was 1946 and my Dad, in camp 21, on regular patrols and guard duty. What did he think about the situation from the views of a buck private stuck between two groups who hated him with a passion? He hated both sides and didn’t hide it. In early letters he talks of a big push with 2000 detained and major arms and ammunition captured. He sends Mum a headline from a Palestine newspaper, citing Jewish MPs calling for support of the Haganah. He doesn’t hide his disgust which spills over into anti Semitic sentiments (‘Silvermann – good solid English name’). He expresses the hope that the Government will take a tough line though there is an element of wishful thinking in what he writes.
He also refers to trips to the beach to relax and you get the distinct impression of the boredom between bursts of activity. Mostly he dreams of cold beer and thatched country pubs where he can talk about the weather. Home comfort never seemed so sweet.
What caused this surge of effort? In late June the Irgun carried out an audacious raid on the Officers’ club in Tel Aviv and kidnapped six men. This was the culmination of increased violence by the Jewish groups and it seems to have brought to an end a period of Government indecision, in part prompted by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Montgomery who had been to Palestine in June. So on June 29th a major operation took place involving 100,000 troops and 10,000 police. My Dad was one of them. According to official sources 2659 men and 59 women were detained. In the background, Prime Minister Atlee was in regular contact with Harry Truman, US President. And in Parliament, on July 1st Atlee had to answer to a strong pro-Zionist group (including Sidney Silvermann). He assured Parliament that the efforts, aimed to link the Jewish Official authority – the Jewish Agency – with both the illegal action of the Haganah and the Irgun, would be successful. But in truth it changed little, save to imbed both sides in their opinions of each other. And it did nothing to assuage American anxiety at the prospects of more Jews killed.
And how could the British win this battle with terrorism anyway? Only by arresting the leaders, or perceived leaders, and thousands of potential supports and holding them in interment camps. It began to look all too much like the concentration camps of Europe. As Dad later reports, the British were being accused of using Gestapo tactics, something that offended him mightily.
Of course in any such fight with informal and illegal groups at work there are tensions and disagreements with what needs to be done. The Irgun and the Lehi wanted more violence; the moderate Jews, under Weizmann began to see they needed to act or the more violent elements would hold sway.
And so we come to, possibly, the defining moment in the post war Mandate: the bombing of the Secretariat at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on 22rd July 1946 by the Irgun under Menachem Begin, who later became Israeli PM. The exact series of events is unclear; in some accounts the Haganah, who had influence over the Irgun tried to postpose the bombing. They also claimed that it was never intended to take place during office hours when the building would be full. But take place it did. And kill it did.
And the death total, 100 people, while small against the total losses down the years had a big impact. Did the Irgun give the 30 minutes warning claimed and did the British just ignore it? Or was it given either not at all or far too late? It depends who you want to believe, of course, but it undoubtedly changed the tone. Things, inevitably would became more violent and some end to the Mandate became inevitable.
And Dad? Well one amusing aside is he recommends a novel to Mum – The Power House by Alex Comfort. This wartime novel is not Dr Comfort’s most famous work. In 1972 he achieved international acclaim and the gratitude of a lot of school boys (and probably girls) with his ‘Joy of Sex’.
More seriously he explains his bitter poem, triggered by the murder in their beds of six airmen. Then there’s his vivid description of Kfar Vitkin, an idyll for battle training. And then at the end of that letter, 24th July he refers to the bombing: ‘Heard about the blowing up by terrorists of GHQ, Jerusalem, yet? Hope we take active part in the reprisals that surely will come (unless the Government is still blind!)’
Dad’s letter of 10th August references a ship landing in Haifa, one of many ships from Europe carrying refugees, and in the eyes of the British, unsanctioned immigrants. He tells us he might be involved in trying to stop the landing, a dangerous and unhappy task in many ways and one which undoubtedly wound up the Jews hugely.
Most interesting is the impact that American opinion is having on the British policy by this time. Dad refers to this; he echoes a fairly consistent opinion, namely why should America cause trouble when it avoided having anything to do with the Mandate by withdrawing from the League of Nations before it was even set up? And Bethel also cites Churchill as pressing for greater US involvement in the Mandate after the end of the war. In his Churchill’s view the British would be better off handing Palestine over to someone else to deal with. Dad was of a similar mind. But by this time, of course, Churchill was out of power.
That view, while perhaps understandable from Dad’s position ignores real politic. Britain had strategic interests in the Middle East and feared increasing US influence (with their antipathy to Empire) as much as they did increased Soviet interest. While there were many who wanted (and had for years) to be rid of its role in Palestine, the stronger voices were to stay and see it through. The only problem it wasn’t clear (and never had been – and indeed still isn’t) what the end game might involve.
And so the summer sun beat down, minds turned to home, to alleviating the boredom with badge polishing and trips to the beach. Dad is more concerned with Mum’s leave; her brothers; his lack of shopping to buy gifts for home; and the chance that he might be separated from his friends Bert and Johnny, than he is about the background politics. A lull before the storm perhaps?
This is a very interesting read for this point in time.
I’m pleased you are finding it interesting, Rachel. It does help me to understand the context behind today’s awful headlines and wonder at how things turned out. History is littered with these examples of unintended consequences and I fear we continue, in the West, with our interference (however well intentioned it may sometimes be) in other countries affairs. Libya Syria and the Arab spring as possibly the most recent examples.
A really compelling 3am kebab shop read, Geoff. Led me to ponder: should the world powers entertain the idea of resolving such important issues, intoxicated over a portion of chips and curry sauce? If not, should you consider expanding this blog to hard copy, distributed to kebab shop counters worldwide? (Fast) food for thought.
Brilliant idea. I could commission chip cones with the blog on the outside and sell it as cod philosophy.
Thank you for a balanced and reasoned account of the situation in Palestine and Israel. The whole thing is a mess. It was refreshing to hear a balanced account. I just wish the killing would stop.
I look forward to reading your Dad’s account of the situation I just wish it wasn’t so topical and the situation had been resolved already.
I’m gratified you think my account is balanced. It is easy to both be horrified and sympathise. I wish someone on both sides would see the pointlessness of continual fighting. I try and take heart from remembering how intractable the situation in Northern Ireland seemed before the Good Friday Agreement. It is darkest just before the dawn they say. Let us hope so.
My five year old asked the other day why the ‘bad armies’ were fighting and if they’d come here. I told him it was like when he doesn’t want to share (he has slight sharing issues due to being 5.) and said it was like that but with land. How can you explain so much death to a five year old?
I remember the self same problem around 9/11 with my daughter. No easy way to bring them into the real world, is there?
This morning I was reading an article, “Israel, Gaza, War & Data.” The interesting, and intersecting, point from that read is how polarized modern data is. Of course, polarization based on personal beliefs is nothing new. However, the writer drives home the point that we are so technologically advanced with our overwhelming amount of data that our very social platforms we sign up for track our interests and thus feed us similar news. So what we are seeing as individuals is not a variety of opposing viewpoints, but rather a mass of those aligned with our entrenched beliefs. It’s rather chilling to think about as we become more polarized without really understanding the core of the issue that rises from its history. Therefore, I think your historical view is vital to understanding. Your father’s insights are typical of a soldier tossed about in the thick of violent action with intermittent periods of boredom, yet you frame his letters with the history and politics of the time. This lends a clearer picture. That said, the picture is a depressing mess, like cats gone wild in the yarn basket. How do you ever unravel the knotted twine and make something good of it? I truly hope these explorations are the foundation of a work from you–not only a memoir would be worthy, but I believe in the power of literature to bypass those polarized feeds of modern people to see a different story from the only one they can fathom. Somewhere within such fictional accounts can we find our humanity.
When I first read dad’s letters my initial reaction beyond delight at finding something more about him was a sheen of embarrassment for his overt prejudice in his language which sat badly with the man I knew. Yids and Wogs. It made me shudder but it also made me want to understand. Which sent me off exploring that knotted twine. What is so soul emptying is this could have been avoided. I cannot shake the belief, from what I have read, that it was a disaster to promise a homeland for the Jews in a place so steeped in an alien culture. Once that promise was made by a nation that (a) tends to try and honour its obligations and (b) came to be able to so honour them though it mandate that theoretical catastrophe became a reality But even so had there not been a Nazi triggered atrocity there would have been a partition in the 30s to which both sides would probably have gone with. The Jews weren’t then armed so couldn’t have bullied the Arabs who in any event outnumbered them significantly still. That’s not to say the dynamics wouldn’t have changed but the starting point being so different may have led to a very different and more peaceful outcome. No Western power comes out of this period with anything other than egg on their face but when you look at what each did and why and especially what the domestic political scene was, it is easy to see why the decisions went the way they did, all of which helped trigger both the backdrop and political mind set that fuels today’s catastrophe. I’d like to write something based on these letters though I have yet to work out what.
Such a complex topic but easier to see in the rear-view mirror. I fear we continue to be shortsighted in solutions that have devolved into daily violence. I’m glad you stuck with your father’s original words rather than whitewashing them. Good to dig in and try to understand why he felt as he did. Soldiers on the ground see a different scenario than do the politicians in their offices. How timely to be in possession of this content and have the growing knowledge and understanding to frame your father’s experience in Palestine. Keep digging in, keep exploring. Follow where it leads.
Thanks, I will