It has been a long time since I posted about my father’s time in Palestine after WW2. Here is the link to the tab above where the latest letters are copied.
A lot has happened both for me and in the Middle East generally since I last posted. The spawning of an Islamic caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq has held the world’s attention more through its barbarism than through the idea of a modern caliphate. What is abundantly clear, at least to me, is this new arrangement has little to do with Islam and a lot to do with power and politics. It is Sunni against Shia, essentially, using Western hostages and an intolerant theocracy as a way of calling out supporters. It’s the age old ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ argument that admits of no neutrality. After all if you are devout how can you be neutral?
How often is that argument made? It is as simplistic and frankly stupid as the Blair/Bush ‘end justifies the means’ argument that they used when WMDs never appeared in Iraq but still they had toppled Saddam so that’s alright then, isn’t it? No. And again NO. Not in my name it isn’t. I’ve always believed that we in the West have more to offer the world, through our iffy democracy, our put upon rule of law, our (generally) unarmed police and, above all, our wobbly and at times hard to see tolerance of differences. We hold ourselves, I hope to a higher test than our forebears and we will increasingly raise the bar in what is and isn’t acceptable.
Back when Dad was in Palestine in 1946 the British were under pressure from all sides: Jews who wanted their promised homeland, Arabs who wanted independence, America wanted an end to Imperial power and colonialism in all its forms and any number of nations generally antipathetic to Britain were happy to see the British suffer. Most sides criticised the British behaviour but my sense is, by the standards of the time, we did a decent job of trying to plot a path. We were held to a higher test than was achievable then and rightly so because we must never accept we have it right and cannot improve; we need to keep looking at the bar and push it higher.
Perhaps that explains why I sometimes despair of the Israeli behaviour. It is not that I equate what they do in Gaza or by bombing the homes of Palestinians where there is a family member who may be involved in terrorism (dreadful though those actions are) with the behaviour of IS. Of course not. One is understandable (not justified, I don’t mean that) when you consider a mentality that for 70 years has been utterly certain, with reason, that its neighbours are either indifferent to its longevity or would actively want to push all Jews back into the Med. The other is disgusting barbarism dressed up to have a religious basis but is merely a expedient land grab.
But the Israel I hear about wants to be one of the Western community of nations that believes in the rule of law, democracy, basic and inalienable human rights and as such must be held to the highest test applicable today in its behaviour. Of course I expect, no I demand the same is done for and of Britain and we fail mightily and constantly. But we learn and we try and improve and I want that of and from Israel and by any reasonable standards it fails miserably. I want it too of and for the whole of the Middle East but sadly I think some elements have much farther to travel. And we in the West do not help progress, frankly, by our fawning and Quisling support for misogynistic, autocratic, bizarrely theocratic monarchies such as Saudi.
So what about your average dusty booted, isolated, stir crazy 19 year old with little real grasp of world politics stuck in a tent in 100 degrees of heat with sand flies for company and a girl friend who is 1000 miles away? This is what Dad wrote in May 1947, about the UN rejection to the Arabs plans for the future of Palestine.
‘They don’t want trouble, these much maligned Arabs, but that doesn’t mean they are unable to start it. If they ever do decide to fight for their rights it would be pretty rough going in Palestine for some time. Both the Jews and the British Government are just plain b….. fools if they do not realize that they are playing with fire when they double-cross the Arabs.’
They were broadly ignored on partition on 1948, when Israel fought to change the borders immediately after and at all times since when Israel has sought to redraw its borders. And so they fight back. Why wouldn’t they? Dad at 19 saw it clearly in 1947; why should we be surprised by Hamas now?
Dad never grasped why the British were called ‘Gestapo’ by the Jews when trying to hold onto a modicum of peace between both sides. In the absence of someone to blame, sitting in the middle, we can today see the outcome. Why, he asked himself did the very people he and his friends had fought so hard to free from Nazism (and some of whom had died in the process) hate him so much that they wanted to bomb him and shoot him? Freedom to rule yourself, that’s why. It’s the same mind set that fought the Battle of Britain and spurs on the oppressed today.
He was beginning to like the Middle East despite the determination of the Irgum Zwei Leumi to kill him and the local Arab population to despise him. At one point he had to round up everyone to be interrogated about a prison breakout at Acre Prison. He describes one incident thus:
‘We found one old chap wearing a green turban of the Mecca Pilgrimage and this a ‘Haj’ – an important man – who was, to say the least, scornful. He slowly rose to his feet, looked at us as though we were something unpleasant, snapped a few orders to his wives who promptly disappeared, and with a positively regal gesture, swept his robe about him and motioned to us to lead the way. We all admired him because although he was an old man he had the pride and demeanour of a king.’
By this time in his tour of duty, he was better at taking in the surroundings. He spends sometime describing Acre prison where he had a long and tedious guard duty after the breakout and, especially after some prisoners were recaptured and the ring leaders threatened with hanging (to which the terrorist groups threatened reprisals).
‘It is a castle, really – Acre Castle – and was first built or partly built by the Crusaders in the First Crusade. … I would say that was around 1150 – 1200. It was later modified and extended by the Turks under Ibrahim Pasha – at a guess I would put that at 1400 – 1500 – and that is what stands today. Modern amenities, electricity and so forth have been added and repairs have been made, but, for the greater part, the original castle remains complete with moat (dry) battlements and arrow slits. There is a story, I am told, that when old Ibrahim captured it he told the original inmates that they would have to rebuild the walls. Most of them foolishly objected and old Ibrahim, slightly annoyed by the lack of mucking-in spirit, had them all built into the walls – alive. This story is almost certainly true because during recent years when the walls have been undergoing repairs, the workmen have uncovered quite a number of bodies. Even after all these years they were not completely decomposed.’
He could understand why some didn’t enjoy sentry duty out on the walls.
‘It’s quite an eerie sensation being on guard at night. The sea, a few hundred yards away maintains its eternal roar and crash, the jackals nightly howl their praises to the moon from just outside the town, the sea breeze whispers strange tales of violence and death, and it is not very difficult to imagine the ghost of some long dead Crusader pacing the walls with you.’
He went on,
‘Nevertheless even in these days of scienticfic discovery and enlightenment, there is still an aura of romance, mystery and ancient wisdom which pervades the atmosphere in the lonely mountain and desert regions and in the old Arab towns – Lydda, Ramleh, Acre and Jaffa. … One day I will return, as a civvy of course, and rediscover the country…’
He did, eventually visit Egypt, though not Palestine and loved it. He would have been saddened to think of the destruction and death that still haunts this region.
In a later letter he talks about the press coverage of supposed vice, gangsterism and prostitution in English cities. He says,
‘I think their [I.e. the press] idea – a true one – is that sordid stories help to increase their paper’s circulation’….. No doubt there is a lot of crime and perversion in England now – it is the chaotic aftermath of war and is the same in most counties – but I can’t bring myself to believe that, in the words of one headline – thirsty scribe “the rate of prostitution other immorality in London is higher than it as in Chicago or New York in 1930-35.’
Now they were dens of iniquity!
By this time, entering July 1947, a lot was riding on the UN and its decisions on the future of the British Protectorate. Dad recognises that a lot of terrorist activity has died away, while the politicians tried to come up it a solution. he even took part in three parachute jumps, his first for 18 months and it is easy to hear the delight as he writes about them.
There was a bit of illness about. Dad had a recurrence of sand fly fever in May 1947 and bubonic plague broke out in Haifa in July though not somewhere close to Dad. The sand fly fever recurred on his return. Even in 1953 he was still suffering (compare these two photos below with the healthy looking picture above when he jumped).
And then Dad starts talking about coming home; to start it is always at least 4 to 6 weeks away with ‘schemes’ i.e. exercises in Transjordan being suggested in the interim, or dock guard duty in Haifa ‘if they get the plague under control’. Then, suddenly in August the letters stop and the envelope for the 4th August is ‘At Sea’. He’s safe and he’s going home!
Then right at the end, Dad describes the murder of two sergeants in Natanya. That happened all the time sadly; the difference here was that the bodies were strung up and booby trapped so when the troops came to cut them down one exploded.
Dad came back and waited out his tenure until demob (that will be the next set of letters). But he left a country in turmoil, a region in turmoil and little has happened since to stabilise it.
I profoundly hope for some peace, some stability for the peoples of the Levant; it is an ancient cradle of humanity and its inhabitants deserve the same futures as we have in Europe. But Britain, and to a lesser extent, the other western nations played with the pieces of the chess board back in the first half of the twentieth Century, with little thought for the consequences and we, as well as the rest of the world are reaping what our forefathers (and it certainly wasn’t our foremothers) sowed in the 1920s and 30s. Until there is peace there, we in Britain cannot completely escape some residual responsibility for what goes on. Dad understood that.