Tom Segev's New Mandate

By Yehoshua Porath

Tom Segev has earned himself a place of honor in Israeli society. A talented columnist for the prestigious daily Ha’aretz, every week Segev explores Israeli culture from the perspective of an outsider peering in, rendering judgment with a harsh irony and a pointed disregard for local sensibilities; fittingly enough, his column is called “Foreign Correspondent.” But Segev can boast of other accomplishments as well: A trained historian, he also writes popular books in which he applies the same “foreign correspondent” approach to rereading the history of the State of Israel and the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the yishuv) prior to statehood.
Segev’s historical writing is characterized by independence of mind and an eagerness to unearth the darkest truths about Israel’s past. He is convinced that past chroniclers of Zionist history did everything in their power—including lying—to whitewash the most sordid deeds committed by the Zionist leadership during the establishment of Israel and through the state’s first decade, thereby weaving the shroud of myths which every Israeli was brought up believing. In 1949: The First Israelis, a book he wrote in 1984, Segev retells the story of how Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the first few years of statehood, portraying the nation’s leaders not as the heroic, moral ideologues of the classic narrative, but as cynical, conniving, racist and at times even vicious men, who openly conducted policies that discriminated against immigrants from Islamic lands. Similarly, his 1991 bestseller, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, depicts the leaders of the yishuv, beginning with David Ben-Gurion, paying lip service to the rescue of Europe’s Jews during the Second World War while exploiting the catastrophe for their own state-building schemes.
His latest venture, the runaway bestseller Days of the Anemones: Palestine During the Mandatory Period (Keter, 1999; Hebrew), is a similar attempt at creative myth-smashing. Now, however, Segev turns his eye to the years when Palestine was under British rule following World War I (1918-1948). In this work we discover that the British came to rule Palestine without a clear idea of what they were looking for, and that, once they arrived, they encountered a well-organized Arab nationalist movement vigorously opposed to their rule. When, during the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, this opposition took a determined and violent form, the British came to the conclusion that they had no real interest in Palestine and ought to leave as quickly as possible, finally doing so in 1948. Meanwhile, the Jews—one can hardly help notice—are missing from the greater story-line, having had no real impact on the course of events.
All this, of course, flies in the face of the classic history of Zionism as taught in Israel and abroad for over half a century. According to the standard history, the British were a determined and dominant force, who endured the endless troubles they had in dealing with both Arabs and Jews in Palestine because they had clear interests of their own there. When finally they chose to withdraw from the country, it was only because the Jews had undertaken a string of devastating guerrilla operations—including the bombing of the King David Hotel and the disabling of Britain’s entire railway system in Palestine—which had rendered the option of staying on intolerable.
If Segev’s claims were based on compelling evidence, they would constitute an important challenge to long-held beliefs which have been adopted by the Israeli public and affirmed so many times by historians. This, however, is not the case. For as with his other books on the history of Israel, one comes away from Days of the Anemones with the impression that Segev knew, even before he approached the material, just what conclusions best suited his iconoclastic proclivities, and that his research was no more than a search for confirmation of these conclusions. In part, this effect is created by his slipshod research methods, which at times border on wanton dereliction of his duties as a historian.
“Anemones” was the name given by members of the Jewish community in Palestine to the British Sixth Airborne Division during 1946 and 1947, when the division was brought in to serve as shock troops in the Mandatory government’s struggle against the Jewish resistance. At this stage, it will be recalled, the Zionists no longer saw the British as a partner in the construction of a Jewish national home, but rather as an enemy, a target of actual military operations—so much so, that the Jewish “separatists” (as the underground Etzel and Lehi organizations were called by the leadership of the yishuv) referred to the Mandatory government as the “Nazo-British conqueror.” The term “Anemone,” for the red berets worn by the British paratroopers, was thus no term of endearment.
One might surmise from the title, then, that Days of the Anemones: Palestine During the Mandatory Period offers an account of Mandatory rule in Palestine and of the emergence of the Zionist movement as a force whose conflict with the regime ultimately brought the two into violent confrontation. Yet Days of the Anemones is something altogether different. Most of the book is devoted to a limited, colorful portrayal of British high society in Jerusalem during the Mandatory period—Englishmen, Arabs and Jews—and the musings, loves and tribulations of the men and women associated with this high society.
A relatively minor part of the book is devoted to describing the Mandatory regime and its generally close cooperation with the institutions of the Zionist movement prior to 1939—the year of the White Paper that heralded the adoption by the British of a policy overtly aimed at ending the growth of the yishuv. The Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 and the Zionist military operations after World War II changed everything, and from this point on Segev tries to describe a cultural milieu far broader than that of the elites in Mandatory Jerusalem. Yet even here, where he does attempt to cast a broader net, his book nonetheless remains strangely limited: He fails to deal at all with rural Arab society, which accounted for the majority of the Palestinian Arab population. Nor does he offer a satisfying account of the rapid development of the yishuv—which grew from a small community of 50,000 in 1918, the year of the British conquest, to an autonomous and well-developed national framework of 600,000 in 1947.
Segev’s main sources are diaries, letters, articles and books written by the local characters in this historical drama. Indeed, this is the book’s main contribution: With the help of diaries and letters written by Britons, Arabs and Jews, sources that have not previously been mined by historians, the author offers a vivid portrayal of the social and political reality as it was seen by the participants. In this way, Segev brings out the feelings of the Jewish immigrants, who encountered the difficulties of absorption and earning a livelihood in an impoverished land, and conveys their sense of hardship in being cut off from their families in Europe, as well as their hopes and disappointments. The reader also learns of the life of Jerusalem’s Arabs, who struggled to preserve the Arab character of their city and land and became enraged anew with every ship that brought Jewish immigrants to the country, as well as the inner thoughts of British government officials and military officers, who found themselves caught between the Jewish hammer and the Arab anvil. All these are accompanied by spirited descriptions and amusing anecdotes—bringing to life the Jerusalem socialites’ agitations over a friend’s decision to wear a dress not in accord with etiquette for an official reception, or of forbidden romances between married British officers and local women, or between the son of an Arab notable and a “young and muscular” boy.
But Segev is not content to paint a portrait of interwar social life in Jerusalem. His goals are more ambitious, as he seeks to impress the reader with a new reading of British policy in Palestine. He asks the bigger questions: Why did the British conquer Palestine? Why did they issue the 1917 Balfour Declaration committing Britain to the establishment of a Jewish national home? Why did they remain in Palestine even after it became clear that the Arab population would not take the British rule lying down? And why, in the end, did they decide to leave Palestine?
It should go without saying that an analysis of British policy—as opposed to everyday life under the Mandate—requires a very different set of sources from those of which Segev chose to avail himself. An honest historian would first have to examine the interests motivating those who shaped that policy, the decisions they made, their method of arriving at these decisions, the orders that were issued to the High Commissioner who ruled over Palestine, and the manner in which these orders were carried out. He would familiarize himself with the extensive work that has already been done on this subject and, even more importantly, gather his own first-hand impressions from the archives of the British Colonial Office, Foreign Office, War Office, Cabinet and so on.

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