Struggles of British Mandate for Palestine exposed in new book

Official portrait of Lord Leslie Turnberg
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Why did UK stay in the game despite challenges, and how did Zionists manage?

That there exists a serious need for a good, nuanced, concise yet detailed history of the three-decade long British Mandate period with a full grasp of the major events that underlie the happenings of today is undeniable.

It is not that students and the younger generation seem, unfortunately, not to read more than a few scrolled-down screens anymore but as there is so much material, expanding the narrative would probably defeat the purpose for an abbreviated yet pithy volume. And yet, the need is there.

The purpose for such a book would be to contain a digest of that time to show, now over a century on, how the core issues of today’s events in this sliver of the east Mediterranean landscape are not new, are rooted in the then trends and that one cannot act on today’s situations without knowing how we got to where we are now. History cannot be ignored. We need to know what mistakes to avoid or, alternatively, why certain political, diplomatic or military moves are nigh impossible given the previous experience.

Leslie Turnberg, since 2000 Baron Turnberg of Cheadle in the County of Cheshire, has published his second volume delving into the early history of the British Mandate for Palestine, seeking to provide that need. The questions he sets out to provide an answer for are why did the British Government continue to fulfill its responsibilities as charged by the League of Nations when they were suffering severe economic and social problems at home, and the threat of war with Germany, and how did the Zionist movement overcome a government tired of the demands placed on it and the growing Arab violent opposition.

Turnberg, not a trained historian, joins a growing list of people, academics and others, focusing, quite properly, on the early period of Mandatory Palestine. He does well in having us review the decisions, the machinations, the personalities and the ideologies that led to Britain becoming the Mandatory power. It is a good book yet, there are faults and errors in his retelling.

An advertisement for a trip for Jews from Mandatory Palestine to Lebanon, Syria and Transjordan, seen in English and Hebrew. (credit: EPHEMERA COLLECTION/NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)

The first is structural. I found, too often, his chapters overlapped and thus the timeline becomes confusing for the reader who is less than familiar with the story. One is led ahead only having to back-peddle. Characters are introduced not always in tandem with events. Turnberg does well with the British side of the Palestine Triangle but loses control and clarity of details regarding the other two sides; that of the Jews and the Arabs. For example, Chapter 12, oddly and, for me, infuriatingly, pits the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, in contrast to Ze’ev Jabotinsky as if such a paralleling is a fair comparison.

Were these two truly “forged from the same material?” Did Jabotinsky wish the Arabs brought “to heel with aggressive action?” Did Husseini, “by 1939,” lead an “armed revolt against the pro-Allies regime in Baghdad” or did the Golden Square coup break out in early 1941? Was Husseini, “like Jabotinsky,” a “man of profound paradoxes and contradictions?”

He also makes errors that were easily avoidable. Did the Irgun “clash” with David Ben-Gurion’s Hagana or was it pursued by the Palmah during the Saison period? Did Jabotinsky “live in New York” in 1940 or was he on a visit as were Chaim Weizmann and Ben-Gurion that year to gain support for Zionism’s aims during the war?

On fundamental issues Turnberg manages to stumble. One conceivably could begin the prehistory of Britain’s commitment to a Mandate over Palestine to further a Jewish national home in 1915 with the McMahon correspondence, even if inexact, but three sentences on British Christian Zionism since the 17th century, a powerful force on Balfour and Lloyd-George, could have been included. And to suggest “it started with the Balfour Declaration in 1917” (page 1) is not helpful in understanding the full extent of British involvement with Palestine.

On page 199, Turnberg claims, regarding British responsibility to rescue Jews and the 1939 White Paper’s most negative effect, that “there was little that could have made a big difference.” This is quite in error and I can only suppose a British Lord would carelessly suggest such an unsupported falsehood. Moreover, his use of “Palestinian Arabs” (page 203) is a historical anachronism which thwarts the purpose of presenting history as it was. Similarly, he writes ambiguously of “the strong East Jerusalem Palestinian presence” in Hebrew University (page 88).

I could not find Turner dealing with the rights of the Jews to a national home in the territory of Palestine that led the League of Nations to recognize “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” On the other hand, his line, on page 96, that “if ever there was a land without a people for a people without a land, it was the desert of Trans-Jordan,” is an outstanding turn of a borrowed phrase.

As for sources, I did not identify any not in English. He includes Jerold Auerbach’s book Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, but not that author’s history, Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel. Shmuel Katz’s Days of Fire or his monumental biography of Jabotinsky are missing. The sole book from Jabotinsky himself is The Five which has little to do with Zionism’s history or the author’s involvement with Zionism. A “for further reading” bibliography should have been included.

Turnberg does provide a useful insight into the workings of the Mandate, the British role in failing to follow through with the original aims and purposes regarding the Jewish national home project and the weakness as well as the hostility that swayed the administration officials. Indeed, it is correct to point out the support the administration provided internal Yishuv economic development. His book, despite the errors, is a worthy read. 

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