Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948
by A. J. Sherman
New York: Thames & Hudson, 1997. 264 pp. $27.50.
Reviewed by Michael J. Cohen
Bar-Ilan University; Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton
Middle East Quarterly
Sherman has written not just another text book on the Palestine Mandate but a uniquely graphical, at times tongue-in-cheek, quote-rich, and illustrated insight into the British colonial officials' (and their wives') mindset. Sherman observes that the British enjoyed "unconscious and unexamined assumptions" of their own natural right to rule. They alone "knew what would be suitable and beneficial for their imperial wards." They also dwelt on their own social pecking order. "Placement at dinners, mention in Honours Lists and invitations to Government House . . . were minutely scrutinized; the game of relative advantage was played in offices, clubs, dining rooms and on occasion , bedrooms." Disorders that plagued the country appeared at times to officials' wives as an intrusion on their pastoral colonial existence. For the wife of the young District officer in Galilee, the 1936 General Strike "represented another illustration of Oriental irrationality, a minor interruption in an otherwise placid life."
Officials found Zionists a "bad and tiresome tribe" and clearly sympathized with the Arabs, even when in outright rebellion, for they fitted well into the British stereotype of the docile, amenable, not to mention subservient "native." There was, however, also a nasty, racist element in the British colonial Weltanschauung. One policeman wrote home about road accidents that "most accidents out here are caused by police as running over an Arab is the same as a dog in England except that we do not report it."
By the end of the Mandate, Sherman shows, "both sense of mission and psychological ascendancy had largely evaporated." Following the U.N. decision to end the British Mandate, Chief Secretary Gurney wrote plaintively, "we are staying now merely to get out, and by staying on making getting out more difficult."
The book should be read for its fascinating and invaluable insights even if the author's apparent lack of familiarity with the political history of the Palestine Mandate leads to some mistakes. Two of them: He wrongly states that all Arabs "rejected any notion of carving up Palestine" in 1937 (the powerful Nashashibi faction did just that); and he totally misrepresents Zionist politics in saying that the Biltmore program of May 1942 opposed Chaim Weizmann's pro-British policy (Weizmann himself had urged such a change in January 1942).
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy, History, Israel & Zionism | Michael J. Cohen | September 1998 MEQ
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