Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine, 1917-1948
by Naomi Shepherd
New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 290 pp. $28.
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
The brief but memorable British interlude in the history of Palestine is normally told from the perspectives of the colonized or of high policy; Shepherd skillfully presents this oft-told tale from the more personal perspective of "the men who actually governed Palestine." The result is both refreshing and replete with new perspectives to explain the Zionist triumph in 1948-49. At the same time, the personal quality of her focus means she treads lightly over such controversial topics as immigration policy and Brits help to the Arabs in 1947-48.
The British interest in Palestine began on a slightly preposterous note, with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 calling for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" less out of a concern for a Jewish return to Zion than on the basis of a woefully inaccurate (indeed, anti-Semitic) belief that this promise would mobilize "international Jewish power" on the British side in World War I. The declaration also had a more fundamental flaw, assuming as it did that this national home could be achieved without offense to Arabs in Palestine. The inability to satisfy both Zionist and Arab wishes colored the whole British experience. Despite efforts to give the locals a direct hand in their governance, decisions had to be made by those officials (rendering Palestine more like a crown colony than a mandate). Worse, it led to an unparalleled failure. As one official observed, "In Palestine our difficulties are much greater than in other subject states." This tension culminated in an appropriately abysmal ending; Shepherd calls May 15, 1948, "probably the most shamefaced British withdrawal" from any of its possessions.
But not everything was so negative, as Ploughing Sand colorfully and cheerfully explains. Some of the British soldiers of World War I were so taken with Palestine that they tried to register as settlers there. The surrender of Jerusalem took so long on a chilly December day that the mayor died of pneumonia three weeks later. So few British officials troubled to learn Hebrew that when a cache of documents had been seized, they had to be sent back home to be translated. Nor was this linguistic incapacity entirely unintended, as British officials liked to believe that speaking English inculcates tolerance. The Palestine Mandate enjoyed a high-level of staffing, for it offered a glamorous posting; in the words of one official, "There is no promotion after Jerusalem."
Related Topics: History | Daniel Pipes | Fall 2000 MEQ
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