A Senseless Squalid War: Voices From Palestine 1890s - 1948 by Norman Rose

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A Senseless Squalid War: Voices From Palestine 1890s - 1948 by Norman Rose

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: Voices from Palestine 1890s-1948. A clear history of the troubles in the Promised Land from Herzl's development of Zionism to partition and civil war.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 978-1845950798

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The reappearance of A Senseless, Squalid War in paperback will afford wider access to the balanced and detailed scholarship of Prof Norman Stone. This is a sad story of the Palestinian Mandate retold through the viewpoints of politicians and proponents; Arab, Jewish, British, French, German and American. It energetically conveys an understanding of the character of figures as disparate as David Ben Gurion, Richard Crossman, Haj Amin and David Lloyd George. Organisations, conferences and sticking points are deftly expounded. It does not lose sight the overarching motives and machinations of International Politics.

In 1915, Herbert Samuel, later Viscount Samuel, the first member of the British cabinet to retain his membership of the Jewish community, put forward a memorandum which proposed the possibility of a British mandate over Palestine. This became the famous Balfour Declaration. The response from the Prime Minister, Asquith - who like him had been at Balliol - was that Samuel's suggestions were dithyrambic. A classicist's way of saying they were Dionysian, even drunken ramblings.

Asquith, himself known to his opponents as squiffy, went on to say, in his memoirs, that the carving-up of the Turk's dominions would lead to the scattered Jews of the diaspora swarming back to claim Home Rule. He proceeded to disparaging remarks about his younger rival Lloyd George, whose motives Asquith put down to jealous rivalry for control of Palestine by the atheistic, agnostic French. Scarcely two years later when World War broke out, Palestine was occupied and the Ottoman Empire dismembered in the defence of the British oil supplies and the passage to India. The French got Syria. Lawrence helped prepare the Arabs to attack the Hejaz railway supplying the German's Turkish allies.

Norman Rose's lucid and masterly history chronicles the rise of Zionism, the Palestinian Arab response and the bloody consequences which were soon to follow. This was indeed destined to become a senseless and squalid struggle; Britain's last act of imperial aggrandisement, despite the fact that the mandate was approved in 1922 by the League of Nations.

Control was not consistent. Indeed, much depended upon the character of individual High Commissioners of the Mandated territories. Prof Rose in a few concise paragraphs sheds light upon appointments such as that of General Sir Arthur Wauchope, whom Ramsey Macdonald somewhat fecklessly, assured Ben Gurion is 'a good man, a fellow Scot' and indeed has a passion for music which guarantees that he entertains more Jewish guests. However, this was at a time when Palestinian Arabs feel threatened by the huge influx of Russian and European Jews. Sadly, when the Nazi persecutions multiply after Kristallnacht, the British policy had reversed and as war approached, later governors, some of whom were brutish, authoritarian and overtly anti-semitic, limited Jewish settlement at the very time when a safe haven was not just necessary but crucial.

Pace is maintained and attention engaged by the description of eccentrics like Orde Wingate whose fanatical zeal for Zionism inspired him to develop techniques of guerrilla warfare that would become adopted by the strike forces of the Palmach. After the war, as the levels of desperation rise, such military prowess would later be devastatingly employed in the insurgency against the British.

The narrative leaves the reader with a series of clear, memorable and often bitter images. There is the sadness of the conditions on the ships where Jews from every part of Europe sought refuge and were faced with further persecution again just after the Holocaust. Escaping ill-nourished families crowded beneath decks whilst a lone singer sang and rocked to a heart rending Hebrew song. Their immediate fate was to be transferred to a grim old small, dark and dank freighter, the Akbel II. Eventually they were arrested as illegals by the Navy.

Another impression retained is that of patient wisdom epitomised by Chaim Weizmann who was destined to become the first President of Eritz Israel. Unforgettable too are the often impatient figures on both sides who advocated violence. Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, for instance, having encouraged riots went on to seek support for his version of the pan-Arabist cause from fascist Italy and finally settled for a while in Hitler's Germany. The text is loaded with enduring facts about the numbers of divisions deployed by the British by 1938 in Palestine. This was severely to restrict support to the French in the event of Nazi attack. Then too there was the dubiously illustrious gloire of the last cavalry charge led by the future General Sir John Winthrop Hackett into the Beisan valley, ancient home to the Mizrahi Jews. Later and most indelible was the counter insurgency of hardliner General Barker which became known as Black Sabbath which was quickly followed in the bloody response left in the smoking ruins of the King David Hotel.

This graphic narrative has three essential features of quality historical writing. Firstly, subtitled Voices from Palestine (1890-1948), it draws upon striking remarks, letters and diaries by major proponents and eyewitnesses. Secondly, it constitutes a pacey but clear exposition of the principal features of Zionism, Pan-Arabism with central concepts like partition elucidated. Indeed, it includes a useful glossary and ample notes for further research. Finally, it illustrates the woefully sad ironies of human folly. Not fully thinking through the consequences of an action in pursuit of an objective defeated both able administrators and astute politicians. The local population suffered. Sadly such mistakes have since been repeated over and again in the Middle East since 1948.

Many thanks to Random House, Pimlico for sending this volume.

Further reading suggestions:

The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust by Heather Pringle and Palestinian Walks: Notes from a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh

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