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Jewish-American journalist Norman Cousins once said, “History is a vast early warning system.” This week we speak with Oren Kessler, the author of “Palestine 1936,” who would likely agree. But as we see in Kessler’s new book, history can also be a collection of missed opportunities.
“David Ben-Gurion, starting in about 1933-34, had a series of meetings with a man by the name Musa Alami and he and Ben-Gurion met again and again throughout the early mid-1930s and they come tantalizingly close to some sort of an agreement before everything goes wrong, as tends to happen,” Kessler said this week in Jerusalem’s Nomi Studios.
Kessler’s new book is about the Arab Revolt that took place in 1936-1939. Watching the seemingly endless tide of Jewish population, Arabs began a series of murderous attacks on the Jewish popular, which quickly snowballed into a full-fledged intifada.
In “Palestine 1936,” Kessler argues, quite convincingly, that those years in British Mandate Palestine form the roots of the Middle East conflict. The book attempts to illuminate all three sides of the complex relationship between the British, Jews and Arabs as they attempted to occupy the Holy Land during these formative years.
Kessler is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv. He spent five years researching and writing “Palestine 1936” and it’s clearly a labor he loved.
There are many lessons that have yet to be learned as we see this bloody history repeating itself in Israel, even today. So this week, we ask author Oren Kessler, what mattered then and why does that matter now?
The following podcast interview has been very lightly edited.
The Times of Israel: Oren, thank you so much for joining me today in Jerusalem’s Nomi Studios.
Oren Kessler: Thank you so much for having me.
This week we’re going to do something a little different. And instead of talking about current events, we’re going to go into our time machine and go back to 1936 to 1939. So this week I ask you, Oren, what mattered then? And why should it still matter today?
I would say Jewish leadership, Arab leadership, Arab violence and Jewish violence. One state, two state. That would be my express answer to that question.
Very stenographic. And so we’re here, of course, to talk about your new book, “Palestine, 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict.” And I have a confession to make. I really knew nothing about this at all except for perhaps the launch of the Tel Aviv port, which in terms of the Israeli narrative is super important. But I have to say that the most salient point that I took from this book, and forgive my ignorance, is that there has been a Palestinian national identity for a really, really long time. Would you agree to that?
Different scholars have different views on that, certainly. One of my central arguments in the book is that this period that I’m writing about, this three-year period, was extremely formative in creating that Palestinian Arab identity. Which is not to suggest there was nothing before, but that this was really the crucible in which virtually all strands of Arab society in Palestine united, at least ostensibly united, behind the leadership of a man we will talk about — Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti — but united in a common purpose against a common foe, namely the Zionist movement and its imperial facilitators, the British Empire.
So when I was reading the book, I had the sense that I already knew all the players on the chessboard. But we rolled back the game to a starting point that I wasn’t aware of. And so we already hear about David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weitzmann, the mufti, as you mentioned, and a slew of other characters on the Palestinian side that I wasn’t aware of, sadly — and very amazing, crazy characters such as Orde Wingate, crazy story, I hope we talk about him. But you’re resetting the board in such a way that it really felt like we see a parallel starting point. Was that your intention here?
My intention was really to fill a gap in the literature. I think it’s safe to say this is the world’s most written-about conflict. The bookshelf of all things Israeli-Arab is creaking under its own weight. And yet, for some reason, this particular revolt and everything that emanated from it, this chapter in the conflict and in the history of Zionism and of this land hasn’t remotely gotten its due in English. It’s typically treated over a few pages in broader histories of the conflict, or at most a chapter. But there’s been no general-interest history of this — again, the revolt and all of its repercussions — in English. And that was really the gap that I set out to fill, because I believe, and I argue in the book, that as formative as it is for the Arabs of this land, it’s equally formative, arguably even more so, for the Jews, for the Zionists, for the conflict as we know it today — and even attempts to resolve the conflict — that so many facets of the conflict took shape in this period. So that’s really what I set out to do.
And you can just sense as you’re reading the book — and it was so dense and packed with information and characters that I digested really slowly. I’ve been reading this book for months, as you know, and really enjoying it as much as you can enjoy a very tragic, bloody history, and just really learning and letting it soak into me as I was reading it. But at the same time, you can just see the same scenario playing out again and again and again, including, I would argue, the missed opportunities for Jewish and Arab dialogue. You mentioned at least two incidences in which David Ben-Gurion was in dialogue and it just felt… ach, if only. Tell us about these instances.
I really wanted to tell this story through people. That may sound like a bit of a cliche, but I really wanted this to be a book that illuminates great historical events, but through individuals, through human beings. And I chose several characters on each side, and those are three sides. This is a triangle, right? The Jews, the Arabs and the Brits. We tend to forget that third side.
One of my main Jewish characters will be known to your listeners. It’s David Ben-Gurion, who even at this time was essentially the undisputed leader of the Jews of Mandate Palestine, Eretz Yisrael, the Yishuv, as we say in Hebrew, the pre-state community. And Ben-Gurion had, starting in about 1933-34, had a series of meetings with a man who I chose as one of my main Arab characters by the name of Musa Alami, who is in many ways sort of mostly forgotten to history. But I had the distinct sense that he shouldn’t be, that he’s a really fascinating, complex, compelling in many ways, but not always sympathetic character. And he and Ben-Gurion meet again and again throughout the early to mid-1930s, and they come tantalizingly close to some sort of agreement, before everything goes wrong, as tends to happen in this particular conflict.
So it’s one of the things in the book that really raises this tremendous “what if.” What if they had succeeded? What if it were Musa Alami who was the leader of Palestine’s Arabs, and not Haj Amin al-Husseini or some of the other more hardline leaders? I thought it was really fascinating uncovering these meetings and as you really there’s a certain thread of tragedy running through it, because of these missed opportunities.
Another theme that we’re well aware of today in terms of modern history is, of course, the infighting within the Palestinian people. And whereas at the beginning, the revolt in 1936 was very grassroots, and then the leaders, of course, jumped on it and started manipulating everyone for their own agendas, as usual. It just appeared that the unity between the Palestinian different peoples, including Bedouin tribes, everyone seemed to be on board in the beginning. It just dissolved so quickly. And, of course, we see that until today.
There are real parallels to the First Intifada, and perhaps even more so, the Second Intifada, in which it was very much a grassroots uprising that then the Palestinian leadership moved to assert its control over. And that’s exactly what happened in 1936. This revolt began with acts of violence, of terrorism. But very quickly, the Arab and Muslim leadership, embodied in the man of the mufti, Haj Amin, rushed to assert his political control over it, and to make these political demands to stop Jewish immigration completely, to ban land sales.
And that was really the mufti’s finest hour. That’s really the period in which, again, at least ostensibly, virtually all of Arab Palestine stood behind him. That’s Muslim and Christian, that’s rich and poor, urban and rural. But as the revolt wore on, particularly after the Peel Commission, which we can talk about if we have time, in the sort of second phase of the revolt, that initial unity really dissolves or rather explodes in just a convulsion of Arab infighting and score-settling. And old scores between families were being settled under the cover of this supposedly nationalist uprising. And so that’s really one of the tragic templates that this revolt sets, and which we see again in the First and Second Intifadas.
There are actually three points, weren’t there? It was: no land sales, no immigration. And what was the third?
I didn’t want to get into the weeds, but you’re a very close reader. The third condition was to set up a legislative assembly that would accurately reflect the demographics of the land of Palestine, which were still probably 70, if not 75% Arab. And so the British had hesitated until that point to set up such an assembly, because, of course, if the majority were given the vote on whether Zionism was to continue, they would obviously vote no. So there were several points at which the British considered doing something like that, the Zionists brought their pressure to bear, and the British withdrew from that proposal every time. So, again, I don’t want to get too much in the weeds, but the mufti was demanding popular representation.
But actually, it’s the demography that arguably drove the Arabs’ anxiety and angst, because in these years, the Jewish population what? Doubled?
That’s right, the Jewish population doubled in the first half of the 1930s. It’s really incredible. And one thing I tried to do in the book was really bounce between the Palestine situation and the Middle Eastern situation and the European situation, because they’re inextricable, they’re inextricable for the British, but even more so for the Jews. And really, the backdrop to this revolt really can’t be understood without looking at Jewish immigration, because this is, of course, the period in which Hitler comes to power in January 1933. There are other antisemitic movements on the rise in Europe, in Romania and Poland and Hungary, and Jewish immigration to this land is really turbocharged. And as mentioned, it doubles in just four years. And in 1935, just before this revolt breaks out, it reaches 60,000 in a single year, which was double the year before. So the Arabs are very much perceptive enough, not just the well-educated elites in the cities but even farmers in the countryside, are perceptive enough to realize that if things continue this way, the Jews will be a majority before long.
There were a couple statements from Chaim Weizmann which, of course, resonate to modern ears, post-Holocaust ears, that you read it and you’re just like, “Was he a prophet?” He talks about the six million Jews in Europe. When you first came across those statements — and tell us the context of his statements, first of all — but how did you feel reading this six million figure?
It is chilling and he repeats it several times in several different circumstances. But, essentially, after the first six months of the revolt, the British agree to send a commission of inquiry to Palestine, the Peel Commission, the famous Peel Commission, which is a royal commission that’s acting in the name of the king. And they call dozens of witnesses, British administrators, leading Zionists. The mufti insists on a boycott until the 11th hour because the British haven’t met his demands, but ultimately he relents and he testifies. And the star witness is Chaim Weizmann.
We mentioned David Ben-Gurion earlier as the leader here in Palestine and in the Land of Israel. But the face and the muscle of Zionism in the world at this time, really throughout the Mandate, was Chaim Weizmann. And this is another man who really has unfortunately been sidelined in Israeli history. He’s remembered as the first president of the country. But that was really just an epilogue to his career. From the Balfour Declaration till 1947-48, he was the face of Zionism, and he’s a really fascinating character, a supremely charming and persuasive character by all accounts, who converted probably thousands of Brits to the Zionist cause, or at least to a greater sympathy with the Zionist cause, solely through the strength of his personal charm. He was extremely well-connected in London.
So Weizmann is the first witness in this commission and he essentially pounds on the table and says: “Six million Jews need a home. Six million.” And then I believe he repeats that figure later on, the Brits call a conference in 1939, and he repeats that figure. “Six million, six million.” And of course, it is extremely chilling given what we know. And I don’t think, necessarily, that he was prophetic enough to know exactly what lay in store, but there was a deep sense of foreboding that this was a critical time for the Jews of Europe and that they needed to leave.
I want to now talk about the craziest character of all, in my mind at least. It’s Orde Wingate, and he was a nudist, apparently? And also really born into a very, very dour Christian household?
He was a nudist, a Zionist and an Arabist. I think he’s got to be the only person who ticks all three of those boxes.
I think you’re probably right that he is the only person ever, and perhaps ever will be. So tell us a little bit about his background and how he really changed the face of Israeli military might, in my opinion.
And in mine. He’s a completely fascinating and arguably completely crazy character, but a genius in many ways, by almost all accounts. Orde Wingate was born in England to a very devout family of Protestant dissenters. I guess you could call them evangelicals these days, but they’re called the Plymouth Brethren. And the house was extremely dour, as you state. They would wear black on the Sabbath. They weren’t allowed to sing. It just sounds like an incredibly joyless home.
But the young Orde and his siblings took it all very seriously, and Wingate joined the British Army and was an extremely effective soldier, but he remained an extremely committed Christian, and he was posted here to the Holy Land in 1936, and he set about making himself known to the Zionists. He was really sort of courting the Zionists at first.
At first, the Zionists didn’t know what to make of him. He was an officer. He was well-educated, he was well-spoken. He was clearly well-read. And at first they thought maybe this is some sort of espionage situation. But he eventually proved to them, convinced them, that he was really dedicated to their cause. And this was extremely rare among the British officialdom, whether political or military here in the country. I don’t want to overstate the case, but the average British administrator here — and I get into this in the book — probably had more sympathy for the Arab side, even while many of them had a certain admiration for what the Jews were able to accomplish. But it was the exception to the rule to find an administrator who was genuinely neutral between Jews and Arabs, let alone pro-Zionist.
And Orde Wingate, in addition to being such a fiery and committed Zionist, was a military genius. And he was the first to really include Jewish fighters, Jewish soldiers in the British security apparatus in any really serious way. I should say that this is one of the main takeaways of the book for the Jewish side, is that this is really the period in which the Haganah, or the main Jewish armed group, goes from being a network of glorified night watchmen and transforms into the seed of a Jewish army. And Orde Wingate had a large role in that.
He created something called the Special Night Squads, which were mixed British-Jewish units that operated at night and took the fight to these Arab armed bands. And they were extremely successful. And these units included men like Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, who really formed the core of the future IDF leadership.
He was very overtly Zionist. He previously had been stationed in Sudan, I believe, and had taught himself or learned Arabic. And then when he got here to the Land of Israel, he taught himself Hebrew. How did that go down with his superiors?
It was extremely rare for British political or military officialdom here to learn Hebrew. And I actually found in the British Library copies of Orde Wingate’s Hebrew homework and I wanted to include an image of it in the book, but we didn’t have room. But it’s quite something. He’s really extremely dedicated to learning Hebrew. He even tries to give speeches, pep talks, to his troops in Hebrew with mixed success.
But, again, he’s an extremely eccentric character. He had a habit of welcoming guests in the nude, as you mentioned. He had a habit of eating onions like apples. He was an extremely unconventional person, but the British Army simply couldn’t argue with his success up until a certain point. There was a certain point in the middle or towards the end of this revolt that Wingate Zionism became a problem for his superiors, and he was unceremoniously shipped out of the country. But until that point, they simply couldn’t argue with his success in taking the fight to these Arab armed groups and stopping the sabotage of the oil pipeline from Iraq, which was a huge problem for the British at this point.
So, yeah, he’s definitely probably the most eccentric character in this cast of quite a few eccentric characters.
Now, there are very few women that you include in the book because during that era, and maybe we should say until today, most of the world was run by men. But one of the characters that you did include just sounded like a really eccentric woman as well. And it’s the wife of—
Well, the wife of George Antonius, Katy Antonius, was quite the character. I found their personal correspondence. George Antonius was kind of the leading ideologue and intellectual behind the Arab nationalist movement in the world at this time. He had a book called “The Arab Awakening” in English that came out in 1938, which really sort of clued in the world that there was such a thing as Arab nationalism not just here in the Holy Land, but that Arabs had national aspirations and that oftentimes, in Antonius’s telling, he presented this idea of sort of pan-Arabism that was kind of unknown at the time. And he was a very brilliant man. He was a Cambridge man, as was Musa Alami. And his wife Katy was quite, what’s the word?
Independent, fiery. She had very strong opinions about a lot of things, including about Jews, but we need not get into that. Later on, after the period that’s the core of my book, she actually had a long-running affair with General Barker, the head of British forces here in Palestine. But I digress.
So they have a very troubled relationship and occasionally I would feel pangs of guilt for reading these love-hate letters between them, but I did want to just show the human side behind some of these intellectual types who played such a central role in this period.
I tried to make a special effort to include women in this story, despite the fact that it was an even more chauvinistic time than the current one. And one really fascinating character who I tried to follow is a woman named Blanche Dugdale, who is the niece of Arthur Balfour, the famous Arthur Balfour, who, of course, delivered the Balfour Declaration. And Blanche Dugdale, much like Orde Wingate, was a devout Christian and was extremely well-connected in British circles. She was probably the only one of very, very few Gentiles who were really trusted by the Zionist leadership. But also she was extremely well-connected in the halls of power in London. And so her diaries were extremely valuable for me in doing this research.
Now I want to turn to an exclusive Times of Israel essay that we’re going to publish this week as well, about Herbert Samuel and essentially how he kind of basically enabled the biggest foe to the Zionist enterprise to rise to power. So tell us more.
So one of the most illuminating things that I found in this research was the secret testimonies delivered to the Peel Commission that I mentioned earlier, this 1936-37 commission that the British sent out to this land. And so they took dozens of testimonies in public and released them along with the report.
But there were also dozens of testimonies that were given in secret and which were never meant to be released, and they were meant to have been destroyed at the end of this commission. And the secretary of this commission, a man apparently of tremendous foresight, stowed away a couple of copies of these secret testimonies and wrote a handwritten message in the initial pages in which he writes that these should be stowed away because they represent “an important chapter in the history of Palestine and the Jewish people, and will no doubt be of considerable interest to historians of the remote future.”
So it’s thanks to this secretary of this commission that we historians of the remote future have these secret testimonies. And one of the people who they call to testify in private once they’re back in England is Herbert Samuel, who by this point is back in political life in Britain.
But Herbert Samuel, speaking of forgotten, extremely important, compelling characters in the history of this conflict, Herbert Samuel was the first Jew to serve in the British cabinet. Herbert Samuel was the author of a cabinet memo from early 1915 — so this is nearly three years before the Balfour Declaration — this memo was called The Future of Palestine, and this is the first time that the Zionist cause, the Zionist idea, is placed in front of the British cabinet again, nearly three years before the Balfour Declaration. And then he becomes the first High Commissioner for Palestine. And this is a Jew and a Zionist. This is a man who’s had an accomplished career in British politics. He actually goes on to be the leader of the Liberal Party, which was the main opposition party at a certain point before the rise of Labour.
So in this testimony, in the secret testimony, the first question that they ask is, why did you appoint Haj Amin as the mufti? This is the question we all, even to this day, more than 100 years later, would like to know. And he basically says, of course, I’m sure your listeners probably already know this, but the mufti, in addition to essentially leading this Arab revolt that’s the core of my book, the mufti notoriously goes on to ally with Hitler during the Second World War and probably would have been tried as a war criminal had certain historical events panned out slightly differently. But he spent the war at Hitler’s side in Berlin.
And so Samuel was asked, why did he appoint Haj Amin as mufti back in 1921, just after he arrived in the country? And he strikes a somewhat defensive note. Basically, the British had decided that they would try to keep as much of the Ottoman apparatus as possible. They were charged with implementing this rather unpopular Balfour Declaration. Things were extremely sensitive, and so for anything that had to do with Islam, they generally tried to keep it as it was. But there was an issue. There was a problem in that the link with Constantinople, with Istanbul, had been severed. And now you’ve got this Christian power running the land. And worse than that, this is a Christian power from an Arab perspective, this is a Christian power that’s declared before the world that it intends to create a Jewish national home in this land.
The Ottoman precedent was that basically, the Islamic local leaders would have a vote for who was to be the mufti. And then the authorities in Istanbul would decide from the top three who would get to be the mufti of Jerusalem. And for Samuel, as kind of the successor of the Ottoman authorities, that was the setup. So namely, the local leaders would vote for the mufti, and then Samuel, as the new boss in town, would choose between those three.
So they hold this vote. And unfortunately for Haj Amin, he comes in fourth, so he’s not even in the running. And then Samuel intervened in order to get one or more of these contenders to drop out so that Haj Amin could be within top three and that he could choose him for this post. I should mention that the whole reason that this problem arose was that Haj Amin’s half-brother Kamal had just died suddenly. And as much as the mufti Haj Amin has a notorious reputation to this day, his predecessor, his half-brother, had extremely good ties with the British and even with the Jews. And his brother got sick and died. And Samuel, having just arrived in the country, was faced with a succession crisis. He had to appoint someone. And so he basically says, “Well you know, these other guys who were in the top three, they had no qualifications to speak of, whereas Haj Amin, he had studied in Cairo at Al-Azhar, and he was a Haj, he had been on the hajj, to Mecca, and he was supported by everyone. So that’s why I appointed him.”
And there’s a really defensive tone behind everything that he says. But of course, it’s simply not true. It’s simply not true that he was the only qualified member of these three finalists. And later on in the testimony, Herbert Samuel basically says: “I did not want to alienate the Husseinis and their friends throughout the country, especially in places like Gaza and Acre.” That is the real reason the present mufti was appointed. So at first he tries to say, “Well, he was the most qualified and this and that.” The truth is that the mufti, Haj Amin, had very limited religious training. He was only about 25-26 years old. His opponents in the race for mufti were much older and much more experienced. And then later on in the testimony, Herbert Samuel just kind of speaks a little more honestly and says: “Look, the Husseinis are powerful. We needed to appease them. And they were lined up behind this guy, and that’s why we appointed him.”
Oren, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you very much.
Check out last week’s What Matters Now episode:
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