Three years that foretold the modern Jewish state

Oren Kessler's debut book charts the origins of the Arab revolt of 1936-39, the battles and the debates that shaped the contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict


Oren Kessler

Israel will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its founding this spring, marking the date in 1948 that David Ben-Gurion announced the creation of the State of Israel in the waning hours of the British Mandate. The following year and a half would see thousands killed as the nascent Jewish state fought for its existence. But while the war for independence officially began in May 1948, the die had been cast a decade earlier.

That’s the argument that journalist and analyst Oren Kessler makes in his new book, Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict, which chronicles the three-year period in which, Kessler says, ‘the ‘48 war was won by the Zionists and lost by the Arabs of Palestine.’

Palestine 1936, which is out today from Rowman & Littlefield, centers on the period between 1936-1939, around the historical events and figures that gave rise to — and in some cases, tried to stem — the Arab Revolt, in which some 500 Jews, more than 250 Britons and between 5,000-8,000 Arabs were killed as European Jewish immigration to then-Mandatory Palestine and Arab aspirations of statehood found each other in direct conflict.

The book covers an era often neglected by historians writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in part due to a lack of source material. Kessler studied recently unclassified documents detailing the secret hearings between successive British commissions and advocates for the creation of the Jewish state, as well as more publicly available documents.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: How did you decide to pick this specific three-year time period out of all of the time periods?

Oren Kessler: I had been looking for a topic to write a book about, and I decided what the world needs is another book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! But fairly quickly, I realized that this is a very saturated field, and it seemed as if every aspect of this land and this conflict had been written about from 15 different angles. Until I lit upon this particular topic and time period and chapter in the history of this land and this conflict, which struck me as extremely formative and important and seriously under-explored and under-investigated. It seemed to me, and it’s still my belief, that there is a major gap in the literature and one that can shed a lot of light onto our current situation. And one that’s filled with a lot of really fascinating, compelling characters on all three sides: Jewish, Arab and British, some of whom are very well known to us — [such as] Winston Churchill, David Ben-Gurion, and Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti [of Jerusalem] — [and] others who are not so well-known, but I think ought to be. And that’s the gap that I sought to fill.

JI: Something that struck me early on was that this topic had not been written about until several decades ago. What was the research process like?

OK: I do want to give credit to historians and writers who came before me. It’s not that nobody had written about this, but that this time period of this revolt and everything that surrounded it has typically been given a few pages in wider histories of the conflict, or at most a chapter. And certainly until I wrote this book, I can confidently claim that no general history has been devoted to this topic in English. As you mentioned, the first academic work devoted to this in English came about in the ‘80s, and in recent years, there have been a couple more. But in English there has been no general history, although in Hebrew there have been a couple.

Some of the most key documents on this period were only declassified a few years ago. So there was a wide archival record since the ‘70s, but some of the most sensitive, important documentation was classified much longer. For example, the secret testimonies from the Peel Commission of 1937. This was a royal commission sent by the British to respond after the first six months of the revolt. And this is the commission that famously first proposed partitioning the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean into two states, Jewish and Arab. This is the first time that partition was floated by world powers in any serious way. This is the first time the words ‘Jewish state’ appeared on the diplomatic agenda. So the secret testimonies from this very important commission were classified for 80 years, from 1937 to 2017. And they were declassified very quietly, there was no announcement. I am indebted to Dr. Steven Wagner for discovering these testimonies and for generously providing them to me. The people giving these testimonies, whether British officials or prominent Zionists, [their testimony is] extremely illuminating in terms of how the British and the Jews looked at this brewing national conflict between the Zionist movement and the Palestinian Arab national movement, and how they reached this fairly revolutionary proposal of dividing the land and of creating a Jewish state. This was not necessarily the plan. This was quite a drastic change. And seeing these private testimonies was really fascinating.

JI: It’s really illuminating. As you said, it was British testimony and Zionist testimony. There’s an entire voice missing.

OK: The Arab side initially boycotted the commission, because the grand mufti of Jerusalem told them to. He insisted that they were going to boycott the commission entirely. And so at the very last minute, at which the commission was about to leave the country, the grand mufti realized that they were sabotaging their own case, that the British were hearing all of the Jewish arguments and explanations and receiving all of the reports from the Jews. [The mufti realized] that the British side was hearing only the Jewish side of things and the mufti belatedly agreed that he and other Arabs — as long as he approved them — would testify. So in the last week of the commission, the Arabs did testify in a public setting. But the Arab side insisted that all of their testimony be public, that anything they had to say could be said publicly. So in that way, the secret testimonies only include the Brits and the Jews.

JI: One thing that came through quite clearly in the book is that there is no side taken. You gave equal voice to the Arabs, to the Brits, to the Jews, and it didn’t feel like you were advocating for one side over the other.

OK: I​​ didn’t want to write a polemical book. I didn’t want it to feel like advocacy for one point of view or another. I wanted to do an old-school work of history. I did want to write it as engagingly as possible and to have sort of a journalistic feel to it almost, and I wanted it to be a book about people. But in a sense, I wanted to let all sides kind of say their piece and to say it in the best way that they could, and then let the reader draw the conclusions that he or she will. I think that’s the work of a historian or even of a journalist, if they’re doing their job properly. I wanted to present a story that was as faithful as it could be to the documentary record as I found it. Inevitably, when you’re writing history, you have to pick and choose what you quote and what you don’t and what you mention and what you don’t. But as long as I felt I was being faithful to what I thought was a reasonable, fair version of the archival record writ large, I felt like I was doing my job.

JI: Like you said, this book is very much about people. Can you talk a little bit about some of the more interesting characters? Obviously, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion played a role, but there are a lot of lesser-known historical figures who were very interesting and that most people don’t know a lot about.

OK: I tried to tell these stories, through a handful of people, of characters on each side. The Jewish characters that I’ve chosen will be pretty well-known to many of your readers, probably. There’s David Ben-Gurion, who even at this time was the uncontested leader of the Jews of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael. Chaim Weizmann is just a fascinating character. This is a man who was, of course, the head of the World Zionist Organization. This is a man who many Israelis remember as the first president of the country, but really that was the epilogue to his career. This man, as I write in the book, was the face and muscle of Zionism for three decades, from the Balfour Declaration to the founding of the state, and a very charming man. He managed to charm almost every British person that he met and converted many of them to the Zionist cause, many of them despite themselves. 

And then on the Arab side, you can’t write the story without focusing on the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini. I think it’s safe to say that his role in this period as in the entire Mandate and beyond is a negative one. It’s one that cost the Palestinians dearly, then and now. And I also chose a few lesser-known people on the Arab side — people like Musa Alami, who was a Cambridge man and who worked in the mandate administration for many years, and who was a committed Arab nationalist but also had many Jewish friends. He met often with David Ben-Gurion and they enjoyed a lot of mutual respect. And [he] even kept in touch with Ben-Gurion, even into the ‘70s until Ben-Gurion died. And the meetings that he had with Ben-Gurion are fascinating in terms of just understanding where both sides were at the time and the arguments that they were raising. He’s just a really complex character. I also focus quite a bit on George Antonius, who was an intellectual and who wrote a book called The Arab Awakening in 1938, which introduced the world to this concept of Arab nationalism, which wasn’t really known at the time. And he was another Cambridge man and a marginal or liminal figure in the sense that he wasn’t entirely at home in the Arab world and he wasn’t entirely home in the British world or the Western world, but was kind of in between, which I found very interesting. 

And on the British side, there’s a cast of reliably eccentric and engaging British characters, from Winston Churchill to Orde Wingate, who is a fascinating and strange Christian Zionist, but also an Arabist who spoke very good Arabic. He was one of very few members of the British administration here who made any attempt to learn Hebrew. And he put together the Special Night Squads, which was the seed of Zionist special forces and included men like Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, who became the future leaders of the IDF, the future officer corps. This is a period and a chapter that’s just full of compelling characters, and I wanted to bring that out.

JI: There’s a lot that I learned from the book. I didn’t realize how much of what we see today in Israel has carried over from 80 years ago, 90 years ago, such as the British way of dealing with punishment, specifically collective punishment. It’s something that’s really interesting to see, especially now, especially with the rise in tensions and violence.

OK: At first the British had to absorb quite a bit of criticism that they were quite lax in cracking down on the revolt. There were actually two phases of the revolt — the second began  after the Peel Commission, with the assassination of a British governor of Galilee named Lewis Andrews. When the revolt started up again, the British came in with very heavy-handed techniques, particularly after the Munich crisis was averted in Europe and Britain suddenly felt that they were able to send large numbers of troops to Palestine. So throughout 1938, the peak of the revolt, we see a lot of counter-insurgency, counter-terror methods that we will be very familiar with today, such as house demolitions. This is really the first time that home demolitions are practiced on any significant scale in this country — the British demolished 2,000 homes throughout the revolt. There was also administrative detention, namely detaining suspects without charge. These are methods that were legal by British standards because the British had implemented various emergency regulations that allowed them to do these things. And as you mentioned, collective punishment was also widely practiced. For example, if a bomb was laid on a highway, the British would go to the village closest to that location. They would bring out the muktar, the village chief, and they would ask him who was responsible for it, and if he couldn’t tell them, then they would start using what were known as, ‘Turkish methods.’ So that could involve interrogation, that could involve physical interrogation, that could involve demolishing homes in the village indiscriminately. There are a few well-known cases of atrocities being committed, in which the British essentially killed Arab civilians without any direct knowledge of them having been involved in attacks. There are a couple of fairly egregious incidents, particularly in two villages called Halhul and Bassa. A lot of these emergency regulations still remain on the books today in Israel. Israel, of course, inherited many British Mandate laws, much of the legal system, and many of the more heavy-handed measures that the IDF sometimes takes actually are rooted in both the practices of the British Army at this time and even the legal basis for them.

JI: I want to go back to the source material for a second, because it wasn’t just the testimonials that are included. What was it like to go through all of that material? It must have been so fascinating and overwhelming.

OK: There were certainly fascinating moments and discoveries and there were a lot of eureka moments of saying, ‘I cannot believe this person said that.’ And that goes for Jews, Arabs and Brits. The Brits are always quotable and they never disappoint with a quotable nugget, oftentimes one that’s offensive towards Jews, Arabs or both. But nonetheless highly quotable.

JI: I’m remembering how they described the Arabs and the Jews.

OK: I think probably a lot of Israelis will be curious to know, ‘What did the Brits think of the Jews? What do they think of the Arabs?’ It’s interesting to get an outsider’s perspective. My sense was that on the whole, the British in this country tended to admire the Jews, but like the Arabs. There was a lot of admiration for the massive strides that the Jews had made, and even critics of Zionism would often concede that the strides that the Jews were able to make in the ‘20s and ‘30s were just astonishing, just in terms of settlement and economics. This country was transformed in those decades, from a real backwater into a corner of the developed world very quickly. And so there was a lot of admiration for that, and yet, the Brits tended to find the Jews to be in a little too much of a hurry. They tended to find the Jews to be not always very well-mannered. They tended to find the Jews demanding and entitled. Of course, I’m generalizing here, but I encountered these sentiments time and again. And the Arabs, unfortunately, there was certainly oftentimes an attitude of paternalism and a feeling that the Arabs are kind of helpless, and that they need British help and that they’re no match for the Jews, financially or even in terms of their education and that they need to be protected from what is a very fast-moving, dynamic, ambitious and motivated Zionist project. The Brits liked the fact that in their words, the Arabs ‘take their time with things’ and that they’re deferential, whereas the Jews were not particularly deferential, and had their own ideas and opinions about everything. I do think that for members of the British colonial service, they weren’t used to a ‘colonial population’ or a subject population that was in their view European. They didn’t quite know what to make of them. They were used to…the British Empire on one side, and the natives on the other side. And a large number of the British administration and the British Army and even police who were deployed here had experience in India, for example. And it was very clear in India that there were the British and there were the Indians. And here, they were encountering members of the Jewish leadership who may have had Ph.D.s, or they may have been German speakers, or they may have been scientists. Oftentimes even members of the Jewish proletariat here were very well-educated, and the British weren’t quite sure what to do with that or what to make of that.

JI: It was so interesting how the people you feature in the book are constantly warning, in the 1930s, that the lives of 6 million Jews — the number of Jews who would go on to die in the Holocaust — were at risk.

OK: It is chilling. There’s testimony from Chaim Weizmann to the Peel Commission in which he’s almost banging the table saying, ‘Six million Jews need a home.’ This figure just kept reappearing of 6 million — it’s really quite eerie to read. People like Weizmann felt in their bones that the cataclysm was about to come. And [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky, we haven’t mentioned Jabotinsky, but probably more than anyone, he could feel that the apocalypse was about to come and that the Jews needed immediate sanctuary. So in a sense it is chilling to read all of these very accurate predictions from what are the final years before the Holocaust, and then it is quite sad to read the bureaucratic wrangling on the British side, about how many Jews they can let in, and it’s a very small number. They had their own reasons for it, of course. They talk quite openly about ‘appeasing’ Arab and Muslim opinion in the world, because they simply felt they couldn’t afford to have the Muslims of the empire against them, particularly in India. And this is something we rarely think about, the fact that the British were determined to ‘appease’ the Muslims of India, and therefore the Jews of Europe couldn’t come to the Land of Israel. It’s kind of a mind-boggling thing, but from a perspective of Jewish history it’s one of the most consequential decisions ever made. And it was very interesting to read the memoirs of Malcolm MacDonald, who was colonial secretary at the time, who basically made this decision, and to see how he grappled with the fact that his decision doomed hundreds of thousands of people to the gas chambers.

JI: Where does this period in time stand in relation to the other ‘big’ moments in Israel’s history?

OK: When we look at this period, which seems so long ago, and we look at today, the ripple effects and the repercussions and the legacy of this revolt I think are very striking. In many ways, both visible and invisible, the revolt rages on, both for Israelis and Palestinians. For Palestinians, the heroes of the revolt still very much live on in their pantheon. People like Izz ad-Din al-Qassam,  the militant preacher whose death at British hands sparked the revolt — Hamas’ armed wing and rockets still carry his name. There are Palestinian folk songs that still celebrate this revolt. There are Palestinian schools named after militants from this revolt. Even in the last Gaza war in 2021, when there was a daylong strike across the West Bank — and many Arabs within Israel participated — social media was all abuzz with comparisons to 1936 and the six-month strike in 1936. And interestingly, even on the Jewish side, Bezalel Smotrich, our incoming finance minister, during that same war and the violence in the mixed cities in Israel, put up a tweet saying something like, ‘These riots take us back to the days of the Arab revolt. Back then it was a lax British government not letting the Jews take matters into their own hands and now, a weak Jewish government is operating with its hands tied.’ (Of course, he was in the opposition at that time.) 

The focus of the book is the Arab Revolt, but I think this is as much a Jewish story as an Arab story. This is a period in which the Jews were transformed militarily, economically, politically and psychologically. This is the moment at which the mainstream Zionist leadership recognized that despite their best efforts to convince the Arabs of Palestine that they weren’t coming to displace anyone — that they were bringing blessings upon everyone, that there was room here for two peoples — they realized that the Arab opposition was such that the fate of this country would have to be determined and maintained by force. I think that was a realization that they were fairly perturbed to discover, but quickly had to make peace with as it were, had to recognize that that was the reality and that they had to adjust accordingly. And by 1939, when the British implement their infamous white paper, which essentially shut the doors to the Land of Israel to the doomed Jews of Europe, once that point was reached, the Jews had created the military, economic, political, territorial basis and springboard for establishing the state nearly 10 years later.

And on the Palestinian Arab side, it’s the mirror image of that. Whereas the Jews had seized this opportunity to make tremendous gains in their own state-building enterprise, the Palestinians were completely gutted. The social fabric was completely torn, one in five men had been detained. Probably 5,000, maybe even 8,000, Arabs had been killed — many of them, most of them even, at Arab hands (and this is also a precursor to the infighting in the [two] intifadas). Massive amounts of weapons had been confiscated by the British, huge numbers of Palestinian refugees had fled the country to neighboring countries. The political leadership had fled — above all, the mufti. So this is a society that’s almost destroyed on the eve of the Second World War. Of course, the typical historical narrative, certainly the Palestinian narrative, is that everything fell apart and the huge defeat came in 1948. But what I argue in this book is that, in a way, the ‘48 war was won by the Zionists and lost by the Arabs of Palestine a decade beforehand, and that ‘48 was, in that sense, an epilogue to the war that had been decided 10 years earlier. 

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