One of the flaws in the concept of “History” is that important events trigger other important events, but that’s circular; it’s how we define “important.” Something is historically significant because a historian pointed at it and says, “See? Here is where that sequence of events got rolling.” That’s a conceit. Causality is real, in that events cascade in sequence and if one of them didn’t happen, subsequent events wouldn’t happen either, but human attempts to frame it are mostly an exercise in self-importance. In case you’re not up on it, that’s Michel Foucault’s main point: our interpretation of causes is always seen through a lens formed by existing power relationships.
If we were to look at the events surrounding the Balfour Declaration, and the partition of Palestine through a “conventional” history, we’d probably get “the view from British post-imperialism” but if we looked from “the view from the collapsing Ottoman Empire” we’d get something completely different – different in important and revealing ways. A shorter form of Foucault’s argument is that history is written by the winners. I respectfully disagree. It is as often written by the survivors, especially in times when mere survival is “winning.”
There are many history books that I love, because they tease out this weirdness of our desire to interpret events in our frameworks, notably O Jerusalem! by Collins and LaPierre, and Ray Huang’s 1587, a Year of No Significance. [wc] Huang’s chosen year, of course, is far from insignificant: he identifies some bureaucrats and some events that arguably were pivotal to the collapse of the Ming Dynasty. It’s fascinating but, to me, the most important lesson from Huang was that perhaps western imperialists cannot have a fair view of Chinese history to begin with. [Charles Mann’s 1493 also explores historical knock-on effects brilliantly, though from the western, survivors’ viewpoint [wc]]
I usually give up on trying to form anything beyond an impression of a time, because if I look at history, I find I’m staring into a sand-storm of lies. I remember when I came to understand that; it was when my dad gently pointed out that Julius Caesar was probably a pretty awesome guy, but he probably tilted his history of Julius Caesar a bit toward the side of “Julius Caesar is amazing!” and not “Julius Caesar was scary!” This is relevant when modern-day political claims are made based on ancient histories that are certainly lies. For example, if you look at a map of the region at the time when the Jews allegedly fled Egypt to the promised land, the “promised land” was … also part of Egypt. So, they fled from Egypt to Egypt and took a really long time going about it. If we read the pentateuch as history, we wind up with errors like that, because it’s not history. If it’s not history, one cannot make a historical claim based on its contents. This all has dire political consequences in 2021, referencing arguable events from 70CE. Of course it’s selective historiography, too – nobody seems to want to consider the Roman Empire’s righteous claim, by force of arms, over Jerusalem; the Romans can just stuff it, none of them are around to stick up for themselves.
All of that meandering is because I see (as Collins and LaPierre appear to) important events as stemming, loosely, from trivia – you know, some British bureaucrat was feeling poorly and dashed off a treaty a bit fast so he could lie down and take a nap. Is it fair to point to that as an important moment? It’s no more or less fair than any other moment, I suppose.
[From O Jerusalem! p84+]
Slumped in an armchair by the fire, the pensive figure listened to the majestic strains of a Back organ fugue filling his sitting room. Sixty miles from Amman, in his luxurious residence looking down upon the city at the heart of Abdullah’s ambitions, Britain’s High Commissioner in Palestine enjoyed a nightly ritual. Regularly, before dinner, Sir Alan Cunningham locked himself into his sitting room to savor the music of Bach, Vivaldi, or Beethoven and contemplate, in their consoling strains, the problems weighing on him.
Sir Alan was a glum and bitter man during those evening sessions in December 1947, and he had much to contemplate. His administration in Palestine had been a terrible frustration for the Scots general. From the day he had left London to take up his assignment until the past week, he had not been given a policy to follow. Indeed, dismayed by the lack of clear-cut direction he had received in his conversations at the Foreign and Colonial Offices, Cunningham had bluntly asked Prime Minister Clement Attlee on the eve of his departure what policy directives he was to follow in Palestine.
“Oh,” answered Attlee with a shrug, “just go out and govern the country.” Then, sensing Cunningham’s shock, he got up and, walking him to the door, threw his arm around the Scot’s shoulders. “You know, General,” he said, “I’m sorry to give you a politician’s answer to your question, but it’s the only answer I can give.”
Ernest Bevin, Britain’s Foreign Minister, had been “completely surrounded by Arabists and got all his reports from the same group of pro-Arab hands,” Cunningham felt. His undersecretary, Harold Beely, he considered, “a very dangerous man.”
Now at last he had received a policy, the policy which he was to carry out in the closing stages of the British mandate in Palestine, and, above all, toward the United Nations partition decision. He was “to keep the situation as calm as possible consistent with a minimal involvement physically.” He was “to have nothing to do with Partition in any way, shape, or form.”
Those instructions reflected the fact, as Beely would later recall, that Britain had accepted the partition of Palestine “with an absolute minimum of enthusiasm.: From now on, Britain would align her interests in the Middle East as closely as possible with the Arabs. The new Jewish state she would “just forget about for a while, as assuredly it was not going to be very friendly to Britain in the years to come.”
In fact, the only aspect of partition which the Foreign Office supported was the internationalization of Jerusalem. The reason was simple. With the United States labeled as pro-Jewish and Russia as anti-God, any big power role in the internationalized city was bound to fall to Britain.
To give teeth to that policy, the British delegation in the U.N. had been instructed to make itself the forthright advocate of the Arab viewpoint. And, on the eve of the Arab League’s Cairo meeting, Britain had announced that she would forcibly maintain her restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine until she left.
To Sir Alan those instructions were a cruel disappointment. Unlike Bevin and Beely, Cunningham favored partition as the only way out of the dilemma into which their tergiversations had led Palestine. An introspective man with the stern Calvinistic sense of duty of his Scots forebears, he felt strongly Britain’s obligation to close out her rule in Palestine in the most orderly manner possible and leave behind her some hope of peace. Yet, the policy for which he had waited so long now enjoined him to studiously ignore the only plan he thought offered the Holy Land any hope of peace.
Peace, he knew, would be precious in the Holy Land in the months to come. In the first two weeks since the partition vote, ninety-three Arabs eighty-four Jews and seven Englishmen had been killed in the ancient territory over which he presided. Their deaths, Sir Alan feared, were only a harbinger of a ghastly harvest to come. Locked into the desk drawer of his office adjacent to his sitting room was a three-page British Army order stamped “MOST SECRET” and dated December 6. As much as the policy instructions he had just received from London, the phrases set down in that order preoccupied the dour Scot. The order laid out the principles which would govern the withdrawal of the only effective instrument Cunningham had with which to maintain order in the coming months, the British Army. It contained one deliberate omission. It made no mention of the British Army being responsible henceforth for law and order in Palestine.
Harassed, humiliated, shot at and insulted for the past two years, that army was fed up with maintaining law and order in Palestine. With an end to the mandate now set, its commander, one of Cunningham’s fellow Scots, Sir Gordon McMillan, was determined not to risk the lives of any more of his soldiers in Palestine except in the pursuit of British interests.
Only one phrase in that document had brought to the High Commissioner an amused half-smile to relieve the concern with which he had read it. It was the work of some zealous quartermaster in the army that Cunningham knew so well, and in the midst of the agonies of policy and command it was his good clerk’s contribution to Britain’s coming Palestine posterity.
Careful and precise, it was the estimate of the materials which would be required to pack up the remainder of British rule in Palestine: four thousand tons of timber and twenty-eight tons of nails.
A couple of closing thoughts. First off, I have never seen “tergiverzations” used in an actual sentence, before; I practically stood up and cheered. Secondly, that writing seems effortless, but I know it’s not. Did you see how the authors slid back and forth between the personal view of the players, to keep us close to the story, and back out to the bigger picture? Damn, that’s beautifully done. The times I’ve tried to write analysis, it always comes out “soggy” (that’s “would be dry but it’s too wordy”) O Jerusalem! is a massive work, about 600 pages in this printing, meticulously researched, and written as literature. Have I mentioned that I recommend the book?
The reason I chose that selection should be obvious: we have someone forming a situation that is going to still be an ongoing war decades later, based on his best idea of what to do, directed by a casual over-the-shoulder remark from busy Prime Minister. It’s such a quintessentially British moment: here they are in the collapsing years of a great empire, and they just haven’t got the time to deal with all the messes they’ve created. Empires play so casually with the pieces on their “great game”-board but they’re breaking lives and setting up generations of pain. Can we fault Cunningham? Of course we can, because he’s part of the machine, but the situation was deep into “if I don’t do it, somebody else will” territory, already. I’m reminded of the stupid way Paul Bremer, the US satrap put in charge of Iraq, destroyed the country because he just didn’t have the viewpoint and didn’t do his homework, and listened to neo-conservatives with their silly ideas. These moments replay themselves over and over – mistakes knocking on like a great stupid engine. But imperialists ought to understand that having an empire is also a responsibility. It’s not all parades and glory, it’s a lot of hard work. So I feel some sympathy for the poor Scotsmen who were sick of getting shot at and harassed and insulted but that’s what they signed up for when they went a’empiring.
Meanwhile, the US is throwing its four thousand tons of timber and twenty-eight tons of nails down in Afghanistan, and is packing up and leaving. It will be decades before anyone in the US establishment can call that “losing” but that’s what it is. Pretty much like the British mandate in Palestine: “Uh, ok, now that we’ve got this thing, it sucks and we wish someone else had it. I know, let’s leave!” News already is that outlying villages and outposts are surrendering to the Taliban, hoping to avoid massacres. The Taliban aren’t stupid – they’re accepting surrenders now, and the massacres will come later for those that don’t surrender quickly. And for some it’s going to be massacres, no matter what; you’ve gotten caught in the gears of the game of empires and you’re going to be paste, shit happens. The British asked for the Palestinian mandate – it was one of the sought-after spoils from being on the winning side of WWI. They actually wanted to be in charge of a piece of the planet that has been turmoil and conflict since the Assyrian Empire. The British deserve to be blamed for the mess they made. What were they thinking, promising Palestine to both the Jews and the Arabs? The point is, they weren’t thinking; they had other stuff they were worried about and couldn’t be arsed to run the territory they had grabbed at the negotiations in Versailles. Nationalists, using entire populations as bargaining-chips in their stupid games. Why are these people allowed to control the world?
Guns. – Mao Zedong
The British Army Museum has a great description of what went down in Palestine: [nam]
In 1917, the British Balfour Declaration promised the establishment of a Jewish national home in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. This was in order to win Jewish support for Britain’s First World War effort.
At the same time, the British had promised the Arabs that a united Arab country, covering most of the Arab Middle East, would result if the Ottoman Turks were defeated.
However, when the fighting ended, neither promise was delivered.
Well at least they were fair, and screwed everyone. I’ll just note that the Ottomans ran the place peacefully for a couple hundred years. Way to go, Brits.