O Jerusalem

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]]

Allenby invades Jerusalem: the British take over

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.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … for some [in Afghanistan] it’s going to be massacres, no matter what…

    For American allies in Afghanistan, time is running out:

    Last week a top refugee resettlement group joined the call for an “emergency evacuation” well before the September deadline. A bipartisan group of House members introduced legislation to authorize an additional 4,000 Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan allies… Bloomberg News has reported that the number of Afghanistan residents potentially eligible for the program could reach 35,000. It is not feasible for the existing bureaucracy to process those claims between now and September—and even this deadline undersells the scope of the problem. The majority of U.S. troop withdrawals are now expected to be completed in July…

    And that’s just those who worked with the invaders, not the feminists and other modernizers also sitting on the bullseye. Wherever the US military goes next, only the dumbest and most desperate of the locals will collaborate.

  2. says

    … history is written by the winners. I respectfully disagree. It is as often written by the survivors…

    This is a point I have made repeatedly, in virtually the same words. History may be written by the winners, but it is often written by the losers (as with Josephus and the Jewish War, or the early histories of the American Civil War). It is, however, always written in the light of the outcome, even if only to justify a Lost Cause or a Heroic Resistance.

    The first chapter of Robert Sobel’s alternate history For Want of a Nail describing the events leading up to the American Revolution illustrates the point brilliantly; the events described actually happened (as far as we can tell from the records anyway) but they are described from the viewpoint of the failure of the Revolution; Dickinson takes center stage while Washington, the Declaration of Independence, and so forth are sidelined. The storyline is different because the outcome is different, not because the underlying stuff of history was changed.

  3. says

    Sadly there are always people ready to be taken by scams. Some, like Qanon types, are letting themselves be gulled because of nasty prejudices, and fuck ’em. If you get renal failure from Alex Jones supplements or die of COVID because you’re racist, whatever. But most people taken by scams? Desperation makes you hopeful enough that it overwhelms better judgment. The US will find patsies for future imperialism. Some few of those will be lucky enough to become American citizens later – I’ve met a few of those guys. But having a future in their own homelands? Not likely.

  4. Jazzlet says

    Desperation also means you take a job that will put food on the table for your family now, even knowing that it will bring danger in the future.

  5. says

    Sunday Afternoon@#4:
    @Marcus – this is your second posting with the title “O Jerusalem” – I can’t help but think of the setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Tallis which have weeping for the fate of Jerusalem at the end of each piece:

    I love Tallis. Damn, that’s good.

  6. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#1:
    A bipartisan group of House members introduced legislation to authorize an additional 4,000 Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan allies… Bloomberg News has reported that the number of Afghanistan residents potentially eligible for the program could reach 35,000. It is not feasible for the existing bureaucracy to process those claims between now and September—and even this deadline undersells the scope of the problem. The majority of U.S. troop withdrawals are now expected to be completed in July…

    Watch the republicans eventually use the incipient disaster for political leverage, when it comes down to the last minute.

    I hate the entire situation. Figuring out what I think about it would take more hands than I’ve got. For starters, on one hand, we’re talking about collaborators with an occupying power. For another, the US puppet government is remarkably corrupt and everyone knows that. For another, there are probably people who joined the police or army or government with the goal of serving the people – I’m not sure I can muster a sarcastic sneer. There are good people who are trying, but the situation is remarkably like Vietnam at the end: even the South Vietnamese government hated the South Vietnamese government. The servants of the US puppet government really should not have ever expected any other outcome – the US was clearly always going to lose, and its fantasies of nation-building didn’t even survive a month.

    As Jazzlet says, desperation might make someone work for a government that they know is going to fall, and maybe they’re just hoping that perhaps the horse will learn to sing. The US certainly did a good job of making sure that there was no uncontrolled economy that wasn’t likely to get you killed either by a US assassination squad or by a competitive opium grower. There’s literally nothing in Afghanistan except “run away! run away!” which doesn’t work for those that can’t run.

    The US is going to leave all of those people (except the wealthy, i.e.: super corrupt) ones, who will get shorn, to the wolves. And, the wolves are the natural denizens and rulers of the place to begin with. The hill tribesmen who drove the US Marines to huddle in holes in the dirt are the same ones that annihilated Elpinstone, or their great-great grandsons.

    The US has already made one attempt to build a western-style consumer pseudodemocracy in Afghanistan and this time they even tried to build a modern military and an air force. In Afghanistan, where components evaporate into the mountain air the second you turn your back on them. It was possibly the most stupid idea, ever. Or maybe the most stupid idea it was possible to have.There is something painfully sheep-like about Americans, that the people who cooked up that project were not pilloried or guillotined, or drawn and quartered. Why not bring that back, I’m sure the CIA would defend its effectiveness and Mel Gibson would make a movie about it.

    I’m ranting, now. Time to stop. None of it makes a difference. The writing has always been on the wall, plain to read.

  7. springa73 says

    O Jerusalem definitely sounds like a book I should add to my reading list!

    sbh@#2 That is absolutely true, the losers do sometimes end up writing the dominant historical narratives, at least for a while. Also, what seems most important in hindsight depends heavily on the outcome and is not necessarily what seemed most important to most people at the time.

    Marcus @#7 I remember when Taliban resistance seemingly melted away in late 2001 and early 2002 and the US-led coalition installed a new government quickly. Everyone should have remembered that when the Soviets invaded a generation earlier to support their own friendly government resistance had seemed to melt away at first as well. I certainly don’t blame Afghans who supported the US-allied government. I’m sure some did it for corrupt reasons, but I’m sure many others did it because as corrupt as it is, it seemed to offer a better future for Afghanistan than the Taliban or regional warlords did. It is a tragedy that the only choices for Afghanistan have been a corrupt satellite government or bloodthirsty religious fanatics. It is a tragedy that many who worked with the US and the current government of Afghanistan, or who are simply part of groups that the Taliban doesn’t like, will be exposed to a bloody vengeance. It will be a crime if the US doesn’t do everything it can to let them into the US.

  8. bmiller says

    And the other sad thing to remember is that religious fanatics, even “native” religious fanatics, can be as corrupt as the colonial government Marcus rightfully pillories. I can’t think of any government more superficially fanatical than the Saudi and Iranian regimes, yet they are notorious for their corruption and violence.

  9. xohjoh2n says

    But imperialists ought to understand that having an empire is also a responsibility.

    Responsibility? Good Lord man, the whole *point* of the way we consistently partitioned every colonial property we gave up along really stupid lines was to make sure that all remaining parties would be too busy fighting each other while we turned and ran and no one would have the time to hold us responsible for anything.

  10. says

    Responsibility? Good Lord man, the whole *point* of the way we consistently partitioned every colonial property we gave up along really stupid lines was to make sure that all remaining parties would be too busy fighting each other while we turned and ran and no one would have the time to hold us responsible for anything.

    I don’t even know why I wrote that; I must have been suffering from a brief flash of hope.
    I got better.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    xohjoh2n @11: The problem with your interpretation is that it ascribes a sort of devious foresight to imperial powers which they have never, as far as I can tell, demonstrated. Borders were generally drawn, in agreement with other imperial powers, to maximize their interests. When they were drawn, there would have been no concept of “turning and running”.

    But that’s the ideologue’s schtick: your enemies are evil and stupid, yet somehow smart enough to look into the future to evade responsibility for their actions. Astounding.

  12. xohjoh2n says


    You’re talking about the borders during the Empire. I’m talking about the divisions made as the Empire was deconstructed. They are not the same.

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