Segev: One Palestine Complete

VOL. 31


No. 1
P. 89
Recent Books
Segev: One Palestine Complete

    In his previous books, 1949: The First Israelis (MacMillan, 1986) and The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (Hill and Wang, 1993), Israeli journalist Tom Segev raised important questions about the subjects of his research and the manner in which Israelis responded to the events in question. In this book, he addresses a much broader subject: the British Mandate and the nature of Jewish-British, Arab-British, Jewish-Arab interactions and their underlying motivations. 
    Segev employs a vast array of sources: published and unpublished diaries, Zionist intelligence reports, and private papers existing in Israel or located elsewhere, along with archival research in Britain and the United States. While he has broken new ground here, he makes little use of published research by historians; when he does, the work is nearly always by Israeli scholars. Similarly his sources are invariably British or Jewish. His main Arab source, in Hebrew, is the diary of Khalil Sakakini, but he also benefited from the use of Sakakini's private papers and the unpublished accounts of Anwar Nusseibeh. This imbalance in source materials affects Segev's narrative despite the impressive scholarly apparatus and range of topics addressed. Equally problematic is Segev's tone. He seeks to suggest distance, conveying his impressions with an ironic comment or by apparently letting events speak for themselves. But Segev cannot maintain that distance, especially when discussing Jewish-Arab interactions.
    Segev develops several major themes, some of which are revisionist. One is that the British and the Zionists were always closely allied whatever the appearance of antagonism. The British consistently lent major support to the Zionist enterprise, even after the 1939 White Paper, when the Zionists were assured that the situation would revert to prewar conditions at the end of the conflict. Another theme is that British officials never had any idea why they were in Palestine and usually considered it of minor or no strategic importance. The first theme, as Segev knows, challenges Israeli assumptions of British hostility to Zionism; the second challenges many books that have documented British arguments about the strategic importance of Palestine, although Segev seems unaware of them.
    A third theme is British anti-Semitism. The British may have backed the Zionists and given them aid and information under as well as across the table, but many were nonetheless anti-Semites who referred to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which explains their assistance in part since they believed that the Jews controlled world finance and should be appeased. Segev notes sardonically that Chaim Weizmann actively encouraged this image of Jewish power but does not connect it to the beliefs themselves. These examples illustrate a frequent pattern in the book: presenting issues in isolation without explaining connections or drawing specific conclusions. Thus, the Zionists in Palestine were weak and had no real influence with British officials who despised them. These same officials gave the Zionists much assistance, and if some did not, the weak Zionists somehow could challenge them by their direct access to British corridors of power. The Zionists lacked funding, but, as Segev documents elsewhere, they had money with which to bribe British officials as well as Arabs.
    Bribery is a major subtheme of the book, particularly with reference to the Arabs. Segev admits that the overwhelming majority of Jews residing in Hebron in 1929 were saved by their Arab neighbors, but he cannot refrain from speculating that at least some of them did it in the hope of a reward while then commenting that most did so out of "human decency" (p. 326). Money counts, even if it is not bribery. Similarly, those Arabs who sold land to the Zionists, and who were heads of the Palestinian national movement, were therefore "traitors" (no irony there). No mention is made of Arab inability to import capital into Palestine in contrast to the Zionists.
    On the other hand, some of these same corrupt traitors, Musa Alami for example, later appear as incorruptible, albeit fatalistic, with respect to ultimate Zionist victory. Segev is surprisingly sympathetic to Hajj Amin al-Husayni until World War II, presenting him as a reluctant rebel who preferred to keep the peace and have access to British power. At that point he uses Husayni to symbolize general Palestinian sympathy for Nazi ideology while noting, briefly, the possibility that many Palestinians simply wanted to be rid of the British.
    Were those Arabs who undertook the revolt in 1936 mainly consumed by passions for private feuds as Anwar Nusseibeh claims (p. 369), or were they, to the contrary, "an organized and disciplined community, demonstrating its national will" in the words of David Ben-Gurion (p. 370)? Ben-Gurion considered Arab violence to be a means to an end: to oust the Zionist occupation. Segev usually views Arab violence toward Jews as terrorism and frequently refers to this behavior as a "pogrom" to create an analogy to European anti-Semitism, with only the occasional cautionary note to mar a different and stronger impression.
    As a group, Palestinian Arabs are corrupt, consumed more by passions of revenge than a sense of national destiny. As a group Zionists are motivated by Western liberal humanism and have a goal on which they agree even if they differ in their methods. Significantly, Segev describes Palestinian brutality to Jews in detail, mutilations and all, often through the comments of British observers on the scene for veracity. But he refers to Dayr Yasin (p. 507) as a combined Haganah, Irgun, and LEHI operation that "kill[ed] dozens [my emphasis] of civilians including women and children." He gives no details, unlike his accounts of Arab brutalities, although he later refers to it as a "massacre." He does, however, offer British officials, who were not on the scene, to depict the "atrocities" as a "beastly Holocaust" and to declare that "Belsen 'pales' beside the bestialities of Dair Yasin."
    Obviously Belsen did not, but Segev's caustic use of these British references to the Holocaust and Belsen permits him to undercut the impact of Dayr Yasin and to avoid mentioning that Palestinian Jews committed atrocities, including mutilations, to approximately 250 Arabs. British comments here do not serve the same purpose they do when validating the bestiality of Arab atrocities; here they serve to bypass what happened and to stress British injustice in downplaying the Holocaust.
    Segev's ultimate message is the impossibility of reconciliation between Arab and Jew, that each camp, striving for possession of Palestine, could not tolerate the presence of the other: hatred ruled. In this cauldron the British ultimately wrung their hands but did their best to help the Zionists down to the end. To deliver this message, Segev gives us impressions, dialogue, love affairs, the human dimension, often with a caustic comment but no explanation. His revisionism toward official Zionist accounts, and there is much, often is undermined by attempts to soften the impact of his material, as in the discussion of transfer. In general Segev confronts issues with which he is familiar [Zionist attitudes toward European Jews in 1940], but for this reviewer he is uncomfortable in confronting Palestinian Arabs as a society or as individuals reacting to Zionism, however sympathetic he might be to their claims in the abstract.
    One Palestine Complete is the result of extensive research and is conceived with great imagination, but its contents ultimately do not sustain its promise. While often incisive, it equally often is too quick with the qualifying remark and unreliable in its historical accounts or references. The Arab Revolt is never connected to Jewish immigration resulting from Hitler's rise to power. Segev is unfamiliar with some of his material, citing George Antonius's The Arab Awakening as the main reference for the "Arab national movement in Palestine" [my emphasis] (p. 469n). His references frequently indicate ignorance of and unconcern with broader scholarship on the subject, along with his increasingly unbalanced treatment of the impact of events on Jews as opposed to Arabs a the book progresses.
    Segev has tried to present a panoramic view of mutual hostilities and interactions and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. To succeed requires an attempt at equal distance from both Arabs and Jews. He is generally successful up to the 1929 Western Wall riots and the violence that ensued, but in the following chapters he loses control not so much of his material as of that tone of ironic distance that he tried to apply to all camps. The result constitutes a brilliant failure rather than a reliable work of history. It will serve as a significant source for historians seeking to engage the author's contentions or to mine the sources that he has unearthed. What is lacking is Segev's willingness to come to grips with Arab actions as a response to Jewish nationalist behavior and power, perhaps more of a problem today than it was during the Mandate. As he illustrates, Zionist leaders then had no illusions as to why Arabs rebelled.

Charles D. Smith is the author of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the fourth edition of which was published in 2001 by St. Martin's Press.