Wednesday, February 25, 2015

In the Beginning, There Was Violence

Bruce Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947

Georgetown University political historian Bruce Hoffman starts with a simple question: does terrorism work? In current political parlance, the answer seems obvious; heads of state repeatedly decry terrorism’s inefficacy. Yet newly declassified British documents have shed light upon Britain’s governance of the Palestinian Mandate between the World Wars, which Hoffman says tell a different story. As fascism’s rising tide reorganized world Jewry, and Palestinians found themselves colonized, violence began that still remains with us today.

When Britain inherited huge Palestine from the defeated Ottoman Empire, the Balfour Declaration publicized Britain’s intent to create a Jewish homeland. This immediately caused problems for Palestinians, because they were there, and Jews were not. Though European Zionists took this opportunity to relocate into their historic homeland, the pre-World War I Jewish population was vanishingly small. Jewish land purchases, inflammatory rhetoric, and utopian politics made Palestinians fear their historic nation would soon cease to be.

British Commissioners attempted to keep peace between Zionists and Palestinians. This wasn’t easy, though. The Balfour Declaration persuaded Palestinians that Britain was pro-Jewish; attempts to respect existing Palestinian property and legal claims persuaded Jews that Britain was pro-Palestinian. Britain’s succession of High Commissioners tried to remain desperately fair while quelling ethnic violence, but both offended parties believed their respective grievances so inherently right, any discussion was necessarily wrong. Britain found itself hated by every party.

Professor Hoffman’s secondary title is somewhat deceptive. Despite promising a history of the arc from 1917 to 1947, over half that time gets very short mention herein. Hoffman keeps focus primarily on flare-ups of violence, neglecting other arcs of history outside his purview. Thus, despite momentary ethnic explosions in the 1920s, the first sixteen years don’t matter much. Periods of simmering hostility notwithstanding, Hoffman’s real narrative momentum begins in 1933, with Hitler’s rise to power.

Bruce Hoffman
European Jews displaced into Palestine had little interest in existing traditional power structures. Palestinians, who previously distributed access to holy sites quite generously, found new immigrants circumventing their control. Each side considered the other disruptive, not without reason. Jews ignored Palestinians’ traditions; Palestinian imams urged anti-Jewish violence from within their mosques. Palestinian Muslim mobs drove the entire Jewish population from Hebron. Jews responded by organizing the Haganah, a “self-defense force,” actually an unofficial paramilitary army.

Herein lies Hoffman’s core thesis. Jews and Palestinians used political violence to marginalize populations they considered undesirable. When Britain intervened, both parties turned their guns on what they considered a colonial occupier. Though Britain held the Mandate desperately, long after states like Iraq and Saudi Arabia became independent, ultimately the Crumbling Empire succumbed. To Hoffman, this proves terrorism sometimes works. Sometimes, dedicated ideological organizations, facing a larger enemy, can use violence to achieve political ends.

Personalities loom large in Hoffman’s exposition. One, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, dominates the entire Mandate period. A Russian Jew who fought for Britain during the war, he later became a Zionist politician and general. His mix of political skill and ruthless military efficiency made even his Jewish allies fear his influence, particularly because of his fervent anti-socialist leanings. He became a sort of Jewish Michael Collins, and like Collins, the nation he created ultimately took his life.

Jabotinsky, Imam al-Qassam, and other outsized personalities represented only the public face of dangerous utopian thinking. The city of Haifa, a peaceful enclave of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, could’ve provided a model of charitable co-existence; but demagogues stirred grudges to the boiling point. When Jews found themselves unwelcome in Muslim-dominated Jaffa, they founded the neighboring city of Tel Aviv, a rare example of willful social engineering that survived the tumult of Twentieth Century political confrontation.

Despite coming from a mainstream, non-academic publisher, this book isn’t streamlined pop history. Hoffman’s scholarly approach features long paragraphs, dense prose, and many source notes. Readers unaccustomed to reading academic writing may find his prose difficult, almost to the point of impenetrability. Even this seasoned scholar found reading required careful pacing: I needed to limit myself to bite-sized segments to digest his intense style. Budget yourself plenty of time to truly savvy Hoffman’s lengthy discursion.

Still, notwithstanding Professor Hoffman’s style, his content is both intense and edifying. The patterns of partisan violence he describes still represent conflicting parties in the same region. Recent rhetoric from Benjamin Netanyahu precisely resembles historic declarations from Ze’ev Jabotinsky. And low-tech modes of political violence still propel wars with no front line. Hoffman only lightly addresses how the history he describes reflects the present we currently live in. But mostly, he just doesn’t have to.

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