Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947
I have a friend who has developed some maxims to live by. Among them: 1) Take advantage of free things (phrased as “fo’ free, fo’ me”); 2) Never apologize for good game; and 3) Don’t discuss Israel because you are very likely somewhere from un- to mis- on the informed spectrum. I am on it and I know it. The increasingly large ideological gap between a cultural understanding borne of my Russian-Jewish background and the liberal beliefs to which I largely subscribe only highlights the extent of my ignorance. And so every time Israel appears in the news and I am forced to read polarized opinions about it on Facebook, I resolve yet again to read some books, to glean some knowledge, to do something, anyway, that will make me feel like I have the authority to have an opinion—and moreover, force people to agree with it on the Internet! You may say that I’m a dreamer, but in the words of Zionism’s Theodor Herzl and The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers is a solid start. Meticulously researched using ample declassified materials, Hoffman’s account of both Arab and Jewish revolts against the British following the British conquest of Palestine in 1917 and its mandate from 1922 to 1948 is a detailed and limpid case study of the effectiveness of terrorism in influencing government policy.
As Hoffman explains, the British compromised their rule in Palestine from the outset with twin promises made to the Arabs and the Jews. On one hand, in the hopes of garnering Jewish support for the war, 1917’s Balfour Declaration promised British assistance in the establishment of a national Jewish homeland without making any provisions for Arab political and economic rights. On the other, letters exchanged in 1916 between Egypt’s high commissioner Henry McMahon and Arab leader Sharif Hussein pledged British commitment to Arab self-determination in exchange for military assistance against Turkey. Essentially, Britain never had a clear and consistent policy concerning Palestine, which, Hoffman explains, “rendered successive British governments susceptible to terrorist pressure.” Fears of dispossession led to Arab violence against Jews in the 1920s and ’30s and culminated, in 1936, in the three-year Arab Rebellion—a general strike-cum-rural guerilla war—in response to a massive increase in Jewish immigration and ensuing land purchase as a result of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. The recommendations given by assorted British government commissions in successive white papers issued in the wake of unrest in 1922, 1929, and 1939 only served to reinforce the perception among Arab leadership that violence yielded desired political outcomes, especially in the case of the 1939 white paper, which significantly limited Jewish immigration and land purchase.
The police’s ineffectiveness in protecting Jews against attacks affirmed for the Jewish community in Palestine—known as the Yishuv—that they needed to create their own paramilitary. The result was the Haganah, a group with a restrained and defensive approach. This policy, along with other ideological differences, became unacceptable to what would eventually become the Irgun and the Lehi, two underground Jewish terrorist organizations. The Irgun, led in the 1940s by Menachem Begin, Israel’s future prime minister, was not only instrumental in making Britain’s continued presence in Palestine financially and politically untenable in the aftermath of World War II, but also became a model for contemporary terrorism. The organization’s success in marshalling international support and attracting global attention to its cause “taught a powerful lesson to similarly aggrieved peoples elsewhere, who now saw in terrorism an effective means of transforming hitherto local conflicts into international issues.”
The Irgun’s strategy of targeting symbols of British prestige and power, such as the King David Hotel, railroad depots, and immigration offices, as well as its global public relations campaign, have influenced modern terrorism tremendously. This observation is the most interesting aspect of Anonymous Soldiers. Unfortunately, it only makes an appearance in the introduction and the epilogue. Of course, any scholarly project demands strict limits on its scope and Hoffman respects those—as he must—in order to go into as much depth as he does. Still, the book begs for a comparative approach, especially given the overwhelming current visibility of organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram, which have very successfully harnessed social media for their own ends while also being featured prominently in the Western media narrative.
Nonetheless, this is a small complaint to make. Anonymous Soldiers is well paced and precisely written. Hoffman has a rich vocabulary. At times, indeed, when Hoffman describes various assassination plots, kidnappings, and bombings, the book reads like a thriller. The momentum is lost through repetition, though, since each Irgun and Lehi terrorist act is followed by a condemnation from the Jewish Agency and then indecision from the British government with regard to how best to respond to a completely new type of enemy: an urban terrorist organization that is largely not supported by the population it claims to represent, making large-scale reprisal impossible. Ultimately, this leads to a physical isolation behind barbed wire fences on the part of the British civil service. The repetitiveness of this cycle does, however, highlight the complete failure of British policy in Palestine, largely because Clement Attlee’s Labour government never managed to formulate one.
Hoffman steadily and patiently works through a complicated history driven by actors on all three sides guided and informed by separate histories. His analysis of the 1946 King David Hotel bombing exemplifies his even-handedness in mining the historical perspectives made available through primary resources. At issue is the question of how much warning was given to the people within the hotel—which housed the British Mandate Secretariat—to evacuate. There is no question that the British do not present the same account as the Yishuv, who, in turn, did not agree with the Irgun, and yet it is the Irgun’s version of events that is enshrined on a plaque outside the hotel today. The plaque and Begin’s memoir both claim that 25 minutes passed between the warning and the explosion. Hoffman concludes his investigation of the event by writing, “this purported statement of fact not only is inaccurate but also perpetuates an image of British malfeasance that is as false as it is self-serving.”
Again and again, this example demonstrates the importance of control over historical narrative and all sides’ recognition of this fact. The success and legitimization of each side’s struggle was and continues to be—in the case of Israelis and Palestinians—significantly dependent on outside perception, and was and is also, of course, couched in each group’s perception of itself. Amos Oz’s insights in his excellent memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness are particularly apt:
When the Arabs look at us, they see not a bunch of half-hysterical survivors but a new offshoot of Europe, with its colonialism, technical sophistication, and exploitation, that has cleverly returned to the Middle East—in Zionist guise this time—to exploit, evict, and oppress all over again. And when we look at them, we do not see fellow victims either; we see not brothers in adversity but progrom-making Cossacks, bloodthirsty anti-Semites, Nazis in disguise, as though our European persecutors have reappeared here in the Land of Israel, put keffiyehs on their heads, and grown mustaches but they are still our old murderers.
This explanation contextualizes behavior but does not excuse it. If anything, Hoffman’s account forced me to abandon any notions of Jewish moral superiority in the establishment of Israel especially since the Yishuv occupied a liminal space between colonizer and colonized. Although David Ben-Gurion, head of the Yishuv’s governing body prior to independence, held that “the Yishuv ought to place its use of force on a higher moral plane than the Arabs’—and, not incidentally, also favorably impress the British,” this policy only created the impression of weakness among the British. The Irgun’s struggle was not solely responsible for Britain’s withdrawal, of course. A concatenation of other factors, including postwar economic decline, nascent anti-colonial movements, and diplomatic relations with the US contributed. Still, the Irgun’s terrorist practices and the Yishuv’s alienation from the British they prompted, were undeniably effective. One is forced to come to the conclusion that given the right conditions, terrorism works and “is neither irrational nor desperate but instead entirely rational and often carefully calculated and choreographed.”
Perhaps the saddest conclusion of Anonymous Soldiers is in how little some things have changed in one respect: the possibility of Arab-Jewish peaceful coexistence. The night before the British Mandate ended, Palestine’s High Commissioner Sir Alan Cunningham addressed the country, saying, “I have never believed, and do not believe now that the seed of agreement between Jew and Arab does not exist, even though in all our efforts we have failed to find the soil in which it would germinate.” The search continues.