Shepherd: Ploughing Sand

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VOL. 30

2000/01

No. 3
P. 108
Recent Books
Shepherd: Ploughing Sand
FULL TEXT

    Israeli journalist Naomi Shepherd addresses the hapless efforts by British officials to rule Palestine. While situating their actions in the context of British imperial strategy and the commitment to implement the Balfour Declaration, she concentrates on their attitudes and actions on the ground. Nearly all had served in the armed forces or the colonial service in India and Africa, many were prejudiced against Muslims and/or Jews, and few spoke Arabic or Hebrew. Nonetheless, in Shepherd's view, they saw their mission as creating a pluralist state in Palestine and, when that proved impossible, acting as umpires between the Jews and Arabs.
    This attitude was contradicted by the one-sided military repression of the mid-1930s. During the Arab Revolt, "the legal system of Palestine became harnessed to repression, as successive emergency regulations led to summary justice and the curtailment of civil rights, while collective punishment was used with increasing frequency" (p. 189). The new high commissioner, fresh from governing the Sudan, brought in "a police chief who had fought terror in Bengal" (p. 206) and military units hardened from fighting in India and Africa.
    This repression represented the culmination of rule along the lines of a highly centralized Crown Colony (rather than a Class A Mandate), in which the indigenous population was denied organized means of political expression. Shepherd notes that, by transforming Muslims into a "millet," the British lowered their status and refused to acknowledge "Arab" as a political category. Moreover, London required the government to balance its budget, which limited officials' ability to provide social and economic assistance to the Arabs, even if they had been so inclined. Both the health and educational sectors were "starved for funds" (p. 128); there was a "glaring" contrast (p. 130) between the Jewish and Arab health sectors. Despite this, Shepherd maintains that overall health among Arabs improved, largely due to government and Jewish campaigns to eradicate malaria and other endemic diseases. Of course, Jewish campaigns were intended to improve the health of their own community and only incidentally assisted the neighboring Arabs. In contrast, she is scathing in her criticism of the two directors of education (Humphrey Bowman and Jerome Farrell), who rejected Arab appeals to expand village schooling, establish institutes for secondary and higher education, and provide technical training that would enable Arabs to develop economically.
    Shepherd has a less sure grasp of the land issue. Whereas her discussion of educational policy critiques colonial preconceptions about indigenous people, she accepts British assumptions about the weaknesses in the Ottoman and customary land systems and does not address the distortions caused by the new, British-imposed land registration system. She also overemphasizes Arab land sales to Jews; only at the end of that section does she admit that Jews purchased a mere 8.5 percent "of the territory which became Israel in 1948" (p. 120). And she does not discuss the distorting impact of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which banned the resale of land to Arabs and blocked the employment of Arab laborers and tenants on JNF-owned land.
    In her discussion of British policy toward the Jewish community, Shepherd balances criticism of British attempts to control immigration with evidence of the ways in which Jews benefited from British rule, at least until World War II. They gained security, important economic concessions, subventions for their schools, and some semisecret training of commando units, all within the context of an explicit British policy to promote the Jewish national home. Shepherd also makes the valuable point, which is not often made by Israeli scholars, that the new State of Israel kept the legal and administrative structures of the Mandate in place. It especially benefited from retaining the land code, emergency regulations, and the "millet" system, which "enabled Israel to postpone full implementation of the Declaration of Independence . . . which promised equality to all its citizens" and to retain certain Jewish religious laws that conflicted with the declaration (p. 245).
    It is difficult to assess Ploughing Sand. It is based on substantial archival research in Israel and Britain and contains useful insights into colonial attitudes and policies, but these are weakened by the lack of any serious discussion of the dynamic interaction between the government in London and officials in Jerusalem and by the weakness of the section on land policy. The book ends with an incomplete discussion of the British evacuation in spring 1948 and very questionable conclusions about the causes of the Palestinians' flight into exile (p. 242).


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Ann M. Lesch, a professor of political science at Villanova University, is the author of five books on Palestinian politics, including Arab Politics in Palestine, 1917+n1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979).