Sherman: Mandate Days
The British role in the Palestine Mandate is rarely studied with concentration on its actors, particularly those who, while not responsible for policymaking, executed that policy in Palestine. Those actors have rarely been humanized, nor have their voices been given a place in the history of a period intensely researched, subject to sharply divergent analyses, and still animated by scholarly debates. But A. J. Sherman embarked on this project with that very purpose in mind (p. 7); that is, to remedy the omission of the lives, thoughts, and sayings of British men and women who lived, interacted, and served in Palestine. For the author, this is a journey of nostalgia and recognition. Having been born in Jerusalem during that period, and obviously retaining memories of, associations with, and feelings for the country and its people, his use of the missing voices is both compassionate and objective. From that perspective, this book provides another discerning and enriching dimension to the study of Britain in Palestine. It is a welcome addition to the literature on the subject.
While the book does not provide any new interpretations for the historical narrative already established in the field, it contextualizes the course of events by presenting the experiences, reactions, and attitudes of the identified participants. The focus of the book is exactly that, and the archival source material used is limited to that focus. Thanks to the disciplined British tradition of meticulous and sustained diary writing, the author had access to a rich body of archives documenting the personal experiences of their writers. This experience is portrayed within the context of a heated period of Palestinian history and British imperial power for which the author used a wide range of secondary sources.
Through the words and emotions of his informers, the author tackles such crucial issues that have occupied researchers as the difficulty of defining and implementing a policy dictated from London, a policy more often than not elusive, ambiguous, and fluctuating to those who had to apply it (pp. 53, 100). While partisanship in this struggle is often privately expressed, nevertheless colonial training always triumphed, leading to resignation and impotent frustration. These British colonists came to Palestine already inculcated through education, background, and legacy with a sense of mission to rule, civilize, and promote the empire. Previous and active imperial experience was the frame of reference, whether in dealing with household matters, such as hiring help, maintaining decorum, or remaining aloof from the natives; an elitist attitude was stressed and any infractions deplored. In Palestine the British had to face the rapid process of imperial denouement. The shattering impact and complexity of the process is reflected in their words, sometimes bewildered and shame-faced, but often calling on the British stiff upper lip and dogged persistence in performing a thankless task.
Publicly the British residents observed events in Palestine from a distance, but in their private memoirs they expressed strong subjectivity toward the communities and their own group. Relations with Jews, Zionists, and Arabs are regulated by events and through a Western colonial and an orientalist prism. In building up the political atmosphere since the 1930s, the author very masterfully uses his information to paint the mood of mounting disaster, Jewish immigration, Arab resort to violence, and the British racially denigrating reactions. The Jewish influx into Palestine, and the conditions in Europe that promoted it, are well presented and confirm the author's deep knowledge of that period and its repercussions.
British ethnocentricity is the most constant reaction and the one that provides sordid entertainment. In the midst of the Arab rebellion, the war was put on hold while the community celebrated with pomp and decorum the king's birthday (p. 99), was mortified by the king's love-induced resignation, and was feverishly occupied with tennis matches and private club parties (pp. 105, 108, and 112). The Palestine British community was desperately clinging to the symbolism of colonial imperial life as a means of staying the process of disintegration through which they were living.
This book humanizes the British community in Palestine and presents that community with all the attributes of its humanity. In this respect, it adds to our comprehension, and maybe sympathy, in understanding the unwilling role of the British. Within the power structure of the Palestine Mandate system, this book looks at historical interpretation from below.
May Seikaly, associate professor of history, Department of Near East and Asian Studies at Wayne State University, is the author of Haifa: Transformation of an Arab Society 1918-1939 (London: I.B. Tauris, 1995).