Book Review: Palestine in the Second World War: Strategic Plans and Political Dilemmas, the Emergence of a New Middle East

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by Daphna Sharfman

Brighton: Sussez Academic Press / Chicago: Independent Publishers Group, 2015. Pp. xii, 210. Notes, biblio, index. $34.95 paper. ISBN: 1845196929

Conflicting Debates and Strategic Plans in WWII British Palestine

British Mandatory Palestine was not a military battlefield during World War II, but, as throughout history, it was a strategic one. At the eastern of the Mediterranean, it was a central land connection between Africa and Asia, thus a vital link in the British Empire, as well as being a supply line for Arab oil, essential to the war effort. While Haifa (the Mediterranean terminus of the Iraqi oil pipeline) was bombed several times, major military actions, though, were confined to neighboring Egypt and Syria. At the same time, Palestine was the heart of the worldwide Jewish community, so was firmly tied to the fate of Jews in Occupied Europe and wielded influence among the Jews in the U.S. Diaspora. Accordingly, for the Mandate the global conflict largely took the form of a war of words – several wars of words – fought in debates between and within Ministries of the British Cabinet (Churchill was somewhat pro-Zionist, but bowed to wartime considerations); within the Zionist leadership (Dr. Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion were fierce rivals in their outlooks); and, of course, between the Palestine Administration and the Yishuv (the Jewish community of Palestine) over the issue of Jewish immigration. The tense interaction of military and political strategy and clashing national aspirations intensified during the war, erupted postwar as the Mandate turbulently ended, and continues recognizably to this day.

In the doubly-subtitled Palestine in the Second World War: Strategic Plans and Political Dilemmas: The Emergence of a New Middle East, Dr. Daphna Sharfman, a lecturer in Political Science in Israel, examines, analyzes and provides necessary context for the numerous competing viewpoints, interests and end goals, and the parties’ specific reactions to events far away from and within Mandatory Palestine itself, and resulting political developments. Her attention is focused, however, almost exclusively on British and Zionist leadership (some of her sources were exclusively in Hebrew, so inaccessible to many historians in the field, adding value to her contribution), the Palestinian Arabs still recovering from a failed rebellion in 1936-39 and with one of its leaders, Hajj Amin el Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem (who, though long dead, was, surprisingly, back in the news not long ago), in exile.

Britain’s wartime Palestinian policy had its roots in that rebellion, and would be dominated by and dictated by the British White Paper on Palestine of 1939. A de facto retreat from the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which had promised a Jewish National Home in Palestine, the White Paper severely restricted Jewish immigration – a position to which they firmly clung, even after reports of the Holocaust had become public and Jewish refugees sought haven – and banned most land sales to Jews. (Bureaucrats in London claimed that the Jewish refugees were sent by Germany to embarrass Britain and even, incredibly – presaging recent political headlines – that the Jews were a security risk, German spies! [In actual fact, the refugees provided the Allies with valuable intelligence about enemy territory.] Others pushed for harsh, punitive detention camps so that “illegal” refugees wouldn’t “consider a Palestine concentration camp preferable to a German one.” The deaths of some 1,200 Jews on flimsy ships and tens of thousands more in Europe blocked from immigration to Palestine would poison the relationship between Britain and the Yishuv; Britain would be seen not as a protector, but a jailer.) 

Apart from concern about another violent uprising (“nuisance-potential”), Britain had strategic reasons to placate the Arabs, both in Palestine (where its anti-Zionist policies had made them a majority) and in surrounding countries. Rommel was in North Africa and had reached Egypt (there was a British contingency plan to destroy the Suez Canal); the French authorities in Syria had declared loyalty to the Vichy government; and there had been a pro-Axis military coup in Iraq, a British ally. Britain would later in the war encourage Pan-Arabism, creating the Arab League.  Britain realized that the region’s Arabs could choose between the Allies and the Axis (indeed, some were openly pro-Axis, and others waited on the war’s outcome and supported whoever was winning at the time; Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in fact wrote Churchill that the White Paper policies would not decisively satisfy the Arabs because “the Germans could always offer more”), while the Jews had no option but to support Britain and the Allies against the Nazi murderers of their people.

Despite their frustration with the British course of actions, despite the White Paper policies, as Ben-Gurion had sloganeered, the Yishuv heartily supported and contributed to the war effort. About 30,000 joined the British Army, 5,000 the French Foreign Legion and the Free Polish Armies, 6,000 in the Settlement Police and others in some form of national service. (Additionally, there were 10,000 Jewish soldiers in the British Army, half of them stationed in Egypt.) Throughout the war, though, Britain would reject or resist or evade the idea of a Jewish Army, of Palestinian Jews being treated as were the Free French, the Free Poles and the Free Czechs, and being permitted to fight under their own flag; it could not give the Jews standing as a nation, a step in converting Palestine into a Jewish State.  (A further sticking point was not allowing it to serve in the Middle East.) Also, perhaps understandably, London was loath to train, at their own expense, a force which might one day be used against British administration. Ultimately, in late 1944, a separate Jewish brigade was created.

Even when British-Yishuv relations had deteriorated, the (otherwise illegal) Haganah’s intelligence service (Shai) and elite strike force (the Palmach) cooperated in clandestine operations with the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in the Levant and the Balkans. (It was, incidentally, fighting alongside Australian soldiers in Syria that Moshe Dayan lost his eye.) To the Cabinet Churchill would describe the Palestinian Jews as “our only trustworthy friends in that country” and Arab contributions to the war effort (Transjordan excepted) as negligible.

Postwar, however, Great Britain would feel no great obligations to the Yishuv. The goals of the British Empire and the Zionists were irreconcilable. For oil and imperial interests, for its strategic importance in peacetime no less than during the war, Britain envisioned long-term dominance of the Middle East, centering in a pro-British Arab bloc (despite the proven unreliability of Egypt and Iraq) and an indefinite trusteeship in Palestine. (Churchill and others in the Cabinet came to favor partition, “a small token Jewish state.”) The Zionist objective would be spelled out in the Biltmore Program (so named for the New York hotel that was the site of its conference): a democratic, independent Jewish state in Palestine in control of its own immigration policies.  In the end, British policies failed the Jews, the Arabs and themselves.

As an overview, Sharfman’s volume is remarkably thorough, impartially covering strategic background, the region’s military campaigns, internal developments in the Mandate, and political debates in both the Cabinet and the Yishuv leadership over immigration and refugee policies, and the impact of the Holocaust on the two sides. Though seemingly absent from her picture, the Arab presence significantly framed the debate.

Note: Palestine in the Second World War is also available in hardback, $74.95, ISBN 978-1-84519-526-7, and as an e-pub.

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Reviewer: Mark Blackman   


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