“When an Arab is dirty he is picturesque,” said the wife of a British official, “when a Jew is dirty he is filthy.”
We seem naturally to suspend our imagination, to relate our morals, or at least our assumptions as to what is the correct way to behave in a given set of circumstances, when we watch fantasies such as “Game of Thrones”.
We are able to, at least understand, if not sympathise, with actions, that contradict our everyday ethics because we recognise that in this world other rules and regulations apply. How many deaths have we been satisfied to see? Deaths that in the real life, that is the 21st century in our time and on our planet, we would abhor.
I would suggest that every historical time on our planet is just as complex and different from today. Not only in the lack of knowledge, events and circumstances in which they take place, but especially with our, seemingly reluctance, to set us in in the morality of the time.
We seem to spend so much time and energy making judgements based on 21st century principles, it clouds our conclusions and eventually devalues the lessons we can learn. Not about what could and should have been done – which is a waste of time – but about in the manner in which we tackle the problems we have inherited.
The classic example is the Middle East. Too often analysis condemn the colonialism, the nationalism, the alliances, the betrayals, the racism, the lack of consideration for the indigenous peoples etc. without considering the fact there was nothing unusual or untoward with these motivations (or lack of them) – such was the life. There was no other.
The British treated Palestine as a colony and ruled it with a tiny garrison.
Possessing no artillery for a Remembrance Day salute on 11 November 1925, the army borrowed an ancient cannon which the Islamic authorities fired to signal the start of the fast of Ramadan.
High Commissioners presided in state, first from a Kaiser-inspired “Wagnerian schloss” on the Mount of Olives and later from a square-towered, purpose-built Government House, complete with ballroom and minstrels’ gallery, on the Hill of Evil Counsel.
As usual the British kept to themselves and followed their own pursuits. They hobnobbed in the exclusive Jerusalem Sports Club. They chased jackals with the pink-coated Ramleh Vale Hunt. They took picnics in Galilee where the air was limpid and the earth was carpeted with wild flowers—anemone, narcissus, cyclamen, asphodel and ranunculus. Beside the Dead Sea, with Moab rising beyond it like a wall of brass, they played on the briny, sandy nine-hole course of the Sodom and Gomorrah Golf Club, competing annually for the prize of a marble statuette known as “Lot’s Wife.”
They kept the peace and suppressed disturbances, the bloodiest of which occurred over a dispute about the Western (“Wailing”) Wall in 1929. They attended to matters like justice, health and education. They promoted agriculture, helping Jews to make the desert “blossom as the rose” and assisting Arabs, who still reaped with the sickle and used asses to trample out the corn.
Inspired by Lutyens’s New Delhi, they even planned to build their own new Jerusalem.
But if the British were making Palestine “cleaner, richer and duller,” they were not making it happier, said Sir Ronald Storrs, Governor of Jerusalem and Judea. “Thou hast multiplied the harvest but not increased the joy, is my epitaph for the British Empire.”
Successive proconsuls failed to achieve political cooperation between Jews and Arabs, who ran parallel administrations.
The Jewish Agency consolidated its hold on strategic areas, especially the coastal plain and Galilee where Jews bought land (which absentee owners sold even though thousands of their Arab tenants were evicted). From afar Weizmann guided the Agency with consummate skill, though even he could be provocative. He wrote, for example, that “the only rational answer” to dissension over the Wailing Wall was “to pour Jews into Palestine.”
The Supreme Muslim Council was led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, whom Samuel had appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, a pre-eminent religious and legal office. Mild-mannered, soft-spoken, red-bearded and black-robed, with a white turban around his scarlet tarbush, the Mufti had the rare gift of immobility.
But his impassive and dignified exterior concealed a burning ambition to maintain the Muslim majority in Palestine. Amin believed that the Balfour Declaration had stemmed from a Jewish intrigue with the British and he reminded one High Commissioner that a Jewish intrigue with the Romans had led to the judicial murder of Christ.
No mean intriguer himself, the Mufti tried to destroy the Jewish national home first by treating with the British and later by embracing Muslim militants. Initially he shunned any council or congress that might give legitimacy to the Jewish presence.
During the early 1930s he temporised, recognising that Arabs would dominate an elected assembly by dint of numbers. This was precisely why Weizmann and his allies rejected proposals to form such a body.
All round the world Jews faced hostility from majorities in their adopted countries.
It was the prime goal of Zionism that Jews in Palestine should “cease at last to lead a minority life.”
from “The decline and fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997” by Piers Brendon.
Further suggested reading: “Jerusalem: The Biography” by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
These two books contain bibliographies and notes for a life-time’s reading on this subject.