The British Empire Library

Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-48

by A. J. Sherman

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Patrick Moberly (British Embassy, Israel 1970-4, HM Ambassador 1981-4)
This excellent survey of Britain in Palestine is actually two stories in one: covering both the broad historical sweep of the Mandate period, and the day-today reactions of individual British participants as recorded at the time.

Sherman displays a sure touch in taking us through the controversial and ultimately tragic sequence of events at both levels, historical and personal, drawing on scores of letters and diaries by British officials - and their wives - as well as soldiers, policemen and other British expatriates. Indeed it is a surprise how much contemporary material was collected and is available today, thanks (in Sherman's words) to "that last generation of assiduous letter-writers and diarists" before the modern trend in media and communications overtook most of us.

The fatal ambiguity of the Balfour Declaration with its irreconcilable commitments to Jew and to Arab meant that Britain's role in Palestine was doomed from the start. As Sherman makes clear, British officials were forced to steer a zigzag course between Arabs and Zionists, incurring the wrath of both. One British official wrote home about his sense of helplessness in trying to control violence: "the infuriating and humiliating part of the whole business is that we can do literally nothing about it". Another wrote that "it is impossible to please both Jews and Arabs". Sir Henry Gurney, the last Chief Secretary in Palestine, later to be killed while High Commissioner in Malaya, admitted that an otherwise efficient British administration was "built upon sand". No wonder that Churchill in 1945 described the Palestine Mandate as "this painful and thankless task".

Thankless it was, as the men on the spot were only too well aware, often blaming London for overriding, or at least failing to understand, the view from Jerusalem. Towards the end, as violence and unrest gathered pace, life for the British became increasingly hazardous and all too many lives were lost. Yet through it all, some at least could look on the bright side. Typical of many was the heartfelt wish of one British schoolteacher when she wrote: "it could be such a lovely country if only the people in it were different". That, of course, was just the point. Palestine was different from any of Britain's other colonial territories with their relatively clear-cut roles of governors and governed.

There are revealing glimpses of the daily round, sometimes homely, sometimes amusing, with social life proceeding more or less normally as elsewhere, largely inward-looking and hierarchical, fine distinctions among the British being "worked out to several places of decimals" as one resident noted. Social activities were as British as they could be, circumstances permitting. Above all, officials and others did their best, as Sherman puts it, not to let the side down. A mere three or four hundred expatriates were enough to administer the country, although by 1947 over 100,000 British troops and police were also deployed in a vain effort to hold the ring between Arabs and Jews.

Imagining the if's of history is tempting but fruitless, even with the benefit of hindsight 50 years later. If only the Mandate had not been fatally flawed at the outset. If only policy-makers in London had been more imaginative, or High Commissioners bolder, or the two rival communities less dogmatic, especially during early years of the Mandate. If only partition had been accepted peacefully before it was decided in the end by force of arms between two warring communities. This is the stuff of dreams, however, whereas Sherman is rightly concerned with events and people as they really were, like actors in a Greek play moving irresistibly to a tragic and pre-ordained end.

Hereby hangs the fascination, yet sadness, of Mandate Days as it chronicles men and women faced with problems and pressures in Palestine beyond anyone's capacity ultimately to control. One cannot read the book without being struck by the sheer Britishness of those whose thoughts and reactions to everyday events are so well captured here - "ordinary individuals" Sherman concludes, "caught up in an extraordinary situation".

British Empire Book
A. J. Sherman
Thames & Hudson Ltd.


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