There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bible and Sword on the bus

Finished reading Barbara W. Tuchman's 1956 history of England's connection to Palestine and its role in the re-creation of the Jewish state. "Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour" was Tuchman's first book. The title is a reference to the dual motivations that prompted England's involvement in Palestine.

When I finished Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Philip Caputo's 1991 memoir "Means of Escape," I had intended to then pick up Mariane Pearl's "A Mighty Heart," her tribute to her husband, Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Danny Pearl, who was killed by terrorists in Pakistan. When Pearl's book didn't arrive in time I went to the bookshelf in my home office and settled on Tuchman's book. It seemed a nice bridge between the tales of Lebanon and the Mideast of the 1980s and Pakistan and the Mideast of today.

I have read several books on the creation of the state of Israel and the persecution of the Jews in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, but I had never before read of England's Christian acts against its own Jews:

By the time of the Third Crusade in 1190 the association of Crusade and pogrom was automatic, and the killings began immediately on Richard's coronation, though not on his order. Once started, they spread in waves from London to all the cities in which Jews lived, until the final ghastly climax at York, where the only Jews to escape slaughter by the mob were those who slew their wives and children and then died by their own hand.
In 1291 all Jews were expelled from England, and they would not be allowed to return for 350 years.

For Arthur Balfour, whose declaration at the end of the First World War set the stage for England's role in the creation of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine, the proposal "was an opportunity not only of bringing the Holy Land back to life out of the desolation of Moslem rule, but also of 'doing something material to wash out an ancient stain upon our own civilization'."

For her part, Tuchman stands firmly with the Israelis against the claims that promises made to the Arabs at the end of World War I were broken when the Jews were promised a homeland:
No one, neither Feisal nor Lawrence nor Weizmann nor Sykes nor the Cabinet nor anyone else, thought of the promise to the Arabs as conflicting with the still inchoate plans for the Zionists, or even with the Balfour Declaration once it was issued. A huge bulk of territory was covered by the MacMahon promise to the Arabs, but not what Balfour used to call the 'small notch' that was Palestine proper. All the Arab claims of later years cannot conceal the fact that both the old Sherif Hussein and Feisal, the active leader, were cognizant of and acquiesced in the exclusion of Palestine from the area of their promised independence, whether or not they had any mental reservations. ...

Weizmann visited Feisal at his desert headquarters in Amman, and there under the stars, with the omnipresent Lawrence making the third of a remarkable trio, the basis for a common understanding was reached. Later, in Paris, it was put in the form of a written document, signed by Feisal and Weizmann, in which the Emir agreed to 'the fullest guarantees for carrying into effect the British government's [the Balfour] Declaration of November 2, 1917,' including 'all necessary measures to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale.' Feisal moreover addressed a letter to the American Zionist delegates at the Peace Conference saying ... 'there is room in Syria for us both,' and that 'indeed, I think that neither can be a real success without the other.'

Only later, after the Hashimite family failed to unify all the Arab lands and people, when they were pushed out of Syria and lost Arabia to Ibn Saud, did a new set of Arab leaders maintain that Britain's pledge to the Jews had conflicted from the beginning with the Britain's pledge to the Arabs.
Amid the swirling claims and counterclaims about Palestine it is helpful to consider what Tuchman had to say about national history in general:
A nation's past history governs its present actions -- but only in terms of what its citizens believe their past history to have been. For history, as Napoleon so succinctly put it, "is a fable agreed upon."
The Arabs and the Jews lack this common fable agreed upon.

In her introduction to the book, Tuchman wrote:
Historically the occupier of Palestine has always met disaster, beginning with the Jews themselves. The country's political geography has conquered its rulers. But now that the original occupant has returned, perhaps the curse will run its course, and the most famous land in history may some day find peace.
Fifty years after Tuchman wrote those words it is still not clear if "the most famous land in history may some day find peace."

"The Bible and Sword" is an excellent example of why Barbara Tuchman became a widely popular historian, eventually winning two Pulitzers.


ByJane said...

yep, and that undercurrent of anti- antisemitism is burbling in Britain. I haven't read Tuchman, but I've taken several courses at UJ on Jewish/Israeli history. It's painful to listen to.

Wonder what comments you'll get here...

John said...

Yes, anti-Semitism is still around, just as racism refuses to disappear. It is a very deeply embedded trait of mankind, a tribalism that allowed humans to defeat all competitors as they swept out of Africa and to the far reaches of the globe.

This tribalism is not a survival mechanism; just the opposite. It is likely the most uncivilized trait we carry on today.

ByJane said...

But can a trait that has been embedded that long and progressed that far with the various cultures it attached to--can it not be seen as in some way a survival mechanism? I'm thinking it has to be, to have continued for that long.

John said...

The "tribal" fixation does help groups of people to survive. The Jews are an excellent example. No other people, according to Tuchman, had survived as a people without an actual place to anchor their existence, hence the importance of Israel today.

But the Aryan tribe's effort to eliminate the Hebrew tribe is the other side of that coin, and unfortunately the far more common side.

Short of an invasion from outer space, I don't see how mankind can ever overcome this tribal reflex.

Just listen to how many times you hear criticism of "those people." Who are "those people"? Anyone outside your comfort zone. Anyone outside your tribe. I've run into complaints about "those people" more than once in discussions of why people won't ride buses.

We are constantly sorting and categorizing -- us, them, us, them.

ByJane said...

The Great Binary. I don't think the answer is to deny it's existence, but to acknowledge it.