Does Israel Miss The British Mandate?

Seems we Israelis, or some of us, may have been nostalgic for the British Mandate period for — well, for ever-since-the-Brits-got-on-their-boats-and-shipped-back-to-the-UK. Professor Eitan Bar-Yosef of Ben Gurion University says we have missed them in two different ways; neither of these are very complimentary to us, but not in a mean way. In any case, I found his article interesting for two reasons: first, for its fascinating analysis of Israeli literature, and secondly, for what it may have to say about coming to terms with the situation in which we Israelis find ourselves today.

Bar-Yosef writes that, according to Israeli literature and cinema and theater productions, we missed the Brits in one way between 1948 and 1967, and now, in another way since 1967. Called

Bonding with the British: Colonial Nostalgia and the Idealization of Mandatory Palestine in Israeli Literature and Culture after 1967

his article was published in Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society in the spring/summer 2017 issue. I cannot do his full article justice in this short piece and recommend you read the entire work as it is rich and detailed. Here, I can only bring you some of my impressions.

Post-48 Nostalgia For the British Mandate

Bar-Yosef opens his article with one aspect of post independence Israel: looking back on the heroism of the fight for that very independence as something-lost once that longed-for-something was gained. Referring to Yitzhak Shalev’s 1964 novel, The Gavriel Tirosh Affair, Bar-Yosef explains how:

. . . trapped in his settled, petty, bourgeois life in post-1948 Jerusalem—now a grim, divided city—the narrator yearns for the lost Mandatory world in which the Jews’ struggle for independence is associated with idealism, adventure, and romance. [page 2]

In other words, once the exciting stuff had led to the prize, the boring stuff set in, that of running a country that needs daily maintenance and attention to housekeeping tasks. Yet, the constant threat that still hung over the country, sometimes breaking out into open hostilities and war, seems to belie the possibility for complacency and boredom in spite of the growing prosperity of middle class Israelis.

Regular and reserve soldiers rode the buses and strode the streets, rifles slung over their shoulders, and they must have been a constant reminder that heroism was still very much a part of early Israeli national life, much as it is to this day. Perhaps we can attribute Shalev’s nostalgia, then, not to the heroic times of the British Mandate, but to the heroic times of his own youth; he was 45 when he published the book to which Bar-Yosef refers.

This does not negate the idealization of the pre-1948 heroism in any way and Israel engaged in it with a great deal of energy:

This nostalgic sentiment, idealizing the Jewish struggle against the British, was reflected in virtually every sphere of Israeli cultural production, from novels and popular songs to children’s literature and informal education. [page 7]

I hesitate, however, to call this national nostalgia. The challenges of building a new country while still at war with neighbours was excitement enough for Israelis, young and old, I think, such that they need not look back to the British Mandate as their only source of pride and inspiration. In addition, turning pre-independence stories into legends is a normal part of nation building.

Post-67 Nostalgia for the British Mandate

Following the 1967 Six Day War, according to Bar-Yosef, there arose a nostalgia different from yearning for the adrenaline-pumping Palmach, Etzel and Lehi days — rather, a yearning for the trappings of our colonialized position. This was two-pronged: on the one hand, the idealized image of Jews and Arabs and Brits meeting as equals under the auspices of the latter, and on the other hand, the situation in which Jews did not have to claim responsibility for anyone but themselves.

Yearning for the Trappings of Colonial Comradery

Drawing on David Shachar’s 1976 novel, Day of the Countess, Bar-Yosef gives an example of the first kind of post-67 British Mandate period nostalgia.

Describing the most “enchanted day” of summer 1936 (eight days before the eruption of violence), the narrator recalls a delightful lunchtime gathering at Jerusalem’s Café Gat at which many of the sequence’s protagonists — Jews, Arabs, and Britons — are convened, engaged in an elaborate series of social and cultural interactions (involving music, dancing, photography, and poetry). [page 10]

Bar Yosef goes on to discuss fictional affairs between Jews and “the other”: such as Mrs. Kipnis leaving her husband and son in Jerusalem and running off with an English officer (Oz, 1976, The Hill of Evil Counsel) or the love affair between a Jewish woman and an Arab Christian (Ganani, 1989, Crossfire). Bar-Yosef sees these examples of intimacy, and the destruction that lies in their wake (the abandoned son, the murder of the Jewish lover) as representing the fleeting nature of the British Mandate umbrella under which there could be togetherness, but that

. . . are eventually swept away from each other, either by historical forces or by the prejudices and national chauvinism of their communities. [page 14]

I tend to see these affairs, however, as something else entirely, for, surely, even as the elite were dressing up and dancing together at fancy balls, the seemingly cosmopolitan comradery concealed impending betrayal and deception that may have already been spoken about behind closed doors. Were the British not about to offer to divide up, for a second time, the land supposedly intended for the Jews? Were the British not about to stop Jewish immigration from Nazi Europe into the Mandate? Had the Arabs not conducted pogroms against the Jews in Tzfat and Hebron just a few years before this (and even periodically over the past 1500 years)? Were the authors nostalgic? Or were they in denial?

Nostalgia for Absence of Responsibility

Even as he, himself, characterizes nostalgia for the Mandate as nostalgic fantasy, Bar-Yosef devotes a fair bit of attention to this theme of an idealized society under the British Mandate, as it showed up in a number of novels, films and plays post-1967. Referring to Shulamith Hareven’s City of Many Days (1972) he writes:

Jerusalem after 1967 may once again be a united city, where Jews can travel safely to Mount Scopus; but with the British gone, the Palestinians humiliated, the old Sephardi families marginalized, and the elderly German Jews vanishing, a truly cosmopolitan Jerusalem seems increasingly unattainable. [page 11]

Perhaps a key phrase above is: “the Palestinians humiliated”. We Jews were the cause of their humiliation.

Removing the border between Israel and the West Bank and thus restoring the open, unobstructed landscape of the Mandate period, this old-new geopolitical reality swiftly became the central bone of contention preoccupying Israelis, to this day: what should the future of the Occupied (or “Liberated”) Territories and of the Palestinian population living in them be? [page 11]

So here is the conflict – the “unobstructed landscape of the Mandate period” (however, remember that this was only less than half of it) was reproduced, but this time it was us, the Jews, who ruled over it and not the British.

I think it is instructive to see what our leaders did as soon as we had captured/recaptured the Jordanian occupied “West Bank,” as the Jordanians had renamed it: We held it as if it was a hot potato! Moshe Dayan ordered the IDF unit that had hoisted the Israeli flag on the Temple Mount to take it down before it could be photographed, and the government held the land, not as a sovereign would, but as a bargaining chip — land for peace became the new mantra, even as the left-wing government went about setting up new communities of Jews on a very small piece of that land. (This point, land held as a bargaining chip, is debated by historians and I will explore that debate in separate articles in the future.)

Bar-Yosef interprets General Ezer Weizman as having felt uneasy with Israel regaining the lands of Judea & Samaria when he puts together a Weizman quote cited by Tom Segev in his book, 1967, and an idea attributed to Gershom Gorenberg from his book, The Accidental Empire:

As I traveled the roads of the liberated land of Israel, I kept thinking a British policeman would appear from around the bend on a motorcycle, stop me, and give me a speeding ticket. (Segev) This time, however, there were no British policemen on the roads: the new colonial masters were the Israelis themselves. (Gorenberg) [page 17]

I do not have the entire text of what Weizman wrote at that time, so I cannot be sure, but given that Weizman talks about “the liberated land of Israel” I do not get the impression that he was uneasy (at least at first) about us being there in place of the British, as Bar-Yosef infers. I am not sure that Weizman would have agreed back then with juxtaposing his comment about the liberated land with Gorenberg who talked about Jews living in Judea & Samaria as if they are colonialists. Although, given his later attitude toward the residents of J&S, it is quite possible that that did become true for him later.

If leftist historians referred to Israel as a colonial master and leftist politicians regarded the land as a bargaining chip, and if, as Bar-Yosef suggests, the bulk of post-67 Israeli novels, films and plays were/are written and produced by members of the left who agree with this terminology, then it is not hard to understand why there would be a particular form of nostalgia for the British Mandate on the part of leftist artists. Such nostalgia can be seen as a wish to:

. . . liberate Israeli Jews from the burden of dominance. Once again colonial subjects, governed by a benign colonial father, they are free from responsibility—and from guilt. [page 17]

Guilt is neither a comfortable position nor one that can offer a strong basis upon which to argue a political proposal for resolving what has been termed as the most intractable conflict in history (but which is, in fact, far from being that). Those on the left, then, instead of speaking of guilt speak of human rights, and I do not doubt their sincerity. However, if we were to operate from a position of responsibility, we might find more success. Responsibility is a position in which guilt may not be relevant at all, after all, perhaps it is time for Israel to stop apologizing for having won the wars that intended our extinction and just put our shoulders to the wheel.

Bar-Yosef speaks of the fact that, while the leftist writers and producers idealize the British Mandate and miss having had a “protective British ‘father'” [page 23], they do not, in fact, have to give up their privileged status as Jewish Israelis:

That these seemingly subversive political fantasies can only imagine decolonization (of Israel’s “accidental empire”) by idealizing a previous colonial era reveals some of the contradictions and blind spots that characterize Israel’s Zionist left. [page 27]

By blind spots and contradictions, it seems that Bar-Yosef is referring to the difficulty of living with ambiguity. The British Mandate contributed to our development both positively and negatively. It is part of our history. Even if it is merely the blink of an eye in the march of time, it is still an important period to re-examine and synthesize in our cultural products . . . and then move on.

Some of those on the right, like me, ask that Israel stop apologizing for having regained Judea & Samaria after thousands of years of such a large proportion of us having been uprooted from our indigenous land, and put all our heads together to figure out how to be a modern sovereign state . We were not very good at it back in ancient times, but we have to finally learn how to be good at it now if we want to survive. Part of this involves developing our collective national memory, telling stories about our national heroes, adding modern legends to ancient. The arts help us do this. I await the next chapter, the next developmental stage. And I wait for Bar-Yosef to help me understand it as I wrestle with his ideas, whether or not I end up agreeing with his conclusions.

This article was first published on Israel Diaries.

Check Also

The Temple Mount: Whose Is It?

In early May 2021 Israeli authorities had to cope with a high level of unrest …