Yesterday I finished reading Tom Segev’s book One Palestine Complete, which I had been working through on and off since March. In the book, Segev covers the thirty year period (1917-1947) that Palestine was under British control, as part of the mandate they inherited from the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War One. Published in 2000, this work was hailed by numerous of Segev’s peers, particularly the Israeli ‘New Historians’ Avi Shlaim and Omer Bartov, for demythologizing many of the Zionist myths about the origins of the conflict. However, those like myself who are looking for a thorough historical account of this period will likely be disappointed.
As Bartov pointed out in his review of the book for the New York Times, the strengths of Segev’s work are also its main weaknesses. Drawing heavily upon letters and journal entries, Segev views through a magnifying glass the individual and private lives of British, Jewish, and Palestinian figures central to the area’s history during the mandate years. In that sense, the narrative focus of One Palestine Complete is even and consistent. Yet the individualistic approach of Segev’s narrative means that the reader is exposed to a long list of characters, some of whom disappear within a few pages, and some that span the entire book. In particular, Segev often returns to the Arab nationalist intellectual Khalil al-Sakakini and the Jewish businessman and poet Alter Levine as his points of reference. The intertwined personal history of these two men, as well as the impact that the socio-political events of the time had on their relationship over the thirty year period, is quite interesting. Likewise, we are intimately introduced to more famous historical personages such as Chaim Weizmann, Herbert Samuel, the Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, David Ben-Gurion, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. These recurring characters disappear and then reappear throughout the narrative as if they were walking on and off-stage, giving the entire book the quality of a historical drama. As a result, One Palestine Complete stands less as a distanced, scholarly work of history than as a series of impressionistic vignettes about life in British Palestine.
Alongside Segev’s work I was also reading Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, Avi Shlaim’s new work Israel and Palestine, and Reinhard Schulze’s A Modern History of the Islamic World. I found myself having to turn to these books for additional context precisely because Segev too often avoids giving a thorough analysis of the political, social, and economic circumstances that led the British to adopt the policies they did towards the Jews and Arabs. One of the most controversial claims made by Segev – that the British consistently favored the Zionists over the Arabs (contra to the official Zionist narrative) because they believed in the hidden power of the world’s Jewish diaspora – hangs over the entire book and is periodically alluded to, but is never explored in any systematic fashion. Furthermore, within the context of the unofficial divide in historical methodology between those who stress impersonal, long-term factors as playing the decisive role in historical events, and those who stress individual agency, Segev comes down far too firmly on the side of the latter. Too often the decisions made by British administrators are explained as the result of the personal influence of Weizmann or Ben-Gurion, and the inability of al-Husseini to cultivate the same form of bond with the mandate government. Social and economic factors like the relationship between Jewish immigration and Arab unemployment are touched upon in a number of places, but overall deserve a more prominent place than they have been given.
While Segev is quite competent at providing a ground level view of everyday life in British Palestine, one likewise gets the impression that he never reconciles for himself whether politics, social relations, or personal narratives should be the prism through which the book is written. In other words, while One Palestine Complete is formally consistent, it is too wavering in its content. At its best, One Palestine Complete reveals an intriguing number of details about the personal and professional relations that shaped the history of the region. At its worst, however, in his quest for providing as accurate a representation of life during this period as possible, Segev descends into a flurry of minute and tangential details (secret affairs, the inside decor of officials’ houses, the daily routines of certain individuals) that will ultimately be irrelevant for someone seeking a more structural and less personal reconstruction of the conflict.