New studies illuminate the years leading up to Israel’s rebirth

To the Gates of Jerusalem, James G. McDonald; Norman J. W. Goda, Barbara McDonald Stewart, Severin Hochberg, and Richard Breitman, eds. Indiana University Press. 320 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

 The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land, by Patrick Bishop. Harper, 320 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

Perhaps no one had a better ringside and inside seat at the deliberations that eventually led to the United Nation’s actions paving the way to Israel’s 1948 declaration of statehood than James G. McDonald. His dogged and dexterous work as a key member of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry was positioned between two more notable posts: the League of Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1930s and the first U. S. Ambassador to Israel from 1949-1951.   
Gates of Jerusalem

The Committee had the double charge of proposing solutions to the enormous problem of Jewish refugees at the close of WWII and to the academically separate but finally inseparable issue of the British Mandate for Palestine’s eventual resolution. McDonald’s diary entries throughout the entire work of the Committee constitute a unique primary source of information about the progress of the Committee on its way to its ultimate recommendations.

The hearings, the partisan bickering and bargaining, the drafting and redrafting, the mixture of tedium and emotionally supercharged moments are captured in a sturdy, often eloquent style filled with colorful descriptions and sharp judgments. McDonald’s comments about his fellow committee members are fully engaging, as are his descriptions of travels, accommodations, and recreations that were very much part of the experience.

McDonald’s record of abominable refugee camp conditions crosses paths with notes on concerts, museum visits, glorious sightseeing, and grand dinners without any apparent irony in the juxtapositions.

The cast of characters with whom McDonald was in touch goes far beyond the Committee members to major government officials and leaders of international associations, all of them vying for influence – especially with regard to the partition and immigration issues. Indeed, it becomes clear that Truman’s final position on a Jewish State was largely shaped by McDonald’s shrewd management of the frustrated, suspicious president.

Surrounding the diary excerpts, the editors provide – as if with a single voice – expansive contextualizing commentary, biographies of key players, and a constant stream of useful, well-turned footnotes. Unusually engaging and suspenseful for a scholarly enterprise, To the Gates of Jerusalem is a must for all university libraries and all collections focused on the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century.

This volume, published in association with The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is the third in a four-volume series of McDonald’s papers.

*****************

Most literature about the steps that took Mandate Palestine to its demise and Israel to its rise focuses on Zionist enterprise in Europe, the U.S., and Palestine. In such explorations, little attention is paid to the purpose and effectiveness of the Palestine Police Force as a primary agent of British rule. What’s fresh about Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning is his decision to focus on the PPF. In the book, we see less of the usual gallery of Jewish heroes and more of the upper-level British governing establishment in Palestine.

Ultimately, it is an archetypal David and Goliath story. David, in this case, is the Jewish terrorist cop-killer (freedom fighter?) Avraham Stern. Goliath is Geoffrey Morton, assistant superintendent of the Palestine Police Force. Morton is a rigid law-and-order man — a purist. In his own way, Stern is also a purist, his fanaticism more obvious and much closer to madness. Recokeninghcc

Bishop judiciously takes advantage of previously published writings while introducing newly discovered sources to sharpen his portraits of the times and the personalities battling over Israel. He creates complex depictions of his combatants, taking them back to their roots and up to the moment of ultimate confrontation.

For this reader, for all of their differences, both men shared the capacity for imagining a perfected self, role-playing that self, and becoming the part they played. Zionist Stern was far more flamboyant in dress and manner, but Morton had an edge to his conventionality. Neither respected shades of grey.

Spinning around these central figures are well-managed contextualizing treatments of the overall British mandate administration and its quagmire in which the promise of the Balfour Declaration kept butting heads with the need for Arab oil. The obvious Arab alliance with Nazi Germany was something Britain allowed to be colored by its nostalgia for its disappearing colonial heritage and its long relationship with Arab populations.

Bishop is also able to give an impactful sense of the Yishuv, the organizing Jewish community in Palestine, and its love-hate relationship with Stern. Major Jewish political forces in Palestine did not buy Stern’s assertion that the British were the real enemy of Zionism. Stern saw the policy of restraint following Arab attacks — in an attempt to win sympathy and favor in British and world opinion — as foolish.

Whether called the Stern Gang or the Stern Group, the Zionist leader’s insistence on terrorist tactics made him public enemy number one; wanted posters were everywhere. It was Morton’s job to maintain law and order, to put an end to the bombings and shootings of PPF personnel for which Stern was happy to take credit.

In this tale, of which we know the outcome — Stern dies at the hands (bullets) of Morton — it is still possible to build suspense.

Bishop manages this, in part, by creating a sense of the events happening now. He provides a wealth of precise, vivid detail that bridges the distance between the 1940s and today. He emphasizes what’s at stake for each man. He alternates points of view so that the emotional story of each contestant is interrupted by that of his counterpart, allowing a suspense-building delay before returning to the other perspective.

Like any good journalist, Bishop has occasion to weigh contradictory evidence. Sometimes, this is a matter of evaluating written or recorded testimony. How do you measure a statement from many decades back against a more recent one? What does “consider the source” really mean?

Case in point: Just what did happen in the final minutes of Stern’s life? Did Morton shoot him in cold blood? Did he shoot him to prevent Stern from escaping? Did Stern resist arrest in order to die a martyr?

Witness memories and testimonies vary. With Bishop’s guidance, we test the logic of the statements in terms of other things we know about the conditions and the actors. We wonder about motives for a suspect action detail and about information withheld. Sifting through such variations and lacunae has its own strong attraction and suspense.

Morton had a much longer life than did the man he shot. In following Morton’s diminished career and considering his way of dealing with his shrinking importance, Bishop suggests a kind of posthumous victory for Stern. In fact, it did not take long for Stern’s position to gain strength after his death, leading to the Mandate’s end in 1948. In 1978, an Israeli postage stamp was issued in Stern’s honor. Three years later, a town was named after him.

Patrick Bishop has given us a sturdy, lucid, and highly colorful look at the no-win situation of British governance during the closing years of the Palestine Mandate. His book reads like a thriller, with the added attraction of providing a compelling account of how history unfolds and memory is shaped.

These reviews were first published separately in (respectively) Jewish Book World Summer 2015, Vol. 33 no. 2 and Washington Independent Review of Books (posted January 29, 2015). Reprinted by permission. First published together in the July-August 2015 issue of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July 2015 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota Manatee).

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s