His­to­rian’s moral out­rage

Bri­tain’s Hege­mony in Pales­tine and the Mid­dle East 1917-56

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Michael J Co­hen

Val­len­tine Mitchell, £50

Re­viewed by Bernard Wasser­stein

IN­SIDE THE soul of ev­ery hard­boiled re­al­ist is a moraliser strug­gling to get out. Karl Marx pur­ported to be a sci­en­tific an­a­lyst of so­ci­ety but his writ­ings are in­fused with pas­sion­ate in­vec­tive. Rick Blaine in Casablanca, who will “stick out his neck for no­body”, is ex­posed by the end of the pic­ture as a “rank sen­ti­men­tal­ist”. Michael J Co­hen is a vet­eran his­to­rian of the Bri­tish man­date in Pales­tine whose work has em­pha­sised the role of Realpoli­tik in the mak­ing of pol­icy. His new book is a col­lec­tion of ar­ti­cles, most pub­lished pre­vi­ously in learned jour­nals, again stress­ing the im­por­tance of po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency and state in­ter­ests in Bri­tish de­ci­sions re­gard­ing Pales­tine.

Yet an un­der­ly­ing leit­mo­tif of moral out­rage emerges, no­tably in Co­hen’s treat­ment of three cen­tral char­ac­ters: Win­ston Churchill, Harry Tru­man, and the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin alHusayni.

In ear­lier books, Co­hen de­bunked the com­mon view of Churchill and Tru­man as de­voted friends of the Jews and Zion­ism. Here, he adds fur­ther tid­bits of ev­i­dence to his in­dict­ments.

Con­test­ing the late Sir Martin Gil­bert’s por­trayal of the wartime prime min­is­ter, Co­hen ar­gues that “the Churchill leg­end, in all that con­cerned the Jews and Zion­ism, did not match up to re­al­ity.” He dis­putes Gil­bert’s ac­count of the pro­posal in 1944 for the Al­lied bomb­ing of Auschwitz. Co­hen main­tains that Churchill, af­ter is­su­ing an in­struc­tion for the bomb­ing to go ahead, “turned down the bomb­ing Win­ston Churchill and right, Harry Tru­man — “a big­oted racist” project.” The ev­i­dence of­fered for this find­ing is not, how­ever, con­clu­sive.

Tru­man, ac­cord­ing to Co­hen, was “a big­oted racist”. Quot­ing anti-Jewish re­marks from the pres­i­dent’s pri­vate di­ary, Co­hen de­picts Tru­man’s oc­ca­sional pro-Zion­ist state­ments as con­ces­sions to the po­lit­i­cal weight of the Jewish vote in New York.

In a painstak­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of the Bri­tish govern­ment’s fail­ure af­ter the war to ar­rest the Mufti for war crimes, Co­hen ex­co­ri­ates Bri­tish pol­icy-mak­ers and sev­eral his­to­ri­ans (“Arab apol­o­gists”). Bri­tish of­fi­cials, he writes, “never found a way to wrig­gle out of the moral obli­ga­tion to ar­raign the ex-Mufti”, who had fa­mously broad­cast for the Nazis from wartime Ber­lin.

Co­hen pro­nounces con­fi­dently that he was “guilty of high trea­son” un­der Pales­tinian law. Whether the Mufti, a ci­ti­zen of Pales­tine, a man­dated ter­ri­tory that was not part of the Bri­tish em­pire, could have been suc­cess­fully pros­e­cuted for that of­fence is ques­tion­able — though, as Co­hen points out, that other no­to­ri­ous Nazi pro­pa­gan­dist, “Lord Haw-Haw” (Wil­liam Joyce) was hanged, not­with­stand­ing that he was an Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen.

Co­hen scores pal­pa­ble hits against all three tar­gets with­out quite scor­ing a bull’s-eye. Viewed in po­lit­i­cal con­text, Churchill and Tru­man both still ap­pear to have been as­sets rather than li­a­bil­i­ties to the Zion­ist cause. As for the Mufti, Co­hen in­sists that Bri­tish fail­ure to act against him “had lit­tle or noth­ing to do with moral­ity or jus­tice, and ev­ery­thing to do with realpoli­tik.”

Co­hen seems in­dig­nant. But af­ter a ca­reer de­voted hero­ically to prov­ing the supremacy of rai­son d’etat, why

should he be at all sur­prised?

Bernard Wasser­stein is Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of His­tory, Univer­sity of Chicago


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