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