The Year Palestinian Nationalism Became Malign and Self-Destructive

September 1, 2023 | Michael M. Rosen
About the author: Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer living in Israel. Reach him at [email protected].

In Palestine 1936, Oren Kessler argues that the year of the title was the one in which the Israeli-Arab conflict took shape in its present form. The key event of that year was the Arab Revolt against British rule in Mandatory Palestine, which involved much violence against Jews. London forcefully repressed the revolt—but also gave in to its primary demand by drastically curtailing Jewish immigration. Michael M. Rosen writes in his review:

In March 1934, David Ben-Gurion, then a rising leader within the Labor Zionist movement and the head of the Histadrut labor union, met with Musa Alami, personal secretary to [the British Mandate’s] High Commissioner Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, to discuss potential arrangements. While cordial, the meeting concluded disastrously. Ben-Gurion and his ally Moshe Shertok had assumed they had a certain commonality of interests with the Arabs, but “that assumption was shattered” by their discussions with Alami. Israel’s first prime minister would later recall their proposed coexistence as an “experiment that failed.”

Instead, the Jewish community recommitted itself in the wake of the Great Revolt to expanding settlements, especially in the Galilee, where the Arab population predominated. From Bet She’an in the east to Nahariya in the west, Jewish pioneers laid down stakes, establishing new villages and homesteads while surreptitiously buying up land from Arabs who were fearful of reprisals for overtly selling to Jews.

Meanwhile, Ben-Gurion’s previous posture of havlagah—restraint—in the face of Arab attacks began to give way to proactive deterrence by the armed Haganah and its offshoots. As Kessler puts it, the Jewish community’s forces were “being transformed from a loose confederation of local night-watchmen to a unified, mobile, countrywide Jewish paramilitary, and one increasingly willing to pursue the enemy.”

As Kessler demonstrates in this sobering and engaging history, 1936 crystallized the many elements of the Arab-Israeli conflict in ways that other hinge dates did not. It was then that “the Arabs of Palestine had effectively already lost the war,” owing, in Alami’s words, to their “inability to create some kind of real unity among ourselves.” It was then that Palestinian Arab nationalism and intransigence melded into a malign and self-destructive force—and Jews coalesced into a determined fighting power.

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