Michael J. Cohen, Britain's Hegemony in Palestine and the Middle East, 1917-56: Changing Strategic Imperatives. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2017.
Michael J. Cohen, emeritus professor of history at Bar-Ilan University, was one of the first historians of the British Mandate in Palestine to use declassified primary sources at the Public Records Office (now the National Archives) in the late 1960s. His premise has been that Zionism is an authentic national liberation movement with a priori rights to Palestine. Consequently, British attempts in the 1930s to amend the Balfour Declaration’s supposedly binding promise to advance proprietary Zionist claims above all others were interpreted by Cohen as a retreat from its obligations under the Mandate. Britain’s “guilty men” tried to appease the Arab world and, by buying its dubious loyalties, thereby preserve their imperial interest in the Middle East from Axis menaces. This duplicitous strategy of self-preservation at Jewish expense was cursed by an elemental shabbiness, ultimately meeting judgment in the form of the Jewish armed resistance that drove Britain from Eretz Israel in 1948. Like other culpable anti-Semites, personified by the Palestinian Arab leader and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the British were providentially beaten and despoiled. Cohen and his collaborators, such as Martin Kolinsky, portray Britain’s humiliation in Palestine as the harbinger of its general imperial decline during World War II and the early Cold War period. Threadbare and demoralized, Britain resorted to subterfuge and manipulation to preserve its weakening hold, with 1948’s tragedy decisively replicated as farce during the 1956 Suez crisis.
The so-called new historians, beginning in the late 1980s, changed tack on Israel’s wars for statehood. While Cohen, affirming official mythologies, emphasized a persecuted people’s fortitude against Britain’s imperialist chicanery, the new historians cited newly-available evidence to interpret Zionism as a ruthless European settler-colonialist movement—well armed, robustly organized, substantially funded and politically well-supported from abroad. Israel forcibly displaced relatively defenseless Palestinian Arabs en masse and preemptively bought off its most dangerous adversary, King Abdullah of Jordan, by assigning him portions of the land and resources both parties coveted.
Cohen’s advocacy of Zionism as redemptive anticolonialism, seemingly given the blessing of history by Israel’s victories in 1967, was thereby forced onto the defensive right wing. Thereafter he, alongside scholars such as Efraim Karsh, tried to discredit the new historians, often more by tours of denunciatory force than by presenting convincing evidence to sustain traditional Zionist viewpoints. Cohen’s later articles, compiled in this volume, reassert an unblemished Israel sustaining its nationhood after 1948 via war and statecraft with great and regional powers. These analyses continue his past circumventions of most questions relating to non-Jewish Palestinians. He accords the latter the decentered nomenclature of “Arab,” recurrently implying that they were an acephalous mass with no essential territorial nor cultural identity linked to Palestine itself. He assigns them few distinguishing attributes beyond reactionary brutishness, summoned periodically to perform the work of an anti-people by their Nazi-loving leader, the “nefarious” mufti. These Arabs were the makers of their own distress by irrationally abandoning their territorial space to Zionist forces after November 1947, when “the tide of war still favoured” them (248–50). Overall, Cohen’s interpretations uncannily replicate contemporaneous Zionist viewpoints, for which they are, in effect, apologia writ large.
But debate on Palestine has long since moved on, theoretically, methodologically, and empirically, in ways this volume barely touches. This is Cohen’s second collection of mainly previously published articles and chapters, dating here from as early as 1986, and it often resembles reheated leftovers. Old polemics overshadow new ideas: for example, in discussing Zionist perspectives on the end of the Mandate, the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre is explained as one of many atrocities by “both sides” and “vengeance for the pogroms” (249). For examples of these, Cohen cites Arab attacks on Jaffa immigration hostels in 1921 and the murderous Arab sacking of Hebron’s Orthodox Jewish enclave during the Western Wall riots of 1929. The Irgun might indeed have felt this way but the related endnotes refer to no contemporaneous Zionist paramilitary records. That such ethnic cleansing was justified therefore seems to be the view of the author himself.
By contrast, any questioning of Zionism, whether historical or current, is inevitably conflated with anti-Semitism. This Cohen zealously hunts down in newly written chapters on Britain’s original promulgation of the Balfour Declaration, discussions in the 1920s on whether to amend it, and the question of whether Winston Churchill really was as much a friend of the Jews as his hagiographer Martin Gilbert claims. Similarly, Cohen preempts criticism via ethnically inflected innuendoes of anti-Israel animus. His attack on Sahar Huneidi’s scrupulous, albeit opinionated, monograph on pro-Zionist British leanings early in the Mandate, A Broken Trust (I. B. Tauris, 1999), is indicative. It “has all the apparatus of an academic work, but is heavily biased, replete with unfounded claims: her claim that [Zionist leader Chaim] Weizmann ‘tipped the scales on many occasions in favour of the Zionists, and to the detriment of the Arabs’ is not supported by any evidence” (41, n6).
A consultation of Weizmann’s own memoirs would correct this bold misstatement. So too would a happy day or two surveying related Cabinet and Colonial Office records, which show the frequent, privileged access the president of the Zionist Organization enjoyed to high British circles. Moreover, in his later chapter “The Strange Case of the Palestine White Paper, 1930,” Cohen details how Weizmann indeed orchestrated an effective campaign to negate the effects of this policy document in which Britain was apparently seeking to slough off the Balfour Declaration. Where the paper emphasized the “dual obligation” to Arab and Jewish communities, first articulated in the defining 1922 policy statement on Palestine, Weizmann was received by the cabinet and prevailed on Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to reinstate the primacy of the Jewish national home (92–101). Comparatively limited Arab Palestinian access to and dismissive treatment by metropolitan British policymakers might usefully be compared to that of Weizmann but is little considered; the results would challenge Cohen’s assertions of inherently pro-Arab British biases. Overall, his substantive omissions which ignore crucial recent literature are as striking as his active misinterpretations. The bibliography is so selective as to largely overlook the bulk of relevant new historiography since the year 2000. Cohen reflects on few current ideas except those tending to vindicate his established perspectives.
This tendency is compounded by recurrent lazy gaffes. In but one example, Cohen asserts that in 1948 the receptivity of President Truman (exposed elsewhere in the volume as a virulent anti-Semite) to Zionist influence was offset by “concurrent workings of the powerful Arab lobby.” Assuming its existence, this lobby is said to have included United States officials “parachuted” into “lucrative positions with ARAMCO, the giant Arab-American oil conglomerate” (3). But in 1948 ARAMCO had no Arab equity or management presence; it was all-American, barely capitalized, and only just beginning production. Saudi participation was limited to the receipt of small royalties. Certainly, King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was seen as vital to placate for the sake of the future and was indeed anti-Zionist. But he remained opaque on Palestine whenever sensing that conflict over that question might impinge upon his political and financial security. In 1948 ARAMCO had only just, with difficulty, persuaded the US government to intervene favorably in its affairs. Oil executives had certainly encouraged this during their temporary government service during World War II. But there is little evidence sustaining Cohen’s innuendo that US career diplomats served ARAMCO’s anti-Israel, implicitly anti-Semitic ends while in office, hoping for later lucrative employment by the company. A much closer State Department-CIA-ARAMCO symbiosis did follow, but only during the Dwight Eisenhower administration. In 1948, Democratic Party worries about pro-Zionist Jewish American voters, even where clearly exaggerated, prevailed over any such considerations.
As Irene Gendzier has shown in Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, and the Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East (Columbia University Press, 2015), whatever ARAMCO thought, American military chiefs saw Israel by 1949 as a potential geopolitical asset. This tallied with American public sympathy for Israel. In 1953 ARAMCO and the CIA finally did contrive a counter-lobby, orchestrated by the anti-Zionist, pro-Saudi American Friends of the Middle East (AFME). But AFME proved weak, and was soon eclipsed by the vigorous, resourceful, and populist American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Any worthwhile study of Colonel William Eddy, an AFME prime mover, who is Cohen’s subject in chapter eleven, must address his efforts to promote Saudi over Israeli ties as the basis of US-Middle Eastern policy in the 1950s. Hugh Wilford covers this in America’s Great Game (Basic Books, 2013) but Cohen does not refer to his work and inexplicably stops his narrative in 1949. Nor, except in passing, does he mention crucial American petroleum histories, notably that by David Painter, on ambivalent, uncertain public-private sector relations. These lapses are not incidental but indicative of the volume’s pervasive lacunae.
Like any anthology, Cohen’s has better items, such as chapter three, on illusory British hopes in the 1920s that the supposed financial power of “the Jews” would develop Mandatory Palestine as a cost-free imperial asset. Chapter eight interestingly studies roads not taken in abortive Anglo-American strategizing, between 1946 and 1955, on future Middle East war-fighting. But this too begs for deeper analysis on why the Americans spurned British overtures for a hegemonic anti-Soviet condominium, instead favoring postcolonial nation-building ideologies that were implicitly anti-imperialist. Overall, the volume is unlikely to serve current instructors, being out of touch with the latest literature and disingenuously partisan. Specialists would do better to consult Cohen’s original journal articles closest to their interests.