The Great Arab Revolt and Its Echoes Today

By | Dec 29, 2023

Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict
By Oren Kessler
Rowman & Littlefield
336 pp.

What, exactly, is Palestine? Although many countries and international organizations recognize it as a state, others do not. The UN has never admitted it as a full-fledged member, leaving the Palestinian Authority as a “non-member observer state.”

For those who chant “From the river to the sea,” Palestine includes the pre-1967 territory of Israel. For others, it’s the West Bank and Gaza Strip and all of, or just East, Jerusalem. Historically, “Syria Palaestina” was the name that the Romans, who called the area “Judaea” following their conquest of it in the first century BCE, gave to roughly the same swath of Levantine territory in 135 AD. In that year, according to some historians, Emperor Hadrian changed the name as a rebuke to the indigenous Jews he exiled after the Bar Kochba revolt.

The Greek historian Herodotus had used “Palaistine” centuries earlier. Some Arabs began using it in the 19th century for their aspirational homeland following a hoped-for liberation from the Ottomans. Most famously, it’s the name that the League of Nations, steered by Allied victors after World War I, applied to roughly the same territory, putting “Mandatory Palestine” under the rule of Great Britain after the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Why, then, in the 1920s and 1930s, did some in the Mideast—both Arabs and Jews—think of Palestine as part of “Southern Syria” or “Greater Syria” (Herodotus himself refers to it as “a district of Syria”)? Why did some think of it as part of Transjordan (forerunner of today’s Jordan), which annexed the West Bank section of Palestine in 1950 before losing it later? Why, amid all the endless media coverage today of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, do so few of the conflict’s historical roots and possible solutions, once actively discussed by both Jews and Arabs, make it into the conversation?

Oren Kessler’s Palestine 1936, declared one of the “10 Best Books of 2023” by The Wall Street Journal, helps answer those questions. In it, Kessler, a dual American/Israeli citizen and journalist who went to Israel after graduating from college in 2006 and has reported for Haaretz and other publications, sets out fastidious research into 1930s Palestine and the tensions that culminated in the Great Arab Revolt of 1936, bringing that era back to life and suggesting how it influences contemporary debates. Working through Kessler’s exquisitely clear, fair-minded account of the period, and how it changed thinking on all sides, might produce more informed discussion both in the media and on the ramparts.


Kessler’s introduction should disabuse any reader of the thought that he is writing a one-sided Jewish take on the subject. Noting the dearth of books in Hebrew specifically about the Great Arab Revolt, he writes, “Zionism’s champions have always regarded it as a struggle for self-determination, not the denial of the same to others…a large-scale, concerted uprising against that forward-marching tale seems an unwelcome disruption in the narrative arc.” He unfolds his story through a mix of Jewish and Arab players, some of them well-known—David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem—and others less so, such as Musa Alami, a Jerusalem-born, Cambridge-educated attorney and activist who, Kessler says, enjoyed “near-universal affection and esteem from Arabs, Britons, and Jews alike.”

In keeping with newspaper usage of the time, Kessler resists describing “those whom we today call Palestinians” as such. He prefers “Palestinian Arabs,” because “that is how they were almost invariably known at the time, including by their own spokesman.” In turn, Jews of the region, in Mandate newspapers, were known as Palestinian Jews.

Palestine 1936 offers a detailed blow-by-blow of everything from early 20th-century European policy toward Palestine—the Sykes-Picot carving up of the Levant, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1922 White Paper, the 1937 Peel Commission Report, the 1939 White Paper—to the internecine battles among both Jews and Arabs of the era, and the endless floating of partition plans. Amid all these complexities, Kessler brings some key facts and distinctions back into the spotlight. The first is how Zionism’s aspiration for a Jewish “homeland” evolved into a fierce determination that the “homeland” would have to be a Jewish state, with Jews in control, not their Arab neighbors. Kessler doesn’t deny how Jewish immigration built up the existing Yishuv (Jewish community) of Palestine from only about 7 percent of the population on the eve of World War I to considerably more. Indeed, he reports the changing percentages and land sales by Arabs to Jews:

Britain had allowed 30,00 Jewish immigrants in 1933, 42,000 in 1934, and a record 62,000 in 1935. And that was before counting the tens of thousands of Jews who had arrived illegally. There were now nearly 400,000 Jews in the country—almost 30 percent of the population—having doubled in just four years. Tel Aviv’s population had tripled over the same short period. In 1933, there had been 650 land sales to Jews totaling 37,000 dunams (9,000 acres); by 1935, the number of sales made and acreage acquired had both doubled.

Present-day activists on both sides of the Israel-Hamas war may be astonished to learn that, even after the 1920, 1921, and 1929 riots in which Arabs attacked and sometimes butchered Jews in a manner newly familiar from October 7, with scores of casualties on both sides, Ben-Gurion and others discussed various ways in which the “Jewish homeland” could exist under Arab rule, as a “canton” or autonomous subdistrict. Possible aids to a solution—such as geographical transfers of Jewish and Arab populations in the way India and Pakistan, and Greece and Turkey, exchanged people—struck some negotiators on both sides as reasonable, unlike the wholesale rejection of population transfers that we see among diplomats today.

In 1934, Kessler relates, Ben-Gurion and Moshe Shertok (later Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second prime minister) met with Musa Alami to discuss how Palestine’s Jews “could reach an accommodation with the land’s other inhabitants.” Ben-Gurion proposed “a Jewish state within an Arab Federation” with “equal executive authority.” Kessler writes, “To Shertok’s contention that Arabs stood to gain from Zionism, [Alami] answered that he would rather the country remain poor and desolate for another hundred years until the Arabs could develop it themselves.” Yet Alami kept open the idea of “some form of Jewish autonomy around Tel Aviv, as part of an Arab federation under British guardianship.”

In 1936, only two days before the start of the Great Arab Revolt, Ben-Gurion met with George Antonius, the writer and scholar who would later publish the first seminal English-language book on Arab and Palestinian nationalism, The Arab Awakening (1938). Antonius, awkwardly, was an immigrant himself to Palestine, a Greek-Orthodox Lebanese, raised in Alexandria, Egypt. Antonius spoke of absorbing Palestine into a Greater Syria, with a Jewish autonomous province that would, Kessler explains, “stretch roughly from Gaza to Haifa and out to the Jezreel Valley, alongside an Arab state called Palestine centered in the hills from Hebron to Nablus.”

Ben-Gurion and Antonius never saw each other again. In April 1936, a six-month general Arab strike throughout Palestine began. The Arab Higher Committee instructed all Arabs in Palestine to start wearing the keffiyeh instead of the Turkish fez. Then Arab highwaymen killed a Jewish chicken seller, two Jews killed an Arab fruit seller in revenge, and the Great Arab Revolt, unprecedented in its violence, ensued. Before the on-and-off violence ended in 1939, with the British cracking down on the Arabs and beginning their support of Jewish armed militias, some 500 Palestinian Jews, hundreds of British servicemen and as many as 8,000 Arabs had been killed—some 1,500 of the Arabs at the hands of Arab rivals. Some 2,000 homes were destroyed, and the British hanged around 100 Arabs “for offenses committed during the revolt.”

Kessler explains several key upshots of the revolt. For one, Arab leaders became more absolutist in their demands: There could be no Jewish state in any form, Jewish immigration to Palestine must cease entirely, and sales of Arab land to Jews—transactions heavily engaged in by elite Palestinian Arab families—had to end. Crucially, other Arab countries came into the dispute between the Yishuv and Palestinian Arabs more forcefully than ever before, elevating the conflict into a regional matter that involved the whole Arab world. While that naturally strengthened the hopes of Palestinian Arabs, it also enabled Zionists to argue internationally for a Jewish state on a broader scale of equity, pointing out that Arabs ruled scores of Mideast states that contained Jews, while Jews ruled not a single state that contained Arabs—an argument that fell on receptive ears among European and U.S. leaders.

A further upshot of the Arab Revolt was that Arab violence against Jews convinced some Yishuv leaders who had traditionally backed havlagah, the policy of self-restraint in responding to Arab violence with Jewish violence, that it would have to be abandoned. Palestinian Jews, a consensus grew, could never allow Palestinian Arabs to exercise governmental control over them. The Arabs would simply kill them.

Palestine 1936 exposes how many of the worst phenomena of the 1930s are now repeating themselves—unwillingness to compromise, hatred leading to violence, Arab moderates afraid to speak for fear of execution by Arab extremists, absolutist resistance to seeing any claims to justice on the other side.

What doesn’t seem present today is the idea that even some Arab leaders freely expressed in the early 20th century that a Jewish homeland and Jewish entrepreneurship would be good for Palestinian Arabs too. Neither do we see the flexibility with which some Jewish and Arab leaders in the 1920s and 1930s viewed Palestine as, practically speaking, a mixed real estate/religious problem that might be solved on real estate rather than religious principles. We could use more of that thinking today.

Carlin Romano, Moment’s Critic-at-Large, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.




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One thought on “The Great Arab Revolt and Its Echoes Today

  1. Robert M. Miller says:

    How true, how sad, but still Am Yisrael Chai!

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