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Britain and Palestine in history: The racism of Barbara Tuchman

January 17, 2015 at 1:35 pm

I recently completed reading an old book: Bible and Sword: Britain and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. Originally published back in 1956, it was written by Barbara Tuchman, the late American historian and journalist. I read it for two reasons: it was recommended in the footnotes of another book I reviewed a few years ago; and secondly, because of my occasional habit of reading the enemy’s literature, so as to understand them better.

You see Tuchman was a most fanatical Zionist ideologue and apologist for Empire. Her thesis was apparently titledThe Moral Justification for the British Empire – but one does not need to know that to detect her love for European Empires practically glowing off every page of this book.

The book is recommended, though with reservations, by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, in his book The Invention of the Land of Israel (which I thoroughly enjoyed), a fascinating account of how the “Land of Israel” was transformed by Zionism from an metaphysical religious concept in Judaism (which in fact largely prohibited Jews from living in Palestine) to a concrete political justification for a project of colonization.

Sand says that while the book is “one of the most fascinating and comprehensive studies ever undertaken on Britain’s role in the birth of Zionism” it suffers from the fatal flaw of “crude Orientalism, manifested in its complete blindness and indifference to the original inhabitants of Palestine” (page 145n).

Sand is certainly correct. The Palestinians themselves are almost totally ignored in the book’s narrative. Their stories, wants, needs and desires are of no relevance to Tuchman. The only people who count are the agents and rulers of Empire. Foremost among these as far as she is concerned are the leaders and founders of Zionism, such as  Herzl, Weizmann and their ideological forerunners.

Zionism for Tuchman was clearly a deeply metaphysical thing. Her faith in the political project of Zionism was clearly so strong that it came with an almost religious fervour. She writes in a preface to the 1980s edition that the entire concept of the book was “inspired by the re-creation [sic] of the state of Israel” – and that the research was even begun in 1948, the year of the Nakba (when Zionist militias expelled by force some 750,000 Palestinians in order to carve out their new state in that ancient land).

Despite the book’s vicious and fanatical anti-Palestinian bias, it has to be admitted that Tuchman could write, and the book is compelling reading in places. There are also many interesting and forgotten facts of history that she unearths.

The narrative does go all the way from Bronze Age England, right up to the Balfour Agreement of 1917 – the document which represented the British government’s intention to hand Palestine over to European colonists, against the wishes of the native inhabitants of that land (something which never troubled British imperialists).

There are many more ancient links between Britain and Palestine than may on the surface be expected. Tuchman recounts the foundational myth of the English church, that Joseph of Arimathea was “Apostle to the Britons”. This Joseph is the New Testament character who is rich enough to allow Jesus’ body to be buried in his own tomb. Via the Holy Grail legends, it is said that he came to Britain to preach Christianity. Despite the fact there is no solid historical evidence to prove such a tall tale, the idea is certainly embedded in British tradition and national myth.

However, as Tuchman so often does in the book, there is a leap of faith here, in which she manipulates facts that she supposes lean towards her own Zionist narrative. She writes: “as so often when modern science goes to work on the stuff of legend, the available facts tend to confirm the legend” (page 21). This is laughably flimsy stuff, apparently intended to imply that England was destined by God to aid political Zionism to take over the land of Palestine (though Tuchman would not dare explicitly say as much, to preserve her veneer as a historian).

The book practically drips with anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bile. If she could ever bring herself to use the work “Palestinian” (she did not), it would drip with explicit anti-Palestinian bile too. Instead, there is the erasure of the Palestinian other that Sand criticises.

Citing the work of nineteenth-century British colonial project, the Palestine Exploration Fund (intended to map the country out, the project’s documents were later used by the British imperial conquerors, such an General Allenby, who occupied the country in 1917-18) she claims: “The Arab conquest had swept out the last of Byzantine civilization ‘as a locust swarm devastates a corn field,’ leaving the land to Bedouins and to goats” (page 249).

The sickening racism on display in this passage is typical of the book, with its countless vile references to sneaky Turks and marauding Arabs.

Nonetheless, the book was worth reading, due to the occasional nugget of enlightenment thrown up thanks to the author’s candid Zionism.

On pages 298-9, for example, she recounts a meeting between British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlin and Zionist founder Theadore Herzl in 1902. He told the latter that if he “could show him a spot in the British dominions where there was no white population yet, then we could talk” about a Zionist colony there.

Page 305 also gives insights into the origins of the phenomenon of Zionist anti-Semitism (which I have written about here before). Seeking diplomatic influence on the Ottoman empire for a territorial charter in Palestine or in Mesopotamia (today Iraq), in 1903 Herzl went to Russia to see Von Plehve, the man behind the brutal and bloody Kishinev pogrom, which killed dozens of Jews, and caused many others to flee to fear. Herzl had no qualms of making common cause with such a vile anti-Semite: according to Tuchman, he thought Von Plehve “would not be averse to seeing the exit of the Jews from Russia”.

Passages like these mean the book is generally worth stomaching.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.