Decision on Palestine Deferred: America, Britain and Wartime Diplomacy 1939-1945

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Decision on Palestine Deferred: America, Britain and Wartime Diplomacy 1939-- 1945, by Monty Noam Penkower. London, UK and Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2002. xvi + 370 pages. Index to p. 384. $62.50.

"Anglo-American drift and delay since September 1939, which left no government policy in place, had only aggravated the natural divide between the two claimants to Palestine. With neither side giving any sign of willingness to compromise, irrepressible confrontation and bloodshed loomed closer on the horizon" (p. 368). Professor Monty Penkower's conclusion is a fair summary of his detailed discussion of numerous efforts made over the course of World War II to prod both British and American governments into making a definitive promise to create a Jewish state in Palestine in final fulfillment of the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

Unquestionably, the heads of both governments were sympathetic; both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill expressed their views on that point on numerous occasions. But unfortunately, as Penkower clearly demonstrates, nothing was simple about finding a solution to the Palestine "problem," which had steadily worsened in the inter-war years. There was no clear consensus among Jewish communities in and out of Palestine on Zionist objectives, and even within the Zionist leadership, the two most important principals, Chaim Weizmann and David BenGurion, shared the same mission though they differed widely on strategy and tactics. In the meantime, the extremist Irgun and "Stern Gang" did their best to continue the anti-British revolt in Palestine. As for the United States and Great Britain, often their answer was the easiest one: the only way to help the Jews in any meaningful way was to win the war. But there were many obstacles to making the sort of declaration on the future of Palestine the Zionists wanted, from fears of Arab reactions (exaggerated, in Penkower's view) to worries about the future of Middle Eastern oil or Britain's imperial pretensions. Even the idea of a Jewish army division (later reduced to a brigade) had to wait until September of 1944 for fulfillment: the allies worried about what such a trained force might do later in Palestine, while the Zionists feared that the unit would be locked in Europe at war's end just when those soldiers would be badly needed in Palestine. Nor should it be forgotten that very few individuals anywhere realized the enormity of the ongoing catastrophe: it is never easy to comprehend great evil, still less to fight it. …