Collaboration in the Crosshairs of History Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism 1917-1948, by Hillel Cohen, UC Press, 2008, 268 pp + notes, bibliography and index.
Reviewed by Raphael Israeli
This timely study helps to fill in the substantial gaps in our knowledge of an otherwise unpleasant and embarrassing issue: Palestinian "collaboration with the Zionist enemy." The subject is sensitive, because any turncoat, whatever his loyalties, leaves us with a sense of contempt and suspicion, no matter how great his service to our cause. There is a certain anxiety that those who betrayed their own people are more likely to betray others when their perceived interest in doing so prevails.
To be sure, the deeds of the collaborators in our favor greatly mitigate some aspects of their otherwise disagreeable acts, and it is easy to be tempted by the illusion that such individuals recognized the justice of our cause, but in fact a whole range of considerations may have come into play, such as jealousy, political rivalry, family feuds and personal vendettas, in addition to the prospect of economic gain and favor-seeking from the enemy, a sense of adventure, and the tribal loyalty which has always been superior to national commitment in Arab society.
Tbe picture which Cohen deftly paints is nuanced, composite and balanced. Although there were large numbers of Palestinians ready to sell their land to the Jews, and to inform on Arab militants, and sometimes even fight their fellow Arabs who were locked into a life or death battle with the Jews, there were other Palestinian Arabs who were willing to condemn and actively scuttle land sales and cooperation with the Jews, kill Jews and their Arab collaborators.
Can we label all these "profiteers" as collaborators and all their opponents "patriots"? Hardly, since often the land sales or the trading of information with Zionists, far from being motivated by the ideological commitment which would characterize collaboration, emanated solely from personal interest or rivalry. Conversely, those who adamantly opposed what they perceived as national treason were often motivated by personal jealousies or ongoing quarrels with the "collaborators," and tbeir "patriotic" rhetoric was intended only to justify their blood-letting vendettas.
Occasionally, the very same people, simultaneously or within a short span of years, played the double role of hotly denouncing Zionism and secretly helping the Zionists. What are we to make of these contradictions? Cohen's meticulous and detailed study of the issue of collaboration throughout all regions of Palestine during the Mandate period leaves little doubt that there is a need to consider this subject differently from similar activities in other parts of the world, such as pro-Nazi collaboration in wartime Europe. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the newly emancipated Arabs who had divided their local and universal loyalties between their village and the Empire found themselves without a Sultan or his Pashas to pay homage to, and they gave their allegiance to their tribes.
This accounts for the very loose definitions of patriotism and its corollary, treason. When the overarching imperial-Islamic identity of Istanbul faltered, all the alternative local loyalties which began to emerge, including the local Arab national-patriotic movements (wataniya) by definition competed, thus leaving a great deal of latitude to individuals, families, clans, villages and tribes to take a stand, place their own interests over the "national" which had not yet come into being, and refute accusations that they were "traitors" to a hypothetical "national" cause.
Moreover, Hillel Cohen considers the era of the British Mandate over Palestine, where the Mandatory Power was the sovereign, and therefore there was no clear violation of any national Arab sovereignty. The Arabs, though much more numerous tban the Jews, were only one of the communities, admittedly the prevalent one, which sought to strengthen its position in the country without necessarily submitting to Husseini's definition of loyalty and treason. …