A Broken Trust; Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians, by Sahar Huneidi

By Renton, James | Shofar, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

A Broken Trust; Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians, by Sahar Huneidi


Renton, James, Shofar


with a foreword by Walid Khalidi. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. 348 pp. $65.00.

Over the past decade and a half a new generation of Palestinian and Israeli historians have published a substantial body of revisionist scholarship concerning the emergence and perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although these scholars do not constitute a monolithic or uniform entity in either methodology or conclusions, there exists among them a common will to deconstruct what are seen as the myths that have underpinned and shaped both Zionist collective memory and historical writing. Intrinsically linked with this project is the creation of a space in which the previously marginalized voice of Palestinian narratives is given special focus, an attempt to subvert the power effects of Zionist discourse. One of the key bones of contention that emerged out of these analyses, with a particular focus on the foundation of the Jewish state and the birth of the Palestinian Refugee problem, was the role played by Great Britain, which had occupied the country during the First World War and had officially been the mandatory power since 1923. Scholars such as Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappé have argued that although Great Britain was predominantly perceived by Zionists to have been an obstructive force in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, it played an important function in its establishment as well as preventing the possibility of Palestinian national independence. More recently historians such as Tom Segev have begun to re-examine the development of the conflict under the British mandate, arguing its importance in fostering the significant growth of the Zionist project in Palestine that made a Jewish state possible. Sahar Huneidi's work, A Broken Trust: Herbert Samuel Zionism and the Palestinians, is an addition to this welcome trend of placing the crucial inter-war period under fresh scrutiny.

Huneidi's study concerns the record of Herbert Samuel as the first High Commissioner of the British civil administration in Palestine from 1920 to 1925. Although a Jew and staunch pro-Zionist, Samuel was traditionally seen by Zionists as having been a disappointment. His tenure as Commissioner was thought to have been marked by a policy of overt appeasement towards the Arab population in the face of violent opposition, particularly after the Jaffa riots of 1921. As a result, according to this view, Samuel pursued a minimalist interpretation of the British Govemment's commitment to create a Jewish national home, as declared in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. In contrast to this interpretation, Bernard Wasserstein's classic work(1) on the period presented a much more complex and nuanced picture of Samuel's administration. Wasserstein's work highlighted the fundamental tension between Samuel's British Imperialism, Liberalism, and Zionism, his belief in both the need and possibility of obtaining the acceptance of the Palestinian Arab population for the British mandate, and his unremitting commitment to creating the Jewish national home. Samuel continually attempted to incorporate Palestinians within the administration, claiming to treat the Arab population as though there was no Zionist policy, contending that the latter was misunderstood and did not threaten their rights or position in the country. At the same time, he proceded to put into practice a passive policy that allowed for and fostered the growth of a Jewish national home, reflecting the gradualist Zionism that had prompted his desire to serve in Palestine, a cause to which he remained faithful throughout his administration.

However, in her analysis Huneidi goes much further and places Samuel's Zionism at the very center of his policies as High Commissioner, reducing his attempts to placate Palestinian Arabs as mere lip service to the dual obligations of the Balfour Declaration and the mandate. Such efforts are referred to as either meaningless rhetoric or tactical manoeuvres that had no relation to his objectives or policies. …

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