Modern History and Politics: Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine 1917-1948

By McTague, John J. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Modern History and Politics: Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine 1917-1948


McTague, John J., The Middle East Journal


Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine 1917-1948, by Naomi Shepherd. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000. xiv + 250 pages. Notes to p. 282. Index to p. 290. $28.

Reviewed by John J. McTague

Over the past 30 years, literally hundreds of books and articles have been written on the British Mandate in Palestine, the forerunner of the State of Israel, which has been the main center of contention in the post-Second World War Middle East. Most of these works have dealt with the political issues-assessing blame, asserting innocence, and rehashing old arguments and conflicts. When a new book appears on such a well-worn topic, the key question that must be asked is: does it have anything new to offer that hasn't already been said? In the case of the book under review, the answer, thankfully, must be in the affirmative.

This does not mean that Shepherd takes a completely novel approach, for much of what she discusses is familiar. For one thing, she has chosen to view the Mandate strictly through the eyes of British officials using British documents, which has been done many times before. For another, some of the topics she covers have been dealt with by others, such as land and education. But what makes this book refreshing is the author's deliberate effort to deemphasize as much as possible political (everything became politicized during the Mandate), and deal with matters that touched on the everyday lives of Jews and Arabs who lived in Palestine.

Shepherd attempts to combine a chronological approach with a topical one, which leads to some overlap and confusion on the part of the reader. The first two chapters recount the British conquest of Palestine during the First World War, the military administration which ruled until 1920, and the first civilian government under Sir Herbert Samuel. Chapters three and four delve into issues of immigration, land ownership, health and education, and it is here that the author makes her major contribution. The final chapter covers more familiar ground in surveying the British response to violence, both Arab (the Arab Rebellion 193639) and Jewish (the terrorism of the Irgun and Lehi in the 1940s).

Along the way, Shepherd paints interesting portraits of some of the more colorful British officials who served in Palestine: Samuel, a Jew who became the first High Commissioner and was caught in the middle due to his attempt to be impartial; Ronald Storrs, the military governor of the Holy City who, when asked what his next position would be, replied "there is no promotion after Jerusalem" (p. …

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