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Israel Studies 7.1 (2002) 218-221

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Isaiah Friedman's Palestine, A Twice Promised Land?

Michael Fry

Isaiah Friedman, Palestine: A Twice Promised Land?, vol. 1: The British, the Arabs and Zionism, 1915-1920 (New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction, 2000) pp. i-lxxvii, 1-411

In the course of a long career, Professor Isaiah Friedman has worked, confidently, comfortably and energetically within the confines of diplomatic history. This is his third book on the First World War and the Middle East. His methodology, devotedly orthodox, rests on textual analysis of primary sources, manuscript and printed, preserved primarily in government archive and supplemented by holdings in private collections. The rate of cumulation in history is, in his view, determined by the availability of primary sources, and thus by the opening of archives, domestic and foreign. The challenge of archival research places, therefore, a premium on language skills. Friedman, true to his vocation as a diplomatic historian, writes thorough, dense, analytical narratives, scrupulously documented. He is, above all else, an empiricist, enjoying the role of detective. He is driven, he claims, purely by "intellectual curiosity." He asks to be judged simply in terms of "honest," by which he means his knowledge of, devotion to, and interpretation of the sources. These are, after all, the tests of the master craftsman. these are the standards to which the journeyman, George Antonius, for example, can never aspire, ill-motivate, thoroughly untrustworthy as he was.

Friedman sees no reason, therefore, to disguise in any way his joy, his "greatest satisfaction," in his ability to revise stereotypes and to destroy myths. His alternative narrative, his script, shreds the existing narrative and displaces the old script. Revisionism triumphs; a new orthodoxy rules. No longer need the record of British officials, political and military, be an embarrassing and demoralizing one. Friedman's debate with the late Arnold Toynbee, carried in the Journal of Contemporary History some thirty years [End Page 218] ago, reprinted here, and elaborated on relentlessly throughout the first four chapters, is over. In so many ways, this book is a demolition of Toynbee's reputation as a scholar of British policy in the Middle East, a laying bare of his errors and his inability to read Arabic. Friedman regrets that Toynbee cannot reply; no such nostalgic respect for the rogue Antonius. If the book has heroes, they are the clever Chaim Weizmann and the visionary Sir Mark Sykes.

Friedman's narrative rests on a series of interpretations and judgments, none of which will surprise those who are familiar with his book The Question of Palestine. He argues, first of all, that British governments in the First World War did not make promises to the Arabs that were conflicting or inconsistent in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence of 1915-1916, the statement to the Seven Syrians of 11 June 1917, or in the Anglo-French Declaration of 8 November 1918, that to the French in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, and to the Zionists in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. British hands were clean; successive governments are vindicated; the reasons for secrecy were entirely understandable. Al-Faruqi was the prince of deception in the story. It follows, as the second point, that Palestine was not a twice-promised land—not promised, that is, to the Arabs in the course of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. Palestine was excluded by inference and intent as part of the coastal territory lying to the west of the Damascus vilayet, which reached south to Ma'an and Akaba.

Third, Friedman insists that McMahon's letters were neither legal nor valid in international law, being merely political, non-binding, and inconclusive—exactly what one would expect in wartime. Whatever promises McMahon made to Hussein—i.e., Arab independence in the Fertile Crescent—Friedman argues, as the fifth point, were conditional (and thus non-binding) on a general Arab uprising against the Turks—a revolt that never materialized, the claims of T. E. Lawrence notwithstanding. Indeed, the Arabs of Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia fought for the Turks and against the British. They forfeited their...


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