- Land of Progress: Palestine in the Age of Colonial Development, 1905–1948 by Jacob Norris
Instinctively, one reads the title of the book under review as Land of Promise rather than Land of Progress, with Palestine as the twice-promised country fought over politically and militarily by Palestinians and Jewish settlers. Jacob Norris’s readable, scholarly and fascinating account of Palestine in the Late Ottoman and British Mandate periods is a different take on the question of Palestine. Norris understands the Jews and Arabs in the late Ottoman and Mandate periods through the lens of colonial development: specifically, the deepwater port complex in Haifa built in the 1930s — wonderful littoral, liminal space in which to explore change — and the desiccated potential of the Dead Sea potash mineral extraction works. (The Jewish-run Rutenberg Palestine Electric Company could have been another case study, one that Norris touches on.) This is not economic history; rather, it is political history (or even political economy) understood through economic infrastructural development as the British fused Palestine’s economic potential with ideas of colonial progress to sustain empire, using the Jews of Palestine as their pioneers, and embodied in the Mandate system of government. The Zionists were to be the vanguard in a new age of technological modernity for the British Empire in which economic progress rather than (or as well as) religion and political conflict would shape the landscape of Palestine (and then Israel). [End Page 155]
The book under review spans a pivotal period in Palestinian history from the arrival of the railway in Haifa in 1905 to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, interestingly reimagining Palestine as a promising new frontier for colonial development, something that shaped British support for the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Leading imperialists like Viscount Milner and Leo Amery looked to a “more coordinated, scientific approach to colonial development” (p. 65) with Zionism as the “motor” for change in Palestine, and economic concerns rather than political sympathies with a Jewish state driving British ambitions.
Norris’s interest in empire and industrial-led development reaches out to wider comparative imperial histories on the post–Second World War period. Palestine is, for Norris, an under-studied “first age” of colonial development before World War II: “These links between colonial development, the new imperialists, and their support for Zionism has so far been downplayed in the historical literature” (p. 9). World War I had shown the value of imperial possessions and, after the war, colonial powers injected funding into the empire not just to raise the standards of colonial subjects but also to benefit the metropole. Norris argues that the Ottomans pursued similar colonial development policies, the subject of the first (shorter) part of his book that questions whether development was fundamentally a Western concept requiring Muslims to shed their systems of belief, as some Islamic scholarship has asserted. As Norris says, “wind back the clock to the early twentieth century and the idea of modernity and development carried real meaning” for a generation of colonial officials and anticolonial agitators, both of whom shared a “great belief in achieving progress through industrial capitalism” (pp. 210–11). The author feels the texture of this “progress” through his case studies, arguing that the British favored the Jews as the intermediaries for their enterprise. The discussion on the late Ottoman Empire usefully sets up British exceptionalism in this regard, Norris presenting the Ottomans as ecumenical when it came to economic development:
The Ottoman imperial state was just as self-serving and disinterested in improving the living standards of the majority rural population as the later British regime. But unlike under the British Mandate administration, the pluralism of Ottoman society had produced a delicately balanced alignment of commercial and political forces that incorporated Jews, Christians, and Muslims; Arabs and Turks; Europeans and Asians (p. 209).
By contrast, under the British, “European Jews would be given the exclusive task of running economic concession developments” (p. 209).
Given the endemic anti-Semitism in Europe at this time...