- Introduction: The British Mandate a Century Later
On December 11, 1917, General Edmund Allenby walked through Jaffa Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem, marking the beginning of the end of the “Great War” in the Near East and the start of British rule over Palestine. Alert to the sensitive nature of the territory Britain had captured—even more sensitive since the recent issuance of the Balfour Declaration—Allenby famously dismounted his horse at the Gate and walked into the Old City on foot, wary of raising messianic expectations among Christians or Jews, and of offending the sensibilities of the city’s Muslims. By the time the British Mandate came to an end some three decades later, it is doubtful whether Allenby or any of the successive British military and civilian administrators could boast of substantial success in their efforts to mitigate these sensitivities.
Much has been written about the British Mandate period in Palestine. Nevertheless, many questions remain unanswered and, perhaps more importantly, many more remain unasked. As editors of a journal committed to the study of Israel, its history, and its pre-history, it was clear to us that the centenary of the ratification of the Mandate was an opportune moment to invite articles reflecting new research on this period. We had hoped the contributions would illuminate those three decades in the history of Palestine and Israel and their impact on the land, its diverse populations, and its erstwhile rulers. We were not disappointed. While the articles that make up this special issue are rooted in the existing historiography, they seek to open unfamiliar avenues of inquiry. Some shed more light on questions previously addressed by scholars; others explore new directions in the history, impact, and legacy of this transformative period.
Thirty years of British rule in Palestine changed the country dramatically—delineating its physical boundaries, its human and cultural topography, and the conceptual and identity-making contours of the three [End Page 1] principal population groups engaged in the struggle for Palestine—Jewish, Arab, and British. As Gideon Biger indicates in his contribution to this issue, the very contours of the land were redefined in crucial ways during these years, giving a definitive and concrete form to the previously indeterminate designation “Palestine.” Moreover, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews escalated, questions of boundary delineation would become (and remain today) central to proposals for solutions. This was a process that would have a long-lasting impact on the very meaning of being “Palestinian” and the ways in which the different groups understood their connection to the land.
Indeed, that connection—on all fronts—was dynamic and complex. While we often tend to think of the population of Palestine during those three decades as constituting a “Palestine triangle” composed of the Jews, the Arabs and the British, the picture was in fact more complicated. Two of the articles in this volume focus on the Jewish society of Mandate Palestine and explore some of the divisions within it. Ofira Gruweis-Kovalsky considers the main political and ideological divisions between what were then the “right” and “left” wings of the Yishuv. Notwithstanding the popular image of Revisionist-associated groups as standing in the vanguard of anti-British struggle, Gruweis-Kovalsky shows that Revisionist Zionism embraced British Mandatory rule, while rejecting its delineation of Palestine’s boundaries. Viola Alianov-Rautenberg examines the social, cultural, and political tensions faced by German Jews in British Palestine, pointing to another of the many (and in this case, less familiar) intersecting divisions that cut across the Jewish community. German Jews, she suggests, occupied a position that to some extent blurs the presumably clear lines separating the Jews and the British in the complex demography of the increasingly contested land.
That contestation, and the demographic aspect that was central to it, stands at the heart of Aviva Halamish’s article. She returns to the Palestine triangle, and examines it through a demographic lens in which Jews and Arabs competed for numerical (and other forms of) dominance while the British authorities set the rules of the game.
Competition over the land, and the identities that...