Oren Kessler’s new book Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023) argues powerfully that events in Mandatory Palestine between 1936 and 1939 have shaped the subsequent history of the conflict for Israelis and Palestinians. Called ‘the definitive study’ by Michael Oren, Kessler’s book identifies the revolt as the true first intifada, an uprising which laid the ground for the Arab defeat in 1947-48 and which has set the tone of the conflict for almost a century. He sat down with Fathom deputy editor Jack Omer-Jackaman to discuss the book, recently released in the UK.
Jack Omer-Jackaman: The general reader, in English at least, has lacked a history of the Great Revolt and its repercussions. What have they been missing and with what consequences for our understanding of the conflict?
Oren Kessler: I argue that although this is an Arab revolt, it is as much a Jewish story as an Arab story. From the Arab perspective it’s an extremely formative event – it’s the crucible in which Palestinian Arab identity coalesced as virtually all strands of Arab society came together in a common purpose against a common foe. But on the Jewish side this is an equally seminal and decisive event. It’s often forgotten but this is the period in which the words ‘Jewish State’ first appear on the international agenda – not just the ‘national home’ promised in the Balfour Declaration, but a Jewish state to all intents and purposes, as part of a ‘two-state solution.’ It’s also the period in which the British Empire sows the seeds for a Jewish army. So, in all of these ways this is a hugely formative chapter in the history in the Land of Israel/Palestine, for the conflict itself, and for attempts to resolve it. The degree to which this chapter hasn’t gotten its due is actually quite startling. It’s not entirely clear to me why such a pivotal event right before the Second World War hasn’t gotten its due in English outside of a handful of academic works.
JOJ: And why has the 1936-1939 Revolt been relatively ignored?
OK: It’s a very good question. In the book I quote Professor Mustafa Kabha of the Open University of Israel, who argues that in the Palestinian narrative and consciousness, the revolt has been side-lined, marginalised by the overwhelming primacy of the Nakba. The Nakba is much ‘easier’ to fit into the narrative because, from the Palestinian perspective, it’s the moment at which they are betrayed and unjustly treated by Zionism, by British Imperialism, even by their fellow Arabs who fail to rescue them from the Zionist menace. Whereas dealing with 1936-39 requires a lot more soul-searching. There is a huge convulsion of Arab infighting in this period – there is much Arab bloodshed at the hands of fellow Arabs. That is a lot more difficult for a national narrative to rationalise.
Every national movement has its narrative and its storyline, and the Jewish national narrative tends to be quite forward moving: from the first wave of immigration in the late 19th Century, on to the Balfour Declaration, the start of the British Mandate and the Jewish state-building of the 1920s and 30s, then the agony of the Holocaust and finally the redemption of statehood. That’s essentially the Zionist story, and I think a large-scale, concerted nationalist uprising against that story is a somewhat unwelcome blip in the narrative arc.
JOJ: Let’s set the geopolitical scene at that time: talk to us about the connections between European and local events.
OK: Throughout the book, I bounce back and forth between the situations in Palestine and Europe, because they’re inseparable – certainly from a British perspective, and equally from a Jewish one. The revolt begins only three years after Hitler comes to power in Germany in 1933. There are also other antisemitic movements ascendent across Europe, in places like Poland, Hungary and Romania, and very many Jews are desperate to leave. But almost all potential sanctuaries in the world have been closed; the US has been almost closed to immigration since the Immigration Act of 1924. In many ways, Palestine is the only significant possible refuge left for the Jews of Europe. So Jewish immigration into Palestine is skyrocketing in these years – the Jewish population there doubles in the first half of the 1930s. In 1935, 60,000 Jews come into Palestine, which is nearly double that of the year before, so the Jews are approaching 30 per cent of the population by the time the revolt erupts. The revolt is thus a direct result of the European situation, since it’s very clear to the Arabs of Palestine that if things continue this way, Palestine will have a Jewish majority before long.
From a British perspective, the war clouds looming over Europe make it very difficult for the British army to quash the revolt. They simply don’t have the manpower for it, at least until the Munich Agreement of 1938, granting Hitler the Sudetenland. With the appeasement of Hitler, Britain and all of Europe breathe a sigh of relief and buy some time (at least that’s how it felt at the time). After Munich the British are able to send two divisions to Palestine, which constitutes the largest British army deployment in the interwar period. This is another reason it’s startling that this era has been so overlooked.
JOJ: That leads us neatly onto the next topic, which looks at the balance of power post and ante the revolt. How does each side – and let’s include the British – go into the period and how do they emerge?
OK: Until Munich, the British are severely undermanned in Palestine, and this directly benefits the Jews because this is the period in which the British finally accede to a long-standing demand by the Haganah – the Jewish self-defence group that is technically illegal but tolerated by the British – to arm and train Jews in large numbers. And that’s what happens: 15,000-20,000 Jews join the Palestine Police as Jewish Supernumerary Police. And though they receive their weapons, training and part of their salary from the British government, it’s clear to everyone that they’re ultimately answerable to the Haganah. So the Jews, led by David Ben-Gurion – already in this era the clear leader of Palestine’s Jews – are able to turn adversity to advantage and make tremendous gains, militarily and otherwise, throughout the Arab revolt.
it’s the mirror image for the Arab side. The revolt to crush Zionism crushes the Arabs instead. The initial unity of the revolt’s first phase under the leadership of Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al Husseini – which includes a six-month general strike – gives way in the second phase (from Autumn 1937) to a convulsion of infighting and score settling. Several thousand Arabs are killed by their fellow Arabs, and the Arab leadership – namely the mufti and his associates – is driven into exile. And of course the British begin taking very heavy-handed measures – including a number of incidents that qualify as atrocities – to quash the revolt. Huge numbers of Arab men are put in prison or killed by the British, and thousands of homes demolished. The Arab social fabric and economy are completely torn and shattered by the end of this revolt. I argue in the book, and this is an argument that has also been made by the Palestinian-American professor Rashid Khalidi, that in many ways the final reckoning for Palestine between Jews and Arabs – the civil war that erupts in 1947 – is actually won by one side and lost by the other nearly a decade earlier.
JOJ: The popular narrative is that Palestinian nationalism – as distinct from wider Arab or Syrian nationalism – was a product of the 1930s. What did your study of the period tell you about this?
OK: I think Palestine is sui generis in many ways, including the development of nationalism there. In my view it is during the Arab revolt that a strong sense of Arab nationalism in Palestine extends beyond the urban elites to all corners of the country. All segments of Arab society – urban and rural, rich and poor, rival families, and even to a large extent Muslim and Christian – unite in the same mission against Zionism and against its perceived handmaiden: the British Empire.
The Arab public in Palestine is growing increasingly politically aware and consciously perceiving itself as a distinct entity – distinct from its brethren in Syria, in large part because it has a different foe: not simply European imperialism but this very specific threat presented by Zionism.
JOJ: So was the 1936-1939 Revolt the crucial event in the origins of the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Was this the point at which it became zero sum for both sides? Or was it just the first time there was a wider realisation of this?
OK: I’ve lost track of how many people who, when I start telling them about my book, assume I’m referring to the Hebron massacre of 1929. In my view the Hebron riots were just that: they were riots, they were an outburst of terrorism, but not a sustained nationalist uprising in the way that the Great Revolt of 1936 is – not an intifada in the parlance of today. I think in many ways, the Revolt is when both sides really come to see this conflict as zero sum. But it was always in a way zero sum in that whichever community has the demographic majority in Palestine would be the one that would determine its fate. This is an age in which the world is moving, however haltingly, from imperialism towards self-determination, and it is clear to both Jews and Arabs alike that having a majority would be absolutely key. However, in the 1920s, the Jews were so far from that majority that both sides were able to postpone the final reckoning. In the 1930s, the Jews are threatening to become a majority, and that’s the immediate precursor to this revolt erupting.
JOJ: Is it fair to say that the tone was set at this time, on the Palestinian side, for this being a conflict that demands hardliners? That the tone was set of leadership by extremists like Qassam and Hajj Amin and not more moderate figures like Faisal or the Nashashibis?
OK: Yes, I do think that this is the period in which the intransigent line taken by Hajj Amin becomes not just mainstream but one from which it is very dangerous to deviate. Hajj Amin, even after fleeing the country in Autumn of 1937, manages to exert his will over the revolt from afar, and anyone who dares step out of line or contemplate reaching some sort of modus vivendi with the Zionist movement tends to find himself dead or in some other serious trouble. A prime example of that is the reaction among prominent Arabs to the partition plan. In late 1936, the British government sends a royal commission to Palestine, known to history as the Peel Commission, to examine the causes of the revolt, and famously it proposes the first ‘two state solution.’ The Emir Abdullah of Transjordan publicly accepts this plan. The main rival clan to the Husseinis, the Nashashibis, privately signal that they are amenable; not thrilled, but amenable. And their allies hold the mayorships of quite a few important cities – Jaffa, Haifa, and even Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarem, which today are centres of militancy. And yet the Mufti makes very clear that he regards this plan as a degradation and a humiliation, and all of these erstwhile supporters of partition suddenly realise that they are against partition. So yes, I do think that this is the point at which a certain uncompromising line becomes the default one amongst the Arab leadership of Palestine, with really devastating results for the Palestinians themselves.
JOJ: Let’s look to the Jewish side. Is it the first, or at least a formative, time when differing approaches to state-building and self-defence within the Zionist movement are clearly exposed?
OK: Absolutely. During the Arab Revolt the Haganah adheres to a policy called havlagah, meaning self-restraint, despite the revolt’s very high toll in Jewish blood. Some 500 Jews are killed in this revolt; these are huge numbers, comparable to those in the Second Intifada in much more recent times. The logic is to convince the British that they can be trusted with weapons and, as mentioned earlier, that’s exactly what happens. The Irgun – the Revisionist, right-wing dissident Zionist group, whose ideological leader is Vladimir Jabotinsky – has a very different view, much more in line with ‘an eye for an eye’. They believe that it has to be made very clear to the Arabs that Jewish blood could not be shed unanswered, and that taking the fight to the Arabs, including civilians, would have a deterrent effect. We see dozens of Irgun attacks targeting Arab civilians during the revolt. I don’t think there’s any other way to describe this than terrorism – this isn’t ‘collateral damage’ in an attempt to target militants, but a mentality in which ‘If the Arabs target our civilians, we’ll target theirs’. So, there’s a real schism between these two Zionist movements, but the Haganah are able to convince the British that they are in control and are the mainstream, and that the Irgun is merely a fringe group. And that’s how this crucial British-Jewish military cooperation begins.
JOJ: Could the Yishuv leadership have acted any differently in the years prior to the revolt and forestalled it? Or not without sacrificing immigration?
OK: A very good question, and one which gets back to this question of whether it’s a zero sum conflict. I don’t agree with the rose-tinted analyses of history that I sometimes hear, which claim that in the Ottoman and early Mandate eras the two communities were able to get along in peace and it is somehow British mismanagement that prompted the conflict. Rather it seems to me that when the Jews were a minority, they didn’t present too much of a disruption to the status quo, but as soon as they began to threaten to reach a majority, there is almost no alternative to this conflict breaking out. That’s how Ben-Gurion looks at this situation throughout, and he never agrees to even slow immigration. By contrast, Chaim Weizmann, head of the world Zionist Organisation, is willing to slow immigration to try to cultivate Arab goodwill and cooperation. I don’t see how that objective of bringing as many Jews to the land as possible could be achieved without bringing about some serious Arab pushback.
JOJ: To what extent was the Arab general strike self-defeating in allowing Ben-Gurion unprecedented opportunities for a key Zionist priority: the conquest of labour?
The general strike starts almost at the very beginning of the revolt and lasts six months – still one of the longest general strikes anywhere in history. It is a source of great Arab pride. As I mentioned, Ben-Gurion really is an expert in turning adversity into advantage. He sees a tremendous opportunity to achieve his long-standing objective of creating a self-sufficient Jewish polity, one that could feed itself, house itself, defend itself, employ itself, without any help from anyone – not the British or the Arabs. In the strike, the Arabs cut all contacts with the Jewish and British economies, and when Jaffa port closed in Spring of 1936, Ben-Gurion pleads successfully with the British to allow the Jews to open their own port in Tel Aviv. The British agree and Ben Gurion is euphoric, hailing the fact that the Jews now have an outlet to the world as a second Balfour Declaration. That’s just one example of how the Arab strike and boycott ultimately cause a lot of economic pain to the Arabs and help the Jews in their state-building enterprise.
JOJ: You benefited tremendously from the declassification of the Peel Commission’s secret testimonies, which threw up some fascinating revelations. What did we learn about the origins of the Balfour Declaration, for example?
This was one of the most interesting troves of archival documents that I found in my research. The British Government kept the Peel Commission documents classified for 80 years, and they were very quietly declassified only in 2017. I wrote an article in Fathom in 2020 about the 1937 secret testimony of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister at the time of the Balfour Declaration, on why the government had issued that historic and controversial document. Explaining his decision of two decades earlier, he says the Jews ‘are a dangerous people to quarrel with, but they are a very helpful people if you can get them on your side.’ He says that he and his ministry were very concerned, in the midst of the First World War, that the Jews of America and Russia might not support the allies but go over to the German side. There were even murmurings that the Germans were thinking of a ‘Balfour Declaration’ of their own. Lloyd George makes very clear in this testimony that that was a primary reason that the Declaration was given at that time. And he says that, in his opinion, the declaration more than paid for itself by the help that the Jews of America and Russia gave in various ways during the war.
JOJ: Herbert Samuel’s testimony was interesting, too.
OK: Samuel was the first High Commissioner for Palestine, as well as a Jew and a Zionist. In his testimony he is asked why he appointed Hajj Amin as Grand Mufti in the first place in the early 1920s – this is the only occasion I’ve ever seen him asked about this decision, which is one of the most fateful taken in the entire history of the Israeli-Arab conflict. He basically says, and I’m paraphrasing: ‘look, I had no choice. We had to appoint someone from the Husseini family because we had already given the other great Arab families various other perks, and so the Husseinis needed to get the muftiship. And Amin was the only Husseini with the requisite religious education having studied at al Azhar in Egypt.’ Samuel doesn’t admit it was a mistake but defends the decision and says that Hajj Amin had more or less behaved well until that point. (That is not quite true: the British had sentenced him in absentia for rabble rousing in 1920.) These are fascinating documents that were originally slated for destruction; the witnesses who give testimony do so on that understanding. But one very forward-looking British official has the foresight to stow them away, scribbling in the margins that they chronicle ‘an important chapter in the history of Palestine and the Jewish people, and will, no doubt, be of considerable value to the historians of the remote future.’
JOJ: Let’s look at Peel’s partition proposals a little deeper. We tend, optimistically, to think that decisions taken by high level politicians and civil servants are subject to forensic detail and informed by expert knowledge. How does the British process for proposing the first two-state solution correct us on this?
OK: That is one of the most fascinating discoveries contained in the secret testimonies: just how this two-state solution is arrived at. One of the commission members is an Oxford don by the name of Professor Reginald Coupland, an Africa-focused historian not particularly well-versed in the Middle East. He arrives at the idea that just as the Greeks and Turks were separated after World War One, in what he referred to as a ‘clean cut’, so Jews and Arabs need to be separated in that same way. It is really Coupland, with the help of a few British colonial servants in Palestine, who pushes through this idea of a two-state solution. And they do so quite hastily – when you look at the minutes of these secret testimonies, it’s just a few pages in which they discuss the practicability and the details of such a solution. It’s Coupland, an irrigation advisor by the name of Douglas Harris, and the assistant district commissioner for Galilee, Lewis Andrews (who shortly thereafter is assassinated) who draft the first two-state solution, which becomes the ideological template for every subsequent attempted solution to the conflict, from the UN’s exactly a decade later onto the various subsequent iterations until our time.
JOJ: Let’s talk about another piece of Mandate administration, the 1939 MacDonald White Paper, which barred Jews entry to Palestine just months before the outbreak of World War Two. Does your book have anything to say on this that is new?
OK: There’s a general familiarity, at least among Jews, with the White Paper and that it is a bad an unjust thing. But the genesis of the White Paper has not been researched to the degree it deserves, and in the book I devote a whole chapter to it. The Colonial Secretary at the time is Malcolm MacDonald, who is only 37 years old (he is the son of the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald). This is the Chamberlain government, which is dedicated to appeasement, not just in Europe but in the Middle East. Even though MacDonald is a member of the National Labour Party, he is a loyal member of the ministry and determines, with the advice of senior officials in the army and the government, that some drastic changes need to be made to Britain’s Palestine policy in such a crucial period. There is a feeling that world war would break out at any point and that Muslim opinion, particularly in India, has to be appeased, lest Muslim subjects of the empire side with Hitler.
When you look at the discussion, you see that the British policy makers plan to go far in the direction of Arab demands when they call the St James’s Conference in 1939. And yet, throughout these negotiations, they go quite a bit farther even than they originally intend. So, where 60,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine in 1935, the 1939 White Paper limits Jewish immigration to a total of 75,000 over five years, after which Palestine would become an independent state. The White Paper doesn’t say an independent Arab state, but of course if Jewish immigration is limited to keep the Jews under 35 or 40 per cent of the population, it’s clear to everyone that this would be a de facto Arab state. This is mid-1939, when the Jews of Europe are most desperate to find sanctuary outside of Europe, and the White Paper is seen by the Jews and their supporters as a tremendous betrayal, and a reneging not just on the Peel Commission plan of two years previous, but on the Balfour Declaration itself.
This is one of the tremendous ‘what ifs’ of history: what would have happened had the White Paper not been passed, or had the Peel partition plan of 1937 gone through? Ben-Gurion, after the Holocaust, said that had the Jews had the small state promised to them in 1937, six million could have been saved. I think that’s perhaps an overstatement: I’m not sure that the very small state offered to them was developed enough to absorb six million people. It was Golda Meir who said that had the Jewish state been established (and the White Paper not implemented), hundreds of thousands could have been saved: I think that’s a plausible reading of history. The White Paper is what finally turns Ben-Gurion against the British. It’s when he decides that the British-Zionist partnership is essentially over and when he starts to look across the ocean to America as the great potential supporter of Zionism.
JOJ: Finally, it’s fascinating to see how the 1936-1939 Revolt and this period lives in the iconography of both Israelis and Palestinians. You don’t have to look too hard to see it referenced or deployed in the present day. It occupies a place of glory for Palestinians, which is rather ironic given its role in the catastrophe of 1948. And on the Israeli side, it was referenced not too long ago by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.
OK: I argue that the revolt has cast its shadow over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever since – for the Arabs, for the Jews, and for attempts to resolve the conflict. Just recently, for example, in the Gaza conflict of May 2021, you may remember that the war extended to the battlefield of social media. When the Arabs of Israel and the West Bank joined together in a one-day strike, Twitter was abuzz with comparisons to 1936. And, as you mention, Bezalel Smotrich tweeted: ‘the riots of the Arab enemy take us back many years to the great Arab revolt. Back then a hostile British government protected rioters. Today a worthless, weak Jewish government, a contaminated judiciary and a law enforcement system emasculated by dangerous post-national and post-modern notions…’ Palestinian folk songs still celebrate the revolt, and in my view the BDS movement is a direct descendant of the general strike. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the two-state solution that is still the international community’s the favoured solution to the conflict is simply a variation of the original partition plan of 1937. In so many ways, for both Israelis and Palestinians, this revolt rages on.
 Editor’s note: Hajj Amin al Husseini, appointed by the British Mandate as Grand Mufti in 1921, would become a determined supporter of Nazi Germany. At his 1941 meeting with Hitler, Hajj Amin declared himself ‘fully reassured and satisfied’ with Hitler’s reassurance that once having achieved the ‘total destruction of the Judeo-Communist empire in Europe… Germany’s objective would then be solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere’. In 1943, the SS enlisted Hajj Amin to lead a recruitment drive among Bosnian Muslims, SS Main Office Chief Berger noting the ‘extraordinarily successful impact’ of the Mufti’s activities.
 Editor’s note: The concept of Kibbush Haavoda, the conquest of labour, was a key plank in Labour Zionism. Its priorities were the encouraging of manual and agricultural labour amongst Jewish immigrants to Palestine and a reliance on Jewish labour for the Jewish economy.