Did Palestine’s Great Revolt (1936-1939) set the stage for Oct. 7? (Part 3)


Got questions about the current situation in Israel/Palestine? Almost all the answers lie in the Great Arab Revolt of 1936. How is that possible, when the modern state of Israel wasn’t established until 1948? This three-part series explores the roots of a seemingly intractable conflict, highlighting unknown figures and outlining what might have been.

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I like watching thrillers. 

Well, I would, if I didn’t have an unfortunate tendency to fall asleep the second I turn on the TV. So, I used to like thrillers. Intrigue! Mystery! Double-crossing! All my favorite things.

Researching this series was like watching a thriller I couldn’t turn off. Night after night, I’d think about the revolt that could have ended so differently, that might have never happened, if history had skewed just one degree to the left or the right. 

I’d see Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam take to the caves. Hear Hajj Amin al-Husseini threaten and fulminate and roar. Watch the Palestinian Arab rebellion destroy itself from the inside, as rebels used the chaos to pursue personal vendettas or even enrich themselves. I’d read about Jews leaving bombs in cafes in the name of a Jewish state. I’d delve into the rabbinic debates on whether terrorism was ever morally permissible. (Spoiler: the majority opinion is no.)

And then, the story would end, overshadowed by new catastrophes.

World War II, the Holocaust, and – for Palestinians – the Nakba. The loss of their homes and land. Whatever joy I’d feel about the victory of 1948 would be tempered by sorrow. Because all of us are still paying a price for choices made nearly a century ago.

Welcome to the final installment of our three-part miniseries on the Great Arab revolt of 1936 – 1939. I think, in some ways, Arab revolt is a misnomer. In Arabic, the word used to describe the revolt is thawra, revolution, which in my opinion fits better. 

Palestinian rebels, some mounted on horses, posing with their rifles and a Palestinian Arab flag emblazoned with a cross and crescent, 1937. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Revolutions bring change – both positive and negative. And the changes for both Palestinian Arab and Jewish society were massive. This so-called “revolution” destroyed Palestinian Arab society from the inside out. Rebel groups turned on ordinary people, demanding bribes or settling scores. Extremists murdered neighbors who they deemed insufficiently supportive of their rebellion. The loudest voices among Palestinian Arab leadership encouraged these killings. All while the British deported even moderate leaders; tortured, killed, and imprisoned hundreds of civilians; and collectively punished almost every Arab in Palestine, regardless of his or her position.

For many Jews, however, the growing wedge between Palestine’s Arabs and Mandate authorities proved to be an opportunity. Many worked side by side with the British, enforcing collective punishment (often brutally) and gaining valuable military experience under British supervision. Meanwhile, Jewish social institutions grew stronger, so that, in the words of Rashid Khalidi, “…When the British left Palestine in 1948, there was no need to create the apparatus of a Jewish state… That apparatus had in fact been functioning under the British aegis for decades.”

But even as the mainstream leadership cautioned restraint, Jewish extremists resorted to dirtier tactics, attacking Palestinian Arab civilians in an ever-spiraling cycle of violence. All the while, religious leadership began to develop a Torah-based military ethic for the 20th century, pondering ethical questions about power and war that hadn’t been relevant for nearly 1,800 years.

So it wasn’t just Palestinian Arabs going through a revolution. Palestine’s Jews were figuring out what it meant to build and defend a country – even though that country wouldn’t exist for another decade.

Last week, we concluded with the Peel Commission’s proposal to potentially partition Palestine (people love alliteration, ey). It was, as we said, the first proposed two-state solution. It was also the impetus for Palestinian Arab rebel groups to restart the revolt. So as this story winds down to its tragic conclusion, we’ll reflect from our vantage point of 2024: with Israel embroiled in its most painful war yet, is it still possible to learn anything from the revolution that shaped the country?

Chapter 3: Blood and Fire

September 26, 1937 was Lewis Yelland Andrews’ 41st birthday, and he planned to spend it as he did most evenings: in church. The newly-appointed District Commissioner of the Galilee was a devout Christian who believed that, and I’m quoting him directly here, “the Messiah will come and redeem mankind only when a Jewish state is established. I, who hoped all my life to be one of the helpers of this rebirth of the Jewish people, am fortunate to have this privilege.”

Palestine’s Jews loved him. Their neighbors… not so much. They knew him as “one of the strongest enemies of the Arabs.” Andrews had already survived two attempts on his life, but his luck ran out on his 41st birthday. Four gunmen, faces covered, ambushed him and his bodyguard outside the church, shooting Andrews nine times and leaving his body on the church steps. But it was a hollow victory. Whether they knew it or not, they’d just called down the full might of the British Empire against every Arab in Palestine. 

The reprisals were swift and brutal. Less than 24 hours after the killing, Mandate police had rounded up 100 Palestinian Arab prisoners, none of whom were the killers. In the coming days, they’d arrest hundreds more, torturing them brutally for information. After over a decade of incitement and subversion, they finally stripped Hajj Amin al-Husseini of all his titles, dissolving his organization, the Arab Higher Committee. But it was too late. The damage had been done the moment Husseini was appointed Grand Mufti, 15 years before.

In their zeal to quash the uprising, the Brits deported all the AHC members they could find to far-off British colonies – including the mayor of Jerusalem, who was sent packing to the Seychelles, an island in the Indian Ocean. (Nerd corner alert: that mayor was the uncle of Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi, whose book The Hundred Years War on Palestine was a valuable resource in our research.)

But in characteristically short-sighted fashion, the Brits exiled constructive voices, including Musa Alami, who had maintained strong relationships with Brits, Jews, and Palestinian Arabs of all stripes, on charges that he had acted “too interested in politics.” I remind you: this guy was a legal advisor to the British authorities and the private secretary of the High Commissioner. Pretty sure being interested in politics was a part of his job description. 

You’d think that the British authorities would save the harshest punishment of all for the Mufti, who the Colonial Secretary considered “a black-hearted villain.” And maybe they would have, if they’d managed to catch him. But the Mufti had cleverly taken refuge on the Temple Mount months earlier, surrounded by guards, knowing that even the mighty British Empire feared what would happen if they entered the holy compound. 

But after Andrews’ murder, the Mufti understood that he had to leave Palestine. He sneaked out of Jerusalem one night in the fall of 1937, disguised as a Bedouin. 

But from his new base in Lebanon, al-Husseini made one thing clear to the rebels: his tenure as Grand Mufti might be over, but the revolt was just getting started. And the rebels had his personal permission to hunt down Brits, Jews, and so-called Palestinian Arab “collaborators.”

A Sheikh in Hebron who had spoken out against terrorism found his house shot at repeatedly. Other leaders were killed for promoting the same message. al-Husseini had no patience for pragmatists trying to carve out a less extreme path. Palestinian Arabs could choose quote unquote “liberty,” or they could choose death.

Palestinian leadership was in tatters. The deportation of moderate voices left a power vacuum where extremists flourished. Anyone who tried a different approach was branded a traitor, and either shouted down or killed.

Sound familiar? The past isn’t even past…

And perhaps that’s why there are so few Arabic-language histories of this revolt, compared to histories of 1948. This is Oren Kessler again, the author of the book about the Great Revolt, Palestine 1936, explaining why [Insert Kessler clip:]

I actually quote Professor Mustafa Kabha at the Open University of Israel who’s done a lot of work in Arabic and in Hebrew and a certain amount in English on the revolt. And he basically writes that it’s much easier, quote unquote, from a Palestinian perspective, to spend a lot of time thinking about 47, 48. …because when you focus on the Nakba, you can focus on all of the perceived injustices that the Palestinians suffered at the hands of the Israelis, at the hands of their fellow Arabs who failed to rescue them from this Zionist menace as they see it. You can blame Western imperialism, you can blame the British, you can blame the United Nations… When you’re dealing with 36 to 39, Professor Kabha writes, it requires a lot more soul searching.” 

But in the bloody haze of war, soul-searching was in short supply. Palestinian Arabs ratcheted up their attacks. They ambushed buses and trains, explicitly looking for Jews. They burned down parts of the airport. They put bombs in cafes known to be British haunts. They shot Jews in the street. 

British authorities cracked down. If they couldn’t find the perpetrator, well, they’d do the next best thing. Ordinary Palestinian Arabs unlucky enough to live near attack sites found themselves under 23-hour curfews. Already-poor villagers had to pool funds to pay fines imposed on their entire village. Suspected terrorists had their houses demolished.

The past is never dead…

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s still happening today. Israel still uses several Mandate-era tactics to deter terrorism, with mixed results. Until 1966, Palestinian Arab Israelis lived under Israeli martial law, second-class citizens in their own state. During particularly violent periods, Israel demolishes the houses and property of terrorists in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, hoping to deter future attacks. According to lawyer and journalist Yishai Schwartz, the rationale goes something like this. Quote:

“Those that strap bombs to their bodies obviously can’t be deterred by the threat of death to themselves. But by imposing hardship on a terrorist’s immediate family, Israeli authorities hoped they could change his calculus. Claude Berrebi, a Hebrew University economist… explains that the demolitions aim at catering to terrorists’ own interests and desires—to convince them that by perpetrating attacks ‘they are not only dying or leaving behind a better world, but hurting those they love.’”

Mandate authorities had other nasty tricks up their sleeves to quell the rebellion.

Two weeks ago, I promised you a British Christian Zionist nudist military genius. Well, the time has come to introduce Major General Orde Wingate, aka Lawrence of Judea, aka founder of the Special Night Squads, aka the guy who trained both Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan, future Israeli war heroes.

Wingate had grown up in a home that disavowed most forms of affection or fun. His father, a colonel in the British Army, was a particularly extreme follower of a Protestant sect known as the Plymouth Brethren. He beat his seven children often; enforced a strict schedule of church and Bible study; and even prohibited singing. The family wore black on the Sabbath and never heated their home. 

Not to play armchair psychologist, but maybe that bummer childhood is why Orde was, well, a little nuts. He’d show up to parties filthy, hoisting a sack of grenades. When guests came over, he’d open the door naked. He kept onions and garlic on a string around his neck to “ward off mosquitoes,” occasionally snacking on these necklaces as if they were fruit. But for all his eccentricities, he was something of a military genius.

Like the other men in his family, Orde was a military man. After serving in Sudan for six years, he was sent to Palestine in 1936, largely because of his fluent Arabic. Though he had met few Jews in his life until then, he took a shine to them immediately. As he wrote in a letter to his mother, quote: “It is amazing what the Jews have done and are doing in this country. The desert really begins to blossom like the rose.” He told a Zionist activist that he was, quote “a Zionist with my whole heart… Whoever raises his hand against you and the rebuilding of your land and nation must be fought… But the fight is yours, and mine is only the privilege of helping you.”

He made good on his promise, training some of the IDF’s most famous future leaders. As violence once again ripped through the Mandate in late 1937, Wingate suggested that the Brits build Jewish-only Special Night Squads to track down rebels and saboteurs under cover of darkness. British soldiers didn’t know the land or the language or even the culture. Palestinian Arab soldiers might be double agents, or at least squeamish about fighting their brothers. Jewish soldiers, however, were hell-bent on defending their land and their people.

The authorities okayed the plan. Anything to stop the chaos. So Wingate gathered a choice group of Jewish Haganah fighters for covert and highly risky missions. Under cover of darkness, small, highly-trained squads made short work of rebel villages and groups, even occasionally collecting crucial intelligence information. British top brass commended the unit’s quote, “excellent work,” which was quote, “a great tribute to the initiative and ingenuity of all concerned.” In Kessler’s words, quote, “The success of the Special Night Squads was an unmistakable milestone in the Zionists’ steady march since spring 1936 toward becoming a formidable and lethal military force.”

But Wingate’s success was tempered by his cruelty to local Palestinian Arabs. When rebel groups sabotaged a pipeline, he punished local villagers by digging up oil-soaked soil from around the pipeline to stuff down their mouths. Other times, he’d make villagers run miles through the desert. He demolished homes without restraint, fired on civilians, and killed villagers on the spot if they refused to cooperate.

The rest of the British Army was maybe no better. They used Palestinian Arabs as human shields, tying unlucky hostages to the front of their trucks to stop rebels from firing on them. If the hostage tried to run, he’d be shot. When this unfortunate person had served his purpose, a particularly cruel soldier might casually run him over. In one particularly hideous case, they left 500 suspected rebels in a cage for days on end. In fact, in some towns, even ordinary residents were caged as their homes were searched for weapons. If they were too quote “uncooperative,” their cages would be left in the direct sun, and their water supply limited.

We’ve talked before about the tensions between Brits and Jews towards the end of the Mandate – check out the final episode of Season 2 for more on that. But as awful as the Brits could be to the Jews, Jews in Palestine were spared these particular, utterly unjustifiable horrors.

So it is a bit odd to me that some Palestinian Arabs – including the Nashashibis, longtime rivals of the al-Husseinis – actually cooperated with the British, gathering so-called “peace bands” to fight the rebels. In fact, Jerusalem’s mayor, Raghib al-Nashashibi, even offered his full cooperation to the Jewish Agency. At the same time, Druze soldiers formed their own units to fight the rebels. (Shoutout to our episode on the Israeli Druze!) I guess they could read the writing on the wall. Or maybe they were just sick of the violence, chaos, theft, and extortion. Because by late 1937, rebel groups had begun terrorizing fellow Palestinian Arab locals.

And that’s another direct parallel to today. Hamas may have started as a transparent, charitable “liberation” group in the vein of Sheik Izz al-Din al-Qassam. Today, they’re little more than a mafia confiscating money and humanitarian supplies; shaking down Gazans for “protection money;” and surveilling, jailing, and torturing anyone suspected of, well, basically anything they don’t like. Links in the show notes for more.

As Palestine burned, Mandate authorities meted out quote-unquote justice through a system of martial law. Anyone found with a weapon could be executed. An 81-year-old rebel leader was killed for possession of a single bullet. In fact, more than 100 Arab Palestinians were sentenced to death by military tribunals, with many more shot on the spot without a trial.

But Palestinian Arabs weren’t the only ones handling weapons. By late 1937 and into 1938, radical Jewish splinter groups were done watching innocent Jewish civilians gunned down in the streets. Jewish blood might be cheap in Europe, but this was their ancestral homeland. No one was going to just murder their fellow Jews and get away with it. A Jewish Telegraphic Agency bulletin from September 8, 1937, summarizes the situation in Mandate Palestine as following, quote:

Palestine today counted four Jewish and fourteen Arabs deaths in nine days’ disorders…. The latest fatality occurred today when Rabbi Eliezer Gerstein, 44, succumbed to wounds he received Friday when shot while returning from the Wailing Wall. An Arab merchant was shot dead in the Christian Quarter of Safed yesterday. He had been threatened previously by terrorists for supplying meat to Jews. A Jew, Ephraim Weiner, was stabbed and slightly injured by an Arab in Haifa.​

That article, by the way, was nestled under this one: Hitler, Opening Nazi Congress, Hails Racial ‘Revolution.’ And that is really important context to keep in mind. Because most Jewish extremists had grown up in Europe. Most still had families there. And all were horrified to watch the entire continent gripped by viral antisemitism.

It was amid this backdrop that in April of 1938, three young Jews, including one recent immigrant from Poland, ambushed a bus full of Palestinian Arab villagers with guns and grenades. Their mission failed utterly, and their potential victims survived without a scratch. Still, Mandate authorities had arrested and imprisoned over a thousand Palestinian Arabs for similar offenses since the start of the revolt. They needed to make an example of these Jews.

At the trial, one suspect was deemed not guilty by reason of insanity. Yishuv leadership managed to get another suspect’s death sentence commuted by lying about his age. But there was no saving the third, 24-year-old Shlomo Ben-Yosef, from the gallows. For his part, Ben-Yosef was only too eager to die for the cause. He wrote to his friends, “Friends, tomorrow I am going to die by hanging, and is there another man happier than I?… Long live the state of the Jews in its historic borders! Long live the fighting Hebrew youth!”

Ben-Yosef’s wish came true. The “fighting Hebrew youth” met the day after his execution to plan their revenge.

Remember, mainstream Zionist leadership, like David Ben Gurion and the Jewish Agency, officially mandated havlagah, self-restraint. But by 1938, hardliners had already established a rival paramilitary called the Etzel, the Hebrew acronym for Irgun ha-Tzvai ha-Leumi b’Eretz Yisrael, the National Military Organization in the Land of Israel, aka The Irgun. (By the way, the Irgun literally just means “the Organization,” but that’s what they were called!)

The Irgun had carried out various acts of terrorism before Shlomo Ben-Yosef’s death, including the murder of ten Arab civilians in November of 1937, in an event that the Palestine Post would later dub Black Sunday. But Ben-Yosef’s execution kicked up their fight to the next level. As one Irgun fighter summarized their new strategy, quote, “We must create a situation, whereby killing an Arab is like killing a rat, where Arabs are dirt, thereby showing that we and not they are the power to be reckoned with.” 

Oof. Yikes. 

They meant what they said. Jewish and Palestinian people traded bomb for bomb, shot for shot. By July 1938, 60 Jews and more than 100 Palestinian Arabs had been killed. In Kessler’s words, quote, “​For the first time since the Great Revolt began, for the first time in Palestine’s history, Jews were killing more Arabs than the reverse.”

Why? Why kidnap a Christian Palestinian Arab taxi driver and hang him? Why set off a bomb at a crowded market? Why shoot civilians in the street?

Well, the Irgun genuinely believed that the Jewish Agency was putting Jews in danger with their mealy-mouthed talk of restraint. They argued that the best self defense was deterrence. No one could just kill Jews and get away with it. Not anymore. Rabbi Shlomo Brody, who wrote the excellent book Ethics of Our Fighters, further explains the psychology of the warrior Jew:

[Insert Brody clip]: “Jews haven’t really fought back for many centuries. And I think that Zionism as a whole pushed Jews to start thinking about what would be necessary in order to restore sovereignty. Jews have also begun to fight in foreign armies. Over a million Jews fight in World War I. And so the self-image of the Jew is also evolving during this time period, and Jews start to see themselves as fighters, as people that can stand up for themselves. And I think ultimately, it’s a combination of those two factors, push Jews to understand that they need to start to defend themselves. And these self-defense groups emerge in the 20s and 30s, in some ways, amongst the chaos of the post-World War I order, or disorder, if you will. And Jews recognized for the first time in the many centuries that if we’re going to see ourselves as fighters, if we’re gonna see ourselves as builders of a state, we need to know how to fight. And so I think that those factors pushed together are what drives you to start developing self-defense groups and to start training as warriors.”

But self-defense was one thing. Wanton violence was another. Mainstream Jewish leadership, including most religious authorities, strongly condemned the Irgun’s tactics. Here’s Brody again:

[insert Brody clip:] “The vast majority of the rabbis of the time period, led by the chief rabbis of the era, are very strongly against reprisals because they say that even though this is something which the world does, but that’s never been the way of the Jewish people. And what’s particularly bothering them isn’t self-defense, that they’re supportive of, it’s the notion of saying that self-defense can be done through the means of indiscriminate killing, of even targeting, frankly, civilians and non-combatants and people that you know have had nothing to do with violence against the Jews. And for many, this is just an outright violation of one of the Ten Commandments, thou shall not murder.”

Among the Irgun’s strongest critics was Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, whose objection was grounded in the Sixth Commandment.

“Lo Tirtzach, you shall not murder. This is an absolute obligation. It’s a fundamental commandment, not just having pragmatic benefits to it, but even if it had pragmatic benefits through such types of attacks, reprisal attacks, Rabbi Amiel felt that on an inherent level, it was just absolutely wrong. It’s a violation of the laws of the Torah, which recognize that all human beings were created in the image of God. It’s a violation in his mind of a principle established in the prophets of individual responsibility, that we only punish people for their sins, but not the sins of their fathers or mothers or neighbors. And in his mind, it was a violation of the ultimate dream of the Jewish people, which is to L’Taken Olam L’Machut Shaddai, to improve the world, but under the kingdom of God or the rules of God. And if you’re going to utilize any means, that’s a type of strategy, which justifies, asserts that the ends justify the means. And he felt that was a type of impure nationalism. Even in comparison to the nationalism of Bismarck and Hitler and says, we should have nothing to do with that.”

The Irgun’s emblem shows a hand gripping a machine gun over the outline of both Mandate Palestine and Transjordan. Underneath, the Hebrew words: rak kach. Only thus. As in, the only way to get what we want is through force. 

But the Yishuv’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, disagreed vehemently. If the Jews wanted a state, they had to deserve it. And they would not deserve a state won by unethical means. He quoted the Biblical injunction against killing innocent people, lest “bloodguilt” taint the land. It didn’t matter what the so-called “other side” was doing. The Jews would not bring bloodguilt into their home. 

The Yishuv’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Rav Isaac Herzog – who is, by the way, both the grandfather and namesake of Israel’s current president – agreed, arguing that restraint was the basis of Jewish morality and the ultimate sanctification of God’s name. The Jews would not debase themselves, or their religion, by killing innocent people. (Side note: He did, however, wish that, quote, “such a cry could be heard on the other side, from the leaders of Islam, against the spilling of innocent blood.”) 

But if that cry existed, it was shouted down, and Jewish hardliners protested that this just proved the rightness of their cause. As Jabotinsky put it in a 1938 speech: “The greatest enemy of equality for Jews is he who says that the means used by the Arabs in their war against us must not be used by us against them.” In other words: the only way to fight fire is with fire. Why should we hold ourselves to higher moral standards than our enemy? 

It’s a question that lots of Israelis are asking today: if your enemy fights dirty, why shouldn’t you? If, in 1937 and 1938, Palestinian Arab rebels were targeting civilians, why shouldn’t Jewish fighters do the same? And if, in 2024, Hamas hides among civilians, why shouldn’t Israel strafe their positions by air rather than sending soldiers in on foot, condemning at least some to death? Is it actually moral to prioritize the lives of civilians on the other side over the lives of your own soldiers? And why should different moral standards apply to each side?

Most Jewish authorities – religious or otherwise – believed that the same moral standards did apply to each side. Or should. But a few found justification for the Irgun’s actions in the Hebrew Bible. But before I explain why, I want you to remember: People are often products of their history and social context. Those Jews who condoned or justified violence had been born in a world where they were expected to take their debasement meekly. They had come to their ancestral homeland to reclaim their history as self-determining warrior-Jews, and if that meant getting their hands dirty, well – so had the Maccabees. So had King David. So had Joshua, and Gideon, and Deborah, and all the other warriors of Jewish history. 

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, leader of the Mizrachi religious-Zionist movement, was, at first, publicly opposed to the reprisal killings of civilians. But as the revolt claimed more Jewish victims, he began to question the Jewish Agency’s position on restraint. He pointed to the (pretty bleak) Biblical story of Dinah. The son of a local chieftain takes a liking to Jacob’s daughter Dinah. He abducts and rapes her, and then asks for her hand in marriage. Dinah’s brothers agree… if all the men in their clan got circumcised. The guy agrees, circumcising every man in his town. And as they’re groaning in agony after their mass circumcision, two of Dinah’s brothers slaughter them all. Jacob is horrified. On his deathbed, he curses the two sons who started the massacre. 

Seems pretty open and shut, right? Don’t kidnap and rape anyone. Don’t massacre people who have done their best to make it right. 

But Maimonides, the legendary 12th century commentator, argued that the townspeople deserved this punishment. True, they hadn’t raped Dinah themselves, but they also hadn’t invested in any mechanisms of social justice, any systems to prevent the abduction and rape of an innocent girl, which made them guilty. 

This was the argument that Rabbi Maimon used to justify the Irgun’s attacks, claiming that it was every civilian’s responsibility to stop their society from spiraling into terrorism. But much of Palestinian Arab society was actively aiding the rebels! Their moral institutions – the mosque, the elites – were either encouraging the terrorism or unable to reign it in. 

But very few other rabbis found such arguments convincing, and the moderate voices – like those Rabbis Amiel and Uziel – ultimately won out. And not solely among the religious. They won out because Zionist leadership was pragmatic. They argued, if Jewish leaders were to say that the ends justifies the means, aka, if the Irgun could use terrorism to build a Jewish state, why should Palestinian Arabs not do the same? If the Irgun targeted civilians, how could they argue against the targeting of Jewish civilians? Ultimately, moral standards should be consistent. Plus, David Ben Gurion understood that if the Irgun’s ideology was allowed to win, the cycle of violence would never stop. In his words:

“Poor peasants went to their city to sell the fruits of their labor – straight, honest people. And here comes the masses of Jews and kill them. What is the Arab to think? Does it not immediately create dozens, hundreds of new terrorists?” Even Jabotinsky agreed, writing: “I see nothing heroic about shooting an Arab peasant in the back for bringing vegetables on his donkey to Tel Aviv.”

But it would take nearly another year for the violence to stop. By the summer of 1939, the British army systematically and brutally crushed the rebellion, with help from both Jewish and Palestinian Arab fighters. And at its end, between 5,000 and 8,000 Palestinian Arabs were dead – at least 250 of them at the hands of the Irgun. Roughly 20% of Palestinian Arab men had been jailed at some point. Much of their arsenal had been confiscated. And during the revolt’s most violent period, the upper and middle classes fled. More than 40,000 people – mostly the wealthy or at least middle-class – decamped for places like Lebanon. Those left behind had to contend with the withered crops, the shattered economy, the complete disintegration of social structures, the infighting, the lack of leadership. It was the Nakba before the Nakba. A catastrophe that would both pave the way for and repeat in 1947. 

Palestine’s Arabs had revolted in order to end Jewish immigration. But by the time the British actually complied, it was too late. They’d already lost. So when the Brits produced the White Paper of 1939, which promised, among other things, an independent Palestinian state within the decade and limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 people over the next five years, they had already alienated the same people they were trying to pacify. To make matters worse for themselves, they also paved the way for another rebellion in Palestine – this time, from the Jews.

When World War II began in September 1939, hundreds of thousands of European Jews pounded desperately on Palestine’s doors. Most were turned away, condemned to the ghetto. The gas chamber. The mass grave. As the scale of the devastation became clear, groups like the Irgun turned their ire on the British. Even the Haganah would temporarily abandon its principle of “restraint,” of havlagah, to drive the British out of Palestine. This revolt did end in an independent state. But that too would be a bittersweet victory, in the face of 6 million dead. And in defending that new state against five Arab armies, one percent of its Jewish population would die.

But Jews are resilient.

They’d survive the Holocaust, and 1948, and 1967, and 1973, and 1982, and the First Intifada, and the failed peace accords, and on and on until October 7th, 2023. And make no mistake. The Jewish state will survive this, too. But no matter when the victory comes – whether it’s in defeating Hamas or rescuing the hostages or holding off Hezbollah – it’ll be bittersweet, like so many other triumphs of Jewish history. Thousands upon thousands are dead. And the same questions remain: what if things had been different? Will we be smart enough to learn from the past… and brave enough to change? 

So that is the story of 1936-1939, which is also the story of today. And here are your six fast facts – two from each episode of this mini-series:

  1. From the end of WWI until 1948, the Brits administered Palestine, building uneasy and inconsistent relationships with both Palestinian Arabs and Jews.
  2. Jewish people immigrated to Palestine in massive numbers through the 1930s, buying land from Palestinian Arab elites. The peasant farmers, who had lived on these lands found themselves landless, jobless, and burning with resentment. Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam capitalized on this, forming a militia that targeted Brits and Jews alike.
  3. After Qassam was killed in a shootout with the British, his followers continued his work. As they were attacking Jewish civilians, ordinary Palestinian Arabs organized a six-month labor strike to protest Jewish immigration to Palestine. 
  4. When the strike ended, the Brits recommended the land be partitioned into two states. Though some Palestinian Arabs endorsed the plan, they were shouted down by extremists like Hajj Amin al-Husseini.
  5. The Palestinian Arab answer to this two-state solution was to restart the revolt – violently. And in response, both Brits and Jews cracked down, employing brutal methods, including collective punishment, to quash the rebellion.
  6. By 1939, the revolt had failed, leaving Palestinian Arab society decimated. In the meantime, Palestinian Jewish society had flourished – in part through strong leadership and rejection of extremism, and in part because of cooperation with the British. It was for these reasons that the Jews won the war of 1948, while the Palestinian Arabs lost everything.

Those are your six fast facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it. Well, it’s more of a question: Is change possible? If the story of 1936 is also the story of 2024, how do we change?

As Wharton professor Adam Grant says, quote: “The saddest kind of cynicism is denying that people can change. You’re not the exact same person as 10 years ago. Your opinions, habits, and values have evolved. Others have too. A vital part of believing in people is seeing their potential for growth.”

And, I hear him. More than hearing him, I think of a New York Times article from April of 2022, in which Rebecca Solnit asks, quote:

“Are you who you used to be? Specifically, are you the person who made that mistake, held that view now regarded as reprehensible or ignorant, committed that harm years or decades ago? This belief in the fixity rather than the fluidity of human nature – or maybe in guilt without redemption – shows up everywhere. But beyond the individual cases comes the need for something broader: a recognition that people change, and that most of us have and will, and that much of that is because in this transformative era, we are all being carried along on a river of change.”

We have the capacity to change. We do. So George Orwell’s statement that, quote, “Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should,” well, that resonates.

Wouldn’t we be in a better position if every one of our leaders looked to the past for inspiration? Or at least, for lessons? Would October 7th have happened if Israeli authorities had paid closer attention to the lesson of 1973, which warned against the dangers of arrogance? Would the Palestinians have had a state if Arafat had chosen the right lesson from history, which was: do not let extremists win? Would Palestinian society be in a better place if young people looked to figures like Musa Alami rather than Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam or Haj Amin Al Husseini? (These are hypothetical questions, by the way. I think you know my opinion. See, I have opinions :))

But how do you ensure that nations learn lessons? More importantly, how do you ensure they’re the right lessons?

It all comes back to my favorite refrain: education. Education. Oh, and, yeah, one more. Education. We made this three-part series specifically so that our listeners would learn about a period of history that is so rarely covered in depth, upstaged as it is by the events of 1948. I consider myself decently knowledgeable about Israeli history – but I was blown away by how much I didn’t know before diving into this research, and by how deep the parallels run between now and then. Jews have been asking the same questions since 1936. Like: How do you fight terrorism when terrorists embed themselves among civilians? Or, more broadly, how do you fight an enemy that plays dirty? Do you fight fire with fire? Or do you try to stay moral even when your enemy doesn’t?

If I had a prayer for the future, it would be that each of us internalize the lessons of 1936 as deeply as we can. That each of us understand the other side’s trauma. Reading about how Palestinian Arabs were often treated unlocked a new reserve of empathy – one that I think that all Jews and Israelis should internalize, too. And learning about the brilliant unknown figures of Palestinian history filled me with both sorrow and hope. More Musa Alamis exist today. We just have to find them. And they have to be elevated.

As for me and my Jewish brothers and sisters – we deserve empathy too. We are finished with the debate over whether a Jewish state should exist or not. Because it does exist. All solutions must start there. But we can’t solve this conflict with a zero-sum mentality. All that gets us is pain, and death, and sorrow.

That’s why we have to internalize the lessons of Rabbis Amiel and Uziel and Herzog. Towering, sensitive religious figures, whose warnings have been ringing in my ears since October 7th. If Israelis don’t defend their land, they will lose it. And that’s critically important. These towering rabbinical figures weren’t against self-defense. They were all for it. But Jewish self-defense has to be ethical, reflecting the Jewish values we’ve cultivated for centuries. 

I close this mini-series with the incredible words of Rabbi Amiel: “Even if we knew for certain that we could bring about the final redemption by indiscriminate killing, we should reject such a “redemption” with both hands and not be redeemed through innocent bloodshed.” The Jewish state needs to exist. But the Jewish state must cling to the lessons of Rabbi Amiel and others like him, holding fast to our ethos of purity of arms. Only by clinging to ancient Jewish ethics will the Jewish people keep the State of Israel. There is no other way.

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