Did Palestine’s Great Revolt (1936-1939) set the stage for Oct. 7? (Part 2)


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 even 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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Have you ever thought about where your history begins?

No? Just me? Well, today you’re gonna think about it. Here’s a fun exercise for you, and yes, I think we’ve established by now that I define “fun” differently from normal people. That’s okay. Grab the writing implements of your choice – mine are a pencil and a legal pad – and write down all the things that have made you who you are. Take your time. Put on some music. Have a snack. Kick it. Get funky with it.

All done? Look over your list. At first glance, it might seem like a bunch of unconnected people or events. But if you look more closely, I’m prepared to bet that a significant number happened before you were born. You wouldn’t be who you are if not for the people who raised you, or the social and historical context you were raised in

More concretely: I wouldn’t be Noam if not for the choices of my parents, Pam and Neil Weissman. And they owe their personalities and choices to their parents, and their social context, and so on and so forth. People aren’t just a product of their surroundings. They’re also products of their past. And in that way, things that happened 10 or 50 or 100 years ago continue to influence the present. Like we talked about in the last episode, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

That’s why I’m obsessed with history. It’s not just some lifeless list of facts. It’s breathing, animating our current moment. And our current moment – which, as I record this, is March of 2024 – well, our current moment reminds me a lot of that This is Fine meme. You know what I’m talking about? You’ve probably seen it: the cartoon dog sitting placidly at a table, cockeyed and smiling, with his little cartoon mug and his little cartoon hat. The second panel zooms in closer. His eyes get bigger and wider. His mouth is open in a half-smile. Above his head floats a text bubble: This is fine. It would be an entirely unremarkable comic, if not for the fact that in both panels, he’s surrounded by flames, a cloud of dark smoke billowing overhead.

I hate to be a pessimist, but sometimes, I feel like we’re all that dog. Or he’s all of us, whatever. We don’t know how or why he came to sit in a room full of flames. There’s no previous panel that explains his origin story. And there’s no panel afterwards, either, telling us if he makes it out. He’s stuck forever in those two panels, between the smoke and the flames, staring crazily into the distance, convincing himself that this is not just normal, but A-OK.

Look, I’m not going to pretend that the world isn’t on fire. But the difference between us and that little guy is that we have the luxury of a previous panel, and a panel before that, and a panel before that. If we look closely enough at our past, we can understand the chain of events that brought us here, to this room full of flames. And if we really zoom in, study the small details, understand how and why we ended up in this particular pocket of hell, then maybe the past will yield a clue about how to get out.

My team and I chose to write a miniseries on the Great Arab Revolt of 1936 well before October 7th. But the bulk of the research took place after, during the dark nights of December and January, as we watched hostage deals fall through and body counts rise. As we wait for the return of the rest of the hostages. And as I pored over sources, two thoughts kept chasing themselves over and over in my head.

Jews evacuate the Old City of Jerusalem after Arab riots in 1936. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

The first: this is depressingly familiar. Very few periods of Israeli history correspond as neatly to our present as the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. It’s all there: the violence, the crises of leadership, the rejection of the two-state solution. The brutality. The debate over what constitutes deterrence, and what constitutes revenge. Over collective punishment. Over who has the right to exist on this land, and who doesn’t.

In fact, the only other events that parallel the Revolt of 1936 were the two Intifadas – creatively named, wait for it, The First Intifada and The Second Intifada. I was two when the First Intifada started, a teenager during the much more violent second. And I remember what it felt like to visit Israel during those five years. That choked, anxious sensation, like everyone around you is holding their breath. The daily grief, overwhelming: another attack. Another attack. Another one. Another. Thinking: when will it stop? When will this end? And I imagine that’s more or less how the Jews of the Yishuv felt as attack followed attack followed attack in the bleak years between 36 and 39, if not worse. They had no army, no real authority in the land, except for what was borrowed from the British. That feeling of helplessness.

I’m not the first or only person to see a parallel between ’36 and the intifadas. Palestinian-Israeli professor Mustafa Kahba observes that this period was “the first true ‘Intifada.’ Though it did not reach its goal of abolishing the Jewish national home and expelling the occupation, it marked the beginning of the Palestinian revolution that has not stopped blazing until the writing of these lines.” In other, perhaps less admiring words: we’ve been dealing with different iterations of the same basic problem since 1936. I’m tired, y’all.

The second thought I had also wasn’t new. But I’ve never felt it quite so passionately as I did while preparing these episodes. What if, what if, what if. We talked about these what ifs last week. What if High Commissioner Herbert Samuel had chosen someone more qualified to be the Grand Mufti, leaving Hajj Amin al-Husseini to become another obscure name on his family tree? What if the Zionist movement gave in to its most extreme factions, who believed that bombing civilians in cafes established deterrence? What if the British actually incentivized Palestinian Arab moderates to speak up, rather than responding with dehumanizing brutality at nearly every turn?

So many questions. So much speculation. And the biggest question of all: If 1936 bears such strong resemblance to today, can Israelis and Palestinians learn any lessons from their grandparents’ mistakes? Or is it already too late?

Welcome to Part 2 of our three-part miniseries on the Great Arab Revolt of 1936. Today:

Chapter 2: A Gathering Storm

Not many pictures exist of the man who kicked off the Great Revolt – or in Arabic, thawra – of 1936. Most portraits of Sheikh Izz al-Din Al-Qassam are almost comically old-timey: heavily pixelated black-and-whites showing a round-eyed man with a tragic expression. (Seriously, why does nobody smile in old photos? Were they not happy then? No, it’s a whole bit of Americanism. We’re going to move on.) But one photo tells a different story: of a quietly handsome man with smile lines around his eyes, a few streaks of gray salting his short beard. Put him in a yarmulke, and he’d fit right in at any synagogue.

Well. Until he started talking about jihad. The violent kind.

Remember, this is the guy that Hamas chose as the namesake for their military wing and their short-range, imprecise Qassam rockets. Qassam rockets’ lack of precision and accuracy is a feature, not a bug. Before the most recent 2023 war, Hamas could send out dozens or hundreds in a day, not caring where they landed. Some of the rockets never made it out of Gaza, killing the same people Hamas once purported to fight for. (Since October 7th, they’ve sadly entirely abandoned the fiction that they’re there to help the Palestinian people. Links in the show notes.)

The rockets that do make it out of Gaza land in Israel more or less willy-nilly, in the hope that at least one will hit a military base… or else a nursery school, a hospital, a highway, a house. Going after civilians: a feature, not a bug. So it probably won’t surprise you that the original al-Qassam had a very simple solution to all these Jews coming to Palestine, with the approval of their colonial enablers, the British.

Use violence to make them leave. (The past is never dead…It’s not even past…)

People often ask me: is the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians a territorial one? A national one? Or, I don’t know, a religious one? Well, the answer is yes, to different degrees depending on who you ask. For al-Qassam, this was a religious war. Palestine was sacred Muslim land, and no non-Muslim had the right to wrest Muslim land away from its rightful owners. So when the Italians came to Libya in 1911, the Sheikh sided with the Libyans. When the French showed up in his native Syria at the end of WWI, he fought against them himself. But when those rebellions failed, he headed south, to Haifa, where – despite being Syrian – he’d cement his legacy as Palestine’s most famous martyr. The Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini was a fan of al-Qassam and appointed him as imam at a Haifa mosque named – fittingly – Masjid al- Istiqlal, or Independence Mosque

For roughly a decade, the Sheikh lived a mostly-quiet, wholesome life side by side with Haifa’s working-class men, which included many displaced fellahin, or peasant-farmers. The Sheikh did his best to better his community. He taught illiterate folks how to read. He steered at-risk youth away from a life of crime. He delivered sermons. He just… happened to do it with a weapon in his hand. As Ted Swedenburg recalls in his ethnography of 1936, Memories of Revolt, quote: 

“One villager we met reported seeing Qassam preaching jihad at the mosque and grasping a gun or a sword in his hand. One of his disciples recounted a sermon in which the shaykh urged bootblacks to exchange their shoe brushes for revolvers and to shoot the English rather than polish their shoes. “Obey God and the Prophet,” Qassam proclaimed, “but not the British high commissioner.””

It’s a good line, I gotta admit. Herbert Samuel, the British High Commissioner who appointed al-Husseini, certainly didn’t do either Jews or Palestinian Arabs any favors.

So as the 20s bled into the 30s, al-Qassam kept preaching armed struggle. His words found an eager audience among the displaced and dispossessed Palestinian Arabs whose lands had been sold out from under them to Jews. Palestine’s elite families – the ones selling off said lands – had little interest in Qassam’s zealotry. But his working-class followers were all in. Between 200-800 men joined his militia, The Black Hand, which roamed the countryside sabotaging British infrastructure, destroying property, and occasionally picking off Jewish civilians. And with every attack, the Jews of Palestine grew less and less interested in building bridges with their neighbors, and more and more interested in arming themselves before the next, inevitable confrontation.

That confrontation came in late 1935.

The dockworkers of Jaffa probably didn’t think too much about the cargo they unloaded daily. And they probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to the drums of cement they were unloading on October 16, 1935, if one hadn’t broken open and spilled out a significant supply of weapons. But that drum did break open. And when British authorities came to investigate, they found a modest arsenal secreted away in nearly 400 of the cement drums. Machine guns. Rifles. Ammo.

No one could prove it was headed for the Jewish underground. But it was an open secret that the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary, was arming itself. Sure, they said their only goal was self-defense, but the atmosphere in Palestine was tense, and for Palestinian Arabs, this weapons shipment only confirmed their suspicions that the Zionists were gearing up for a massive confrontation. 

Arab Palestine was outraged. Local papers fulminated against the British for blatantly allowing the Jews to arm themselves. And al-Qassam saw his chance. He and his followers started selling off their possessions to buy weapons for the coming showdown.

But Qassam wouldn’t live to see the epic battle he’d been preparing for. Less than a month after the discovery of the smuggled weapons cache, a Jewish policeman happened to stumble upon Qassam’s band of rebels. He was merely investigating the theft of some citrus, with no idea that armed men were hiding mere feet away. But he never found out the identity of the citrus thief, because al-Qassam’s men shot him on sight.

British authorities did not appreciate the assassination of their police. They poured every resource they had into tracking Qassam down. It took two weeks, but when they finally found their man, the shootout lasted hours, ending only when al-Qassam was shot in the forehead. The man died – but in his place, a legend was born. And his followers had no interest in giving up the battle.

For the next few months, they stewed and plotted and trained.

They got their chance to avenge his death in April of 1936. Two Jewish poultrymen – turns out that’s a word, who knew – were making their way back to Tel Aviv from the Arab villages where they bought their chickens. As their truck chugged along the road between Shchem, or Nablus, and Tulkarem, they were stopped by a band of men whose faces were hidden behind keffiyehs. The men demanded money to buy weapons to avenge al-Qassam’s death. But after Israel Hazan and Zvi Dannenberg handed over their cash, Qassam’s followers shot them. Hazan – an elderly recent immigrant from Greece – died on the spot.

The Great Arab Revolt had just begun.

Palestine’s Jews were furious. Less than 24 hours after Hazan’s murder, two Jewish extremists gave their answer to al-Qassam’s band.

Hassan Abu Rass and Salim al-Masri spent the workweek in a shared hut on a banana plantation near Petach Tikva. They had no relation to al-Qassam or his followers. They probably didn’t even have time to comprehend what was happening to them before the first bullets pierced their skin. Eleven shots. Eleven. This wasn’t just an execution. This was revenge.

Officially, the Yishuv’s paramilitary, the Haganah, practiced self-restraint, or havlagah. They didn’t start fights. They defended against them. This was the official position of Zionist leadership and most religious leaders, including the Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel and the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, whose reasoning we will explore in the next episode and whose ideas have a massive impact on how to think about today’s current events. Nerd corner alert: Rabbi Amiel beat out the famed Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, the scion of the Soloveitchik dynasty, for the position of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1935… So, yeah, safe to say that Amiel was quite a big deal.

But you know what they say. Two Jews, three opinions. So where most Jews had no interest in revenge attacks, others were already planning their next, violent moves.

As mourners carried Hazan’s coffin through the streets of Tel Aviv towards his final resting place, a procession of over 1,000 Jews followed. Many were shouting for revenge. After the burial, roughly 100 angry Jewish people made their way to Jaffa, the majority-Arab city abutting Tel Aviv. Over the next 24 hours, many of them harassed, beat up, and intimidated Arab civilians, including teenagers and elders. They even threatened the Jewish passenger of a local Palestinian Arab driver, essentially telling him he should be ashamed of himself for riding with an Arab.

Some shouted the rallying cry of the hardline youth movement Betar: In blood and fire Judea fell. In blood and fire Judea will rise. (By the way, one day we’ll do an episode about Betar and its founder Jabotinsky, but in the meantime, gotta check out the Jabotinsky episode of our sister podcast, Jewish History Nerds, it’s awesome. Obviously, link in the show notes, find it there.)

They got their blood and fire the next day, as Arabs rampaged through Tel Aviv, stabbing or beating to death any Jews they could find. They burned down Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter, making refugees of its residents. The mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, eulogized the victims: “Some have fallen and the living must take their places… Many before you have made the same sacrifice. All of us are ready to make it…” His words proved horribly prescient. These 48 hours of rioting claimed 21 casualties (16 Jewish, 5 Arab) and over a hundred wounded. But it would soon be eclipsed by the far bloodier days that were to come.

And I want to take a moment here, to reflect on this escalation of conflict, because it presages the hideous cycle of violence of the past 8 decades.

Qassam’s bands targeted Jewish civilians. Jews rioted in response, harassing scores of Palestinian Arab civilians. Palestinian Arabs rampaged, killing over a dozen Jews. Soon, Jewish militias began throwing bombs, and Palestinian Arab groups responded. And so on, and so on, all the way to our present moment in 2024. Every action provoking an unequal and opposite reaction. Each side goading the other to increasingly ugly atrocities.

Now, depending on your political stance, you might be howling in rage right now. Maybe you’re shouting They’re not the same! Or The other side started it! Or What the hell, Noam, it sounds like you’re justifying terrorism.

Well, you’re well within your rights to make those arguments, except maybe that last one, because, come on now. But I told you already: my job isn’t to tell you what to think, it’s to do two things: to tell you what happened, and to suggest some tools for how to think. And what happened is that all through the revolt, hardliners on both sides targeted civilians. And I’m not trying to compare the different sides. This is the history. Is the past ever dead? Is it even the past?

Sure, then as now, Jewish hardliners were relatively fringe. And sure, then as now, Jewish governing bodies and most religious figures alike disavowed this kind of violence. But that doesn’t mean the violence didn’t happen. And we have to stare unflinchingly into the past if we ever want to rectify the hideous situation of the present.

Back in April of 1936, though, Palestinian Arabs also used alternate means of protesting. Elites and ordinary folk alike called a strike, and Hajj Amin al-Husseini quickly took up the call. Palestinian Arabs would neither go to work nor pay their taxes until the British acceded to three demands.

  1. Prohibiting all further Jewish immigration to Palestine
  2.  Prohibiting the transfer of all Palestinian Arab lands to Jews, and
  3.  Establishing a national government that would fairly represent the region’s population. By 1936, Jews made up roughly 30% of Palestine’s population. A representative government, then, would easily quash any of their demands.

Not all Arabs in Palestine were thrilled about the strike. Government employees in particular feared that striking would cost them their jobs. But those who dissented, including the Arab mayor of Haifa, were quickly brought to heel, often through intimidation and force. 

This internal intimidation would become a throughline for Palestine’s Arabs through the revolt. If anyone ever embodied the sentiment My way or the highway, it was our old friend Hajj Amin al-Husseini. If he said Palestine’s Arabs were gonna strike, then by golly, they’d better strike. And if he said that Palestine’s Arabs were gonna fight, well, time to get the guns. Any Palestinian Arab who disagreed with his hardline approach would find themselves on the business end of that same gun. In other words: though the revolt and the strike began as a grassroots movement, it was quickly co-opted by the Mufti. He curdled the understandable grievances of his people into a massive violent uprising that eventually turned in on itself, deteriorating into a kind of civil war.

As April bled into May, various Palestinian Arab groups kept attacking Jewish civilians. At first, the violence was disorganized, the uncoordinated attacks of various peasant groups. Elites had little interest in joining the fight until the Mufti called in the big guns.

You might remember the name Fawzi al-Qawuqji. When the strike began in April of 1936, al-Husseini made a little visit to the charismatic war veteran, asking for his help in organizing the rebels. Fawzi spent the summer putting together a gang of trained fighters from all over the Arab world. Iraqis. Syrians. Lebanese Druze. In late August of 1936, as the revolt entered its fourth month, Fawzi and his men crossed into Palestine. He wasted no time appointing himself the “Commander in Chief of the Arab Revolt of Southern Syria,” which was his name for Palestine, and calling on all of Palestine’s Arabs to join the fight. But where the early Qassamite bands targeted Jewish civilians as well as British forces, Fawzi focused almost entirely on taking down the Brits.

For all his self-aggrandizing, the guy knew what he was doing. His attacks were coordinated, well-planned, and lethal. Mandate authorities were stunned and horrified to find themselves waging pitched battles against a disciplined guerilla force. To many Palestinian Arabs, including the elites, Fawzi was a hero. 

The mufti and the so-called Commander in Chief of the Arab Revolt of Southern Syria didn’t like each other much. I’m especially prepared to bet that Husseini resented Fawzi’s popularity. His picture hung in cafes. Poets dedicated odes to him, including one that called him “the flower of all young men.”

Whether or not he was jealous of the commander’s popularity, Husseini certainly recognized Fawzi’s strategic value. By the fall of 1936, he had begun openly encouraging the rebels, with disastrous consequences. Because by this point, these rebels were assassinating fellow Arabs they deemed insufficiently supportive of the uprising. Some of these so-called collaborators were trying to maintain order and track down Qassam’s followers. Others lost their lives for seeming too sympathetic to the Brits or the Jews. (Nerd corner alert: the year before, in 1935, the Mufti had issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, excommunicating any Muslim who sold land to Jewish buyers. Sunni and Shia scholars as far away as Iraq and Morocco backed him up. That was huge. An excommunicated Muslim can’t be buried in a Muslim cemetery or even have funeral prayers conducted in their honor. For the Mufti and his followers, such Muslims were traitors.)

The past isn’t past…

This depressing pattern continues to this very day. When Hamas crossed into Israel on October 7th, they didn’t discriminate between Arabs and Jews. Devout Muslim women, who wore hijab and recited the shahada, were gunned down, shot until their bodies were unrecognizable. Hamas dragged away a Bedouin Muslim family, including two kids, whose father and brother are still trapped in Gaza as of March 2024. Hamas terrorists used a Muslim doctor as a human shield, forcing him to watch them shoot into car after car after car of civilian passengers. These Muslims were Israeli citizens who lived, peacefully, under Israeli rule. Which meant that for Hamas, they were quote-unquote “traitors,” as deserving of death as the Jews.

It’s a hideous throughline throughout the past 80+ years of conflict. And to me, it explains why – then as now – there are so few peaceful voices in Palestinian Arab society. They are regularly intimidated. Harassed. Threatened. Jailed. Torture. Murdered. And that leads me to believe that those who would have spoken out, who privately disagreed with the rebels’ violent attacks, were too afraid to do so.

It’s just one of the many tragedies of this whole mess. Mess, I think, is the right word for this situation. So let’s stop and recap, because there’s a lot going on.

It’s 1936. Palestinian Arabs are striking and refusing to pay taxes. Some are also involved in fighting British authorities, under the supervision of veteran commander Fawzi al-Qawuqji (ka-WOOK-jee).

Both the strike and the violence were sanctioned by the Grand Mufti, who saw himself as the representative of Arab Palestine. Any Palestinian Arab who disagreed with him, or with the fighters, was harassed, intimidated, or even killed.

In short, Palestine is burning. Palestinian Arabs are fighting Brits, Jews, and each other. Jewish leadership – both political and religious – is more or less united on their policy of restraint and self-defense. But some Jewish splinter groups have already attacked Palestinian Arab civilians, a pattern that would only get worse in the coming years. Meanwhile, British authorities begin to employ harsh methods of collective punishment against the rebels, including the demolition of 220 buildings in Jaffa, which left thousands of Palestinian Arabs homeless. 

And everyone was losing patience.

Jewish hardliners were losing patience with their overly dovish leaders.

Mandate authorities were losing patience with this entire rebellion, and particularly with the Mufti. Who did Husseini think he was? He owed his authority to the British, yet – in the words of the colonial secretary, here he was, “not only bitterly anti-Jewish but also anti-British and a rascal.” A rascal! So cute.

Even Palestinian Arabs were beginning to lose patience. As the strike stretched into its sixth month in October 1936, Palestine’s Arabs felt its sting. Half a year without work had left the economy in shambles. But the Mufti couldn’t ask his own people to call off the strike that he himself had endorsed. He’d look weak – especially compared to the dashing Fawzi, that “flower among young men.” (Friends, I cannot adequately describe how funny I find that description. I’d like to be called a flower among young men.)

So Husseini found a patsy – or, more accurately, three patsies – to do his dirty work for him. He secretly reached out to the kings of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Transjordan, asking them to ask the Palestinians to call off the strike. The three kings agreed, and… it worked. Palestinian Arabs returned to their jobs. Husseini ordered Fawzi to leave Palestine. The attacks stopped. For about six months, an uneasy quiet prevailed. But it wouldn’t last. 

Amid this tension, the British established a royal commission to look into the causes of the revolt. They appointed Lord William Robert Wellesley Peel, which as far as I’m concerned is an incredible name, to head up the inquiry. But on the same day that he set sail for Palestine, the Colonial Secretary authorized a further 1,800 Jews to enter the region. That’s not a particularly huge number, but the Mufti was nonetheless furious.

Think about this for a second. Palestine’s Arabs had just revolted for half a year in the hopes that the Brits would stop Jewish immigration into Palestine. Now they were sending in a commission of inquiry to look into the causes of the revolt…. At the exact same time that they were letting MORE Jews in!

Look, I’m sympathetic to Jews re-entering their ancestral homeland, especially given that 1936 was a particularly unpleasant time to be Jewish in Europe, and many other parts of the world. But I also get where the Mufti was coming from. (Not at all something I would typically ever say). Had he and his people not spent the past six months explicitly telling the Brits why the revolt had happened? They knew the Arab position on Jewish immigration. Why did they need a Commission to look into the causes of the revolt, if they were just going to keep on flouting the wishes of the majority of Palestine’s population?

So the Mufti, stewing, threatened that not a single Palestinian Arab would testify before the Brits’ dumb commission. Now, if this sounds petty to you, congratulations, you’re a better leader than the Mufti was. Because no matter how annoyed he was with the Brits – and I really get it – he was absolutely failing to read the writing on the wall. Whether he liked it or not, the Brits had the power. And by refusing to play by the rules he was setting up a precedent that would haunt the Palestinian cause for the next century.

Now, was it fair that the Brits were in charge of Mandate Palestine? That they were the ones making the rules? Of course not. 

There’s no such thing as fair when it comes to empire. But the Mufti either failed to realize or failed to admit that if he wanted to build an independent country, he’d need to work within the framework he’d been given, no matter how “unjust” it seemed.

Other Arab leaders – both in Palestine and elsewhere – understood this perfectly.

The Emir of Transjordan. The Saudi king. Our friend Musa Alami. Even Fawzi – not exactly a fan of the Brits or the Jews – politely asked him, what the hell are you thinking? (Honestly, I feel like they probably used even saltier language.) The Brits were trying to work out some kind of solution. Did the Mufti really want to tank this Commission before it even started, ensuring that only the Jews would have their say?

When the six-man Commission showed up in Palestine at the end of 1936, he sent them a letter welcoming them to “this holy Arab land” and demanding they cease “Judaizing… this purely Arab country” by letting Jews in. Once they did that, he’d be overjoyed to testify. I feel like British nobility are too genteel to roll their eyes, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t make an exception in this case. So the Peel Commission worked around the Mufti, calling up exclusively British and Jewish witnesses. They had no idea that the Haganah had bugged the room so they could listen in to all the testimonies. (And look, I’m not condoning this, but if you’re a history person, I’m kinda glad they did.)

Not that they said very much that was new, by the way. Chaim Weizmann, who had five audiences with the commission, laid out the case for a Jewish homeland, describing Europe’s Jews as: “six million people pent up in places where they are not wanted, and for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live, and places into which they may not enter.” He’d repeat that number often over the next few years. And though it’s usually pretty satisfying to be able to say I told you so, I highly doubt Weizmann took any comfort in being right. And, no one ever likes the “I told you so” person anyway.

The Peel Commission had come to Palestine with a proposal. It was clear this whole Mandate thing wasn’t working. No way Palestinian Arabs and Jews were going to be able to live together peacefully. What if the Brits divided up the territory into cantons, one Palestinian Arab, one Jewish, with a third canton entirely under British control? (A canton, by the way, is just a way to administer territory, like a state or a province but smaller.) But Weizmann pushed back. Dividing up the country? Living under British rule? He countered the proposal: “The underlying cause is that we exist, and the only question you have to answer is — have we a right to exist? If you answer that question positively, everything else flows from it.”

I gotta tell you, reading that stopped me in my tracks. Because this is the same question that the world has been asking for the past four thousand years – sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. Consider pausing this and thinking it through. Do you realize how often the Jewish people are asked if they have a right to exist as a people with a national homeland? And since October 7th, it seems like more and more people are answering no. No, you do not have a right to exist. You do not have a right to self-determination. Things would be easier for everyone if you just… went back to where you came from, wherever that is. Clearly, it’s not here. Where? The shouting is so pervasive that it’s even started to wear on some young Israelis – like the Israeli kid who asked me, back during my visit in November, why his country had the right to exist. (Link the show notes. That conversation broke my heart.)

Right as the Commission was wrapping off, the Mufti came to his senses, sort of. He called off the boycott, allowing a few Arab leaders (Palestinian and otherwise) to testify. He gave his own rather aggressive testimony in Arabic, informing the Brits that their Mandate was illegitimate and the Balfour Declaration was worthless. The Jews had zero connection to Palestine. Palestine’s Arabs would never welcome them. He didn’t know what power the Jews had over a “great Government like Great Britain,” but they could not be allowed to use that power to “destroy the integrity of an Arab people.”

Most of the other Arab witnesses had similar complaints. One refused to even sit at a table with Zionists. (IS the past dead?) Another said that Palestine would not absorb even one more Jewish immigrant. In other words, encouraged by the Mufti, nearly every Arab witness gave a zero-sum testimony. It’s us or them. We’d rather have no country at all than share.

Again, sounds familiar.

The Peel Commission released its 400-page report on July 7th, 1937 – roughly 9 months after the end of the strike. It is, as you might imagine from a colonial document, uncomfortable to read in parts, with some very unflattering assertions about both Arabs and Jews. But at its core, it was broadly sympathetic to Zionist aspirations, recommending the partition of Palestine.

This was the birth of the two-state solution. And it went beyond Ben Gurion’s wildest dreams. 20 years prior, the British had promised “a Jewish home in Palestine” – a fuzzy promise with no talk of borders or governments or self-rule. Now, the Brits had actually proposed borders. Borders of a state that the Jews could call their own, without anyone telling them what to do or how many immigrants could or couldn’t enter.

It wasn’t perfect. It was small and clumsily divided and would probably be hard to defend. Jerusalem and other holy sites would be under British, not Jewish, administration. Hardline Zionists rejected the plan for these reasons. But they weren’t the ones in charge, and to Ben Gurion, something was better than nothing. This was a big something, a concrete proposal for a real Jewish state. There would have to be more discussion, more negotiation, about what to do with Palestinian Arabs in majority-Jewish areas and vice versa. (Nerd corner alert: no one knew for sure what would happen to minority populations in either state. Ben Gurion favored population transfer – i.e. moving Palestinian Arabs out of majority-Jewish areas and vice versa. Today, that’s considered a crime against humanity. But in 1937, it was seen as an expedient solution to an ugly problem. Just 14 years before, the Greeks and the Turks had built two separate, mostly-peaceful states by forcibly resettling 1.6 million people, so that religious minorities that had lived in Turkey were now Greek, and vice versa. Why couldn’t it work in Palestine?) But these were issues for later. In principle, the plan worked.

Arab leaders may not have been as thrilled, but the practical ones endorsed the plan. In Palestine, these leaders included Musa Alami, as well as the former mayor of Jerusalem, Ragheb Nashashibi, whose family had lots of beef with the Husseinis. The Arab mayors of Jaffa, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, and Haifa followed suit. Outside of Palestine, the plan was approved by the leaders of Syria’s biggest nationalist movement, the Lebanese president, and the Emir of Transjordan. 

But the Mufti absolutely refused to budge. This partition plan was “humiliating.” The Jews were intruders trying to horn in on territory they hadn’t held in two thousand years. Place Jerusalem under the rule of foreigners, non-Muslims? Absolutely not. And so, quickly, the Arab world reversed course. Even those who had given their support quickly retracted it.

Husseini was on a roll, thrilled that Palestine had become a pan-Arab issue. That September, he held a conference outside of Damascus, where 400 delegates from across the Arab world agreed: Palestine was a zero-sum territory. It would go to Arabs, or it would go to the Zionists. The entire might of the Arab world was ready to confront the Zionists in a, and I’m quoting from the conference’s closing remarks here, “jihad.”

Some of the delegates took that literally. The previous year’s strike hadn’t worked. Neither had the accompanying violence. Not only were the Jews still immigrating into Palestine, they were now all but guaranteed their own home on Arab land, thanks to the British! Well, the Brits and the Jews were about to learn just how much blood that would cost them. For the Arab Palestinians, it  was time to restart the revolt. And great rabbis like Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel would help the Jewish leaders think through the most perplexing of questions of how to respond: havlaga, restraint, or teguvah, response.

But that is a story for next week. Tune in for the final tragic, thrilling chapter of the story that continue to shape the contours of the modern Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict.

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