Book review: Triumph of zeal over experience

Dawn Of The Promised Land by Ben Wicks, Bloomsbury pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
This, one imagines, is part of an impending library of festive works to mark Israel's forthcoming golden jubilee. It is an engaging book, but it reads like the transcript of a radio broadcast, for it consists largely of interviews with people who made their homes in what was then Palestine between 1918 and 1948.

Mr Wicks has spread his net widely, if haphazardly, and has brought together an extremely varied cast: musicians, lawyers, labourers, doctors, writers, soldiers, nurses, university professors. Most are from Europe, and they describe the rising tide of anti-Semitism which compelled them to abandon homes, businesses and professions to start a new life in a new land.

Some of them arrived in style with all their possessions. Many were crammed into the holds of cattle boats. Not a few - in the absence of entry permits - were smuggled across frontiers or landed on some lonely shore at the dead of night. All were seized by a spasm of euphoria as they set foot in their ancient homeland, but reality soon set in. They had to learn a new language and new skills. The country was in turmoil, jobs were scarce, accommodation was primitive, and the stories are mostly of hardship, heartache, danger and confusion which, in the main, was bravely faced.

Few of the recollections are dramatic in themselves, and some are trite, but they are skilfully interwoven: taken together, they not only evoke the tragic plight of European Jewry, but build up a vivid impression of a state in the making.

An easy way to produce a book, one might think, but I suspect that it looks easier than it is. The leg-work itself must have been daunting and Wicks obviously has friends in high places, for his cast includes two ex-Prime Ministers, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, the one reticent, almost cryptic, the other expansive and almost lyrical:

"No one who arrived in Palestine at that time will ever forget the scenes in the ports. Crowds of merchants in small boats swarmed around our ship, selling all manner of things: drinks, orange juice, even palm branches. The oarsmen wore colourful clothes. Some had wide pantaloons on, and turbans on their heads ..."

There are some charming vignettes. Haim Cohen, a young lawyer who was later to become a Supreme Court Justice, was summoned by Ben Gurion, who announced that he was to be the Public Prosecutor of the new Jewish state:

"I told him that I had never been a prosecutor and knew nothing about the job. He leant across his desk and looked me in the eye. 'Every soldier in this country as well as everyone else has to obey orders. I order you to become Public Prosecutor.' So, the next day, I duly started work as Public Prosecutor."

Which was how things were done in those days. Junior clerks became senior managers, corporals captains, and captains brigadiers almost overnight. The whole picture is one of makeshift arrangements, hurried improvisation amid growing tensions. The emergence of Israel was a triumph of zeal over inexperience.

Wicks fills in the historical and political background to events in some detail and, though he is obviously familiar with Zionist history, I am not sure if he understands the nature of the Arab-Jewish conflict. He observes that the Jews brought considerable prosperity to Palestine and helped to raise the Arab standard of living, but then adds: "Many of the Arab landowners were furious at the latest developments - they felt that any improvement in the lot of the average Arab would undermine their authority."

This almost suggests that Arab opposition to the Jewish newcomers arose not out of real grievances, but out of the fears of the Arab ruling class that their privileges and status were under threat. And, as if to reinforce his point, Wicks quotes David Bara-Ilan, Mr Netanyahu's media adviser, whose mother kept a dress shop in Haifa in the Thirties: "Ninety per cent of my mother's customers were Arabs, and in general the relationship between the two communities in Haifa was excellent. The rioters and the killers had either been incited to make trouble ... or they were made up of organised gangs set up by foreign powers - it was Syria at the beginning, though later Egypt took a hand ... It is very important to remember the peaceful relations we had with the Arab community. Even my father's doctor was an Arab."

This sounds like is a variation of sorts on "some of my best friends are Jews".

There certainly was incitement and agitation, some of it fanned not only by neighbouring Arab states but by fascist Italy. The Arabs, however, had something to be agitated about, for given the scale of Jewish immigration they were faced with the prospect of becoming a minority in their own land - which is, of course, what eventually happened.