Book review: Triumph of zeal over experience

Dawn Of The Promised Land by Ben Wicks, Bloomsbury pounds 16.99

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect