Reviews

Review of Hadara Lazar's Out of Palestine & Shisha Yechidim

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Hadara Lazar, Out of Palestine: The Making of Modern Israel (New York: Atlas and Co., 2011), 320 pp.

Hadara Lazar, Shisha Yechidim [Six Singular Individuals] (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2012), 256 pp. [Hebrew]

       During the past two years, the term “Arab Awakening” has often been used as an alternative to the more common “Arab Spring” to designate the political turmoil and change in the Arab world. It did not take long for several Middle East experts to comment that the term was not actually new: it was the title of a once important book authored by George Antonius in the late 1930s, which told the story of the Arab national movement and argued the case for Palestinian Arabs in their conflict with the Zionist movement. Anyone interested in the man who wrote this book will find him in Hadara Lazar's two books, referenced briefly in Out of Palestine (originally published in Hebrew in 1990 and now available for the first time in English) and the subject of a full chapter in Six Singular Individuals.

 

Hadara Lazar is not a professional historian. She is an Israeli novelist who occasionally turns her hand to non-fiction. As she wrote in the introduction to the English language version:

 

This is not a history book. I have met with about a hundred people—Jews, Arabs and English—who lived or spent time in Palestine during the 1940s, and talked with them about this period. The essence of this book is what those people remembered after four decades about the last years of the British in Palestine.

 

As a gifted writer with an eye for detail as well as an ability to get people to talk freely and to capture their personalities, Lazar manages to weave her dialogues and descriptions into an intriguing portrait of a unique period defined by a bitter nationalist conflict and a declining colonial power, but also by the cosmopolitan atmosphere that characterized Jerusalem at that time. Lazar succeeds in depicting a complex reality in which Jews and Arabs, despite the conflict and the looming inevitable war between them, managed to meet and communicate. She describes two elites in the Jerusalem of the 1940s: a British-Arab and a Jewish one. While these elites had separate communities, their members communicated with one another. This attractive book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the unique interplay between the three major forces that shaped the history of Mandated Palestine and led it to the war of 1948.

Almost coincidentally with the publication of the English translation of Out of Palestine, Lazar published an equally intriguing Hebrew-language sequel, a portrait of six unconventional individuals who were active during the same period: two Arabs (Mousa Alami and George Antonius), two Brits (Arthur Wauchope and Orde Wingate), and two Jews (Manya Shochat and J.L. Magnes). This book does not draw on interviews and dialogues but on research. While professional historians may find fault with this or that aspect of the research, Lazar's talent as an observer and a writer comes through yet again. To go back to Antonius, the life and character of this Lebanese Christian who wrote a very influential book on the origins and history of Arab nationalism, is the subject matter of an intriguing chapter. Antonius was the classic marginal man, torn between his Arab origin and cultural Anglophilia, a man who ultimately belonged nowhere and was trusted by no one. He had a love-hate relationship with the British and was unhappily married to Katie Nimr, heiress to a Lebanese-Egyptian fortune who created the most important political salon in Mandatory Jerusalem. Scholars such as Sylvia Kedourie and Martin Kramer have provided us with descriptions and analyses of Antonius and his work, but the man himself, with his strengths and weaknesses, is freshly depicted by Lazar.

One could go through all six characters portrayed by the author; they are all intriguing. Take Manya Shochat, the young Russian revolutionary who arrived in Palestine in the early 20th century. Together with her husband, Israel, Shochat was active in Hashomer and other enterprises. Capable of brutal action and relentless in her devotion to the cause of the day, she certainly was one of the most interesting figures of the pre-state Yishuv. Magnes, Wingate and Musa Alami were hardly less interesting. Taken together, the six chapters reflect the coat of many colors that Mandated Palestine was. Hopefully, it will not take twelve years to get this book published in English.

Itamar Rabinovich

Tel Aviv University