Carly Beckerman, Unexpected State: British Politics and the Creation of Israel (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2020). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Carly Beckerman (CB): The first book I read about Britain in the Middle East was Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete. He is a talented writer and I fell completely in love with the topic, but the book and lots of other works on the British Mandate also niggled at me. Their explanations of British politicians’ motives towards Jews and Arabs in Palestine always struck me as inauthentic, and I realized that their interpretations of British behavior mostly relied on the letters and diaries from prominent Zionists at the time. I decided to do my own investigation, going back to the British National Archives in Kew, as well as British politicians’ personal papers and collections held all over the United Kingdom, at the United Nations archives, and at the Truman Presidential Library in the United States. This archival work was often very difficult, trudging through huge volumes of forgotten Foreign Office and Colonial Office lore, but at times it was also tragic. In New York I held the crumbling surveys completed by Jewish displaced persons that pleaded over and over again for a new life in Palestine since losing mothers, children, fathers, brothers, and whole villages to the ravages of death camps. I also read the letters of British servicemen who casually joked about torturing young Palestinian men while informing their doting British mothers that all was well since jelly was served in the canteen that day. Archives can be haunting.

It was not always serious, however, and my favorite part was the gossip. I found out, for example, that the hostesses of Britain’s political elite had to store their silver when inviting the War Secretary to a function. Lord Kitchener, of the famous “Your Country Needs You” posters, was a notorious kleptomaniac who everyone was too polite to confront. The scathing manner in which British politicians and their wives discussed one another was also an endless source of delight.

The work has also felt important in a small way. In figuring out why Britain did what it did with Zionism and the Palestine Mandate, I ended up locating some more truths and falsehoods in both Israeli and Palestinian narratives of the time—competing memories of power and victimization that still play into their relationship today. As hardly any British people even know about the Empire’s history in Palestine, it has felt very worthwhile uncovering more of our role, intentions, and mistakes. I am very proud of the work and I hope that it gives readers some useful different perspectives.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

CB: The book explains the importance of narratives today and introduces the reader to a political psychology approach to the study of this history. It then goes through four detailed case studies of British policymaking in Palestine. Although the Balfour Declaration has received a great deal of scholarly attention, the lesser episodes surrounding the Churchill White Paper, the reversal of the Passfield White Paper, the partition commissions, and the British promise of an independent Arab Palestine (before withdrawing entirely) are explored in depth. Rather than well thought-out strategy, what the cases reveal is a chaotic process of muddling through, as British officials changed the world in ways they did not understand in order to stave off political opposition and criticism at home. Rifts and misunderstandings in the British-American relationship over Zionism were particularly interesting to research.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

CB: This is my first book, but it is based on my PhD research and several academic articles and book chapters that deal with British foreign policy in the Middle East. My general interest is in the most complex of conflicts and security problems and why politicians make seemingly irrational decisions.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

CB: I hope that anyone interested in Israeli and Palestinian history will want to read the book. That is especially true for people who have strong feelings and opinions about one or both communities, as understanding more of the British interpretation of events makes it harder to have easily defined opinions about any violence and peace processes that have happened subsequently. It is difficult to read the accounts of British politicians in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s and not see repetition in the history of the conflict and outside attempts to solve it.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

CB: I am still working on political decision-making towards the Middle East, but I am particularly interested in the role of emerging technologies in waging wars and promoting peace, and the tools they provide for diplomacy and collective problem solving. My next book is in collaboration with colleagues at Dartmouth College’s Institute for Security, Technology, and Society; it explores how Artificial Intelligence is challenging old paradigms of international affairs, security, and strategy.

J: What material do you wish you could have included in the book but could not?

CB: One of the most surprising things about archival research in the United States was how much remains redacted. My requests at the United States archive in Maryland were covered in black and totally useless. Luckily, President Truman and his team were enthusiastic composers of memos, letters, and diaries, and so I got the unpolished version of events from his presidential library. Some of the documents were still bound with original, literal, bureaucratic “red tape.” At the United Nations, I was allowed one tiny folder of material at a time, and an archivist had to go through and remove all of the sheets that were off limits. These were documents from the League of Nations in the 1920s, and I have always wondered what information in those files could possibly remain too sensitive for researchers to view almost an entire century later.


Excerpt from the book


The Balfour Declaration is a document that, despite having been written in 1917, still stirs staunch pride or vehement disgust, depending on who you ask. It was a brief but momentous memo, ostensibly from (but not written by) British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour. Although delivered to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild and published in The Times, Balfour’s note was, realistically, addressed to Jews around the world as it pledged Britain’s support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. Since British forces invaded the Holy Land a month after the letter was issued and only vacated Palestine in 1948 as Israel formally declared its existence, Balfour’s declaration has achieved a somewhat contradictory symbolic status—as a sign of Britain’s laudable achievement in, and devastating culpability for, the subsequent triumph of Zionism

Former British prime minister David Cameron described this historic document as “the moment when the State of Israel went from a dream to a plan,” but it is generally considered throughout the Arab world to be Britain’s “original sin.” Supporting one viewpoint over the other depends on personal political preferences, but neither perspective is rooted in fact. The idea that Balfour signed a letter commencing the intentional and purposeful march toward Israeli statehood—in a territory that, at the time, was part of an Islamic empire and contained relatively few Jews—has become alarmingly unquestionable. Challenging this dichotomous history of British sentiment/animosity is always a precarious endeavor, but that is precisely what this book intends to do. Unexpected State aims, for the first time, to explain the how and the why behind Britain’s policies for Palestine. It argues that domestic politics in Westminster played a vital and inadvertent role in British patronage of and then leniency toward Zionism, allowing the British Empire to foster a Jewish national home and suppress Arab rebellion. Therefore, this book argues that the “muddling through” of everyday British politics was instrumental in conceiving and gestating a Jewish state.

By investigating how British governments endured moments of crisis with the representatives of Zionism, and how they dealt with indecision over the future of Palestine, it is possible to uncover a relatively clear pattern. The tumult of Westminster politics and Whitehall bureaucracy harnessed the idea of a Jewish presence in Palestine as a convenient political football—an issue to be analogized with and used pointedly to address other more pressing concerns, such as Bolshevism in the 1920s, Muslim riots in India in the early 1930s, and appeasement shortly before the start of World War II. The result was a stumbling, ad hoc policy journey toward Israel’s birth that never followed any centralized plan. Rather, for the British Empire of 1917, conditions culminating in Israeli independence were distinctly unlikely and unexpected.

Why such a situation occurred, however, is not exactly a straightforward inquiry, and the answer is relevant to a much wider discourse than merely the annals of obscure historical analysis. An ongoing search for peace in the Middle East cannot ignore how contemporary perceptions of the conflict are intimately bound to the parties’ understanding of their shared history. There are, naturally, multiple versions of this history, but, although the importance of Britain’s tenure in Palestine is hardly challenged, curiously few scholars have asked how British policy toward Palestine was made. This refers particularly to high policy decided by the cabinet in Westminster rather than the day-to-day activities of administering the territory, which was conducted chiefly through the bureaucracy of the Colonial Office.

What emerges within the relevant literature, instead, is a consistent recourse to stubborn, unsubstantiated myths about British intentions and motivations—misconceptions that, in turn, fuel other attitudes that are distinctly unhelpful, such as the idea of an all-powerful Zionist lobby or the championing of Palestinian victimhood. This is explained extensively in chapter 1, but the “myths” on trial here are broadly those that highlight British politicians’ personal feelings toward Jews or Arabs, as though these prejudices must have had a substantial impact on Britain’s imperial planning. The main problem with this thinking is that it is too easy to describe any number of contextual factors that may have influenced the direction of British policy. However, the evidence that bias drove or determined Britain’s relationship with Zionism and Palestine is frequently lacking. As the decision makers themselves are long dead and understandably unavailable for cross-examination, how then is it possible to determine, with any accuracy, what thought processes occupied their minds during the interwar period?

Bearing in mind this question, it is important to stress that some valid boundaries must be placed on the themes and issues explored in this type of investigation. Therefore, this book uses an innovative politics-first approach to illustrate four critical junctures of Britain’s policy making between the beginning of its occupation of Palestine in December 1917 and its withdrawal in May 1948. The following chapters argue that, contrary to the established literature on Mandate Palestine, British high policy reflected a stark lack of viable alternatives that left little room for consideration of personal biases, allegiances, or sentimental attachments to either Zionism or Arab nationalism during the tense moments when choices had to be made. This approach reveals how decisions about the future of Palestine were frequently more concerned with fighting narrow domestic or broader international political battles than preventing or dealing with a burgeoning conflict in a tiny strip of land on the Mediterranean.

As many previous books have focused chiefly on day-to-day interactions in Palestine, they have relied heavily on the original documentation of the Palestine administration and the high commissioner as well as his dealings with the Colonial Office in London and the diaries and memoirs of prominent Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion. This has meant that scholarly discussions about British policy decisions have been conducted almost exclusively through the prism of external parties’ opinions about what was going on in London at the time. As this book concentrates specifically on British policy decisions, the focus has been placed on British archives as well as relevant collections held in the United States that are useful for examining the postwar Mandate period.

The Politics-First Approach

British policies generated many of the “demographic, economic, military, and organizational” conditions that were essential for Israel to achieve its statehood, so a thorough investigation into the reasoning and motivations that informed British policy making helps clarify a major moment in world history. Toward this end, this book deals primarily with the dynamics of choice in British policy making. It asks, given the range of available options, How and why did British governments make their final decisions? What factors did and did not influence those choices? Answering these questions is not simply a matter of combing the archives. Indeed, a great deal of the scholarship related to British Palestine has struggled in this regard because it ignores principles of political psychology. Without an appreciation for how the political brain operates, it is very difficult to discern causes from contexts.

Therefore, this book is based on a fundamental premise derived from political psychology—that the primary and immediate consideration of decision makers in government is their own political survival, making every other concern secondary. Therefore, policy makers faced with a crisis and a range of potential options will automatically discard any courses of action that threaten their political careers, deciding what to do based only on the possibilities that are leftover. Crucially, it does not matter how beneficial any of the discarded alternatives would have been for the economy, or the military, or the country as a whole—that benefit could not compensate for the political risk felt by politicians. This amounts to a “politics-first” way of understanding how leaders make choices, and it helps provide a much better understanding of policies that seem to have been irrational or counterproductive.

In applying this lens to Britain’s Palestine policy at four key junctures during the Palestine Mandate, it is possible to demonstrate why the cabinet decided to pursue action that worsened the burgeoning conflict between Palestine’s two communities, sometimes in a manner that seemed entirely contrary to British interests, and how these policy decisions were often concluded without direct reference to the desires of either Zionists or Palestinian Arabs. This analysis provides an invaluable contribution, revealing how the development of policy in Palestine was based primarily on the need to satisfy British domestic political concerns. This was not because Palestine was unimportant but, rather, because Palestine policy frequently overlapped with multiple issues more crucial to the political survival of individual governments.

Therefore, this book highlights precisely how, while actual decisions varied during the British Mandate, Palestine policy making was driven by mechanisms that significantly narrowed the scope of options available to politicians as they tried to deal with successive crises. This means that although colorful, interesting, and engaging, the personal quirks, biases, and beliefs of decision makers had little demonstrable impact. There simply was no room, no space, for these feelings, because successive governments during this period faced a series of overly precarious political circumstances in general. This created a dynamic of “muddling through” that is detailed and evidenced in later chapters, demonstrating how the political climate prevented any kind of British grand strategy for the future birth of a Jewish state.