Pales­tine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Mid­dle East Conflict

By – February 5, 2024

Although 1936 is not a date in Mid­dle East his­to­ry that res­onates in the way the years 1948, 1967, and now 2023 do, it was a land­mark year for both Jew­ish and Arab nation­al­ism. And, as Oren Kessler points out in his new book, it was also the begin­ning of the end of British Man­date rule in Pales­tine. In hind­sight, it was a pre­lude to the cre­ation of the mod­ern State of Israel.

In 1936, the Arabs began a three-year rebel­lion against the British occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine and the expand­ing Jew­ish pres­ence in the area, pro­vok­ing vio­lent clash­es among the three sides. It was the first Arab revolt, and it would ulti­mate­ly suc­ceed in dri­ving out the British. The Jews, how­ev­er, remained.

As the British Empire began to retreat from the world stage, it cre­at­ed man­dates and com­mis­sions for its colonies’ inde­pen­dence. A par­ti­tion pro­pos­al for Pales­tine, Kessler posits, was the first two-state plan. Then, as would con­tin­ue to be the case, it sat­is­fied no one. These actions took place as the world stood on the brink of war. British Prime Min­is­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain was in favor of appease­ment and worked to restrict immi­gra­tion to Pales­tine; Hitler was per­se­cut­ing, and about to mur­der, the Jews of Europe. Trag­i­cal­ly, the tur­bu­lence of 1936 in many ways fore­told the future of the Mid­dle East for the rest of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and now into the twenty-first. 

Selec­tive por­tray­als of Jew­ish, British, and Arab fig­ures help bring this dra­mat­ic his­to­ry to life. They include Weiz­mann, Ben-Guri­on, and Jabotin­sky; British prime min­is­ters Cham­ber­lain and Churchill; and the eccen­tric Orde Wingate, a Chris­t­ian Zion­ist and Ara­bist. Then there was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a Hitler ally with four no”s: no Man­date, no Jew­ish nation­al home, no Jew­ish immi­gra­tion, and no Arab land sales to Jews. But there was also Musa Ala­mi, an Arab nation­al­ist who sought fas­cist sup­port but who com­mu­ni­cat­ed with Ben-Guri­on with mutu­al civil­i­ty and respect. He, like Ben-Guri­on, aspired to make the desert bloom.

Kessler suc­ceeds in shap­ing a nar­ra­tive that is both com­pre­hen­sive and easy to fol­low. While he focus­es main­ly on the Arab revolt of 1936, he also takes the sto­ry back and forth in time in a man­ner that helps us under­stand our world today.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

Discussion Questions

Oren Kessler has mined the archives to pro­duce an even-hand­ed and well-researched account of the Great Revolt of 1936 in Pales­tine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Mid­dle East Con­flict. Kessler crafts a com­pelling nar­ra­tive that begins long before 1936, and adept­ly lays out how the 1936 con­flict stemmed from long-stand­ing ques­tions about how to divide the land and how to deal with an influx of Jew­ish immi­grants. Through his live­ly and crisp writ­ing and his use of archival mate­ri­als, he brings to life key British, Jew­ish, and Arab fig­ures and the ques­tions they grap­pled with — name­ly, for Arabs in the region, ques­tions of immi­gra­tion and eco­nom­ics. For Jews, there were ques­tions about the con­tours of Jew­ish nation­al­ism and find­ing a home. Par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pelling is Kessler’s pair­ing of Musa Ala­mi — the rarely dis­cussed, Cam­bridge-edu­cat­ed Arab nation­al­ist — with David Ben-Guri­on. His sources show the close per­son­al ties between many of these lead­ing fig­ures. By com­bin­ing archives, biog­ra­phy, and clear-cut nar­ra­tive, Kessler cap­tures the chaot­ic events of 1936 at the grass roots and sug­gests why it is impor­tant for under­stand­ing the state of affairs in the Mid­dle East today.