A strange tale of Palestine and Hollywood

| December 16, 2016 | 0 Comments
Ben Hecht was a famous screenwriter, but he also played a role in the lead-up to the creation of the state of Israel. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Ben Hecht was a famous screenwriter, but he also played a role in the lead-up to the creation of the state of Israel. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Ben Hecht was a famous screenwriter and author who invented a pair of movie genres — the gangster film and the screwball comedy — and wrote two of the best Hitchcocks: Spellbound and Notorious. In fact, he wrote literally scores of fine films, often without credit, as was common practice in Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s. Examples include Nothing Sacred, Some like It Hot, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, The Shop Around the Corner, Gilda, Monkey Business, A Farewell to Arms and Mutiny on the Bounty. He was the script-doctor who saved Gone with the Wind from becoming a garbled mess.
He won the first Academy Award for screenwriting, but was also the first screenwriter to be blacklisted, though not because of McCarthyism and not in the U.S. Rather, his films were banned in Britain (the studios’ most important overseas market) because of the role he played in the lead-up to the creation of the State of Israel — or at least because of the way he expressed himself on the subject.
This year is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, when Britain, having defeated the Ottoman Empire during the Great War, took control of Palestine, promising to establish a Jewish homeland there. But London never lived up to its promise. Jewish settlers in what was called the British Mandate, aided by fellow Jews worldwide as well as important Gentiles, used every possible political and diplomatic device to secure the desired outcome. But to get what they wished, they had to fight for 30 years, until the new nation of Israel was established on May 14, 1948, a day when, as the Israeli novelist Amos Oz has written, the living and the dead rose up as one, shouting and cheering.
The peace, however, was short-lived. A United Nations proposal to split the land into Jewish and Arab states went nowhere, and war broke out, after which, in 1949, the old Palestine was divvied up between Israel, Egypt and Jordan (with the Occupied Territories coming into existence after the Six-Day War of 1967).

A war deep underground
There are, of course, many books about these foundational events, but one of the most recent works may be the fullest and most interesting. Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917–1947 by Bruce Hoffman (Penguin Random House Canada, $26 paper) examines how groups of terrorists (a loaded term, of course, especially these days) brought about Britain’s departure, making room for the new state’s emergence. Hoffman knows his stuff. He teaches security studies at the foreign service school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and gained access to American, Israeli and especially British documents, including diaries and letters not previously seen by other authors.
The main Jewish underground group, the Irgun, came to life in the 1930s, first attacking Arabs and only later adding the British (who were trying to suppress them both). The Lehi was a splinter group of the Irgun. Another player was the Haganah, the paramilitary instrument of the Jewish Agency, the semi-official government of Palestine. Its most prominent leader was David Ben-Gurion (who became Israel’s first prime minister). The British relied initially on their police to suppress the insurgency, but later had to commit large numbers of regular troops when the violence escalated. In 1944, the Lehi, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, another future Israeli PM, assassinated Lord Moyne, the top British official in the Middle East. In 1946, the Irgun blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which served as British headquarters.
Such groups naturally thought of themselves as freedom fighters rather than terrorists. Hoffman, in writing about the past, is, of course, reminding us between the lines what can happen in the present as well. The history is full of precedents that we ignore at our peril, he seems to be saying, as when he writes (in what we hope is a warning) that terrorism “can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.”

Dutch National Archives

Dutch National Archives

Altogether, 100,000 British troops were sent to Palestine; the Haganah was a force of 40,000. Palestine was not, by strict definition, a colony, but its transition had much in common with the independence movements that eliminated European rule in the decades after the end of the Second World War. In the case of Britain, the list of places large and small is long — from Kenya and Nigeria to Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and 48 others.
Anonymous Soldiers is a fat and thickly layered work, painstakingly put together. Hoffman’s main motive is explaining the rise of the various Jewish homeland movements and how they worked together, or even, at other times, worked at cross purposes. This is a book about politics and diplomacy as well as about violence. Although his narrative isn’t strong on biographical insights, Hoffman can’t help but serve up short glimpses of fascinating characters. For instance, there is Avraham Stern, the poet and scholar who founded another of the militant groups, the Stern Gang. Hoffman calls him a person “of grandiose dreams and half-baked plans.”
Then there’s Arnold (or Arnie) Lawrence, the kid brother of T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”). These days, it’s commonly understood that the present chaos in the Middle East dates back, not simply to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, but rather to the geopolitical shenanigans of the French and the British at the close of the Great War. Especially the British, including Winston Churchill, the elder Lawrence and the redoubtable Gertrude Bell, archeologist and spy. Arnold Lawrence crops up in Anonymous Soldiers during the Second World War when Churchill sends him to Palestine to report on whether Jewish settlers from Poland and other places could be repurposed as spies and saboteurs in their former countries. Lawrence referred to them as “honourable fanatics who will stick at nothing. Physically and mentally tough, highly disciplined and used to guerrilla warfare. No better human materials could exist for our purposes.”
A good deal of the book is concerned with Jewish efforts to win private and public support in the U.S., which was always less anti-Semitic than Britain and hence more sympathetic. This brings in such figures as Hillel Kook of the Irgun (known as Peter Bergson in the U.S.) who had been fighting in Palestine since 1930 and proved to be effective as a high-level version of what today would be called a K Street lobbyist. And this brings me full circle back to Ben Hecht.
Like many other urban Midwestern Jews, the children of immigrants, Hecht concentrated on being “American” rather than a Jewish American — until 1933, when Hitler came to power and, later, when the first news of the Holocaust began to circulate. He is thought to have become Hollywood’s main fundraiser for the twin causes of independence and Jewish immigration to the future homeland. He enlisted the support of many celebrated non-Jews (Frank Sinatra for instance) and produced theatrical extravaganzas that raised money and raised people’s consciousness as well (including that of president Franklin Roosevelt).
And he wrote prodigiously on Jewish affairs in books and in signed newspaper advertisements. One of the latter was considered way over the top. It cost him many Jewish friends (for example, Edgar G. Robinson, who never spoke to him again) and led to his blacklisting. Here is the key sentence, addressed to the anonymous soldiers: “Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts.” A rather broad statement and not exactly the soul of tact.
In 1947, a ship named the SS Ben Hecht, a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter, was carrying Holocaust survivors to Palestine when the British impounded it at sea and interned the passengers. The following year, with the State of Israel firmly in existence, Hecht helped to secure the Altalena, an Irgun-sponsored vessel carrying illegal immigrants and also weapons. The Israeli government allowed the immigrants to land, but wanted to seize the weapons. The Irgun refused. The Israelis sank the ship.
Hecht died in 1964. Menachem Begin delivered the eulogy.

Amazonian thinking

(Photo: Rob Brito)

(Photo: Rob Brito)

As our friends at Amazon keep saying, if you liked that one you might be interested in these.
Alon Gratch is an Israeli-born psychologist who practises in New York. His book The Israeli Mind (Raincoast, $32.50) has one of those Simon Winchester-style subtitles — How the Israeli National Character Shapes Our World — hinting at clever generalizations, like a TED talk. But the work is much more substantial than that makes it sound.
The idea of a national character is often little more than a hodgepodge of affectionate clichés: the can-do American, the dour Swede, the polite Canadian, and so on. Gratch writes at some length about Israel’s ongoing, indeed almost never-ending, internal dissent. He teaches non-Jews such as me the highly useful Hebrew word davka, which he defines as the inclination “to disagree for the sake of disagreeing.” In a country with razor-sharp political divisions, he says, Israelis tend to act as though they have little in common with one another. He says it’s easy to see why this might be so. The very existence of the country is the result of saying no to enemies that surround it, in fact saying no to obstacles of all types, and, of course, saying no to a big swatch of modern history that nonetheless lurks in everyone’s mind. He looks at a country that is now divided between what he calls the traditional “chosen-people” narrative and the contemporary “miracle-in-the-desert” narrative.
He relies a good deal on anecdotal evidence, but also on his own clinical training. Yes, Sigmund Freud and others pop up now and then. He, of course, writes about the impact of early Zionist movements on the development of the Israeli psyche (covering a little bit of the territory dealt with in Hoffman’s book). But he fixes also on two specific anxieties. One is the fear of Iran, whose own national character Laura Secor does her best to analyze in Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran (Penguin Random, $35). The other source of national anxiety is, of course, the Palestinian crisis.
Oxford University Press publishes an excellent series of concise and inexpensive paperbacks it calls Very Short Introductions. They cover specific ideas in science, politics, history, pop culture: all sorts of subject areas. The series began in 1995 and now has well over 500 titles on topics such as algebra, liberalism, God, structural engineering and teeth. That’s what I call range. A Very Short Introduction to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict ($11.95) is by a Canadian, Martin Bunton of the University of Victoria, who is also the author of a standard history of the modern Middle East. His Introduction came out three years ago, and I’ve certainly learned a great deal from it. I took it down from its shelf again as I prepared to start some of the new titles on the Palestinian impasse. Yasir Suleiman’s anthology Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora (Oxford, $38.50 paper) is a collection of more than a hundred individual accounts by Palestinians now scattered round the world. Brought together this way, the pieces can be seen as equal parts interview, memoir and essay.
diplomat_12-14-2016_0062Until the ceasefire of 1967, what’s now Assael Street (spelled various ways) in the Abu Tor neighbourhood of Jerusalem was simply a line of barbed wire, about 100 metres long, separating West Jerusalem (Israeli-run) from East Jerusalem (Jordanian). Eventually the barricade came down and buildings were put up, but Jews and Muslims continue to live on opposite sides and yet must interact every day to carry on with life. A Street Divided: Stories from Jerusalem’s Alley of God (Raincoast, $32.50) by Dion Nissenbaum is an interesting study of the particular little spot and what it symbolizes. At one point, the author includes a vaguely Romeo-and-Juliet story of a Palestinian boy and an Israeli girl. But this is a serious attempt to look at the big picture by focusing closely on a small part of the frame. At this writing, Nissenbaum, who is a convert to Islam, is the head of the Wall Street Journal’s bureau in Istanbul, but previously worked for the paper in Israel and Afghanistan.

And finally…
Harold Macmillan won a seat at Westminster in the great Conservative sweep of 1924 — and was residing at 10 Downing Street as prime minister during the early phase of Beatlemania. One doesn’t have a political career of such length without acquiring some wisdom along the way. Perhaps the wisest thing he said was this: “The first rule of politics is ‘Don’t invade Afghanistan.’” The British tried it, and failed, on three occasions in a hundred-year period. The Soviet Union made the same mistake in our own time. And then, of course, there is the United States.
We are now beginning to see a raft of new books about the U.S.’s Afghan adventure. Two examples that are getting a good deal of attention remind us of the first generation of Vietnam War memoirs. Some of the wartime policy-makers are trying to put the best possible face on the experience while others attempt to erase the terrors and errors by reliving them in print.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the author of The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey through a Turbulent World (Raincoast, $32.50), was the George W. Bush administration’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, becoming the highest-ranking Muslim in the U.S. government. He writes that he was born in rural Afghanistan, far from cosmopolitan Kabul, in 1951 when his father was 22 and mother somewhere between nine and 12. In an amazing leap, he won a scholarship to study in California and “came to see myself as a person with two homes and two affiliations. And, in an odd, rather unusual twist of history, I would become an advocate for each to the other.” Actually he is mostly an advocate for the policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations and the people associated with creating them: figures such as Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice. When a male politico says he wants to spend more time with his family, what he usually means is that he’s going to write a book like this one, enumerating all the great people who were fortunate enough to have met him.
The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan by J. Kael Wilson (Knopf, $38.95) is a far more serious and important book, widely reviewed, discussed and debated by serious people. For seven years, Wilson worked on the ground for the U.S. State Department in the two countries of his subtitle. His memory seems to have retained every meeting, every scene, every tragic occurrence he experienced. Returning home, he investigated the losses — physical, psychological, one could even say spiritual — incurred by those who had served there. The title is a term used by military doctors. It refers to the
moment when a patient sees his facial wound for the first time when the bandages are removed.

George Fetherling’s novel, The Carpenter from Montreal, will appear next year. He is the chairman of the Writers Union of Canada.

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George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator

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