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Review of A. J. Sherman, Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918-1948

Dr. Nancy L. Stockdale, University of Central Florida

Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918-1948. A. J. Sherman. Thames and Hudson, 1997.

A. J. Sherman's Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918-1948 holds the promise of delving deep into the personal thoughts as well as actions of a variety of Britons living and working in Palestine from the moment of Allenby's conquest until the fateful pull-out from the country in 1948.  Indeed, in his Preface, Sherman writes that--unlike most histories of the Mandate, which omit the experiences of the imperialists "as if their presence in the Holy Land, their reactions to it, had somehow been irrelevant"--his book "aims to remedy that omission" and illuminate the variety of reactions Britons had to Palestine and Palestinians.  Unfortunately, however, Sherman's study never transcends far beyond an interesting compendium of sources, because he has not rooted these British lives in either a solid theoretical framework nor the historical context necessary for fitting them into the larger puzzle of Palestinian history.  The result is a book that makes for very interesting reading, but, in the end, is quite unsatisfying.  Moreover, Sherman presents an argument which divorces those on the ground in Palestine running the Mandate from all policy generated from Westminster, casting them as puppets rather than actors and removing them from both contemporary events as well as the aftermath of the British exit from Palestine.  This shifts the responsibility for the imperial blunder that was the Mandate away from its actual functionaries, an omission as serious as that which eliminates the British factor and which Sherman desires to rectify.

Using contemporary private correspondence as well as memoirs as his primary sources, Sherman presents his readers with many individual accounts of what it was like to be British in Palestine, and one of the most relevant assertions that he makes is that more Britons in country sided with the Arab cause, despite their feeling that their own government's policy was overwhelmingly pro-Zionist.  However, Sherman's lack of theory to inform his analysis--coupled with a tendency to merely list excerpt after excerpt with very little commentary--finds him taking his sources' opinions at face value, rather than interrogating their notions or finding subtext in the silences present.  This is particularly problematic when dealing with attitudes about race and ethnicity;  for instance, Sherman cites one British officer who found "the Arab" of Palestine "often a bit slippery in his business methods but rather as one playing a game than making any deliberate effort to cheat," while "the Jew in Palestine is inclined to be surly, morose and un-cooperative." (29)  This source (and many like it cited in Mandate Days) begs for larger historical integration into the Orientalist debate as well as linkages to race theory and empire, yet Sherman does not even approach the meaning of such attitudes in relation to historical events in Palestine.  Indeed, he often dismisses such attitudes with an aplomb which slips (at times) into the realm of the offensive.

Moreover, he sees the English in Palestine as passive victims of the whims of Westminster policy rather than as actors making conscious decisions to live up to or deny previous diplomatic promises made to Arabs and Jews in the years before the Mandate. (Shockingly, Sherman does not even make mention of the Sykes-Picot Agreement nor the McMahon-Husayn Correspondence anywhere in his book, and is only concerned with the Balfour Declaration and Palestine's strategic and religious significance to the Empire on a surface level.)  Sherman is not able to tell his readers why those on the ground were more inclined to support the Arab cause despite official policy in favor of the Jewish National Home in part because he offers very few distinctions about the variety of English people in Palestine during the Mandate, nor does he offer an historical context of why the English were able to add the Holy Land to their empire in the first place.  Police officers, missionaries, government wives (casually referred to as "memsahibs"), and other disparate groups are all lumped together without explanations about the nature of their contact with Arabs and Jews nor analysis of how these varying contacts affected their political inclinations.  This is coupled with no attempt to explain the political or social context of the Arab and Jewish communities, either.  Vague references to "the Mufti" and "the Nashashibis" go unexplained, leaving it to the reader to fill in this indispensable historical and political context. 

These drawbacks make A. J. Sherman's Mandate Days a book that only provides a passing glance at British Palestine unless the reader is equipped with a prior knowledge of the Mandate sufficient enough to fill in the gaping contextual blanks.  However, for those who are acquainted with that history and the sources with which Sherman has worked, Mandate Days is an interesting compendium which should inspire further study of the varied experiences of imperial actors in the Palestine Mandate.  Indeed, these sources provide rich evidence for narrowing that ideological chasm between government officials in the Metropole and the servants of the "white man's burden" implementing the dreams of Officialdom.  In the case of Palestine, the chasm may or may not have been as wide as Sherman leads his readers to believe;  Mandate Days does not provide sufficient analysis to generate an answer to that question on its own.  Indeed, without making the connection between Britons on the ground and events in Palestine, Sherman renders them "irrelevant" despite himself.


Center for Near Eastern Studies