David Ben-Gurion speaking at the Knesset, 1957 (Israeli National Archives)

Ian Black is aware of Ben-Gurion's myth making—so why can't his new book step outside it?

The Israeli leader thought Palestinian nationalism was artificial but Jewish nationalism authentic
February 20, 2018

Former Guardian Middle East Editor Ian Black begins his story with the capture of Jerusalem in 1917 by British-led troops. The British Empire was handed control over Palestine by its allies at the 1920 post-war conference in San Remo. Ottoman residents gained British passports, while nationalists among the 700,000 strong Palestinian community and 80,000 strong Jewish Yishuv believed their new masters would favour their competing aspirations to self-rule.

The 1920s saw the rising popularity of an exclusionary and self-conscious notion of political identity, which suited the national narrative of David Ben-Gurion, a Jewish socialist leader, but reflected the situation of the Palestinians less well. Ben-Gurion claimed that Palestinian nationalism was the plaything of an aristocratic elite. In contrast, Jewish nationalism was the authentic expression of a collective identity. This cuts to the heart of the pervasive notion that there is a passive and anachronistic Palestinian story, and a modern and active Israeli one.

Yet as Black is aware, Ben-Gurion’s formula was hardly innocent. He was motivated by rivalry with other Jewish parties and hostility to the Palestinians. By recasting the previous four decades of Jewish life in Palestine with a more collectivist, democratic and secular character than it had ever had, he made the rise of his own socialist party seem inevitable, while also claiming collective Jewish credit for road building and electrification that were in reality done by the British.

Black is alert to Ben-Gurion’s myth-making, but his starting point does not allow him to step outside it. As a result, he minimises the Palestinian sense of self, and misrepresents present-day Israel, an ever more elitist, anti-democratic and religious state since the eclipse of Ben-Gurion’s Labour Party.

Anyone looking to Black’s book for the journalist’s “first draft of history” will find a more restrained book than they expected.

Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 by Ian Black is published by Allen Lane, £25