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  February 12, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

One Nation, Divisible
by Matthew Price

The historian who dares question a nation's founding legends had better be made of strong stuff. By all accounts, the brash Israeli journalist and scholar Tom Segev fits the bill. A noted columnist for the daily Ha'aretz newspaper, Segev has made a name for himself as one of the "new historians" who have scrutinized the origins of the Israeli state. Segev's new book examines the complex history of British Palestine, from 1917, when the British took the territory from the defeated Ottoman Empire, until 1948, the year of Israel's founding. During this tumultuous period, both Jews and Arabs fastened their national ambitions to the ruling British, and repeatedly clashed with one another. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate (Metropolitan Books) tries to refute the widely held notion that the British were essentially pro-Arab during these years.

With the decline of the peace process, the region's bitter pre-World War II history appears ever more inescapable. Indeed, Gershom Gorenberg in The Washington Post Book World called One Palestine, Complete "A book of pressing relevance." Gorenberg praised Segev's extensive use of unsung testimony from individuals on both sides of the conflict: "Segev has a novelist's love for the the stories of ordinary people...he delights in people pulled by contradictory urges, goals, symbols." And Ron Grossman of The Chicago Tribune all but defied other scholars to write a more definitive account of the era.

But many of Segev's other reviewers, while complimenting his elaborate research and storytelling gifts, heavily qualified their praise, and took issue with historiographical biases. To wit, Carlin Romano, the chief book critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, called the book "a wonderfully readable account of the mandate, classic and magisterial in unpacking the story it wants to tell." But, Romano went on, "It's also prone to smug and strident generalizations that exceed Segev's own reportage [and] contradict the judgement of other scholars." Romano also added that "at various times one wants to wrestle it, hurl it against the wall, salute it, slap it on the back in congratulation."

Omer Bartov of The New York Times Book Review, expressed similar delights and frustrations. He enthused that Segev "has woven a fine tapestry of individual portraits, curious anecdotes, and penetrating insights" which add up to "perhaps the best single account of Palestine under the mandate." But, he added "[The book] is written in the authoritative, sometimes arrogant tone of an author who feels no need to engage in debate with his own opponents. The omniscient voice masks some significant lapses in the narrative, while Segev's apparent detachment conceal his own ideological views, which are heavily tilted against the Zionist interpretation."

Taking up this point, Anita Shapira, a vigorous critic of the new historians, employed 9,000 words in The New Republic to question Segev's interpretations. While Shapira praised him for "his engaging style," she utterly rejected Segev's notion that the British were pro-Zionist. Furthermore, she suggested that his choices concerning which individuals to spotlight were biased in favor of the Arabs.

For his part, Christian Tyler of The Financial Times gave an unalloyed welcome to the book. He largely accepted Segev's interpretation, and applauded Segev's "from below" approach, citing his "catholic use of memoirs, diaries, and letters to give immediacy to the narrative." He went on: "We don't hear only the voices of the rulers, but also the of the minor participants—the young immigrant zealot, the urbane Arab educator, the tender English schoolteacher, the teenage British squaddie."

Matthew Price

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