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The Great Revolt

BOOKS | The civil war before the birth of modern Israel


Palestine disturbances during summer 1936 Library of Congress

The Great Revolt
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Histories of the Holy Land can be divided among four eras: the Hebrews of the Old Testament; the Romans of the New Testament; the Europeans and Muslims of the Crusades; and the Arabs and Israelis of the modern day. In his debut book, journalist Oren Kessler has filled an important gap early in the modern era. Palestine 1936 (Rowman & Littlefield 2023) tells the story of the Great Revolt, the pivotal three-year period of civil unrest that shaped the battlefield for Israel’s war of independence in 1948, where most other accounts start.

Though Jews have lived in and near Jerusalem for millennia, the Zionist effort to return a critical mass to their ancient lands launched at the turn of the 20th century. Its success began with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, as the British government promised its support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish ­people.” That pledge was sharply tested when Allied victory in World War I brought the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, which had previously ruled Palestine, and the subsequent British Mandate from the League of Nations.

After a rocky first few years, by 1936 the British found themselves ­trying to suppress a full-on civil war between the native Palestinian Arabs and the immigrant Jews. The new­comers brought a massive infusion of investment and energy, as they built Tel Aviv atop empty beaches and tamed the wilderness with collective farms (“kibbutzim”). They also sparked a sharp reaction from the Arabs against what they perceived as a Jewish invasion. Suddenly the most innocent acts—a soccer ball accidentally rolling down the wrong street—led to mob violence and brutal acts of revenge.

Kessler tells his story through the eyes of well-chosen key characters, some familiar and others newly highlighted by his book. Few if any are heroes, though several are obvious villains. All parties—Jewish, Arab, and British—bear some blame and shame for the many deaths.

At one point Kessler describes a royal commission report as “a policy paper both pragmatic and elegant, meticulous, and readable.” The same praise is due his book: It carefully and accessibly elucidates the opening acts of this pivotal period, and his introduction and conclusion helpfully trace its meaning for the present. The history cannot be changed, but perhaps clarifying it can help heal its wounds and make progress toward peace today.


Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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