Reviewed: Ovendale, Ritchie. Origins of the Arab-Israeli Wars. New York: Logman Group, 1984. 232 pages.
One subject, befitting as much a citizen of any nation as a student of global history, is the war between the state of Israel and the Palestinian nation in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The dimensions and origins of this conflict reach thousands of years backward into history and across the globe from every side. The story of these two peoples will certainly reach equally as far forward into the hearts and minds of audiences for generations to come. The story to be told is all at once political, religious, territorial, social, military, and moral.
For all of these reasons, if not solely for the last alone, the modern student of history needs a worthy guide through the trenches. For this task, Dr. Ovendale performs an arduous miracle in his treatment of the subject in Origins of the Arab-Israeli Wars.The first major advantage a reader has in choosing this selection is access to Dr. Ovendale's research. There are 514 bibliographical entries supporting facts, conclusions, opinions and testimony from every era in the evolution of this conflict. The chapters themselves are deceptively small, an average of twelve and one half pages each, making the read seem like a weekend romp across the ages. However, Dr. Ovendale "packs it in" using small type and straightforward speech. Because of the many grievous tragedies and passions raveled in with this peculiar and painful narrative, it is worth noting that Dr. Ovendale is at no point swept in with the prejudices and biases inherent in popular culture. His account is direct and objective, a perfect outsider's view. He does not drift, even broadly, into apologies, antisemitism, or Palestinian sympathy.
The reader is allowed to draw his or her own conclusions without the continual prodding of guilt and polarization from an author with an agenda. The reason that this is so crucial, not just in all matters of history, but in this matter specifically, is that judgment clouds more quickly in affairs concerning religion and politics than in any other subjects worthy of discussion. This observation illustrates the impossibility of the task at which Dr. Ovendale succeeded, because the very title gives away the story:Arabs are a people in the geographic sense. Israelis are a people exclusive of any common principle but dogmatic institutional faith. Politics and Religion are inextricable from the discourse. While there are but a minuscule few Jews, a third of the world is Arab. How the one could survive an antagonistic relationship with the other for more than sixty five years deserves careful attention and understanding, not posturing and rhetoric. That said, the subject is treated calmly, delicately, and with sober professionalism.
The author makes use of many useful and authoritative primary sources, such as cabinet transcripts from the British Public Record Office, the papers of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman (each from their own respective libraries), papers from the National Security Council, the General Records of the Department of State, and the archives of the OSS Bureau of Intelligence Research, to name a few. Ovendale also includes an appendix of useful maps to illustrate the outcomes of territorial exchanges produced by international decree, early Jewish settlement, later land wars, and the treaties and armistices which follow. While these would seem to be of more use had they been included inline with the text where referenced, different chapters treat multiple eras from different points of view, making it a simpler matter to print each of illustrations only once, and together, as an appendix.
This work is nothing if not thorough. Ovendale begins in the late nineteenth century with the Dreyfus affair, a stark example of the antisemitism prevalent in Europe at the time: "The mob shouted 'Death. Death to the Jews.' "(pg.1) He thus allows the reader the privilege of understanding how the young Viennese journalist, Theodore Herzl, would have seen the world around himself. This is not casually done, if the reader would consider the infamy Herzl comes to possess: He is at once a hero to five generations of Zionists, for his efforts to make Israel a reality, and simultaneously a corrupt monster from the point of view of the Palestinians disenfranchised by the success of his cause. Herzl is not introduced as a radical or a profit. He is a young writer stricken by the hereditary curse of cultural identity in a hostile world of enmity and violence. He is a bright young man with opinions and ideas, and more dangerously, a pen and pad. For the novel success of his methods, deference is appropriate, but when treated as a reasonable (and otherwise unremarkable) individual, the reader is better able to understand that perhaps Herzl's ideas would be have evolved differently had he been privy to a view of his people's struggle and international position a century after taking up the cause. It is this kind of special attention, for the often fleeting details and perspectives, that make complex history understandable, and thus accessible. It is in this manner which the whole book proceeds.
For independence, the Zionist depended on the West. The west depended on oil, and after the atrocities of WWII, these conditions aligned with a sympathetic (albeit uninformed) Democratic machine, animated by the Rand-ian altruism of the age. For their thinking, and all their best intentions, (almost) all parties involved seemed to honestly believe that an Independent State of Israel was both possible and favorable. The West wanted an ally in the Arab world. The Zionists wanted a home of their own. Many European communities wanted the Jews gone, and had proven none too civil in their application of such desires. Dr. Ovendale does the work of a historian, not a pundit, not an apologist, not a politician. He achieves what most will barely attempt, and what many more shall come to appreciate. If the student or citizen find himself looking east, and wishing to make sense of the chaos, let him or her begin here, with Dr. Ovendale, in Origins of the Arab-Israeli Wars.
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