It was a long evening with old friends and their children, who outnumbered us at our long table, all in college or college-aged, as we found our way through a cold ceviche, warm pear salad, and a robust duck sausage cassoulet.
We also found ourselves at odds with each other.
It was shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
After the standard talk about football, summer internships, and Taylor Swift, the conversation rapidly veered to events in the Middle East. I was transported back to the family dinners of my youth in the 1970s and a table just as divided, but then it was over nuclear power, OPEC, and the lingering injuries of Vietnam.
It’s easier to be a kid at such a table than the oldest person in the room, which I happened to be on this latter occasion because people think you must somehow have the answers.
That led me to start pulling books off our dining room shelves. For questions on war crimes, I found a history of the Nuremberg trials. For questions about war itself, there was a first-person account by a British officer who served in Burma, compelled to execute his own wounded soldiers instead of letting them fall into enemy hands.
I also found Barbara Tuchman’s “Bible and Sword,” her history of the West’s longstanding attachment to the Holy Land. I’d only glanced at it when my dad gave it to me in 2003 as he was clearing out his shelves before he died. Scanning the index now I found it remarkably unhelpful. Sure, there were plenty of names and dates, but no easy answers.
After we had steered our guests back to the Mexican chocolate soufflé, our children dutifully sipping espressos and herbal teas while their parents drained the wine bottles, I shut off the lights in our ravaged kitchen and began to read.
Barbara Tuchman was a tower in American letters, writing 11 books of history that still loom over the landscape of how history is to be written, winning two Pulitzer Prizes before she died in 1989.
“Bible and Sword,” published in 1956, is Tuchman’s first book. But you wouldn’t know it from her tone.
“Historically, the occupier of Palestine has always met disaster, beginning with the Jews themselves,” she begins. “The country’s political geography has conquered its rulers.”
Tuchman published this just eight years after the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, following decades of Jewish and Arab rebellion against the British Mandate and a war launched by its five Arab neighbors that resulted in the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinian and Jewish residents fleeing from conquered land, a shadow that still darkens our day.
It is a dispassionate look at the passion of generations who guided events as much or more, she contends, than the discrete decisions of leaders of the day. After all, why was any historical figure there to take action if not because of the momentum of their time? “A nation’s history governs its present actions — but only in terms of what its citizen believe their past to have been,” she writes. “For history, as Napoleon so succinctly put it, ‘is a fable agreed upon.’ ”
And so we awaken in the early Anglo-Saxon era of the British Isles at the end of the Roman occupation in 410 C.E., and the conversion of its inhabitants to Christianity. The mythology of the island’s origins blends surprisingly well with legends of Old Testament figures coming ashore to build a new nation — perhaps bearing the Holy Grail — sharing a story of oppression. “The very subject produces an atmosphere that once to breathe is fatal to clarity,” Tuchman writes, as Jerusalem became “the mother of us all.”
Of course, Jerusalem was also the mother of Muslims as the home of one of the holiest places in Islam. But while Tuchman escorts us alongside pilgrims, crusaders, and merchants over millennia, each distinct in their time and role, the people living in the Holy Land are almost interchangeably referred to as Moslems, Turks, or Saracens. That is what she calls the great leader Saladin, a Kurd, who defeated Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade in 1192.
It’s off-putting until one realizes this is the perspective of time; not her time, the 1950s, but history’s. The West identified itself so strongly with the Promised Land that it became a separate reality, developed in the dreams of pilgrims and the righteousness of conquerors, where the identity of the enemy and reality on the ground hardly matter.
The best proof of this is that Tuchman refers to the Jewish people in the same way. They are just another impediment, or worse, to Western dreams of possessing the land of Christ. “According to Scripture the kingdom of Israel for all mankind would come when the people of Israel were restored to Zion. … The return was visioned, of course, only in terms of a Jewish nation converted to Christianity.” This at a time when an English merchant, John Sanderson, traveling through Palestine in 1601 wrote that among his fellow Christians, “the most learned men could not expound the letter A, (while) Jewish scholars could write whole volumes on the first letter only.”
The dream was finally realized, sort of, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I when France and Britain divided the spoils in the Middle East. It was shaped by the Balfour Declaration of the British government in 1917, a policy statement signed by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour addressed to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, codifying support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, which then had a small but longstanding Jewish population among Arabs.
There was also the matter of partitioning the former Ottoman Empire into new kingdoms and countries, such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, and getting access to their oil.
“The (British) Mandate, not the Balfour Declaration, gave a foothold in public law to the restoration of Israel in Palestine. … The Mandate was an international engagement, signed and ratified by the Principal Allied Powers acting through the League of Nations.”
However, “they were, in fact, caught in a trap of their own making.”
After two decades of violence by and among British forces and Jewish and Arab rebels defending their homes, Britain abandoned its hopes for Palestine in 1939, ending further Jewish immigration and the hope of a new national home, though the fighting continued for nearly a decade.
Yet Tuchman could somehow write of the new nation of modern Israel, founded in 1948, “Now that the original occupant has returned, perhaps the curse will run its course, and the most famous land in history may someday find peace.”
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