“Apartheid” and the Economic-Cultural Gap: Peel Commission on Arab vs. Jewish Culture in 1937

I am working up my 2002 essay on Anti-Semitism, Medieval, Modern and Post-Modern for publication, and in searching out the footnotes, I came across the following passage from the Peel Commission Report of 1937. Aside from the use of the word “race” rather than “culture,” the contrast remains salient today (as in the UN Development Report on the Arab World, 2002).

7. With every year that passes, the contrast between this intensely democratic and highly organized modern community and the old-fashioned Arab world around it grows sharper, and in nothing, perhaps, more markedly than on its cultural side. The literary output of the National Home is out of all proportion to its size. Hebrew translations have been published of the works of Aristotle, Descartes, Leibnitz, Fichte, Kant, BergsoIl, Einstein and other philosophers, and of Shakespeare, Goethe, Heine, Byron, Dickens, the great Russian novehsts, and many modern writers. In creative literature the work of Bialik, who died in 19×5, has been the outstanding achievement in Hebrew poetry, and that of Nahum Sokolov, who died in 1936, in Hebrew prose. A number of Hebrew novels have been written reflecting the influence on the Jewish mind of life in the National Home. The Hebrew Press has expanded to four daily and ten weekly papers. Of the former the Ha’aretz and the Dauw, with circulations of about 17,000 and ~5,000 respectively, are the most influential and maintain a high literary standard. Two periodicals are exclusively concerne with literature and one with dramatic art. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the culture of the National Home is its love of music. It was while we were in Palestine, as it happened, that Signor Toscanini conducted the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, composed of some 70 Palestinian Jews, in six concerts mainly devoted to the works of Brahms and Beethoven. On each occasion every seat was occupied, and it is noteworthy that one concert was reserved for some 3,000 workpeople at very low rates and that another 3,000 ‘attended the Orchestra’s final rehearsal. All in all, the cultural achievement of this little community of 400,000 people is one of the most remarkable features of the National Homeland.

8. There is Arab literature, of course, and Arab music, but the culture of Arab Palestine is the monopoly of the intelligenzia; and, born as it is of Asia, it has little kinship with that of the National Home, which, though it is linked with ancient Jewish ,tradition, is predominantly a culture of the West. Nowhere, indeed, is tie gulf between the races more obvious. Anyone who attended the Toscanini Concerts at Jerusalem might have imagined, if he closed his eyes, that he was in Paris, London, or New York. Yet, almost within earshot was the Old City, the Haram-esh-Sharif, and the headquarters of the Arab Higher Committee. It is the same with science. The Daniel Sieff Research Institute at Rehovot is equipped with the most delicate modern instruments ; the experiments conducted there are watched by chemists all over the world: yet from its windows can be seen the hills inhabited by a backward peasantry who regard it only as the demonstration of a power they hate and fear and who’ would like, no doubt, when their blood is up, to destroy it.

Palestine Royal [Peel] Commission Report (1937), p. 116.

In Zionist historiography, the Peel Commission is largely seen as hostile to Zionism, breaking even Weizmann’s AnglophiliaBut a closer read suggests immense ambivalence on the part of the British and fascinating comments on the situation. Among other things, this passage highlights the difference between an indigenous Jewish culture in “the national homeland” and the essentially fragmented culture of the Arab world (international elite/”intelligenzia” with no local rootedness). Like the Muslim interest in Jerusalem because it’s in the hands of the Jews, so we find an Arab attachment to “Palestine” because it means something to the Zionists. Mimetic, invidious desire – hardly what one would normally expect progressives to encourage.

I personally would see the accusations of “apartheid” against Israel – e.g., the differential in living standards between “settlers” and “Palestinians” in the “West Bank” – as products of economic culture rather than oppressive discrimination. Note that even under conditions of great hostility, Palestinians have a much higher standard of living than those in neighboring Arab nations, a phenomenon that dates back to the earliest years of Zionism. In the words of Hasan Shukri, mayor of Haifa and president of the Muslim National Associations, in a telegram to the British in July of 1921:

We do not consider the Jewish people as an enemy whose wish is to crush us. On the contrary. We consider the Jews as a brotherly people sharing our joys and troubles and helping us in the construction of our common country. We are certain that without Jewish immigration and financial assistance there will be no future development of our country as may be judged from the fact that the towns inhabited in part by Jews such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, and Tiberias are making steady progress while Nablus, Acre, and Nazareth where no Jews reside are steadily declining

(Hillel Cohen. Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948, p. 15).

Of course, not all Arabs agreed, and those who did not considered people like Shukri traitors who deserved death (Shukri, surviving multiple assassination attempts, eventually fled to Beirut).

The “post-colonialist” romanticization of these latter groups as resisters of Western imperialism, rather than as frustrated dominators (imperialists) mired in their zero-sum world of envy and resentment, and the former as quislings, rather than progressive-minded peoples capable of rising above the “us-them” prison, says much about the current disorientation of the “progressive” Left.

13 Responses to “Apartheid” and the Economic-Cultural Gap: Peel Commission on Arab vs. Jewish Culture in 1937

  1. E.G. says:

    The Peel report is a fascinating read.
    They were far more honest than such a commission would be today, and very much in the appeasement zeitgeist that persists till tese very days. Nearly 80 years after the first Intifada, the mantra about the “reasonable” Jews that should make concessions to Arabs is the same.
    Aumann’s blackmailer’s paradox is de rigueur.

  2. w.w.wygart says:


    Agreed, fascinating reading. The first couple of sections of the Historical Background as far as I made it so far, are a very good general exposition on the subject. I’ll have to keep coming back to it [all 423 pages]. Somebody put some effort into it.


    • E.G. says:

      Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose, as the French never say.
      It’s a founding document of the current vision of Jews “like us” (Western, reasonable) enriching, civilising, the uncivilised Levant/Orient that insists on its backward heritage through “natural” violence that “we” so much fear that “we” very “reasonably” think that those Jews (we used to view as Oriental outsiders amongst “us”) should be tamed yet again to make the concessions necessary for our well-being.

  3. E.G. says:

    Which fraternity/sorority?

    • @ EG

      mondosweiss. i think the only dissent they allow is of religious nature, because they can easily dismiss it as backwards. and imagine that i have been so considerate as not to make comments that would pass as inflammatory for them (which means that i had to discount 99% of what i know about the I/P conflict). but i was banned anyway – i should hope it’s temporary, but i don’t count on it.

      I don’t know if they are Theobalds, but they certainly are Theophobes, and they don’t want a fellow Theophobe arguing for the other side – i think.

      The most annoying thing is the comments deleted.

      I have to go, time to drink an alter-juice.

      • E.G. says:

        Zionophobes of the red-radical-hood are usually highly sectarian. That’s why they keep splitting. You should be in full conformity with your chapel’s choir – or else… Raus!
        If they ever show the extreme indulgence of trying you, try to be (not too much) inquisitive rather than assertive. After a while, they’ll end up suspecting your questions and “but I read that…” are too subversive and you’ll get kicked out, outcast forever.

        • EG

          They indulged in suspecting me from day 1, they have a flair for conspiracy theorizing. Apparently i am a “spy” and their only question seems to be exactly how much i get paid – the smartest of all got it right, i am in the process of conversion to Judaism and soon i will be receiving my ill-earned piece of land in the (occupied EG, face it you supremacist!)West Bank.
          They allow a few adversarial to their cause comments just so they will have a straw man, a punchbag to practice upon their ideology – punchbag because the replies to their theses that do real damage will be deleted, of course.
          They let some music videos pass, though – but i couldn’t bribe my way in even with entertainment. Talking common sense to them is considered highly dangerous for their cause.
          Also, they behave like intellectual pimps towards their audience: even replies that have nothing to do with the I/P conflict might get deleted, if the moderator decides that my reply to a specific poster’s ad honimem attack against me might make the poster feel uncomfortable. Someone said something very degrading about me based on my (purported) dismissal of Plato, and when i replied politely explaining that i had not been dismissing Plato and that, by the way, there are reasons to dismiss part of Plato’s teachings, and i explained them, my reply was deleted because it would make the one who had attacked me look like both rude and a fool.
          I am sure they will justify this patronizing attitude towards their audience on the grounds of sensitivity.

          • E.G. says:

            Well, Dionissis, that’s the secular Red-Green-Brown religion.
            Highly sensitive indeed about the fantasised “Other” sensitivities, and your “otherness” is not sufficiently Levantine. Or “diverse” in PC.
            Their total lack of humour is consternating.

            Get over it: yes, there are very bigoted alter-juice. And they can and do become Israelis.
            Our force has always resided in our “stiff-nakedness” – dissent voices are a must among us. And this is where they’re being heretic vis-à-vis our heritage: the incapacity to deal with plurality.

          • @ EG

            “Get over it: yes, there are very bigoted alter-juice.”

            Nothing to get over. I haven’t told you the worst part of it: i loved it there. Like i was dealing with misbehaving children who need understanding and good advice – ok, they hold a gun (in their anti-Zionism) but i chose to miss this fact. Makes for better relationships to blind yourself a little temporarily.

  4. Martin J. Malliet says:

    The ambivalence of the British, I always understood, was not so much inspired by an unfavourable view of zionism, but by their fear of a backlash from Arab and Musim rulers. British naval power envy and their wish to prevent Russia from getting the straits is what made them stand against zionism in the end. I suppose this is also where Gustave Flaubert’s outburst comes from:

    “Sans doute par l’effet de mon vieux sang normand, depuis la guerre d’Orient, je suis indigné contre l’Angleterre, indigné à en devenir Prussien! Car enfin, que veut-elle ? Qui l’attaque ? Cette prétention de défendre l’Islamisme (qui est en soi une monstruosité) m’exaspère. Je demande, au nom de l’humanité, à ce qu’on broie la Pierre-Noire, pour en jeter les cendres au vent, à ce qu’on détruise La Mecque, et que l’on souille la tombe de Mahomet. Ce serait le moyen de démoraliser le Fanatisme.”
    (Gustave Flaubert / 1821-1880 / Lettre à Madame Roger des Genettes / 12 ou 19 janvier 1878)

    • w.w.wygart says:

      Mr. Malliet,

      I’m in substantial agreement with you when you said,

      “The ambivalence of the British, I always understood, was not so much inspired by an unfavourable view of zionism, but by their fear of a backlash from Arab and Musim [sic] rulers.”

      Evidence for that goes back at least as far as British knuckling in to Arab [Saudi] pressure to renegue on an agreement with Israel over selling the Israelis Chieftain tank technology in ’69. Though I’m really not sure how “favorable” most British governments ever were towards the Zionist cause, I always tend to think of the British [meaning their governments] as always ‘just about’ to hang the Israelis out to dry – I could of course be wrong about that.


      • E.G. says:

        The French and the Brits had different agendas regarding the ME.
        The Jewish homeland was never in their priorities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *