The Frictions of Fiction


The British Mandate in Palestine, a literary-minded official of the Mandate administration is said to have quipped, came to an end “not with a bang but a whimper.” The bangs, leading up to the withdrawal and acknowledgement of defeat in May 1948, had come before. The most effective, from a terrorist’s point of view, were the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (HQ of the British military command) and the hanging of two British sergeants in retaliation for the execution of three Jewish terrorists.

For some British Jews, the anti-colonial struggle of the Jews in Palestine was an embarrassment. It tested their loyalty, if not in actual fact, then at least in the minds of their fellow Brits, who were enraged by the unreasonable violence meted out to the occupying forces and some of whom responded by daubing swastikas on synagogues, in an attempt to erase from "British-Jewish" the hyphen and the word preceding it.

To obliterate the latter half of the hyphenated phrase had been, and in some cases continues to be, the objective of many British Jews, in life and in literature. As Bryan Cheyette argues, in British-Jewish writing the assertion of Jewishness had been impeded by the “enormous authority of the idea of England in the age of empire” because of the seeming superiority of English patterns of identification. With the ensuing pressure to assimilate, some British Jews saw almost no viable alternative but to “commit” mimicry. This very authority, continuously eroded since the war and the decline of empire, has recently been challenged by British Jewish fictions of the Mandate.

For many Jewish writers, turning to non-English territories in their fiction, especially to the Diaspora and to Israel, became a way of sidestepping the hegemony of English, or even British, constructions of the past which excluded Jewishness. This phenomenon, designated as “extraterritoriality” by Cheyette, appears to be waning. Modern British-Jewish writers, as Cheyette shows, “are not merely unapologetic in their Jewishness but can be characterized as Jews ‘with attitude’ who disrupt all conventions.” Indeed, much of recent British-Jewish writing “exposes a radically different sense of the past and rewrites an alternative Englishness from the margins.” Donald Weber points out that “contemporary Jewish writers and critics are re-imagining their relation to ‘Englishness,’ a relationship problematically linked to histories of whiteness and power, a relationship associated with the shameful history of British imperialism.”

Yet according to Weber, Zionism and Israel are notoriously underrepresented in British-Jewish fiction. Making reference to Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times and Jonathan Wilson’s A Palestine Affair, Weber writes that “these works unfold in a less remembered, and thus less incendiary, distant past.”

I am not entirely convinced of the marginal status accorded to these novels and to others dealing with the Palestine Mandate, like Wilson’s earlier The Hiding Room or Bernice Rubens’ The Sergeants’ Tale. The authors’ very choice of time and place challenges Cheyette’s notion of “extraterritoriality” and questions Weber’s claims about the less-incendiary character of this past. This particular past, especially in the context of the so-called post-Zionism debates, is very much a part of the present.

British-Jewish fictions of the Palestine Mandate create a space that is "extraterritorial" to British and Jewish ideas of the past. There is no ignoring, here, of the Jewish impact on the British past and neither can be written without the other. This “common ground” must be seen in conjunction with modern experiences, for in the historical fiction of British-Jewish writers, the Palestine Mandate represents the colonial confrontation between Jews and the British in distant Palestine and modern Britain.

In this context, there is special significance to the post-Zionist debates and what has become known as the Israeli “new” historiography, which attempts to debunk Zionist ideas of the past. Introducing the Palestinian Arabs to the colonial triangle of Mandate Palestine opens the very space explored by these novels to alternative, pluralistic, and conflict-oriented patterns of interpretation, and reconfigures the relationship of Jews, the British, and the Arabs.

When modern British-Jewish writers address colonial confrontations during the Mandate, they attempt to initiate a particular form of writing back, by referring to the successful outcome, for the Jews, of this clash. (A narrative that challenges common readings of the British past and present.) At the same time, these authors question this very success, because the colonial structure is being discredited, and consequently also what appears to be the transfer from British colonial hegemony in Palestine to a Jewish and Israeli one.

Wilson’s first novel, set in Egypt and Palestine in 1941 and ‘42 and, 50 years later, in Israel, focuses on the incendiary question of whether the British ignored the emerging Holocaust and deals with a past that was, in the aftermath of the debates about the War Crimes Act of 1991, anything but unremembered. Nor, in view of the ensuing investigation of close to 400 suspects under the Act, was it distant. Wilson tackles the Palestine Mandate more directly in his second novel, which focuses on intra-Jewish strife during the early years of the Mandate, but also on the colonial mentality as the “essence” of Britishness, and on the challenge it poses to Jewish identities in Britain and in Palestine.

In her last major work, Bernice Rubens, the grande dame of British Jewish literature, tells the story of the two British sergeants hanged in 1947. By making one of them half-Jewish, she focuses not on identity conflicts but rather on dual loyalties, and although she chose the colonial encounter in Mandate Palestine as her subject and seems to support claims of Jewish postcoloniality, she relates it exclusively to Palestine and, later, to Israel. Internal Jewish colonization in Britain, addressed quite explicitly in Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times and at least hinted at in Wilson’s, is denied in The Sergeants’ Tale. Instead, the State of Israel is suggested to be colonialist.

Written and published two years after 9/11 and only months prior to the author’s death, Rubens’ insistence on what appears to be an imagined harmonious integration of Jews into British society may be meant to be a plea for the integration of the stranger of different faith into a new British society. This may be intended to alleviate the “Muslim scare” that followed the destruction of the Twin Towers. Maleiha Malik recently argued in The Guardian, with regard not to Jewish terrorism in Palestine but rather to the anarchism and bolshevism associated with immigrant Jews in the early 20th century, that “despite important differences, the treatment of British Jews provides an illuminating comparison with contemporary anti-Muslim racism.” Rubens may have been writing precisely against any such stigmatization.

All of the writing we've discussed ultimately leads to the following question: Is Jewish postcoloniality “real,” then, or is it merely a figment of some British-Jewish writers’ imagination, a fiction? This is a matter I wouldn’t want to decide here. It seems noteworthy, however, that the novels I have mentioned explore postcolonial frictions between Jews and the British (and in a few instances also between Jews and Jews and between Jews and Arabs) in what may, perhaps, be called postcolonial fictions.