One of the Wall Street Journal's 10 Best Books of 2023 • Named a Booklist Editors' Choice in History: Adult Books, 2023 • Finalist, Writing Based on Archival Material: National Jewish Book Awards • Finalist, Sophie Brody Medal, American Library Association"[Kessler] has done an exceptional job and opened new vistas on troubles past and present." — Wall Street Journal
"Kessler’s history is key to understanding the current situation between Israelis and Palestinians." —Booklist, Starred ReviewA gripping, profoundly human, yet even-handed narrative of the origins of the Middle East conflict, with enduring resonance and relevance for our time.
In spring 1936, the Holy Land erupted in a rebellion that targeted both the local Jewish community and the British Mandate authorities that for two decades had midwifed the Zionist project. The Great Arab Revolt would last three years, cost thousands of lives—Jewish, British, and Arab—and cast the trajectory for the Middle East conflict ever since. Yet incredibly, no history of this seminal, formative first “Intifada” has ever been published for a general audience.
The 1936–1939 revolt was the crucible in which Palestinian identity coalesced, uniting rival families, city and country, rich and poor in a single struggle for independence. Yet the rebellion would ultimately turn on itself, shredding the social fabric, sidelining pragmatists in favor of extremists, and propelling waves of refugees from their homes. British forces’ aggressive counterinsurgency took care of the rest, finally quashing the uprising on the eve of World War II. The revolt to end Zionism had instead crushed the Arabs themselves, leaving them crippled in facing the Jews’ own drive for statehood a decade later.
To the Jews, the insurgency would leave a very different legacy. It was then that Zionist leaders began to abandon illusions over Arab acquiescence, to face the unnerving prospect that fulfilling their dream of sovereignty might mean forever clinging to the sword. The revolt saw thousands of Jews trained and armed by Britain—the world’s supreme military power—turning their ramshackle guard units into the seed of a formidable Jewish army. And it was then, amid carnage in Palestine and the Hitler menace in Europe, that portentous words like “partition” and “Jewish state” first appeared on the international diplomatic agenda.
This is the story of two national movements and the first sustained confrontation between them. The rebellion was Arab, but the Zionist counter-rebellion—the Jews’ military, economic, and psychological transformation—is a vital, overlooked element in the chronicle of how Palestine became Israel.
Today, eight decades on, the revolt’s legacy endures. Hamas’s armed wing and rockets carry the name of the fighter-preacher whose death sparked the 1936 rebellion. When Israel builds security barriers, sets up checkpoints, or razes homes, it is evoking laws and methods inherited from its British predecessor. And when Washington promotes a “two-state solution,” it is invoking a plan with roots in this same pivotal period.
Based on extensive archival research on three continents and in three languages, Palestine 1936 is the origin story of the world’s most intractable conflict, but it is also more than that. In Oren Kessler’s engaging, journalistic voice, it reveals world-changing events through extraordinary individuals on all sides: their loves and their hatreds, their deepest fears and profoundest hopes.
Oren Kessler is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv. He has served as deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, Middle East research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London, Arab affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, and an editor and translator at Haaretz English edition.
Raised in Rochester, New York, and Tel Aviv, he holds a BA in history from the University of Toronto and an MA in diplomacy and conflict studies from Reichman University (IDC Herzliya).
Kessler’s work has appeared in media outlets such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy,the Wall Street Journal,the Washington Post,and Politico. Palestine 1936 is his first book and has been favorably reviewed by Booklist with a starred review, The Wall Street Journal, Foreword Reviews, Commentary, The Jerusalem Report, and more.
Visit his website here: orenkessler.com.
Glossary of Names
Introduction: The Forgotten Uprising
Chapter 1: Flash Floods in the Desert
Chapter 2: The Bloody Day in Jaffa
Chapter 3: The Two-State Solution
Chapter 4: Black Sunday
Chapter 5: Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem
Chapter 6: Lawrence of Judea
Chapter 7: The Burning Ground
Epilogue: The Revolt Rages On
About the Author
The struggle between Jews and Arabs for the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is a modern war fought with ancient maps. When did the conflict assume its current parameters?... In 'Palestine 1936,' the Tel Aviv-based political analyst Oren Kessler argues that the crucial moment was an overlooked episode a decade before Israel’s birth. He makes a convincing case..... [Kessler] is the first to tell this story from all three sides (British, Arab, Jewish) and use sources in all three languages (English, Arabic, Hebrew). He has done an exceptional job and opened new vistas on troubles past and present.
Kessler perceives the start of the massive displacement caused by the founding of Israel in 1948 in the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-39, the longest sustained rebellion against British control of the region. Faced with a burgeoning Zionist movement intent on settling threatened European Jews in Palestine and an intransigent Arab Higher Committee, British officials dithered and made feckless promises to first one side and then the other, rarely acknowledging their own role in exacerbating the tensions. While there is plenty of blame to go around, Kessler exposes the arrogance of British imperialism at its worst. When Jewish immigration skyrocketed to 30- percent of the population, the British High Commissioner of Jerusalem dismissed Arab concerns. The Arab-Jewish violence that followed established the current mechanisms for Israeli suppression of Palestinian resistance: dominating military force, home demolitions as collective punishment, and ironclad commitment to settlements. Ultimately, Britain abandoned both the Jews and the Arabs of Palestine, strictly limiting Jewish immigration as Hitler’s Final Solution was closing in and refusing to recognize Arab rights to independence and self-government. With indelible portraits of such leaders as Musa Alami, George Antonius, David Ben-Gurion, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and Chaim Weizmann, Kessler’s history is key to understanding the current situation between Israelis and Palestinians.
The brilliance of “Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict” lies in the fact that Kessler took a truly archetypical yet understudied event in the history of the world’s most intractable conflict and, following extremely intensive research, made that event –in the historical context in which it happened, as well as the decades-long conflict which has ensued – supremely approachable.
“The 1936 uprising has virtually receded from memory due to the passage of time and the dearth of books about it in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Oren Kessler, an Israeli journalist, has filled the gap admirably with Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict. A lucid writer, he deals not only with the revolt itself — the first major clash between the Zionist and the Palestinian national movements — but also delves into its causes and legacy. Kessler provides readers with a thorough and thoughtful history of Palestine before addressing the theme at hand…. Kessler convincingly argues that the Jews of Palestine consolidated the demographic, geographic and political basis of their state during this period rather than in 1948, when the first Arab-Israeli war broke out.”
The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be understood without a thorough investigation of the 1936 revolt, and Oren Kessler has written the definitive study. Palestine 1936 is an accessible and essential source for scholars, journalists, decision makers, and serious students of the Middle East.
An overall history of the Arab Revolt of 1936–1939—the biggest and most significant nationalist uprising against the British Empire in the twentieth century—has long been a lacuna in the historiography of Palestine/Israel. Oren Kessler has at last plugged that gap with this very well-researched, highly readable, and balanced study, studded with fine portraits of the main actors and moving stories of personal tragedy and accomplishment. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of the Zionist-Arab conflict.
Oren Kessler’s book is an informative, well-documented, scholarly portrayal of life in 1936–1939 Mandate Palestine. It is a remarkable work that blends religion, history, and politics. I strongly recommend its translation to Arabic so that it is available to a wide Palestinian audience.
In Palestine 1936, Oren Kessler has given us a clear, fast-paced, and accessible account of a crucial chapter in the Middle East, introducing a general readership to a fascinating piece of overlooked history while shedding light on the present. I learned a great deal from this book.
With his narrative style of history, Oren Kessler offers a compelling account of the seminal events that helped shape Palestine during the British mandate and for many years to come. His welcome focus on a series of riveting Arab Palestinian, Jewish, and British personalities makes Palestine 1936 a brisk and relatable read. Basing his work on rigorous and impressive research in both primary and secondary sources, Kessler helpfully pays attention to seemingly small details that come together to weave the tapestry of history. This is both a delightful and a necessary read that will be of interest both to specialists and to those approaching the topic for the first time.
When did the Arab-Israeli conflict begin? Over the decades, historians, politicians, and activists have posited numerous dates…. Oren Kessler proposes a new and under-explored starting point for the conflict…. As Kessler demonstrates in this sobering and engaging history, 1936 crystallized the many elements of the Arab–Israeli conflict in ways that other hinge dates did not.
Palestine 1936 is an eminently readable account of how the State of Israel emerged from the flames of Mandate Palestine, but it is much more. It is the first scholarly, extensively researched, investigation into the formative events of 1936-39 in the Holy Land…. Kessler recounts, with the pin-point accuracy only achieved through assiduous research, the details, one after another, that built to a full-scale riot in Jaffa known as the Bloody Day…. It is his journalistic skills that make Palestine 1936 so absorbing a read for everyone, scholar and general public alike. This detailed account of a seminal period in the history of both Israel and the Arab world is highly recommended.
Oren Kessler’s brave new history book Palestine 1936 reveals the deep roots of today’s Israel-Palestine conflict.
Refreshingly unbiased and captivating....Palestine 1936 provides a revealing understanding of the origin of today’s Israel-Palestine conflict—it also makes the situation seem all the more impossible to untangle
A former journalist and longtime Middle East analyst, Kessler examines a period that is as formative as it is overlooked in this well-written volume. Kessler utilizes recently declassified documents and memoirs, among other sources, to paint a briskly moving picture of what might properly be considered the first Palestinian Intifada. Kessler skillfully tells the tale, relying on deft character sketches and lively prose to convey a story whose tragic consequences echo to the present day.
Oren Kessler’s book, Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict, offers valuable insights into the tragedies and human stories in the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine. As one of the first books of general interest on this critical period, it serves as a timely reminder of the immense suffering on both sides.... [The book] proves to be a valuable and accessible resource that provides a digestible account of the events, motivations, identities, and backgrounds of critical players. It is an engaging read regardless of background knowledge, offering insights into how British control of the region and their decisions led to tensions in the 1930s.
Unlike other notable books about this longstanding conflict... Kessler’s Palestine 1936 presents the historical origins of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict in as impartial, nonjudgmental and non-editorializing a manner as possible, without attempting to cast blame, exculpate, justify or even propose viable solutions.What emerges from Kessler’s study of this controversial and much-debated subject is a richer and fuller picture of how and why the Palestinian-Zionist conflict became something very close to a zero-sum game well before the establishment of the state of Israel. Consequently, Palestine 1936 also helps explain why this conflict goes on so heatedly to this very day and why even good-faith efforts to end it largely fail.
The Arab Revolt essentially set the frame work of the subsequent Arab–Israeli conflict. Kessler’s reminder of the historical importance of the revolt makes his book an integral part of the literature on the conflict.
[Kessler] has taken up a topic that ought to be well studied but, as he notes, is not. His impressive immersion in the sources and his lively writing bring the "Great Arab Revolt" of 1936-39 to life and show its continued significance…. It is a great book.
[The] historical context of the never-ending Israeli Palestinian conflict is still as controversial and emotion-provoking as that last sentence is long. The critical thinking desperately needed to attempt to resolve the conflict for the hundredth time has often been replaced by radical religious and emotion-based violence on both sides. And events today, including the most recent unprecedented attack on Israel by Hamas in Gaza, can be seen within the long line of events since the 19th century... Kessler does a very good job of explaining the context and the Revolt itself. His first book is a must read for serious students of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as for the general public.
What is the world’s obligation to a group that’s everywhere a minority, has nowhere to call home, and faces persecution and possible extinction? Does such a plight compel the creation of a homeland—on another group’s territory? Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict raises these profound questions. Oren Kessler’s exacting and evenhanded debut granularly examines for the first time the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine from 1936 to 1939—otherwise known as The Great Revolt—and convincingly makes the case that it formed the foundation and blueprint for a century-old dispute that continues today. As well, Kessler illuminates the world’s role in the prewar conflict: its foibles, biases, pragmatism, and, ultimately, its failures…. Palestine 1936 earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.
Proof that yesterday’s history is today’s news, Oren Kessler’s account of the Great Arab Revolt of 1936 in the British-controlled Palestine Mandate shows how Jewish-Arab relations were altered ever after. The author skillfully uses English, Hebrew and Arabic sources to find human stories in a battle of ideas and identities, providing rare insight into the grim pattern of conflict that grinds on in the region.
American journalist Oren Kessler offers a gradual and precise narration of the 1936–39 Arab revolt in Palestine, using personal experiences of British, Palestinian, and Jewish figures. Kessler argues that the Palestinian uprising set off a cycle of escalating violence that crystallized irreconcilable positions between the Zionist and Palestinian national movements, unveiling the Great Revolt’s long-lasting effects.
[Kessler] sets out fastidious research into 1930s Palestine and the tensions that culminated in the Great Arab Revolt of 1936, bringing that era back to life and suggesting how it influences contemporary debates. Working through Kessler’s exquisitely clear, fair-minded account of the period, and how it changed thinking on all sides, might produce more informed discussion both in the media and on the ramparts….Palestine 1936 exposes how many of the worst phenomena of the 1930s are now repeating themselves—unwillingness to compromise, hatred leading to violence, Arab moderates afraid to speak for fear of execution by Arab extremists, absolutist resistance to seeing any claims to justice on the other side…. What doesn’t seem present today is the idea that even some Arab leaders freely expressed in the early 20th century that a Jewish homeland and Jewish entrepreneurship would be good for Palestinian Arabs too. Neither do we see the flexibility with which some Jewish and Arab leaders in the 1920s and 1930s viewed Palestine as, practically speaking, a mixed real estate/religious problem that might be solved on real estate rather than religious principles. We could use more of that thinking today.
In his debut book, journalist Oren Kessler has filled an important gap early in the modern era…. It carefully and accessibly describes the opening acts of this pivotal period, and his introduction and conclusion helpfully show 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.
The historic milestones that led to the creation of the state of Israel are well known: Theodor Herzl’s Zionist congresses, the Balfour Declaration, the Partition Resolution, the War of Independence.... [Oren Kessler] believes that a significant chunk of history has been largely overlooked and he sets out to right that wrong in his new book, Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict. The Arab uprising of 1936 to 1939 in Palestine, he writes, ‘was the crucible in which Palestinian identity coalesced.’ It also set in stone the intransigence toward Jewish self-determination in the region.... Kessler’s thesis is that the events of 1936-1939 deserve to be recognized more as pivotal to the history of the region as a whole. There are also voluminous parallels and lessons for contemporary times in his review of that era.
2/9/23, The Tel Aviv Review podcast, Israel in Depth: Oren Kessler was interviewed about the book.
2/21/23, New Books Network: Oren Kessler discussed the book on the podcast.
2/15/23, Jewish Insider: Oren Kessler was interviewed in a Q&A about the book.
2/19/23, Military History Now: An excerpt from the book was featured.
2/21/23, New Books Network Middle Eastern Studies: Roberto Mazza interviewed Oren Kessler about the book.
3/3/23, Foreword Reviews: Oren Kessler was featured in a Q&A about the book.
3/2/23, The Remnant with Jonah Goldberg podcast on the Dispatch: Oren Kessler discussed the book.
3/2/23, Jewish News Syndicate: Jonathan Tobin spoke with Oren Kessler about the book.
3/30/2023, Americans for Peace Now PeaceCast: Oren Kessler discusses the book in this APN podcast.
5/16/23, Fathom Journal: Oren Kessler discusses the book with Fathom deputy editor Jack Omer-Jackaman.
6/2/23, Middle East Forum: Oren Kessler discusses the book on this influential channel.Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wr_pS9FQf08
6/12/23, BICOM podcast: Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre’s (BICOM) Jack Omer-Jackaman interviews Oren Kessler.
Link: https://bicom.podbean.com/e/episode-207-the-great-arab-revolt-and-its-modern-legacy/Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/BICOM.Britain.Israel/posts/pfbid0A9HbJWJ2p67N675SANp1WhYSDSF2zXmRoZr1JWUmPeEgKf5jmNLLp56bUowYXSNXl
6/15/23, Jerusalem Postpodcast: Editor-in-chief Avi Mayer and foreign correspondent Lahav Harkov interview Oren Kessler about the book.
8/7/23, The Honest Report podcast: Oren Kessler discusses the book with host Robert Walker.
8/18/23, The Times of Israel What Matters Now podcast: Oren Kessler discussed the book with Amanda Borschel-Dan.
Link with transcript: https://www.timesofisrael.com/what-matters-now-to-author-oren-kessler-1936-palestines-missed-peace-deal/Direct link: https://omny.fm/shows/times-will-tell/what-matters-now-to-author-oren-kessler-1936-pales
10/12/23, The Fifth Column podcast: Michael Moynihan discusses the book, the tragedy and conflict, and Oren Kessler’s family in this week’s episode.Link: https://wethefifth.substack.com/p/425-the-nightmare-scenario-w-oren#details
10/30/23, Religion Unplugged: This is featured as one of the “7 History Books That Help Explain The Israel-Hamas War.”
11/3/23, Jewish Herald-Voice: In a piece highlighting the book and Oren Kessler’s appearance at the Jewish Book & Arts Festival, the article says: “Kessler has produced a well-written, engaging narrative history.”
11/7/23, History Impossible podcast: Oren Kessler joins the podcast and discusses the book.
Podcast link: https://www.spreaker.com/user/16673954/oren-kessler-and-the-muftiSubstack link: https://historyimpossible.substack.com/p/israel-gaza-and-three-root-causes
Jewish Community Voice, Oren Kessler’s appearance at the Katz JCC’s Festival is covered and he offers context behind the current war.
December issue, Booklist: This has been selected as one of the most exceptional books of 2023 in the History category.
1/5/24, Foreword Reviews: ‘The Best of 2023: A Year of Fascinating Conversations between Reviewers and Authors’ feature includes Jeremiah Rood’s interview of author Oren Kessler.
1/5/24, The Times of Israel: Oren Kessler pens an op-ed based on the book.
12/17/23, Democrat & Chronicle: A feature article about Oren Kessler, the book, and the current situation in the Middle East is running in the author’s hometown newspaper.
12/20/23, Mosaic: This is featured as one of Mosaic’s best books of the year with staffer Neil Rogachevsky writing, “Oren Kessler’s Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict is a rigorous but very readable narrative of the Great Arab Revolt in British Palestine. Kessler’s deft history reminds us that certain aspects of the Israel-Arab conflict remain drearily constant, notwithstanding the vast chasm of time and political circumstance separating 1936 and 2023.”
1/25/24, Departures podcast: Oren Kessler discusses the book with host Robert Amsterdam.Link: https://robertamsterdam.com/departures-podcast-featuring-oren-kessler-author-of-palestine-1936/X link: https://x.com/robertamsterdam/status/1750647255055650982?s=20
2/16/24, Port Jewish Center (Port Washington, NY): The recent virtual event with Oren Kessler is available to view on YouTube.Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFoyzhbVRLQ&t=1176s