"Kessler’s history is key to understanding the current situation between Israelis and Palestinians." —Booklist, Starred Review"[Kessler] has done an exceptional job and opened new vistas on troubles past and present." — Wall Street Journal
A 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.
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 Post podcast: 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