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Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (1956)

by Barbara W. Tuchman

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This was Barbara Tuchman's first published work, and it shows already her ability to tell a great narrative. In this case, she tells the story of how Great Britain came to be so involved with the reestablishment of the nation of Israel, although the story only goes up to the Balfour Declaration.

The short answer to that question is that Britain was deeply influenced culturally by the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) since the Middle Ages. Indeed, she makes a case for the Old Testament being more important than the New Testament to their culture, even though they were a Catholic nation, and later a Protestant one. I'll leave the details of that assertion to the reader, but it's a fascinating one.

What the title implies and Tuchman asserts at the end is that the British Empire wanted Palestine for strategic reasons: to control and defend Egypt and the Suez Canal in order to maintain trade routes and communication for the Empire. But culturally, the Empire needed a moral justification for taking control, and the restoration of Israel provided that justification. For many in the government, this was not a cynical manipulation of public justifications but a real concern for the People of God.

For me, it was a crystallization of a number of facts that I knew about English history: the impact of the Old Testament on its culture and attitudes. It makes a great deal of sense. One should keep this in mind whenever one reads the history of that nation and empire. An interesting question for me is: to what extent does the Old Testament still influence British culture and governmental policy? ( )
  KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
Relation of Palestine and England which led to founding of Israel
  Folkshul | Jan 15, 2011 |
Tuchman's first book, this history of English involvement in Palestine shows flashes of what she would later achieve, but isn't quite as readable as those works to come. ( )
  wanack | Oct 10, 2010 |
This is an oddity, but very interesting for the light it throws on an area I haven't seen discussed in detail before, the strange fascination of British protestants with Palestine and the Jewish people. Tuchman put her finger on two particular aspects of this: firstly the way 17th century protestants used the history described in the Old Testament as a metaphor for their own struggle to a point where they actually started thinking of themselves as new, better Israelites themselves; secondly the bizarre idea derived from biblical prophecies that the second coming of the Messiah would follow when the Jews returned to Palestine and converted to Christianity. Otherwise fairly sane and rational Victorians like the Earl of Shaftesbury have devoted huge amounts of energy to attempting to convert Jews and resettle them in Palestine, long before the modern variety of Zionism had established itself with the Jews themselves. All very odd, and it may help to explain the muddled combination of military strategy and religious idealism that led to the equally muddled Balfour Declaration, as Tuchman argues. In the end, this is a book about the British: if you haven't read much about the origins of the state of Israel you may be at a bit of a loss sometimes to fill in the remaining background. Irritating for modern readers, but entirely understandable when you consider that it was written barely ten years after World War II, is that Tuchman can never mention Germany or individual Germans without dropping in an insult of some kind. ( )
2 vote thorold | Dec 10, 2009 |
This was interesting; I originally summarised it to M as "an attempt to explain the English involvement (and fascination) with Palestine over the years". It wasn't quite that, though - in effect, it was three seperate books which tied together with a great deal of digression.

The first was a history of English involvement with Palestine during the pre-Reformation period; travellers and tourists and pilgrims and the Crusades, with a few notes on mythologising (the attempt to trace the English church back directly to the Holy Land rather than via Rome). Then the Reformation intervened, and the involvement dried up, because pilgrimage was now discouraged.

The second part lies in the development of the Anglican church. Through the vernacular Bible - and a culture which strongly encouraged reading communally, learning "the stories" of the Bible - generation after generation became closely familiar with places in the Holy Land, more familiar than with their own geography. In the seventeenth century, another element appeared, that of Biblical literalism and a desire to "fulfil the prophecies"; this was interpreted as meaning that for the Messiah to return, the Jewish diaspora would have to return to Palestine and create a new Kingdom of Israel (and, at some point, convert to Christianity). This reached its peak with the somewhat pointless - but enormously enthusiastic - "Society for the Conversion of the Jews" in the mid-19th century and then fell off drastically. The history of this was alternately intriguing and surreal, and covered a lengthy discussion of Jewish assimilation in the UK, as well as the evolution of Anglicanism, the development of the Oxford Movement, etc.

The third part began to develop about the time the "Christian" impulse dropped off, which was the rise of Zionism - of which we get a good historical overview - and the way it interlocked with British imperial ambitions. Britain had a strong military reason to want to ensure Palestine was under friendly (ie, not French or Russian) control so that the routes to India were secure; with the purchase of the Suez Canal, this became more pressing, and with the First World War an opportunity to seize control presented itself. The question then simply becomes - why the Balfour Declaration, why a Jewish state (or not-quite-state) and not simply direct control or an Arab state?

She does a good job of trying to explain this, emphasising that it was not a purely cynical manoeuvre (as Lloyd Geerge in later years tried to suggest) - it was an attempt to combine political opportunism, religious qualms, and altruistic idealism. Clear and well-explained, I felt.

There is a deliberate decision to stop writing in 1920, to not discuss the long-term effects of the Balfour declaration or of the interwar period, on the grounds that (quite understandably) she found it very hard to write about without getting angry. There is a perceptible enthusiasm in later parts of the book - after we get past about 1800, it becomes less dry and much more invigorated - which reflects the same interests on the part of the author, but this in no way diminishes the work as a whole.

An interesting book on a very loosely defined topic, but one that allows a lot of unusual issues to be brought in and studied; the first section could perhaps have made a seperate book (or series of articles) in its own right. Definitely worthwhile, but for any specific topic it might be worth looking at something more specialised.
4 vote generalising | Feb 6, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345314271, Paperback)

With the lucidity and vividness that characterize all her work, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Barbara Tuchman, explores the complex relationship of Britain to Palestine that led to the founding of the modern Jewish state--and to many of the problems that plague the Middle East today.
"Barbara Tuchman is a wise and witty writer, a shrewd observer with a lively command of high drama."
PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:58 -0400)

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"With the lucidity and vividness that characterize all her work, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Barbara Tuchman, explores the complex relationship of Britain to Palestine that led to the founding of the modern Jewish state--and to many of the problems that plague the Middle East today." http://www.loc.gov/catdir/description/random042/83091154.html.… (more)

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