A Rare Glimpse of Reality in the Guardian

An obituary about a gentleman named John Watson –written by one of his former commanders and appearing in the Guardian on March 29th – contains an interesting paragraph.

“His battalion was posted to Palestine in 1948, as the British Mandate came to an end. Watson was appalled by the imminent destruction of the new state of Israel – attacked as it was on four fronts and wholly undefended by the British army. He thought it morally wrong that Jews, who had experienced so much already, should be slaughtered, again. Rifle in hand, he went over the wall to volunteer with Haganah and take part in front-line combat. In the siege of Jerusalem he was wounded. After the conflict he worked on a collective farm, where he met Ora, the woman he married. They went on to farm for four years.”

This account reminded me of the experiences recounted by a now deceased great-uncle of mine who also served with the British army in what was then Palestine during the British Mandate and which has been on my mind quite a bit recently since the screening of Peter Kominsky’sThe Promise’ on British television.

Kominsky’s selective view of events during the Mandate years, supposedly based on interviews with former British servicemen, did not reflect my uncle’s accounts of pretending not to notice Jewish refugees trudging up the beaches along Israel’s coast or the effort he and other low-rank soldiers apparently put into not discovering weapons caches on the kibbutzim he was sent to search. He also told me of friends who, unlike himself, did not return with their battalion to the UK, but deserted and stayed in the emerging Jewish state, some to fight with the Israeli forces and some because of love for a local girl.  Although they did not serve in the same battalion, I now wonder whether my uncle and Mr. Watson ever met.

As anyone familiar with Israel knows, six degrees of separation are usually a few more than necessary here, and seeing that it is possible that Mr. Watson served with ‘Machal – the unit of foreign volunteers which still exists today but is best known for the vital part it played in Israel’s War of Independence,  I also wonder if he ever met a young Jewish American volunteer who arrived here to fight in that war and later married my father-in-law’s sister.

He could even have met my father-in-law himself, as he too served in Jerusalem during the siege in 1948. Or perhaps Mr Watson was one of those who used to enjoy a hearty meal provided by my father-in-law’s mother from one of her famous ‘bottomless cooking pots’ (there was always enough for everyone) to the people about to set off from their street corner on the convoys taking supplies to besieged Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Siege Convoy (Photo: Palmach Museum)


Jerusalem under siege by Jordanian shells, 1948

The Guardian allotted quite a bit of column space to ‘The Promise’ which, despite being no more than a drama, seems to be regarded by some (including its creator) as an accurate account of history because it taps into their own prejudices and political bias.

But as Mr. Watson’s life story shows, there is another side to Kominsky’s subject matter which is too often brushed aside or contorted because it does not fit in with the accepted narratives of the type promoted by Kominsky, the Guardian and many others.

John Watson – may he rest in peace – is no longer with us to give a first-hand account of the turbulent birth of Israel. Neither is my great-uncle, my father-in-law’s sister’s husband nor his mother. My father-in-law himself, however, is now 83 and I have been thinking for some time that I must take him and a video camera to Jerusalem whilst he is still amazingly lucid and fit in order to record his memories of those years.

Such documentation may well be all we have in future years with which to refute the kind of politically motivated ‘historical’ fictions proffered by those intent upon rewriting Israeli history in order to try to dictate the future.

13 replies »

  1. Just to refresh the memory of some Brits who forgot:

    Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb KCB, CMG, DSO, OBE, MC better known as Glubb Pasha (born 16 April 1897, Preston, Lancashire – died 17 March 1986, Mayfield, Sussex), was a British commander best known for leading and training Transjordan’s Arab Legion 1939-1956 as its commanding general against Jerusalem and the new born Israel.

  2. “My father-in-law himself, however, is now 83 and I have been thinking for some time that I must take him and a video camera to Jerusalem whilst he is still amazingly lucid and fit in order to record his memories of those years.”

    If you’re able to do this, it will be as much a mitzvah for him as the rest of us. Wonderful idea! Let’s hope you pull it off!

  3. The difference between fact and fashion has clearly been brought into the light here. More power to your elbow IsraeliNurse and to that of your family and to the few who have given so much to the establishment of this unique country we are fortunate enough to live in.

  4. IN, do take your father in law if you and he are able. I had a conversation with a friend recently and we both bemoaned the fact that we hadn’t asked our parents and grandparents more questions while they were alive. He grew up in Tel Aviv, I in London and we both feel we have missed an important part of our history.

  5. Readers may be interested in this rare review critical of The Promise, on CIF, by David Cesarani:

    The Promise: an exercise in British self-exculpation

    …in Kosminsky’s version we are absolved of any responsibility for what is happening there. He has turned the British, who were the chief architects of the Palestine tragedy, into its prime victims. The Promise is a glossy exercise in self-exculpation. Someone must be responsible, though, and the way he rewrites history that can only be the Jews. Ultimately, Kosminsky turns a three-sided conflict into a one-sided rant.

  6. My grandfather gave me an oral history (which I videotaped) of growing up in Upper Manhattan in the early 1900’s as a third generation American. That was well over 20 years ago, he’s long since gone, my children took it to elementary school for class projects…This type of personal history has great sentimental value to future family members as well as basic historical value.

  7. I see his platoon commander called the good soldier Watson “the best, hardest and, in terms of military morality the most admirable soldier I ever knew”.

    Perhaps some of his spirit rubbed off on the IDF, today the most moral military force in the world.

  8. the british were terrorists. they collaborated with the arab terrorists and if the empire had it their way, they would have rather seen all the jews dead – in europe and palestine – as long as it meant control over middle east oil.

    the british didn’t love the arabs, but they are much easier to control than a movement like zionist which is independent.

    britain does not receive enough criticism for its responsibilities over this conflict.

    israeli leaders are afraid to expose the archives for fear of sabotaging relations with the country. but internally, diplomatically, we all know the history and know how cruel and wicked the british truly were.

  9. “Nor the snipper murder of British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher….”

    Death by scissors?