The therapeutic community, all the way from psychoanalysts like Karl Jung to humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow, is in agreement that we cannot escape the pull of the archetype in our historical experience. True, we commemorate events in our past according to the present bent of our spirit, for each generation judges anew, but for a human community, the broad contours of their history remain constant.
This is a good time to keep our eyes resolutely on the past by invoking the memory, no matter how briefly, of the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) the 1936-1939 Great Revolt that erupted in Palestine exactly 80 years ago this week, a revolt whose iconography is cemented in the Palestinian national psyche, and whose goal was to prevent British colonial rulers from making good on the promises of the Balfour Declaration to establish “a Jewish national home in Palestine”.
This was document, lest we forget, where the Palestinians, for centuries the native people of the land, were dismissed as the “existing non-Jewish communities”, whose “civil and religious rights” are not to be “prejudiced” as a result. Oh, the racist nerve of the Brits during their colonial heydays!
Just as they were to demonstrate at the battle of Karameh three decades after the Revolt, the Palestinians were a people with a penchant for placing themselves in the forward march of history, joining that volatile period in the 1960s, when youth all around the world were in rebellion — all the way from ‘les evenements de 1968’ (the events of 1968) in France to the Cultural Revolution in China, as they did in the Thirties, when the Great Revolt erupted, coinciding with the 1936-1939 Civil War in Spain.
And just as the Spanish Civil War attracted idealist volunteers from all over the Euro-American world — who joined the mostly American, the 3,000-strong Lincoln Brigade, whose volunteers fought on the Republican side in defence of the democratically-elected government and against the Phalangists led by Francisco Franco — so did the Great Revolt attract countless young Arabs from the surrounding countries who fought for Palestinian independence and against British colonial rule.
Cultures, as Arnold Toynbee explained in his monumental work, A Study of History, need challenges in their history in order for them to move forward, the challenges in this case acting as a tension-producing agent that would propel these cultures beyond their fixed meaning — for otherwise they would continue moving around the treadmill of immemorially posited norms — enabling them to grow, transform and acquire a new tense in the grammar of their being.
But Toynbee’s theory, known as Challenge and Response, comes with a caveat attached, namely that if the challenge is too “soft”, as in the case of human communities inhabiting Pacific islands, where resources are abundant, there to be picked off the trees, as it were, then the response is minimal.
And if the challenge is, conversely, too crushing, such as the one, say, that Native Americans and “underdeveloped” peoples had to confront in the 19th century, when Europeans marched across continents reshaping the world in their path, then these unfortunate souls are left by the wayside.
For it to work, the challenge should be neither the one nor the other, but one balance in between.
The Palestinians, then a simple, predominantly agricultural community, blessed by abundant courage, but cursed by an inept leadership, fighting against the might of the British empire — known to its admirers as the empire on which the sun never set, but to its victims an empire on which the blood never dried — was a struggle with a preordained outcome. In the end, the Brits, and along with them the Zionists, had their day, and the native people of Palestine had their eclipse.
The Spanish people too, between 1936 and 1939, found themselves struggling against great odds, fighting an enemy massively supplied by fascist allies in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. They didn’t have a chance.
The end result of the Revolt in Palestine was that the Palestinians suffered close to 20,000 casualties, with 5,000 killed and well over 15,000 injured, along with 114 hanged in the courtyard of the Acre Prison, a citadel built in the ancient town during Ottoman rule. Following their rout at the hands of the Mandate forces, Palestinian society was decimated.
“Palestinian parties and political activity were made illegal by the British”, wrote Samih Farsoun and Christina Zacharia in their book, Palestine and the Palestinians (1997), “Palestinian leaders were either in detention or in exile, Palestinian political activists and fighters were in prison or concentration camps ... Palestinian society was economically devastated, politically defeated and psychologically crushed”. In short, the zestful spirit of rebellion that had animated the Great Revolt was no longer there to confront the Zionist onslaught in 1947, an onslaught that resulted in the dismemberment of Palestine, an onslaught whose success transformed Zionists from mendicants with begging bowls, arriving on refugee ships seeking asylum in the late 1930s, to invaders with Apache helicopters in the late 1960s hell-bent on irredentist conquest.
And in Spain, Franco went on to rule the country with an iron fist for the next 36 years, until his death in 1975, dashing the Spanish people’s hopes for democracy and freedom.
In an epitaph on the outcome of the 1936-1939 revolt in Spain, that may very well serve as an epitaph of the 1936-1939 revolt in Palestine, Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher (who died in 1960), wrote hauntingly: “Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts. It was there that they learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.”
So too millions of people around the world had Palestine in their hearts. And not to end this commemoration of an iconic event in our history on a morbid note, I will let none other than Confucius have the last word here. “Our greatest glory is not in never falling”, he counselled his disciples, “but rising every time we fall”.
Palestinians are still around, and they keep on rising.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.