Hillel Cohen, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948 (translated by Haim Watzman)(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008).

In Army of Shadows, a study of Palestinian collaboration with Zionism, Hillel Cohen seeks to fill a vacuum in the historiography of the British Mandate period—a historiography deeply colored by the two competing nationalisms in question. Zionists do not tell the story of collaboration, Cohen argues, because it disproves their claims of universal, implacable Arab hostility to the yishuv; Palestinians do not tell the story because of the need to shore up a retroactively constructed national unity. By presenting collaboration as “an alternative normative system” to resistance, he aims to shed new light on Palestinian society and to identify a source of that society’s collapse in 1948.

Army of Shadows is a finely researched volume that offers important historical detail. But its attempt to explain 1948 as a Palestinian societal failure is fraught with deep conceptual and methodological flaws.

The book begins with a powerful depiction of the Zionist program in the 1920s to recruit collaborators and then moves to present the Palestinian national movement’s efforts to ostracize or intimidate them. Next Cohen introduces his cadre of collaborators, like the several dozen land speculators whose mishaps with wine, women and money were recounted vividly, if contemptuously, by their Jewish handlers at the time. We also meet the “moralists,” who were apparently “disgusted by the violence of the Palestinian nationalist movement” and include both a veteran informer and a Hebronite businessman who supported the return of native Jews to their city after the 1929 clashes. Cohen thus conflates various types of Arab-Jewish relations under the paradigm of collaboration. A more insightful treatment of internal struggle appears in the account of Bedouin and rural leaders who turned to the Zionists to ward off the dual threat of urban elite hegemony and social change.

The second part of the book provides a counter-narrative of the 1936-1939 Arab revolt. Unlike scholars who have argued that the revolt galvanized Palestinian society from the bottom up, Cohen gives the lead role to the Husseini family of notables and their supporters. The Husseinis, he says, also undermined the revolt with their tactics, as their serial assassinations of Palestinians who cooperated with the Zionists or the British drove a host of their opponents into the arms of Haganah intelligence gatherers. These opponents included the Husseinis’ rivals, the Nashashibis, who believed the clan faced dissolution if they did not compromise; individuals seeking revenge for family members killed by the rebels; local leaders threatened by social change; and those with an undefined “alternative view of Palestinian nationalism.” The book’s final section traces the disintegration of the revolt in late 1939 and the internecine strife that followed. Here Cohen focuses on a handful of rebel leaders who cooperated with the Jewish Agency and land speculators who continued to sell land to Jews, despite a legal prohibition. While Cohen concedes that many Palestinians were involved in the 1948 fighting, he depicts the Palestinians’ defeat in that war as a continuation of earlier collaboration, with the majority unwilling to take up arms.

Cohen draws upon papers of the Higher Arab Committee, the Arabic press and memoirs. But he gives pride of place to Zionist correspondence and reports, making Army of Shadows read more like a survey of collaborator management techniques than an account of Palestinian society. In the end, Cohen fails to provide evidence that collaborators shared “an alternative normative system.” The reader is poorly equipped to understand the dominant normative system among Palestinians, much less its purported alternate, because Cohen also fails to address Zionism’s settler-colonial character. Perhaps this is also why he wavers between presenting collaborators as dupes and agents of history, opportunists and ideologues.

Ultimately, Cohen’s attempt to lend nuance to nationalist historiography flattens the political landscape during the Mandate: Palestinians, by his lights, could choose only between the power-hungry Husseinis and the Zionist-accommodating Nashashibis. Serious ideological alternatives, such as the pan-Arab Istiqlal Party, play only bit parts in his story.

In Cohen’s narrative, the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, appears as the primary actor, responsible for both the failure of partition and the outbreak of war in 1948. Zionist victory appears as a historical inevitability, given the conclusion that the Nashashibis’ pro-partition stance proves that “they understood that the Zionists could not be defeated by the Arabs.” In emphasizing the family rivalry, Cohen portrays the nakba as the result of “political deficiency,” the absence of a “national spirit” defined by Benedict Anderson as the willingness to die for the nation. The reemergence of Palestinian nationalism after 1948 is thus deemed ironic.

If the range of Palestinian political practice is glossed over, so too are fissures within the Zionist movement. Revisionist Zionist patriarch Ze’ev Jabotinsky is relegated to two footnotes and opposition to partition is presented as solely a Husseini worldview. Zionist ideology and practice emerge as a seamlessly unified totality, with the yishuv proceeding collectively in calculated instrumentality. British interests and policies are similarly absent. Cohen’s account of internecine strife during the Arab revolt, for example, neglects the British tactics of collective punishment, mass arrests and torture that were harbingers of what was to come.

Had Cohen stepped out of the confines of the “authentic” European nationalism that he constructs and engaged Zionism’s conquest of land and labor in Palestine, he could have better reflected on how people struggled against the process of their dispossession despite competing class, ethnic and sectarian identities. As one collaborator explained when asked why it mattered that he remain in Palestine: “It’s hard for me to tell you, but in any case the graves of my forefathers are here.”

How to cite this article:

Sherene Seikaly "Cohen, Army of Shadows," Middle East Report 248 (Fall 2008).

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