The British reign in Israel, caught on bromide

By Lawrence Joffe, June 20, 2008

It is 90 years since the Palestine mandate was set up. We look at a photographic show displaying some of the period’s landmark moments

Amid all the excitement generated by Israel’s 60th anniversary, commemoration of the 90 years since Britain’s conquest of Palestine has passed relatively unnoticed. Spiro Ark is addressing this deficit with a photographic exhibition on the 30 eventful years that followed four centuries of Ottoman rule and led to the birth of modern Israel.

The exhibition was launched earlier this month at the Bafta Theatre in London with a screening of the hour-long Israeli-made documentary film, Till We Have Built Jerusalem. Among the guests watching was the 3rd Viscount Allenby of Megiddo, nephew of General Allenby who led the British forces occupying the city in December 1917.

The iconic image of General Allenby entering Jerusalem on foot in 1917

The film, directed by Yaakov Gross and Eli Cohen, shows that the taking of Jerusalem was actually something of an anti-climax. What the general intended as a Christmas present to King George V was delivered on Chanucah. The Turks had fled, as had all but 20,000 of the city’s 50,000 mainly impoverished inhabitants. The only casualty was the Arab mayor, who fashioned a surrender flag out of two sheets, and succumbed to a cold a few days later.

Perhaps the most iconic image among the photographs on show at the Spiro Ark is of the famous moment when Allenby dismounted his horse and respectfully entered through the Jaffa Gate on foot. Another shows the improvised white flag; and a Jewish child on Purim in British military uniform fancy dress 20 years later.

Other images show Orthodox Jews praying in a narrow alleyway facing the Western Wall and Arab craftsmen and traders in the Old City. Beyond Jerusalem itself the exhibition features shots of early kibbutzim and the British-built Reading power station between Tel Aviv and Herzlia. Landmark events captured on bromide include the aftermath of the King David Hotel bombing in 1946 and the arrival of the Exodus refugee ship in 1947.

Curator Miriam Blum says: “I wanted to bring to life these crucial but forgotten 30 years. What happens today between Israel and her Arab neighbours is [at least partly] a result of British actions then. The Mandate introduced big changes that still affect us. If we don’t talk about it now, when will we?”

The exhibition runs until July 26 at the Spiro Ark, Enford Street, London W1. Tel: 020 7723 9991.

Last updated: 4:59pm, June 23 2008