Recently, I had the absolute treat to read Orna Alyagon Darr’s new book Plausible Crime Stories, in which she provides a riveting analysis of almost 150 sexual offense cases tried before the British Mandate courts of Palestine, prior to the inauguration of the State of Israel.
The evidentiary process in criminal courts involves efforts by factfinders to establish a factual truth in the face of often conflicting stories about what happened. In doing so, they recur to several different mechanisms, which Alyagon Darr discusses in the book: probability (which the official evidentiary standard endorses), credibility (whether a witness is telling the truth or a lie) and plausibility (which story makes sense.) Alyagon Darr’s book deals mostly with the latter, and its main argument is this: when deciding whether a story is plausible, factfinders rely on a lifetime of experience that is embedded in their place and time. People make assumptions about how a particular event went down on the basis of their beliefs about what makes sense, and these in turn are shaped by their status, ethnicity, and milieu. In this case, the factfinders were British colonial judges, whose approaches were shaped by notions shaped in the British metropole as well as by their stereotypes and understanding of the population of Middle-Eastern colonists they encounter.
Alyagon-Darr tells, for example, of cases involving homosexual relations, which to the British simply could not entail love or an emotional connection. The narratives that made sense were shaped by what they considered a “typical” story: an older man of higher social status penetrates a younger man of lower status in exchange for money. Stories that fell into this narrative pattern were plausible; stories about love or mutuality were not. Similarly, in Mandatory Palestine relationships between Jewish women and Arab men were so stigmatized and unthinkable that, to make sense of them, the women in question had to be cast as problematic and coming from dysfunctional families.
These are only two examples of many fascinating ones that Alyagon-Darr discusses in the book. Her analysis made me think of Nicola Lacey’s Women, Crime, and Character. Lacey’s argument is that, throughout the 19th century, the treatment of women as offenders morphed as the criminal process evolved from reputation-based to evidence-based. What Alyagon Darr’s book seems to suggest is that this shift–whether or not completed in the British metropole–was not complete in the colonies in the early 20th century. Reputation, or assumptions about reputation, appear to be the lynchpin of both credibility and plausibility. Whether someone’s story about a sexual encounter that happened to them–consensual, nonconsensual, forceful, unexpected–is plausible or not depends on reputational factors such as the character’s ethnicity, age, or assumed sexual practices. In that respect, little has changed–just look at the many unchecked assumptions that underlined the Kavanaugh-versus-Ford debacle. What is interesting about the colonial society brought about by the Pax Britannica is that reputational assumptions pertained not only to individuals, but to entire communities, on the basis of ethnicity as the main characteristic. Which raises another question–should they have set these assumptions aside? Did these stereotypes persist because they were found to be true frequently enough to be valuable tools for judging reputation, character, and plausibility? Alyagon Darr wisely leaves these value questions to the readers, doing the kind of careful historical analysis that we need to do.
Interestingly, just as I’m writing about this book, I came across the recent embarrassment surrounding Naomi Wolf’s new book Outrage. I was mortified for Wolf–it is regrettable, but very human, to fall in love with one’s theory (in this case, that consensual same-sex relations were harshly punished) to the point of misunderstanding the data. Alyagon Darr’s book is a great counterexample. It leaves open questions, intelligently interrogates the context of the period and the milieus involved, and has enough compassion to understand that not everyone in Mandatory Palestine was born holding the postmodern intersectionality handbook. It is laudable effort to understand historical actors on their own terms, as Ashley Rubin has recently called upon historians and others to do.
But there’s something else going on here: echoes of Lombroso’s L’Uomo Delinquente, for sure. Alyagon Darr quotes an early 20th century criminologist, Paltiel Dikshtein, discussing “colonial criminology’. It is not a coincidence that the colonists had such appetite for reductionist, essentialist judgments on behavior in the colonies by ethnicity. At the time, Great Britain, particularly in the colonies, was enthralled with the power of science, measurements, and the use of medical tools and classifications. Because of the Lombrosian, scientist-looks-at-primitive-animals perspective, this was especially appealing in the colonies, and could explain Binyamin Blum’s findings about the emergence of forensic science in the colonies. Importantly, as David Horn explains so well, Lombroso’s scientific analysis of crime came of age during the unification of Italy, and should be understood in the context of making sense of differences in crime patterns among different Italian provinces. It’s not a coincidence to find similar mechanisms underpinning the ethnic hodgepodge created by the Pax Britannica, particularly in the complicated, diverse ethnic world of Mandatory Palestine. Similar to the Lombrosian project, what we see in the British is an effort to harmonize norms across the different population under their control. The need to govern and the enthusiasm about scientific inquiry of crime yielded the perfect storm: in criminological laboratories, it would manifest as essentialist diagnoses, and in courtroom settings, as essentialist findings of plausibility.
Finally, an important word about the emotional impact of the book. It goes without saying that Alyagon-Darr is discussing events that happened a long time ago. Her clear and empathetic writing evinces the kind of compassionate care (without compromising attention to detail) that one would offer a friend of loved one who was hurt five minutes ago. Her descriptions of the horrific crimes people experienced, the betrayals in other people’s versions, the humiliating and dehumanizing medical examinations children had to undergo, read as fresh now as they must have felt to these people a hundred years ago. It makes one wonder about the impact that these open wounds had on the cultural psyche of the Jewish and Arab peoples, and the extent to which unspoken trauma and injury have fed into the larger mess that is today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict.