Lawrence in Ara­bia: War, Deceit, Impe­r­i­al Fol­ly and the Mak­ing of the Mod­ern Mid­dle East

Scott Ander­son
  • Review
By – February 25, 2014

Although Scott Anderson’s excel­lent book cen­ters on T.E. Lawrence and his role in the Arab Revolt against the Turks dur­ing World War I, Lawrence in Ara­bia is much more than that. Ander­son describes the per­fidy of the British and the French in betray­ing their promis­es to sup­port Arab inde­pen­dence in Syr­ia the Hejaz (now Sau­di Ara­bia) in return for Arab alle­giance against the Turks. Lawrence, along with the Emir Feisal, led a gueril­la war cam­paign against the Turk­ish-con­trolled Hejaz rail­way. But upon dis­cov­er­ing that the British and French had secret­ly agreed to divide the lands promised to the Arabs between them­selves, he became dis­il­lu­sioned with the Allies and rose as the fore­most advo­cate for the Arab cause dur­ing the post-war confer­ences that deter­mined the new order in the Mid­dle East. This loy­al­ty to the Arab cause also led Lawrence to oppose Zion­ist aspi­ra­tions for a Jew­ish home­land in Pales­tine. Pri­or to the pro­mul­ga­tion of the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, which sup­port­ed a Jew­ish home in Pales­tine, Lawrence wrote of the hos­til­i­ty which exist­ed in south­ern Pales­tine against the Zion­ists, This bit­ter­ness of feel­ing is shared alike by Moslems and Chris­tians, and recent develop­ments tend only to aggra­vate the nat­ur­al hatred of the Pales­tini­ans for those Jews who come to Pales­tine declar­ing that the coun­try was theirs.” Else­where, Lawrence wrote pre­sciently that if a Jew­ish state is to be cre­at­ed in Pales­tine, it will have to be done by force of arms and main­tained by force of arms amid an over­whelm­ing­ly hos­tile population.”

Among those who claimed that all of Pales­tine belonged to the Jews was Aaron Aaron­sohn, a neglect­ed if not for­got­ten fig­ure among the Zion­ist lead­ers in Pales­tine who pro­mot­ed the Jew­ish cause that brought about the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion in Novem­ber, 1917. Ander­son pro­vides us with a detailed por­trait of this mer­cu­r­ial and bril­liant geolo­gist, who became a bit­ter antag­o­nist of Chaim Weiz­mann over their dif­fer­ences in deal­ing with the British as regard­ed the Jew­ish home in Pales­tine: while Weiz­mann lob­bied the British to sup­port a Jew­ish home in Pales­tine, Aaron­sohn offered the British his exper­tise in the topog­ra­phy of the Mid­dle East in order to gain their sym­pa­thy for the cre­ation of a Jew­ish state. Aaron­sohn also orga­nized a Jew­ish spy net­work, NILI (Nezah Israel Lo Yeshak­er: The Eter­nal One of Israel does not lie, or relent,” from the Book of Samuel), that pro­vid­ed the British detailed infor­ma­tion — from the loca­tion of Turk­ish mil­i­tary sup­ply depots to the pre­cise num­ber of rail­way troop cars pass­ing through strate­gic areas in Syr­ia. Even­tu­al­ly the Turks and their Ger­man ally un­covered the spy ring, and among those caught was Aaronsohn’s sis­ter, who was tor­tured and then mur­dered. There is much to learn in this riv­et­ing account of the mak­ing of the mod­ern Mid­dle East.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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