Thursday, February 22, 2007

Was TE Lawrence a Zionist?

That's the claim the historian Sir Martin Gilbert makes in an interview in the Jerusalem Post today. He says that Lawrence had "a sort of contempt for the Arabs" and that he believed that it was "only with a Jewish presence and state would the Arabs ever make anything of themselves."

I wonder. Lawrence's strenuous efforts to champion the Arab cause hardly suggest contempt, and this should not be confused with the increasing exasperation he felt towards them by 1918, which was sparked by the unruly behaviour of the Bedu tribesmen. They were, he admitted at a low point, "the most ghastly material to build into a design."

Lawrence's interest in the Zionists arose from a meeting he had in Cairo in August 1917. There he met Aaron Aaronsohn, a farmer-turned-spy and Zionist who told Lawrence that his plan was for the Jews to buy up the land from Gaza to Haifa and ‘have practical autonomy therein’. On his travels in the region before the war Lawrence had thought that Jewish cultivation of the land would be a good thing. But now his reaction left Aaronsohn with the impression that he was ‘a Prussian anti-Semite talking English’.

By the summer of 1917, a Zionist Commission, headed by Chaim Weizmann, had been allowed to go to Egypt to pave the way for post-war Jewish immigration assuming the British invasion of Palestine was successful. In the background the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, believed that the Jews might be able to offer more assistance to the British than the Arabs. Appearing to help the Zionists would also camouflage Lloyd George's rather more imperialist ambitions in the region. But the British in Cairo had at that stage been given no instructions as to how to deal with the Zionist delegation, and this helps explain Lawrence's surprise and response when he heard the Zionists' plans at first hand.

A few weeks later Lawrence wrote to Sir Mark Sykes, the British politician who advised the Cabinet on the Middle East. In this letter (which Sykes never in fact received) Lawrence distinguished sharply between what he called "the Arab Jews" and the "colonist Jews (called Zionists sometimes)". The former spoke Arabic, the latter Yiddish. He asked Sykes: What have you promised the Zionists and what is their programme?’ Was the acquisition of land by the Jews, Lawrence asked, ‘to be by fair purchase or by forced sale and appropriation’? And, given that the Jews rarely employed Arabs on their farms, Lawrence wondered whether ‘the Jews propose the complete expulsion of the Arab peasantry, or their reduction to a day-labourer class’. He predicted trouble if in the future Arab states surrounded a Jewish state built on the lines Aaronsohn had laid out. He foresaw "a situation arising in which the Jewish influence in European finance might not be sufficient to deter the Arab peasants from refusing to quit - or worse!"

Lawrence's wartime ally Feisal initially took a rather more relaxed attitude towards the Zionists. At British instigation he met Weizmann north of Aqaba on 4 June 1918. Lawrence was not present at the meeting. There Feisal said that it was important that the Jews and Arabs cooperated, but he said that he was acting as his father’s agent and was unable to discuss the settlement of Palestine in detail, at least not until Arab affairs were ‘more consolidated’.

Feisal's attitude changed with time. At the Peace Conference in 1919, Lawrence presented a memorandum written by Feisal who was increasingly concerned about the Zionists, who were talking increasingly boldly about their hopes. The two men worked closely together, with Lawrence acting as adviser and interpreter. Of Feisal Lawrence once wrote "I usually like to make up my mind before he does". So it is likely that the memorandum also represented Lawrence's view. "If the views of the radical Zionists ... should prevail," it stated, "the result will be ferment, chronic unrest, and sooner or later civil war in Palestine." The memorandum made the same distinction that Lawrence had in his letter to Sykes: "with the Jews who have been seated for some generations in Palestine our relations are excellent. But the new arrivals exhibit very different qualities from those 'old settlers' as we call them, with whom we have been able to live and even co-operate on friendly terms. For want of a better word I must say that new colonists almost without exception have come in an imperialistic spirit. They say that ... under the new world order we must clear out; and if we are wise we should do so peaceably without making any resistance to what is the fiat of the civilised world."

The similarity of distinction between Lawrence's earlier letter and this memorandum seems to suggest that Lawrence took the view that Jewish immigration, which was the natural consequence of Zionism, would destabilise the region. Certainly he hoped for peaceful relations with the Jews who already lived in Palestine. He even believed that the Arabs would "support as far as they can, Jewish infiltration". But calling him a Zionist seems far-fetched.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see where Gilbert gets this idea from. His book, Churchill and the Jews, comes out in June.


Ray Cooper said...

That was a very interesting article. Thank you. The distinction between the arabic speaking jews and the European Jews is still an sensitive issue. Al Jazeera published recent research into the kidnapping of Jewish Yemeni babies from Israeli hospitals who were then given up for adoption to 'western' Jews.
I must look out for your book 'A Line In The Sand'. I am a songwriter and have a song with that title. I always thought the quote came from George Bush, then I found out it was from the new testament.
Yours, Ray Cooper

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