Posts Tagged T. E. Lawrence

The fantasy of an international Jerusalem

In the uproar over President Trump’s announcement of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, one constant refrain has been the insistence that, by longstanding international consensus, the city’s status has yet to be decided. In the portentous words of the recent UN General Assembly resolution protesting the American action, “Jerusalem is a final-status issue to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant United Nations resolutions.”

The most “relevant” of those prior resolutions was the November 1947 resolution proposing partition of Palestine and envisaging, in addition to two independent states, one Arab and one Jewish, an entirely separate status for Jerusalem as a city belonging to no state but instead administered by a “special international regime.”

One might have thought that the wholesale Arab rejection of the entire partition plan, in all of its parts, would also have put paid to the idea of an internationalized Jerusalem. Evidently, however, this fantasy is too convenient to lie dormant forever.

That is why it’s useful to know that, almost exactly three decades before the 1947 UN plan, internationalization of Jerusalem was killed—and killed decisively. Who killed it? Thereby hangs a tale, but here is a hint: it was neither the Arabs, nor the Jews.

• To continue reading this article, go to Mosaic Magazine, right here.

A Franciscan monk reads a French translation of Gen. Edmund Allenby's proclamation putting Jerusalem under martial law, December 11, 1917. Allenby at center; François Georges-Picot, on far right.

Image: A Franciscan monk reads a French translation of Gen. Edmund Allenby’s proclamation putting Jerusalem under martial law, December 11, 1917. Allenby at center; François Georges-Picot, on far right. Matson Collection, Library of Congress.

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    Six (make that seven) greatest stories ever told about the Middle East

    On Facebook, I ran a series listing the most influential modern books on the Middle East (in the English language). I selected each not on the basis of quality, but my rough assessment of a book’s impact on readers and politics, short-term and long. It’s rather rare for a book on the Middle East to have much of an influence in America and Britain; at most times, it’s a marginal region. But events have propelled a few books into the limelight, and these six, for better or worse, had an impact, influenced perceptions, and may have changed history.

    Arabia of Lawrence

    Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence
    Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (1926). I rather like Charles Hill’s depiction of Lawrence as someone “who wrote himself into history as a fictional character leading Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Turks.” (Hill calls the book ” a novel traveling under the cover of autobiography.”) But the book lives, and is even said to have inspired U.S. counter-insurgency theorists in Iraq.

    Arise, ye Arabs!

    The Arab Awakening by George Antonius
    The Arab Awakening by George Antonius (1938). This purported exposé of British double-dealing provided all the pretext that Britain needed to retreat from its support for the Jewish National Home in Palestine, culminating in the 1939 White Paper. The British commander of forces in Palestine in 1946 said he kept the book “on my bedside table.” It also became the bible of American sympathizers of Arab nationalism. “We had our revered texts,” wrote the American Arabist Malcolm Kerr, “such as The Arab Awakening.” It has been refuted on many grounds, but while its influence doesn’t endure, it lingers.

    God Gave This Land…

    Exodus by Leon Uris
    Exodus by Leon Uris (1958). Recently I asked a class of grad students in Mideast studies whether they’d heard of it, and I didn’t get a single nod. But this fictionalized account of Israel’s founding was said to have been the biggest seller since Gone with the Wind, propelled by a blockbuster motion picture starring Paul Newman. The novel, confessed journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “set me, and many others, on a course for aliyah, and it made American Jews proud of Israel’s achievements. On the other hand, it created the impression that all Arabs are savages.” Arabs have been searching for their equivalent of Exodus ever since.

    Snake Charmer

    Orientalism by Edward Said
    Orientalism by Edward Said (1978). Sigh… I suppose “baneful” is the best adjective. No book has done more to obscure the Middle East, and impart a sense of guilt to anyone who has had the audacity to represent it. The French scholar Jacques Berque (praised by Said) put it succinctly: Said had done “a disservice to his countrymen in allowing them to believe in a Western intelligence coalition against them.” But the book gave rise to a cottage industry in Western academe, and helped tilt the scales in academic appointments. Its influence may be waning, but it’s still on syllabi everywhere.

    Fit to Print and Reprint

    From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman
    From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (1989). It spent nearly twelve months on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 1989 National Book Award for nonfiction. Coming in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon war and the 1987 intifada, it captured the “falling-out-of-love-with-Israel” mood, although it cut no slack for the Arabs either. Friedman has said he keeps threatening to bring out a new edition with this one-line introduction: “Nothing has changed.”

    How the East Was Lost

    What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis
    What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis (2002). The book appeared in the aftermath of 9/11, and it rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list, where it spent 18 weeks. Lewis used his broad historical repertoire to explain “why they hate us.” (In a word: resentment, at failed modernization and an absence of freedom.) Lewis later summarized his view thus: “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us.” Some in Washington took him literally.

    Nakba Validation

    Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem by Benny Morris
    At a reader’s suggestion, I’m adding a seventh book to my list. It’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49 (1988) by Benny Morris. Drawing on Israeli archives, Morris did what no Palestinian Arab historian had managed to do: (partially) validate the Nakba narrative. The book confirmed Israel’s “original sin” in the eyes of the Israeli left, and persuaded Palestinians (wrongly) that Israel might compromise on the “right of return.” Neither the criticism by Efraim Karsh, nor the political swerves of Morris himself, could mitigate the book’s political impact.

    This doesn’t exhaust the list of books about the Middle East that made the New York Times bestseller list or won the admiration of scholars. That bibliography would be much longer (and some years ago, I myself put together a different list, of choice scholarly works). But for sheer influence in the longer term, I don’t see another book that deserves inclusion in this club. If you have other ideas, share them at this link on Facebook.

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      Lawrence of Academia?

      Last month, academics who run a discussion log on Middle Eastern studies exchanged ideas on how to justify their Title VI federal subsidy. One of them posted this:

      The anecdote/argument that I find works best with gov’t officals concerning the importance of Title VI funding is to note that Lawrence of Arabia was only in a position to help the British war effort because he had a grant to study crusader castles as part of his academic studies before the war. Without that “soft,” non-policy oriented academic work, he would not have had the linguistic skills, cultural knowledge and geographic familiarity with the region to help the war effort….[this] does tend to open the eyes of more narrow-minded gov’t folks looking for a direct payoff between gov’t funding of area studies and potential national security benefit.

      Another academic responded with this:

      Not in the same league as the T.E. Lawrence anecdote, but a bit closer to home. It turns out that General Abizaid, who is taking Tommy Frank’s position, has an MA in area studies from Harvard.

      These anecdotes seem to be the best Middle Eastern studies can muster to support the notion that they do contribute to national security. In fact, they actually demonstrate the opposite of what the academics claim.

      T.E. Lawrence, Oxford student, did go out to Syria before the First World War, to study medieval castles and do some archeology. And he did acquire a knowledge of Arabic, a familiarity with the Arabs, and a lot of geographic knowledge. But how did he get out to Syria, and who put him “in a position to help the British war effort”? Answer: D.G. Hogarth his professor.

      It was Hogarth, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and an Oxford don, who saw the potential of young Lawrence. It was Hogarth who arranged his travelling scholarship. It was Hogarth who employed him before the war, at his archeological dig in northern Syria. And it was Hogarth who directed the wartime intelligence branch known as the “Arab Bureau” in Cairo from 1916. Lawrence acted on its behalf in Arabia.

      Lawrence always acknowledged his debt to his professor. “D.G.H. had been a god-father to me,” he later wrote, “and he remained the best friend I ever had.” “I owe to [Hogarth] every good job I’ve had,” he told two of his biographers. “He is the man to whom I owe everything I have had since I was seventeen.” And this, in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “Mentor to us all was Hogarth, our father confessor, and advisor, who brought us the parallels and lessons of history, and moderation and courage.” No Hogarth, no Lawrence—this has been the considered opinion of more than one Lawrence biographer.

      So the Lawrence anecdote really poses this question: where are America’s Hogarths? Where are the professors with a strong sense of the national interest, lots of knowledge acquired in the field, good intelligence connections, a willingness to recruit their students, and an eagerness to serve in times of war? No such person exists in Middle Eastern studies. Indeed, Hogarth-like activities would be enough to get even the most established professor drummed out of the field.

      And this leads to the second example: the new commander of CENTCOM, General John Abizaid. It is true that Abizaid, a West Pointer, spent a mid-career year at Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern area studies. But before you give Middle Eastern studies any credit for Abizaid, consider this: Abizaid’s mentor at Harvard was later drummed out of the field, for his very low-key links to U.S.intelligence.

      Abizaid spent the academic year 1980-81 at Harvard, where he studied under Nadav Safran, a noted professor of Middle Eastern studies. At the time, Safran was working on a RAND paper on Saudi defense budgets and concepts. Abizaid’s main product as a student was a 100-page seminar paper on Saudi defense policy, written for Safran. ”It was absolutely the best seminar paper I ever got in my 30-plus years at Harvard,” Safran told a reporter.

      If Abizaid benefited from Harvard, it is because he found in Safran a professor open to mentoring a career military officer. Such professors stir the visceral antagonism of their “colleagues,” and when Safran went a bit too far, they crushed him. The story is well known: Safran landed CIA funding for his Saudi project and a conference on Islamism. When his rivals exposed the fact, it unleashed a frenzy of academic witch-hunting. The 1985 Middle East Studies Association conference issued a resolution that “deplored” Safran’s conduct, and the next year he resigned his directorship of Harvard’s Middle East Center. That killed him academically: Safran wasn’t even sixty, but he never published another book or significant article.

      Safran committed the one unpardonable sin in his field. You can kowtow to Middle Eastern despots, take money from oil-sodden emirs, apologize for suicide bombers, and mislead the American public on a grand scale. Hundreds of professors in Middle Eastern studies have done all these things, and have gotten promotions. But get too intimate with the CIA, and you’re done. Safran passed away on July 5. The Harvard Crimson ended its obituary on this note: “He taught for a few more years after his resignation as director of the center and was disappointed that the controversy followed him. Later in life, he was interested in painting.” A young professor reading these lines can’t miss the message.

      But without professors like Hogarth and Safran—faculty willing to mentor and tutor officers, statesmen, and spies—the United States is not going to get any Lawrences or Abizaids out of academe. That’s why it’s time for the United States to use its resources to promote diversity in Middle Eastern studies. Reform Title VI.

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