Betrayal of Palestine

Martin Kramer’s review of Susan Silsby Boyle, Betrayal of Palestine: The Story of George Antonius, published by Westview Press. Review published in Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2002.

George Antonius (1891-1942) was the “new historian” of his day. In 1938, he published The Arab Awakening, a book that sought to shatter conventional wisdom about the commitments Britain made to the Arabs in World War I. For twenty years, Britain had maintained that Palestine was excluded from the promises of Arab independence made by Britain during the war. Antonius brought documents to light–including British correspondence with the leaders of the Arab Revolt–which he presented as evidence that Palestine had in fact been promised to the Arabs. Conclusion: Britain’s policy of promoting a Jewish national home was a betrayal. The Arab Awakening provided the ostensibly moral basis for the 1939 British abandonment of the Jewish National Home policy.

Antonius was a prototype of Edward Said, a man endowed with powerful rhetorical tools and an acute understanding of the British imperial conscience (and its vulnerabilities). Like Said, he invented his Palestinian identity: he was born in Lebanon and schooled in Egypt and England, settling in Jerusalem only after World War I. Like Said, he could both charm and persuade intellectuals, although he had less luck with government officials. Like Said, he even got an offer from Columbia University, although he preferred Jerusalem to New York. And like Said, he served briefly as an advisor to the Palestinian leadership, in his case, at the St. James’s Palace Conference in 1939.

The reader of The Arab Awakening is bound to wonder what unusual convergence of circumstances produced its author. Boyle has foraged through the man’s private papers and other collections, producing a text chock-full of interesting information. Did you know that young Antonius was probably the subject of one of C.P. Cavafy’s sensual poems? That he informally advised a British high commissioner? That he met President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935? That his wealthy wife Katy, Jerusalem’s “social queen,” made their marriage “open”?

What the reader will not guess, after reading this hagiography, is that “new historian” Antonius systematically misrepresented documents to substantiate his claims. The works of his critics are not even mentioned in the bibliography. Boyle’s is an effort at rehabilitation, written to shore up her subject’s battered reputation for integrity. Antonius was an erudite, articulate, and charming man, whose life makes an interesting read. But he was a reckless historian, and nothing in this book proves otherwise.