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T.E. Lawrence, Aaron Aaronsohn, and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

by Ronald Florence

Pub Date: July 23rd, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-670-06351-2
Publisher: Viking

In which the British speak with forked tongues, and the Middle East is born.

Historian/novelist Florence’s (Blood Libel: The Damascus Affair of 1840, 2006, etc.) study of events in World War I operates from a ginned-up premise, since T. E. Lawrence—of Arabia, that is—and Aaron Aaronsohn and his wife Sarah, spies for England, never met or collaborated directly. “But,” he insists, “the lives of Aaron and Sarah Aaronson and T. E. Lawrence did streak across the same desert sky like blazing meteors, unexpected, blinding in their brilliance, demanding attention.” Even allowing for hyperbole, the defense is not convincing; Richard Meinertzhagen would have been the more appropriate pairing with the Aaronsohns, citizens of Ottoman-ruled Palestine who saw in the chaos of war and the Arab Revolt the chance to found a Jewish state. Aaron, scientifically trained and inclined, despised the Jewish population’s dependence on “corrupt Turkish authorities to maintain law and order,” but he was no bigot; his idea of that state seems to have included Arabs as well as Jews, all needing protection against “capitalistic exploitation.” Naturally, he cast his lot with the British, who were notably represented in the larger region by Major Lawrence, who was busily attacking Turkish outposts in the deserts of Arabia. The British did not quite deliver what Aaronsohn hoped for. About Lawrence, thanks in part to David Lean’s eponymous film, we know a great deal; Florence adds little to the mix. He does better with the little-known Aaronsohns, making a solid case for their importance in supplying critically important intelligence on Turkish defenses and the order of battle in Palestine—even though, as the martial novice Aaronsohn grumbled to his diary, “It is humiliating for an observing man of science to be…ignorant of war questions which he has always scorned and which, nevertheless, are today of such overwhelming influence in everybody’s life.”

Were they essential to the war effort? Not as much as Lawrence, but it’s useful to hear about their accomplishments. A serviceable book, but not much more.