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Lawrence in Arabia

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Despite a penchant for deception and bigotry, Yale isn’t necessarily the most repugnant character in Anderson’s book. Another strong contender is Aaron Aaronsohn, a botanist, anti-Ottoman spy, and ardent Zionist. These diverse roles were often complementary. He helped design and run a British-supervised spy ring in Palestine in part because the British were receptive to his dreams of a Jewish state in Palestine after the war. 

His interest in agriculture was also political:  to build a Jewish state in the desert would require an intimate knowledge of the soil conditions and crop varieties that could sustain a large population. Some Jews in the early 20th century saw Zionism as an anti-Semitic ruse, an attempt to suggest that Jews of various nationalities lacked loyalty to their homelands. Others envisioned Zionism as a peaceful mingling of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. 

Aaronsohn, however, wanted to expel the “squalid, superstitious, ignorant” Palestinian serfs known as fellaheen to create a Jewish state. To promote this end, he and his British handlers launched a propaganda campaign.  After both Jewish and non-Jewish residents of the town of Jaffa were evacuated by the Ottomans prior to an attack, Aaronsohn and the British disseminated alarmist accounts hinting darkly that Jews were the targets of atrocities. The attempt to rouse international panic and bolster the Zionist movement worked, though it also deflected attention from the hundreds of thousands of Armenians facing a Turkish genocide. 

A third schemer of the period was the German spy Curt Prüfer, who engineered elaborate plots to spark anti-British revolts in the Arab world. The idea of inflaming Arab tribes also appealed to the French and British. Suffering enormous losses on the Western front, they saw in the Middle Eastern theater the chance to win a desperately needed victory against the Ottoman Empire by inciting an Arab revolt.  

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