29 May 2008

2478) Book Review: Politics & Power : Ronald Florence Recreates Middle East in WWI

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Book Reviews: Politics & Power
Ronald Florence recreates the Middle East in the First World War... Ruth Wisse examines the Jewish ambivalence to power... by Bonny V. Fetterman


Lawrence and Aaronsohn:
T. E. Lawrence, Aaron Aaronsohn, and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
by Ronald Florence
(Viking, 512 pp., $27.95)

For anyone who thinks the Arab-Israeli conflict started with Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Ronald Florence’s history of the Middle East during World War I is an important corrective. It takes us back to a time when none of the borders we now recognize on the map existed—only a vast region called “Arabia” held by the Ottoman Turks. Florence tells this story through the biographies of two men who tried to help the British wrest this area from Turkey and win the war.

T. E. Lawrence (later known as “Lawrence of Arabia”), an Oxford-trained archaeologist, was a young second lieutenant attached to the British intelligence desk in Cairo. In the spring of 1917 he tried to organize the army of Bedouin irregulars (called the Army of the Arab Revolt) under the Hashemite Emir Faisal for a raid against Turkey at Aqaba. Faisal’s father, Sherif Hussein, the religious ruler of the Hejaz (which included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina) envisioned a new Arab caliphate on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire; Faisal himself had eyes on an extensive kingdom based in Damascus. Lawrence hoped that a successful raid on Aqaba would serve their political aspirations, despite British colonial designs in the region and wartime agreements with the French.

Meanwhile, Aaron Aaronsohn, a Palestinian Jew and an internationally known agronomist (his parents were among the founders of Zichron Ya’akov when they came from Romania in 1882), was convinced that the Jews of Palestine would fare better under Britain than Turkey. Fearing that Jews would suffer the same fate as the Armenians under the Turks, he offered his considerable skills to the British. Giving up his scientific career, he converted his research institute in Athlit, the Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station, into a spy ring for the British (called NILI). Aaronsohn knew every inch of Palestine, having served Turkish commander Djemal Pasha as a scientific consultant during the locust invasion (a crop-destroying insect infestation); he recommended the plan of attack through Beersheva that General Allenby ultimately used to take Jerusalem in December 1917. At the war’s end, Aaronsohn drafted a map of Palestine—not based on arbitrary borders, but on topographical features that would permit the development of a viable state. He carried this map with him when his plane went down in the English Channel on his way to the Paris Peace Conference.

This gripping narrative captures so many facets of this history that suspense remains high even though we know the outcome. The victors of the Great War shaped the Middle East even as their conflicting promises shaped its political future. The stories of Lawrence and Aaronsohn remind us of a time of flux between the waning of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the modern Middle East.

Jews and Power
by Ruth R. Wisse
(Nextbook/Schocken, 231 pp., $19.95)

Harvard professor Ruth Wisse is less concerned with “Jewish power” (whatever that is) than the relationship of Jews to power. With the State of Israel, Jews once more have sovereignty, but Wisse asks, do we have what it takes to keep it? In a climate of Israel-bashing, are we capable of rising to our own self-defense? Or are we still uncomfortable with the notion of power itself?

“The loss of Jewish sovereignty [in 70 C.E.] was the defining political event in the life of the Jewish people,” she writes. Over the next 2,000 years, Jews developed other strategies for a stateless survival in the Diaspora while rabbinic theology eschewed political power. In the post-Emancipation era, Jewish sovereignty was even regarded by some Jewish philosophers, like Hermann Cohen, as a burden transcended, freeing Judaism for loftier ethical and moral concerns.

But the political mentality that sometimes served Jews well in the Diaspora, Wisse argues, is not an appropriate strategy for a people facing an existential threat. “Political thinkers normally include national defense as part of their planning,” she writes. “The Jews of Europe had no such provision or strategy for their common defense at the point when Hitler singled them out for extermination. Jews had concentrated on their moral improvement with no political structure in place to defend Jewish civilization or the children who were expected to perpetuate it.”

Wisse’s polemic is a direct response to those who would challenge the need for Jewish sovereignty, those who would seek to undo it, and those who unwittingly support them. This last category includes Jews and non-Jews who indulge in what she calls “the politics of blame”—blaming Israel for the Palestinians’ plight in an attempt to delegitimate Israel’s existence. Addressing this issue, she reminds readers of Arab responsibility for the creation and perpetuation of the refugee problem: “In denying the partition of Palestine, Arab governments also refused to allow the resettlement of the Palestinians, so that they could create perpetual evidence of Jewish iniquity,” she writes. “Israel could be charged for the suffering of Palestinians only as long as their suffering could be sustained.”

“The ‘Arab-Israel conflict’ did not turn out to be—as so many people still pretend it is—a normal territorial dispute between two claimants to the same land,” she asserts. “Rather, the Arab war against Israel is an asymmetrical attack by the Arab-Islamic world on the idea of a Jewish homeland.” Wisse goes on to discuss the obsessional hatred fueling anti-Israel politics, evident in the president of Iran calling for the destruction of Israel at the U.N.

This slender volume identifies and forces us to confront a problem larger and more insidious than a question of boundaries. It also gives us pause to appreciate what Israel’s statehood means to us.

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.
Copyright © 2008 Union for Reform Judaism.