Lawrence of Judea

By Martin Gilbert

The champion of the Arab cause and his little-known romance with Zionism.

f Lawrence’s support for Jewish national aspirations was not known to his contemporaries, it was perhaps suspected. In early 1920, as Lawrence prepared his wartime experiences of the Arab Revolt for publication, he wrote to the author Rudyard Kipling to ask if he would read the proofs of his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Kipling replied that he would be glad to see the proofs, but that, if it emerged from them that Lawrence was “pro-Yid,” he would send the proofs back to him untouched.5
Kipling was distressed at the thought that Lawrence might be pro-Jewish. And indeed, Lawrence’s view of the potential evolution of the Jewish National Home in British Mandate Palestine was far from hostile to Jewish hopes. In an article entitled “The Changing East,” published in the influential Round Table magazine in 1920, Lawrence wrote of “the Jewish experiment” in Palestine that it was “a conscious effort, on the part of the least European people in Europe, to make head against the drift of the ages, and return once more to the Orient from which they came.”6
Lawrence noted of the new Jewish immigrants: “The colonists will take back with them to the land which they occupied for some centuries before the Christian era samples of all the knowledge and technique of Europe. They propose to settle down amongst the existing Arabic-speaking population of the country, a people of kindred origin, but far different social condition. They hope to adjust their mode of life to the climate of Palestine, and by the exercise of their skill and capital to make it as highly organized as a European state.”7
As Lawrence envisaged it in his Round Table article, this settlement would be done in a way that would be beneficial to the Arabs. “The success of their scheme,” he wrote of the Zionists, “will involve inevitably the raising of the present Arab population to their own material level, only a little after themselves in point of time, and the consequences might be of the highest importance for the future of the Arab world. It might well prove a source of technical supply rendering them independent of industrial Europe, and in that case the new confederation might become a formidable element of world power.”8
It seemed to Lawrence—as it did to Winston Churchill when he discussed the question of eventual Jewish sovereignty with the Peel Commissioners in 1937, shortly after Lawrence’s death—that it would take a long time before a Jewish majority would come into being. Such a contingency, Lawrence had written in his Round Table article, “will not be for the first or even for the second generation, but it must be borne in mind in any laying out of foundations of empire in Western Asia.” These, to a very large extent, “must stand or fall by the course of the Zionist effort.”9
When Churchill became colonial secretary in January 1921, he appointed Lawrence to be his Arab affairs adviser. At the outset of his appointment, Lawrence held talks with Feisal about Britain’s Balfour-Declaration promise of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Reporting on these talks to Churchill in a letter dated January 17, 1921, Lawrence was able to assure the new colonial secretary—responsible for finalizing the terms of the Palestine Mandate—that in return for Arab sovereignty in Baghdad, Amman, and Damascus, Feisal “agreed to abandon all claims of his father to Palestine.”10
This was welcome news for Churchill, but there was a problem. Since the French were already installed in Damascus, and were not willing to make way for Feisal or any Arab leader, Churchill proposed giving Feisal, instead of the throne of Syria, the throne of Iraq, and at the same time giving Feisal’s brother Abdullah the throne of Transjordan, that part of Britain’s Palestine Mandate lying to the east of the River Jordan. Installing an Arab ruler in Transjordan would enable Western Palestine—the area from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan, which now comprises both Israel and the West Bank—to become the location of the Jewish National Home under British control, in which, in Churchill’s words, the Jews were to go “of right, and not on sufferance.”11
Briefed by Lawrence at the March 17, 1921, Cairo Conference, Churchill explained to the senior officials gathered there that the presence of an Arab ruler under British control east of the Jordan would enable Britain to prevent anti-Zionist agitation from the Arab side of the river. In support of this view, Lawrence himself told the conference, as the secret minutes recorded: “He [Churchill] trusted that in four or five years, under the influence of a just policy,” Arab opposition to Zionism “would have decreased, if it had not entirely disappeared.”12
Lawrence went on to explain to the conference that “it would be preferable to use Trans-Jordania as a safety valve, by appointing a ruler on whom we could bring pressure to bear, to check anti-Zionism.” The “ideal” ruler would be “a person who was not too powerful, and who was not an inhabitant of Trans-Jordania, but who relied upon His Majesty’s Government for the retention of his office.”13 That ruler, Lawrence believed, would best be Emir Abdullah, Feisal’s brother. 

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