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Lawrence of Judea

By Martin Gilbert

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




T
he presence of Lawrence of Arabia at the Cairo Conference was of inestimable benefit to Churchill in his desire to help establish a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Lawrence’s friendship with the Arab leaders, with whom he had fought during the Arab Revolt, and his knowledge of their weaknesses as well as their strengths, was paralleled by his understanding of Zionist aspirations. In November 1918, on the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Lawrence had told a British Jewish newspaper, “Speaking entirely as a non-Jew, I look on the Jews as the natural importers of Western leaven so necessary for countries of the Near East.”14
On March 27, 1921, ten days after Lawrence’s suggestions in Cairo, Churchill sent him from Jerusalem to Transjordan to explain to Abdullah that his authority would end at the eastern bank of the River Jordan; that the Jews were to be established in the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan (“Western Palestine”); and that he, Abdullah, must curb all anti-Zionist activity and agitation among his followers.
The next day, in Jerusalem, Lawrence, Churchill, and Abdullah were photographed at British Government House: Churchill bundled up against the cold, Lawrence in a dark suit and tie, Abdullah in army uniform with Arab headdress. At their meeting that day, Abdullah agreed to limit the area of his control to Transjordan and to refrain from any action against the Jewish National Home provisions of the Palestine Mandate west of the Jordan.
Lawrence had thus helped ensure that the building up of the Jewish National Home could continue. He already knew that national home’s potential: Twelve years before the Cairo Conference, while traveling through the Galilee around Tiberias, he reflected on the glory days of the region in Roman times, and on the Jewish farm settlements he saw on his travels. Writing home on August 2, 1909, he explained, “Galilee was the most Romanized province of Palestine. Also the country was well peopled, and well watered artificially: There were not twenty miles of thistles behind Capernaum! And on the way round the lake they did not come upon dirty, dilapidated Bedouin tents, with the people calling to them to come in and talk, while miserable curs came snapping at their heels: Palestine was a decent country then, and could so easily be made so again. The sooner the Jews farm it all the better: Their colonies are bright spots in a desert.”15
The rest is well known: The “bright spots in a desert” evolved into a thriving state on the basis of the skill and capital Lawrence marveled at decades prior. It is hard to know how he would have responded to the Arab world’s growing intransigence toward the Jewish presence in the British Mandate, let alone to its violent attempts to destroy the Jewish State while still in its birth pangs—the same State that he believed held such promise for the Arabs of the region. T.E. Lawrence died in May 1935 of fatal injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident near his cottage in Dorset, at the age of only forty-seven. The accomplishments of his short life have assured his place in the pantheon of modern Arab history. Perhaps it is now time that modern Jewish history paid him homage as well.

Sir Martin Gilbert is Winston Churchill’s official biographer. An honorary fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and a distinguished fellow of Hillsdale College, Michigan, he recently published Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship (Henry Holt, 2007) and the revised and updated Israel: A History (McNally & Loftin, 2008).


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