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Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Amy Dockser Marcus
Viking Adult, 2007
240 pp., 28.76

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Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present
Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present
Michael B. Oren
W. W. Norton & Company, 2007
832 pp., 35.00

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Churchill's Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft (Yale University Press)
Churchill's Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft (Yale University Press)
Michael Makovsky
Yale University Press, 2007
368 pp., 40.00

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Paul Merkley


Hanging Gardens and Shimmering Oases

The Middle East from three angles.

Why can't those people just get along? You know—the Arabs and the Jews. Isn't it obvious that, whatever is at the base of their inexplicable mutual hatred, the two parties are getting further and further away from even trying to understand each other? With each passing day, it seems, some new offense of one party against the other adds another layer of grievance, one more complication to be unwound before we can get the parties thinking again about putting it all behind and getting on with what everyone else on earth is getting on with.

Perhaps if we walked the parties backwards over the chronological ground, they could observe the intensity of the quarrel getting less and less (retrospectively), until we find the moment when the two parties were actually talking to each other civilly; and then we could walk the parties forward from that same point and show them that it had all been about a failure to communicate.

Amy Dockser Marcus believes that she has found that moment. It was during the year 1913 when there took place "what can only be described as the first Arab-Israeli peace negotiations over the future of Palestine," indeed the "[first] serious effort to negotiate what we today would call a Middle East peace agreement."

Marcus is certainly entitled to respectful attention. She lived nearly a decade in Israel as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal and has developed a valuable network of friends and colleagues in the land, with whose help she has found her way into several private family archives. Working in these materials, she has brought to our attention a number of sturdy personalities who were significant movers and shakers in several of the component communities of pre-Mandate Palestine. In her introduction, she announces that if we keep our eyes on the comings and goings of these actors we will find our way to the moment of truth announced in the opening pages.

This is not, however, as easy to do as she suggests. Her characters are introduced abruptly, then re-introduced in flashbacks from 1913 and later escorted past that year in a few flash-forwards. There are so many digressions that we fear she has forgotten the pivotal significance of the year 1913; and when she does get to her rendezvous, she glances off it at once and heads down other poorly lit byways.

The pivotal section occurs on pages 124 to 133. What is disclosed here will, I believe, disappoint most readers. It is a somewhat vague account of conversations between certain freelance Arab nationalist thinkers and politicians active at Istanbul in months prior to World War I and subsequent contacts of these parties with two Jewish figures with middle-level Zionist connections. One of these latter, a certain Sami Hochberg, shows up as a participant at the Arab National Congress held in Paris in June of 1913, an assembly attended by 23 persons, including 11 Muslims, 11 Christians, and one Jew. Hochberg is said to have talked about Zionism with the others; but no evidence appears that these Arabs (Muslim and Christian) incorporated any of his insights into their program. This is no surprise since, by Marcus' description, Hochberg "was neither an official employee, nor a high-ranking member of the Zionist movement … [and thus] his mission could be disavowed at any time." The point of this story seems to be that since the declaration that issued from this Congress did not contain a tirade against Zionism—and since Arabs would never again meet in any kind of formal setting without putting such a tirade at the heart of their conclusions—it must have been a fruitful moment for Arab-Israeli relations.

This is a frail foundation for such an ambitious thesis. Nothing remotely resembling "a serious effort to negotiate" anything seems to have taken place in 1913 or thereabouts. Certainly nothing took place that has any bearing on "what we today would call a Middle East peace agreement." The argument that by moving the threshold of scholarly examination of the "origins of the Arab-Israeli dispute" back a few years from its usual place (in the Balfour Declaration of November, 1917) we could find the answer to why Arabs and Jews cannot get along will not cause historians to sit up and notice. It is not at all clear that the parties were getting along any better then than now. Even if we had no other historical evidence than what appears in this present book we could not fail to see that the Arab population of these Ottoman domains were resolved to prevent Jews from taking root in the land. If, here and there, there are edifying illustrations of toleration and even friendship across the divide, the same can be found today.

What this account lacks is some sustained address to the ancient causes of Arab hostility towards the Jews; for that, we need at least some acknowledgement of the theological root of the matter. Marcus's assumption seems to be that nothing really justifies the refusal of Arabs and Jews to get along, and therefore there is no point in inquiring into the causes of this failure.

Students of the Ottoman regime in its last days will certainly enjoy reading this well-written book, with its convincing character sketches and glimpses into daily life of the time and place. Some glaring misinterpretations and errors of fact will, however, diminish confidence in the value of Marcus' estimable archival research. For example: (i) Muslims do not hold that Muhammad "took his last step on earth" at the site of the cave which is enclosed under the Dome of the Rock (p. 36); (ii)  Simon the Just is not "a popular biblical figure" (p.44; he was a High Priest of the Second Temple Period); (iii) Theodor Herzl's encounter with the Kaiser in Jerusalem on November 1, 1898 was not his one and only "chance to present his ideas to the German leader"(p. 37; he had done this already on two previous occasions, once through a highly placed intermediary in the Kaiser's court and the other face-to-face, just a few days earlier in Istanbul).

Michael B. Oren, hitherto best known as the author of a major scholarly account of the Six Day War of 1967, has undertaken to draw together into one large book everything that can be found about the entire history of American involvement in the Middle East—a history, he demonstrates convincingly, as old as the Republic itself. The result is a truly awesome book, the fruit of prodigious research expressed in a commanding style.

Is it a stretch to begin a narrative about America's involvement in the Middle East in the year of the Declaration of Independence? Not at all. Oren demonstrates that in the moment of declaring their independence the leaders of the Continental Congress were fully aware that among other more obvious and immediate consequences (such as that they might all be going to the gallows very soon) was that the new nation, should it succeed, would then go out into the world unprotected by the British navy, without the advantage of membership in the British Empire. Most American eyes were on the dim prospects for American trade in the British West Indies, but this issue was cleared away diplomatically over the first few years of the existence of the independent nation. A more formidable obstacle—one that could only be removed by a demonstration of power—was the harassment of American trade by the pirate regimes of the Barbary Coast, nominally fiefs of the far-flung Ottoman Empire. Britain and France had signed treaties of understanding with these states, acquiring protection from piracy. It seemed shameful at the time and does so still today, but it was the price of admission to the Mediterranean. It was the new United States of America that eventually put finis to this shameful practice. But before that could happen, the loose confederation of states had to become a nation.

So it happened that when the authors of the Federalist Papers made their case for a central executive power capable of directing a unified foreign policy and a unified military and security policy, it was the matter of the Barbary States that they highlighted in making their case. It is thus no stretch at all to make the first adventures of Americans into the Middle East the backdrop for the first serious discussion of America's rightful place in the world and the location for its first use of power to assert that right.

Oren describes the motivations of all the participants in this story under three categories: Power, Faith, and Fantasy. Typically, elements of all three were at work in most characters and most institutions involved. As might be expected, Oren's attention is not distributed equally over the three categories. "Power" gets the lion's share of the attention. Under this category we find most of the work of the presidents, the foreign policymakers (both those holding office and those in the corridors) and the economic imperialists (again, in and out of office). The first intimations that the Republic was preparing for resort to American power in the Middle East are found in the surreptitious dealings of certain brave adventurers having more-or-less approval (covert, of course) of President Thomas Jefferson as they sought influence in the courts of the Barbary princes and then at Istanbul itself. These initial exercises in power become more and more overt, eventually becoming incorporated into the declared foreign and military policy of the Unites States. All this culminates in the sending of a huge American army (and a limited cohort of Allies) into Iraq in 2003.

"Fantasy" makes its appearance at many junctures, when the heavy political and diplomatic narrative needs lightening. This category is a warehouse of inchoate images, piled up by fiction writers and moviemakers and Broadway composers and even television sitcoms, whose ultimate sources are the Arabian Nights, rumors about casbahs and seraglios, and great public entertainments beginning with the Chicago World Fair.

Oren's analysis of "Faith" is much less convincing than his analysis of "Power." Oren is respectful of Christian faith but astonishingly vague about its content. His only explicit reference to the Bible—the ultimate source of all that "faith"—does not inspire confidence: The Bible, he says, is "the principal source of Middle Eastern fantasies. The Old and New Testaments presented a panorama of pyramids and temples, of hanging gardens and shimmering oases, and, most majestically, the desert"—a stunning misrepresentation of the contents and influence of the Bible, all the more egregious coming from such an accomplished scholar. To put it as generously as possible: it is an error to equate the religious motive with fantasy.

Oren's knowledge of the history of Christian faith in America, alas, is equally shallow and confused. Among many other bits and pieces that need correction we note that John Smith was not the founder of the Mormons (p. 142) but the significant other of Pocahontas. The English Puritans did not address their appeals on behalf of the Jews to the rulers of Holland but to Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England (p. 89). It is a sad but revealing insight into the low level of general knowledge about our religious heritage that no one among that large cohort of researchers, assistants, proofreaders, and assistant editors who worked on Oren's book could espy such egregious errors.

Oren seems determined to minimize the actual contribution of people of Christian faith to Israel and to the Middle East generally. It is not true, as he says repeatedly, that missionary efforts among the Arabs amounted to nothing. Substantial congregations of Anglicans and Presbyterians and Baptists and others, still alive and mostly Arab in leadership and in the ranks, attest to the contrary even today. A large number of Oren's pages describe colorful but aborted efforts by fringe cultists and freelancers who sought to establish colonies of believers in the Holy Land, but there is nothing about experiments along the same line that succeeded—for instance, those of George Gawler (1796-1869) and Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888), among many others whose names are remembered for blessing in Israel today. Oren imagines that he is somehow making the best of the wayward behavior of the missionaries by upgrading their pious motivation so that it can be presented as one face of the larger "idealistic" approach that some people have to life and which accounts for philanthropic enterprise, medicine, education, and so on. And he merely glances at the story of collaboration between American Christian Zionists and official (Herzlian) Zionists—a story of great strategic significance in winning American politicians to support for creation of the Jewish State.

Oren's main point regarding the religious motive as a historical force is perfectly sound, however. That is, that within the whole American public there still operates a residual and vaguely comprehended vestige of the original Puritan belief in Restoration of the Jews to Israel. This spiritual force is the source of the general pro-Israel disposition in the American public and, in the last analysis, explains the difference between the policies of the United States and those of European states.

So well does Oren do his work that when we are done we will find it makes perfect sense to draw connections of cause-and-effect from the story of the earliest American excursions against the Barbary States to front-page news today. Near the end of the book, Oren observes: "By 10:30 [of September 11, 2001], the Twin Towers had collapsed and surrounding structures were teetering. A cloud of viscous, death-white smoke enveloped the southern portion of Manhattan, the very place from where, two hundred years earlier, the USS Essex had departed¬† for America's first war in the Middle East." A few pages later, he notes: "As the image of the collapsing Twin Towers faded, the French and German governments resumed their long-standing efforts to distance themselves from America's antiterrorism tactics in the Middle East and to engage the region on an independent, nonconfrontational basis." Thus Oren recapitulates a major theme of the book, namely, that there has always been a fundamental difference of understanding between Americans and Europeans about what can and cannot be done to shape up the Middle East and make it a place where exchange of ideas and visions—not to mention commerce—can operate freely, as our history has persuaded us to believe these things ought to operate freely, among human beings everywhere on earth.

The thoroughness of Oren's research and his gift for both analysis and narrative will impress all historians, regardless of field. Until he gets into the last quarter-century, for which primary and archival documentation is not available, he pioneers behind the monographic wall, working the archives on his own, scouring the volumes of Foreign Relations of the United States, the presidential libraries, collections of papers in the Library of Congress archives, various university archives, and the Central Zionist Archives in Israel—among other sources. The pace of his narration picks up considerably in the later chapters (as he tells us in advance that it will), because: (a) there are so many more published books as we get closer to the present highly polemicized moment; and (b) the archives are still closed. Being an authentic historian, Oren knows that there is a connection between (a) and (b). God grant that he should live many more years and lead the pioneers in clearing away the mountains of poorly researched and ill-considered books about the Middle East which our talking heads are pretending to read.

The key to Churchill's Zionism, Michael Makovsky tells us repeatedly in Churchill's Promised Land, was a motto which he inherited from his beloved father, Lord Randolph: "The Lord deals with the nations as the nations deal with the Jews." Winston Churchill, who carried so much Scripture (along with massive passages from other "great works") around in his head ready for quotation, would surely have recognized (as Makovsky evidently does not) that "Disraeli's dictum" (as Makovsky calls it) is really nothing more than a clumsy gloss on Genesis 12:2-3: "I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee; and in thee shall all of the earth be blessed" (KJV). Every Christian Zionist in the world has this text on a plaque on his wall.

Makovsky describes Churchill as a "Zionist," as Churchill himself did. It makes more sense, in my view, to speak of him as a pro-Zionist. He was certainly not a Christian Zionist. Churchill's pro-Zionism was established in his earliest years. It was founded on a solid philo-Judaism inherited from his father and was improved by many Jewish connections and some friendships (the most notable of these being with Chaim Weizmann). These circumstances armed him against the anti-Semitism which thrived in most corners of the political and social establishment into which he was born. His pro-Zionism, Makovsky concludes, was "predominantly sentimental," a compound of "racial, civilizational, humanitarian, paternal, personal, historical, romantic, mystical and religious considerations."

Disraeli's dictum did not suffice, however, to keep Churchill on the straight-and-narrow of devotion to Zionism. For Winston Churchill, "strategic imperatives always trumped sentimental and romantic causes." Accordingly, his pro-Zionism waxed when holding to it was not an obstacle to advancement of Britain's primary strategic goals (as Churchill understood them) and waned when it was. The latter was the case in the years immediately following the proclamation of the Balfour Declaration in November, 1917, when establishing the Jewish homeland in Palestine seemed to Churchill likely to cost far more than it was worth, using up money and military resources which could more profitably be applied to propping up India and Egypt. These "strategic considerations"—which would seem fantastic in less than thirty years—inspired his decision in 1921 as Minister of Colonies to create the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan out of three-quarters of the Mandate, a great blow to Zionism.

Churchill made several brief visits to Jewish Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s, and each time came back more impressed than the time before by the practical and scientific achievements of the Jewish communities. In Jewish Palestine he saw "nothing but good gifts, more wealth, more trade, more civilization, new sources of revenue, more employment, a higher rate of wages, larger cultivated areas and better water supply." As he told the Peel Commission in 1936, "If I were an Arab, I would not like it, but it is for the good of the world that the place should be cultivated and it never will be cultivated by the Arabs." Yet by the time this perception of Jewish Palestine had been fully confirmed in his heart and mind, he was out of office (1929-1939).

Once back in office (as First Lord of the Admiralty in September, 1939 and then as Prime Minister in June, 1940) and confronted by anti-Jewish attitudes in the Foreign Office and in the administration of Palestine, Churchill adjusted to the White Paper of 1939 (which proclaimed Britain's abandonment of the Balfour pledge). As for opening the gates of Palestine to Jews in flight from Hitler during the war, "there was a limit to which he would expend political capital on such a subordinate and divisive matter." Similarly, during the three years that were critical for the accomplishment of the Zionist dream, 1945 to 1948, while he was Leader of the Opposition and when the Attlee government walked away from the Balfour pledge, Churchill yielded to the intense anti-Jewish mood of the British public and simply forgot about Zionism and the Jews: "He betrayed them in their hour of need, and said and did nothing on their behalf for almost four key years," Makovsky writes, an unsparing but well-founded judgment.

This stimulating essay, the fruit of scrupulous research and careful reasoning, documents the interaction of romance and realism in the heart and mind of one of the most powerful statesmen of the 20th century. It will afford many insights to students of the life and work of Winston Churchill and will be required reading for students of the history of Zionism.

Paul C. Merkley is the author of American Presidents, Religion and Israel (Praeger).


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