This week, May 19 to be exact, marks the 80th anniversary of the death of T. E. Lawrence — generally known as Lawrence of Arabia — who played a crucial role as a British officer in defeating the Ottoman Empire in the heartland of the Islamic world. While widely recognized as a champion of Arab nationalism, Lawrence also embraced political Zionism.
Put simply, he was both an Arabophile and a Zionist. The popular vision of Lawrence — including in David Lean’s breathtaking, Oscar-winning 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia — has airbrushed from history his contributions to the formation of the Jewish state.
As early as 1909, Lawrence wrote about a then-undefined Palestine: “The sooner the Jews farm it the better: their colonies are bright spots in a desert.” His advocacy in this vein would extend to the post-WWI conferences that carved out nation-states in the Middle East. Lawrence served as the mediator between Hashemite Prince Faisal, who would later become the king of Iraq, and Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of Israel. Lawrence’s goal, he said, was to secure “the lines of Arab and Zionist policy converging in the not distant future.”
In a scarcely noted 1920 article titled “The Changing East,” Lawrence wrote of the Jewish biblical connection to Israel. For Lawrence, “the Jewish experiment” to create a homeland 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.”
Sir Martin Gilbert, the late peerless British historian and biographer of Sir Winston Churchill, wrote the most compelling essay on Lawrence’s “little known romance with Zionism.”
Lawrence debunked the most obviously dishonest of anti-Israel myths, which circulate widely in Europe, the Arab world, and Iran — namely, that the Jews lacked a presence in a pre-Christian and pre-Islam Palestine.
While he recognized in his writings the continuous presence of Jews in pre-Zionist-movement Palestine, Lawrence noted, “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 modes 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.”
Lawrence’s biggest success was his advocacy of Zionism, leading to the eventual creation of the state of Israel.
Lawrence’s vision would become a reality. Israel rapidly became the freest and most advanced capitalist economy in the Middle East.
Lawrence loathed radical, dogmatic Islam. As the Islamic State has just seized control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra — and is set to destroy its Roman archeological ruins — it’s worth remembering that Lawrence wrote in his autobiography of this location, “nothing in the scorching, desolate land could look so refreshing.”
For all his efforts to unify a fragmented Arab Middle East, his biggest success was his advocacy of Zionism, leading to the eventual creation of the state of Israel.
— Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal.