On July 6, 1917, a legion of Arab riders captured the heavily-fortified seaport of Aqaba, after what was thought to be an impossible journey: a torturous six-hundred-mile ride through the desert, and descent from the interior to the unguarded eastern side of the town.
The daring assault was conceived of, and led by, a sole English officer, Captain T.E. Lawrence. Small, peevish and rebellious, Lawrence was an archaeologist and mapmaker seconded to Military Intelligence. He was twenty-eight years old. When the hero of Aqaba wrote this letter, he was, fabulously, the most remarkable figure in the British army and all of the Mid-East; and what he wanted, desperately, was Arab hegemony from Damascus all the way down through the Arabian peninsula. Standing in the way of his visionary Kingdom, however, stood the Jews, the French and, as he would ultimately come bitterly to comprehend, the British establishment itself…
Here Lawrence famously writes to his superior at the Arab Bureau, General Clayton, to ask whether he should send a just-penned letter to Sir Mark Sykes in which he inquires, inter alia, about Zionist aims. “One must,” he tells Clayton, “have the Jewish section cleared up; and I fancy we may (if we win) clear up the French section ourselves.” Clayton, as noted in autograph at the bottom of the letter, advised Lawrence not to forward his letter to Mark Sykes – but a record of the unsent letter survived nonetheless. That missive is crucial to understanding exactly why Lawrence wanted the “Jewish section cleared up” – and addresses, en passant , Lawrence’s conflict with the Zionist pioneer Aaron Aaronsohn and, by extension, those Zionist converts within the British establishment, like Sykes (and Balfour, Orsmby-Gore, Deedes and Meinertzhagen), whom Aaronsohn had influenced…
“General Clayton showed me a letter from you which contained a message to myself - and this has prompted me to ask you a few queries about Near East affairs. I hope you will be able to give me an idea of how matters stand in reference to them, since part of the responsibility of action is inevitably thrown on to me, and, unless I know more or less what is wanted, there might be trouble. “About the Jews in Palestine, Feisal has agreed not to operate or agitate west of the [Wadi] Araba-Dead Sea-Jordan line, or south of the Haifa-Beisan line . . . “You know of course the root differences between the Palestine Jew and the colonist Jew: to Feisal the important point is that the former speak Arabic, and the latter German Yiddish. He is in touch with the Arab Jews (their H.Q. at Safed and Tiberias is in his sphere) and they are ready to help him, on conditions. They show a strong antipathy to the colonist Jews, and have even suggested repressive measures against them. Feisal has ignored this point hitherto, and will continue to do so. His attempts to get into touch with the colonial Jews have not been very fortunate. They say they have made their arrangements with the Great Powers, and wish no contact with the Arab Party. They will not help the Turks or the Arabs. Now Feisal wants to know (information had better come to me for him since I usually like to make up my mind before he does) what is the arrangement standing between the colonist Jews (called Zionists sometimes) and the Allies . . . What have you promised the Zionists, and what is their programme? “I saw Aaronson in Cairo, and he said at once the Jews intended to acquire the land-rights of all Palestine from Gaza to Haifa, and have practical autonomy therein. Is this acquisition to be by fair purchase or by forced sale and expropriation? The present half-crop peasantry were the old freeholders and under Moslem landlords may be ground down but have fixity of tenure. Arabs are usually not employed by Jewish colonies. Do the Jews propose the complete expulsion of the Arab peasantry, or their reduction to a day-labourer class? “You know how the Arabs cling even to bad land and will realise that while Arab feelings didn't matter under Turkish rule . . . the condition will be vastly different if there is a new, independent, and rather cock-a-hoop Arab state north and east and south of the Jewish state. “I can see a situation arising in which the Jewish influence in European finance might not be sufficient to deter the Arab peasants from refusing to quit - or worse!”
Lawrence’s reading of the incipient Arab-Zionist situation was, clearly, prescient - were a Jewish state established in Palestine, he feared the Arab movement would come to an end. Hence his intense interest in “clearing up” the Jewish and French “sections". But even as he was promising Prince Feisal an empire consisting of the Ottoman territories from Damascus to the Arabian peninsula, the British and French had already decided to carve the region up between them - regardless of the wishes of the Arabs, the Jews, or anyone else who might be living in the territories in question.
*Lawrence’s reference to Aaronsohn’s remarks is particularly interesting, inasmuch as Aaronsohn left an account of the meeting at which he made them. “This morning I had a conversation with Capt. Lawrence,” he wrote in his diary on 12 August 1917. “An interview without any evidence of friendliness. Lawrence had too much success at too early an age. Has a very high estimation of his own self. He is lecturing me on our colonies, on the spirit of the people, on the feelings of the Arabs, and we would do well in being assimilated by them, by the sons of Arab etc. While listening to him I imagined to be present at the lecture of a Prussian scientific anti-Semite expressing himself in English. I am afraid that many of the archaeologists and reverends have been imbued by 'l'esprit boche'. He is openly against us. He is basically of missionary stock.” Aaronsohn’s assessment of Lawrence as an anti-Semite stands in stark contrast to Chaim Weizmann’s opinion that Lawrence’s relationship to the Zionist movement was a very positive one, in spite of his strongly pro-Arab sympathies.
Autograph Letter Signed, 1 page, octavo, H.M.S. “Hardinge,” (Aqaba), September 7, 1917. To Brigadier-General Gilbert Clayton. Bearing at the bottom, in pencil, a two-word Autograph Note Signed in Clayton's hand: “Not Sent. Clayton.” With file holes.