"How we got to the Middle East of today is at the heart and soul of "Aaronsohn's Maps" by Patricia Goldstone. Goldstone has dug deep to come up with the bio of the agronomist, diplomat and spy who helped found Israel. There's more than a touch of T.E. Lawrence in this child of Jewish settlers in Palestine: Aaron Aaronsohn's spy network helped the British take Jerusalem in World War I; he compiled the first maps of water in the arid region; his sister, also a spy and possibly Lawrence's lover, was captured and tortured to death. Aaronsohn died in a plane crash in 1919; his vision for a peaceful Middle East died as well."
Aaronsohn's Maps: The Untold Story of the Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Middle Eastby Patricia Goldstone
Scientist, diplomat, and spy, Aaron Aaronsohn was one of the most extraordinary figures in the early struggle to create a homeland for the Jews. He was born to Jewish settlers in Palestine. During World War I, he ran a network of spies with his sister, Sarah, that enabled the British to capture Jerusalem and made Aaron T.E. Lawrence's rival in an astonishing
Scientist, diplomat, and spy, Aaron Aaronsohn was one of the most extraordinary figures in the early struggle to create a homeland for the Jews. He was born to Jewish settlers in Palestine. During World War I, he ran a network of spies with his sister, Sarah, that enabled the British to capture Jerusalem and made Aaron T.E. Lawrence's rival in an astonishing triangle: there is evidence that beautiful, rebellious Sarah, who died tragically in 1917, was the only woman Lawrence ever loved.
A rugged adventurer, Aaronsohn became convinced during his explorations of the Middle East that water would govern the region’s fate. He compiled both the area’s first detailed water maps and a plan for Palestine’s national borders that predicted andin its insistence on partnership between Arabs and Jewsmight have prevented the decades of conflict to come. If Aaron had lived to carry out his vision, the course of modern history might have been very different. But the will to power that drew him from science to politics led him to a premature and mysterious death in 1919. His maps were lost, his library - and for many years, even his memory - destroyed.
A history that speaks directly to the present, Aaronsohn’s Maps reveals for the first time Aaronsohn’s key role in establishing Israel and the enduring importance of Aaronsohn’s maps in Middle Eastern politics today.
"Aaron Aaronsohn's fascinating story will come as a major surprise to most students of Middle Eastern history... a tour de force."
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"[A] well-researched, resourceful, politically balanced... account of the life of the man who made the fatal mistake of taking issue with the leaders of the Zionist movement... Hers is the first true biography."
Journalist Goldstone (Making the World Safe for Tourism) puts scarce Mideastern water resources front and center in this flawed biography of Aaron Aaronsohn (1876-1919), a founder of NILI, a group that spied for the British in Palestine during WWI, and a pioneering agronomist and hydrologist. Goldstone is best at depicting British diplomacy and intra-Jewish politics leading up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine-a British declaration influenced, she shows, by a 1916 memo from Aaronsohn on Palestine's potential to absorb million of Jews. Goldstone makes errors (such as stating that Israel lost the Sinai Peninsula in the 1973 Yom Kippur War) and offers the tendentious, unsourced claim that in 2003, "right-wing Jewish lobbyists" hoped that a defeated Iraq would be "used as a haven for persecuted Palestinians run out of Israel." Above all, she never makes a case for her thesis that Aaronsohn's plan for regional sharing of water resources could have prevented the longstanding Arab-Israeli conflict. (For another account of Aaronsohn's life, see Lawrence and Aaronsohn,reviewed on p. 46.) 8 pages of b&w photos. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Read an Excerpt
1. The Jew in the Bathchair
The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little whitefaced Jew in a bathchair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the man who is ruling the world right now and he has his knife in the empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps
In the autumn of 1882, a tattered delegation of Romanian Jews arrived in Constantinople and landed in front of the American minister, Lew Wallace, a Civil War general famous as the author of Ben Hur. They were led by an Englishman, Laurence Oliphant, a gentile Zionist who petitioned Wallace to intercede with the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II to allow the Jews to settle in that part of Abdul Hamid’s empire called Palestine. Among the convoy were Ephraim Fischel Aaronsohn, an entrepreneurial farmer from Falticeni, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and his pious young wife, Malkah. Eager for a home that would allow them to realize their ambitions, they had made the long, dangerous journey by train, diligence, and ferry with their only child, a robust and curious six-year-old boy named Aaron.
The Aaronsohns’ journey was set in motion by the great turning point in the modern history of the Jews, the pogroms of 1881. Imperial Russia’s revival and extension of the Ignatieff Decrees, stifling Jewish economic activities in the Pale, created a tidal wave that sent Russian Jews spilling over the border into Romania, Romanian Jews pouring into Austria, and Jews from all parts of Eastern Europe crowding into the slums of the cities of the West. Hundreds of thousands of Jews in the isthmus of Europe between the Black Sea and the Baltic were driven from areas they had inhabited for years by Romanian and Serbian nationalist peasant leaders engorged with new liberties and power as their provinces slipped away from Ottoman control. The Aaronsohns became part of the wave of predominantly bourgeois Zionists who came to the Holy Land before 1885 that was known as the First Aliyah. Like the word haj in Arabic, aliyah means pilgrimage.
Unique among the arrivals of the First Aliyah, Ephraim Fischel was not only skilled at agriculture but modestly knowledgeable about hydrology as well. In his native Romania, he had parlayed his success as a farmer into owning a prosperous inn and had managed the holdings of a number of great landowners before his prosperity invited persecution. The pious Malkah was a beauty, not without a streak of coquetry, and her upwardly mobile husband was inordinately proud of her. Malkah could claim a lineage going back to King David. Her revered father, Rabbi Samuel Galatzanu (who fled Russia for Falticeni, which lies close to the Russian border), had been tortured by the Romanian authorities when a Christian child in his community disappeared during Passover. The child was later found safe and the accusations of child sacrifice retracted, but Galatzanu died of his injuries and his death hastened the Aaronsohns’ departure. They sought opportunity as well as sanctuary. With the notable exception of the BILU, a small but impassioned group of young intellectual nationalist pioneers from Russia who were dedicated to the concept of tilling biblical soil with their own hands, the vast majority of European Jews at that time viewed the Holy Land as an extension of America and would have settled in the United Statesor any place that would let them live free of the strangulations of the Paleas happily as in Palestine.
General Wallace, a militant evangelical, was touched by their plight and cabled U.S. Secretary of State F.T. Frelinghuysen: “Refugee Jews starving here. Delegates ask good offices with Sultan to colonize Syria. May I act?” Frelinghuysen gave him leave to use his good offices in an unofficial capacity, as the United States government was reluctant to be perceived by the Turks as encouraging independent colonization.
Laurence Oliphant’s Zionism only thinly concealed an imperial streak. Oliphant had been one of the most celebrated agents for Queen Victoria’s Secret Service, a career cut short by his publicly denouncing the British Foreign Office’s betrayal of nationalist aspirations throughout Europe in the illustrious pages of Blackwood’s Magazine. His associate in acting as agent for societies of Romanian Jewsdescribed by Wallace in his dispatches as a “respectable gentleman,” though he was known only as “Mr. Alexander”was also acting as agent for Sir Edward Cazalet, a British railway entrepreneur. Like Wallace and Oliphant, as well as other hardheaded British military men such as General Edmund Allenby, Richard Meinertzhagen, and even future prime minister David Lloyd George, Cazalet was a gentile Zionist who professed the belief that returning the world’s wandering Jews to Palestine, their biblical homeland, would hasten the Second Coming of the Messiah and a new Christian dawn. However these men were also stimulated by commercial interests. Oliphant was a commercial adventurer. Cazalet had already invested considerable money and effort in railway networks in Romania, which, until the opening of the Persian oil fields, was Europe’s chief petroleum source. Now, like many other would-be railway kings in Europe, he was eager to expand the railway network, which already stretched from London to Bucharest, to include Turkey, Palestine, and the rest of what imperial geographers called the “historic highway” connecting Europe with Asia, in what we now call the Middle East. Cazalet was keen to protect his investment by returning friendly Europeans, i.e., Jews, to Palestine to settle alongside his railroad tracks and thus provide a buffer against potentially hostile Arabs. Oliphant’s plan to settle the Romanian contingent in the rich agricultural area of western Syria, where the Jordan rises, would give the colonists a solid economic base as well. Cazalet and Oliphant lobbied the British Parliament to make Zionism a political reality, a convenient packaging of purposes not uncommon in the annals of British imperial policy. When bundled with the Admiralty’s voracious need for oil as it converted its battleships from steam power to outstrip Germany’s in an increasingly vicious naval race, it would shape the course of the twentieth century.
The Aaronsohns were fleeing the frying pan for the fire by applying for asylum to Abdul Hamid, a melancholy man (bearing an unfortunate physical resemblance to Rasputin) who was placed on the throne when his older brother succumbed to insanity. At least early in his reign, Abdul Hamid was a perspicacious economic planner who wished to see his country benefit from modernity, and ushered in the development of modern telecommunications, transport, and women’s education in Turkey. As his rule progressed, however, his dependence on Europe drew increasing hostility from nationalist groups. He retreated into paranoia and the seclusion of his palaces, where his spies furnished his only link to the outside world, and became known as the Red Sultan for presiding over the slaughter of almost 2.5 million Armenians between 1894 and 1908.
For the greater part of four centuries, the Ottomans had treated non-Islamic populations with relative tolerance, allowing them to practice their religions as long as they paid their poll taxes, and to govern their own communities as long as they reported to the local bey. In their dispatches to the State Department, American envoys to the Near East described Jews under the old Turkish rule as fortunate compared to those subjected to the caprices of Romanian and Serbian nationalists in the Balkan Ottoman provinces. But Turkey was still crushed under a debt incurred during the Crimean War in 1854, when France and England came to Turkey’s aid against Russia. Foreign investment was the most expeditious way out, and had to be courted with liberal concessions. As Abdul Hamid’s foreign debt spiraled out of control, he came under increasing attack from Islamic nationalists already enflamed by the Capitulations, a series of trade agreements enacted by Europe earlier in the century, which had handed a near monopoly to Armenian Christians, Jews, and other European minorities residing in the Ottoman Empire in such choice areas as banking and import-export: the slaughter of the Armenians in part originated in their favored status. Granting concessions to build Turkish railroad infrastructure, Abdul Hamid’s best means of courting foreign investment, fueled the nationalists’ other chief source of irritationthe growing invasion by Western, primarily female, tourists, led by the British travel giant Cook’s Tours.
After the British conquest of Egypt in the 1870s, the Turks were opposed to foreign control of Turkish land. Zionism, though it would not fully emerge as an organized worldwide political movement until the Basel Congress of 1897, already presented a threat. Although they were officially prohibited from settling in Palestine, it was not unusual for Jews to enter under the guise of making aliyah, and then to disappear into existing settlements. When General Wallace called on the Turkish minister of affairs to espouse the Jewish cause, he was told that the Aaronsohns and their coreligionists could come whenever they wanted and settle in groups of two hundred or two hundred and fifty families in any unoccupied lands in Mesopotamia, around Aleppo or around the Orontes River in Syriaas long as they became Ottoman subjects.
Copyright © 2007 by Patricia Goldstone
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Meet the Author
Patricia Goldstone has been a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and has written for the Washington Post, Maclean’s, and the Economist Intelligence Unit, among others. She is the author of Making the World Safe for Tourism (Yale University Press, 2001), and is an award-winning playwright as well. She lives in New York.
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