Aaron Aaronsohn was one of the most extraordinary figures in the early struggle to create a homeland for the Jewish people. Brought to Palestine at age five, as a young man Aaronsohn was a rugged adventurer who became convinced during years of solo explorations that water should 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.
In World War I, he ran a spy network with his sister, Sarah, that enabled the British to capture Jerusalem but also made him the rival of his colleague T.E. Lawrence. There is evidence that beautiful, rebellious Sarah, who died tragically in 1917, was the only woman the enigmatic Lawrence ever loved.
Ultimately, Aaron Aaronsohn also paid for his devotion to the new nation with his life. 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.
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About 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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Aaronsohn's MapsThe Untold Story of the Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Middle East
By Goldstone, Patricia
HarcourtCopyright © 2007 Goldstone, Patricia
All right reserved.
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 States—or any place that would let them live free of the strangulations of the Pale—as 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 Jews—described 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 irritation—the 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 Syria—as long as they became Ottoman subjects.
Copyright © 2007 by Patricia Goldstone
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Table of Contents
1. the jew in the bathchair 11
2. the spies of moses 28
3. flying the zionist kite in america 55
4. minuet 76
5. the locust hunter 95
6. felix krull, confidence man 118
7. he who writes the dispatches 147
8. “our people” 169
9. the sacrifice 201
10. icarus falls from the sky 226
11. inconvenient heroes 260
12. aaronsohn’s road map 285
select bibliography on source notes 323