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Emet m'Tsiyon

Friday, July 01, 2005

Owen Lattimore on Britain, the Arabs, and Israel

Owen Lattimore was a significant American scholar on Asia in the 1940s. He was also, the truth be told, rather notorious for alleged Communist sympathies. Nevertheless, he published in mainstream American publications, like the Atlantic Monthly. Further, he was one of the most knowledgeable Americans about Asia and its various social problems in that period.

His book, The Situation in Asia (1949) describes the relation between Britain and various Arab countries, as well as the British attitude towards Israel. His comments offer an explanation for Britain's anti-Israel policy which lasts to this very day. Whatever the validity of his explanation may be, it is indeed curious that Communists and "leftists" today overlook his explanation and any similar explanation for British policy toward Israel, and almost always minimize or forego what the Marxists used to call "class analysis" for explaining the Arab-Israeli situation. "Marxists" today and other "leftists" often support Muslim jihad and view the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of Arab nationalism, alleged Western hostility toward Islam, and the nationalism of the supposed "Palestinian people."

Here are some of Lattimore's comments:
The Near East used to be comfortably managed by a system of British alliances with Arab monarchs and chiefs. Today, that fabric of alliances has been ripped across by the rise of Israel. The fact that Israel is so tiny, and yet has been able to throw the Arab world into such disorder, is a warning that new kinds of power are coming into play that cannot be measured by old standards. [p4]
Israel, though its political philosophy is closer to that of the British Labour Government than to that of any other government in the world, is repelled by the morose anti-Semitism of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and by the British policy of supporting Arab princes who represent arbitrary privilege, subjection of the people to a hereditary aristocracy, and every form of social abuse that, in Britain itself, the Labour Government is pledged to abolish. pp 89-90
Israel's presence in Asia ... is revolutionary... [Israelis asked Arab] workers to join their labor unions with equal rights, as has happened in Haifa where the Israelis have extended their labor rights to Arabs. p213
It is absolutely impossible to prevent this kind of contact from being revolutionary in its effects. As an obvious example, the poor Arab who once could not think of social promotion except in the form of becoming a richer Arab, but still not a modern man, now cannot escape the realization that in many ways it is better to be a modern man than a rich Arab. He realized this, of course, in a fairy-tale way when he admired the marvelous possessions of the British effendi whom he occasionally saw. But there is no practical pathway to be traveled from ragged Arab to British effendi. Living side by side with the Israeli, however, he sees both the desirable and the practicable. Then comes the revolutionary jump: it is not the Israeli who prevents him from living as a modern man, but the Arab ruler. [pp 213-214]
The British Labour Party took power from Churchill's Conservative Party at the end of World War 2. They ran on a pro-Zionist platform. Yet, when they took power they embraced an anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish policy, trying to prevent Jewish survivors of the Holocaust from reaching the Land of Israel, then under British control.
Lattimore suggests reasons why British policy-makers hated and still hate Israel. Were they valid then? Yes, at least in part. Are they still valid today? Probably to a large extent. In any case, the understanding of the history of British policy in the Middle East and that policy's purposes are much confused today. Likewise, the understanding of Britain's role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Owen Lattimore, The Situation in Asia (Boston: Little, Brown, 1949).
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We are aware of problems with the blog entry on Joseph's Tomb in Sh'khem and will try to fix them.
We look forward to posting accounts by 19th century travelers about Israel, and intergroup relations there, Muslim-Christian, Muslim-Jewish, Christian-Jewish.


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