May 2008

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Aaronsohn's Maps: The Untold Story of the Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Middle East by Patricia Goldstone

Patricia Goldstone cuts a deep swath through Palestinian history with her new title, Aaronsohn’s Maps: The Untold Story of the Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Middle East. Set primarily during World War I, Goldstone focuses on the life of Jewish agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, who traveled as a small child to Palestine with his Romanian parents ahead of a wave of pogroms in 1882. What they found there in a country then under the control of the Ottoman Empire was a complicated social system where most of the Jewish residents “subsisted on the Halukah; alms collected from Jews on all five continents to encourage their coreligionists in the Holy Land to pray for them.” There was discord already between the two primary native groups over the dispersal of the Halukah before the flood of Jews from Eastern Europe that the Aaronsohns were part of arrived. The new immigrants complicated things as they were often more entrepreneurial and brought with them a different way of life. Also, most of them were fleeing ghettos and were determined not to be in a position of dependence ever again. Political conflict within this complicated mixture commenced immediately and the Aaronsohns showed themselves to be especially independent, a trait that Aaron proudly exhibited for the rest of his short life.

After growing up in Palestine, Aaron Aaronsohn became a scientist who was deeply concerned about the water supply in the region. He set out to create a hydrographic map that he believed could be used to develop permanent borders for the various regions in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s fall. During the war his expertise was courted by various individuals, from the Turkish leader of Palestine, to leaders of the international Zionist movement and British military leaders who actively sought control of Palestine as part of multiple and conflicting partition agreements that were made with various factions. Water became increasingly significant in the arguments put forth at the war’s end by the major powers as they sought to carve up the area. As diplomat Harold Nicholson put it, the atmosphere at the post war conferences was like “a riot in a parrot house.”

In the midst of all of this Aaron Aaronsohn stood as someone apart from the fray; as a Jew actually from Palestine, an agriculture expert who had worked with the Ottoman Empire, and a scientist who had studied with various European agronomists, he believed firmly that Jews and Arabs had to work together in an equal relationship if the Middle East had any hope of surviving. In this respect he ran headlong into conflict with Zionist David Ben-Gurion, who was one of the founders of Israel and insisted that Jews employ only Jews. Aaronsohn all too often found himself pushed aside by various groups who all saw their own vision for Palestine and refused to listen to the more centrist view proposed by a man who saw the region not as a Biblical homeland but a place on earth with its own unique climate concerns.

Aaronsohn hoped that Britain could exert the calming influence needed to construct borders with care. Although he had few other options, he was sadly disappointed by the outcome of all his hard work on the political front as fewer and fewer cooler heads prevailed. When he was killed in an unexplained plane crash under dubious circumstances on May 15, 1919, so went one of the few men who could have pointed out the folly of British and French designs on the Middle East. The accident, which also killed the pilot, was never fully investigated.

Beyond all the politics of the early 20th century emigration to Palestine and the changes brought by World War I, Goldstone also writes about Aaronsohn’s interactions with T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and the death of Aaronsohn’s sister Sarah, the “Jewish Joan of Arc.” Sarah Aaronsohn was a key player in a group of Palestinian Jewish operatives who provided intelligence to the British throughout the war. When the group was discovered by the Turks it resulted in a round of torture and death that is graphically depicted in the book; particularly in the case of Sarah, who suffered agonies that are barely describable before she was able to locate a hidden weapon and end her own life. Goldstone suggests that Sarah and Lawrence might have had a relationship far beyond that acknowledged by their families and presents the spy as a realistic candidate for the mysterious “S.A” to whom Lawrence dedicated his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I will admit that Sarah makes a lot more sense than many others who have been put forth as the source of Lawrence’s attention (and the very romantic poem he wrote for S.A. in Pillars), but the author did make me a tad uncomfortable when suggesting that Lawrence’s famous recollection of torture at the hands of the Turks did not really happen and he merely stole Sarah’s pain for his own. It seems odd to suggest that on the one hand he loved her (or at least cared deeply for her) yet on the other co-opted her tragedy for his own gain. Goldstone freely admits that much of Lawrence is unknown, including the endless speculation surrounding his death, and wrinkles with Sarah Aaronsohn just provide more possibilities to consider.

Goldstone ends her book with a chapter about the current struggles for water rights between the Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians, proving that Aaronsohn was right all along. And believe it or not, Haliburton has actually entered into this mess, suggesting the Turks export water to the region in a pipeline that they, of course, would be key in designing and building. Somewhere, someone is laughing at the idea of Haliburton being the savior of so many conflicted countries.

The author makes a strong argument for so many of the fights over religion masking the real problem as she writes:

The coastal aquifers, especially in the politically critical Gaza area in which almost 1.4 million Palestinians have been penned, are strenuously overpumped, with seawater intrusions an increasingly serious problem. To the Palestinians, water is the most obvious symbol of their economic oppression: many of the fights in the Occupied Territories have started over the fresh green lawns, irrigated flower beds, and sparkling swimming pools of the Jewish settlers, while nearby Palestinian villagers are denied drilling rights and have running water, polluted by sewage, only one day every few weeks. The Palestinians complain that even if the Oslo Accords had been followed to the letter, they would have given Israeli water authorities a lock on water resources. The intractability of politicians has thus created a series of boxes from which it is now almost impossible to escape.

Aaron Aaronsohn was not perfect, and Goldstone is honest about his personal pitfalls. But he clearly saw the land he loved through a lens that allowed a great deal more realism and honesty then most of those who came to it. He saw it simply as land, and not as the bearer of so much human baggage that it has proven unable to support and cannot endure. Goldstone recounts that after his death President Wilson’s special envoy to the Paris Peace Conference wrote: “The Jewish race had many brilliant leaders but when Aaron died I believe that it lost the man who, before all others, could kindle the hearts and minds of other nations to achieve sympathy. And not Zion alone will suffer for his loss.”

Aaronsohn’s Maps: The Untold Story of the Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Middle East by Patricia Goldstone
Harcourt
ISBN 0151011699
335 pages