Lawrence Plus Three in Arabia

Anderson.LawrenceCurrently I’m reading Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson. The title is a little misleading; this book is not just a book about T.E. Lawrence, although his is the most completely fleshed out story. The book also deals with three other Europeans who shape the story of the Middle East in the early 20th century. By drawing back to focus on more than just the romantic figure of Lawrence, Anderson offers us a better understanding of the history and its consequences.

Anderson’s four figures:

T.E. Lawrence needs no introduction (surely) – Lawrence of Arabia? Peter O’Toole on a camel? He was a British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat in the Middle East during WWI.

Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist and Zionist. He was born in Romania but moved at age 6 with his family to Ottoman Palestine. His father was one of the founders of Zichron Ya’acov, now a thriving city in Northern Israel. He would have been among the Founders of the State of Israel had he not been killed in an air crash over the English Channel in 1919.

William Yale was an American civil engineer and executive with the Standard Oil Company of New York, which sent him to Istanbul and then Cairo to explore for oil. In 1917, he was appointed special agent in Cairo for the U.S. Department of State, and the next year he was given a commission as Captain in the U.S. Army and was assigned as an advisor to British General Allenby in Palestine.

Curt Prüfer was a German diplomat from 1907 until 1945. He served primarily in the Middle East although he finished his career in WWII in Brazil. He was one of the architects of German policy towards the British in the Middle East, and thoroughgoing antisemite.


This history is mostly about the Great Powers of Europe, not the Turks or the Arabs or the Palestinians. I might argue for a different subtitle: How the European Powers Laid Waste to the Middle East with Some Help from Standard Oil.

I confess to reading about Aaronsohn with some special interest: only he, among the four, regarded the Middle East as his home. I was also curious because, frankly, I’d never heard of the guy and he’s important both as a Zionist and as an agronomist. He was one of the people who “made the desert bloom;” without his work, Israel today would look very different.

Another thing that interests me about this book is its account of the Armenian genocide. I had heard of it, of course, but now I can see how it happened. I now understand its connection to the Nazi Final Solution: Germans like Prüfer were watching very closely to the Turkish policies and to the inattention of the world.

I’m only about half way through the book, and I already feel that I understand more about the modern Middle East. If you have read it, or in future read it, I hope you’ll leave your impressions in the comments here.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

5 thoughts on “Lawrence Plus Three in Arabia”

  1. I haven’t read that one, but years ago I read Ronald Florence’s (2007) “Lawrence and Aaronsohn: TE Lawrence, Aaron Aaronsohn, and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” The Israeli teacher with whom I studied Hebrew for my bat mitzvah also taught me Israeli history and had me read biographies of important Jews from the First and Second Aliyah. The stories of that time are SO fascinating!! It’s hard to imagine it was only 100 years ago, because the world is so different today!!!
    The Aaronsohn Family’s house in Zichron Yaakov is now a museum about the Aaronsohns and the NILI spy network. I recommend it as a historical place worth seeing when you are next in Israel. And the wineries there serve great food and wine from the vineyards Baron de Rothschild funded in the late 1800s.
    When you finish the book, I would be interested in hearing if the author reaches any conclusion about whether Aaron’s death was an accident or the plane was sabotaged… Thanks!! jen

    1. I’ve just added another book to MY list – thank you! I have been to Zichron Yaakov, but never to the Aaronsohn house museum. Next time I must go. Thank you so much!

  2. I agree with the above comment about Ronald Florence’s book -fascinating. Patricia Goldstone wrote Aaronsohn’s Maps, Harcourt, 2007 that also sheds light on the Aaronsohn family and contributions; if only more people had been in tune with his cautionary perspective. Perhaps people can step back and show more good faith and interest in the well being of others. we have so many missed opportunities from all quarters, but some of those opportunities are worth revisiting.

  3. This is the second time that someone I respect so much mentions the book on Lawrence and on the three other gentlemen. Lionel Barber, the editor of The Financial Times, wrote the following two years ago:
    “Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia (Atlantic) is a gripping narrative featuring TE Lawrence, the adventurer, archaeologist, Arabist and spy whose exploits in the first world war helped to shape the modern Middle East. Anderson sets the Oxford man alongside three other larger-than-life characters, an American oilman, a German diplomat-cum-provocateur and a polyglot Romanian Jew who helped found the state of Israel. It is a novel approach but Lawrence and his own contradictions ultimately capture the day. A must read for anyone trying to understand the region.”
    Thanks so much!

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