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  • Arnold Toynbee: Pro Arab or Pro-Zionist?
  • Isaiah Friedman* (bio)

In the late forties, Toynbee acquired the reputation of being a passionate Arab protagonist and a fierce opponent of the State of Israel; by his own admission he became known as a “Western spokesman for the Arab cause.” 1 But during World War I and its aftermath, he was less than sympathetic toward the Arabs. He was greatly disturbed to note that the Syrians, contrary to assurances made by Hussein, as well as by al-Faruqi, remained loyal to Turkey and “their conscripts fought dutifully on her side . . . their leaders are too prudent and the people too peaceable to allow them for a moment to contemplate rising in arms.” 2 Early in the War, he ascertained that, in the Turkish Asiatic provinces, there was only “a veritable cockpit of nationalities so mutilated that they have never even achieved that [kind of] unity which is the essential preliminary to a national life.” 3 By 1917, when the general Arab uprising had failed to materialize, he concluded that they had no “national consciousness. There are Arabs in name who have nothing Arabic about them but their language—most of the peasants in Syria are such . . .” 4 This view was not unique. The official Handbook prepared in 1918 to guide the British delegates to the Peace Conference gave the following description:

The people west of the Jordan are not Arabs, but only Arab-speaking. The bulk of the population are fellahin; that is to say, agricultural workers owning land as a village community or working land for the Syrian effendi. In the Gaza district they are mostly of Egyptian origin; elsewhere they are of the most mixed race. They have for centuries been ground down, overtaxed, and bullied by the Turk, and still more by the Arab-speaking Turkish minor official and the Syrian and Levantine landowner. 5

In his Survey of International Affairs for 1925 6 —by then he was Director of the Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House)—he confirmed [End Page 73] that, although there was “a solidarity of feeling between the Sunnis on both sides of the new Syro-Palestinian frontier,” and that “Arabic was the vernacular language of all inhabitants of Syria . . . the common use of Arabic did not carry with it a corresponding sense of national solidarity. . . . Communal particularism remained . . . the dominant feature in the political life of the country.”

Following the Wailing Wall riots in 1929, Palestine Arab nationalism became very much in evidence, and, in his Survey for International Affairs for 1930, 7 Toynbee analyzed the reasons for the Palestinian discontent fairly and accurately; their obdurate negativism, however, was not to his liking. He regretted particularly that all attempts made by the British Government to set up a Legislative Council with a majority of elected members “had been frustrated by a movement of non-co-operation on the Arab side.” On 9 December 1930, in an address to a distinguished audience at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, he proclaimed unequivocally:

We have made a number of quite sincere and serious attempts [to solve the Arab-Zionist conflict], but the intransigence of the Arabs, in their opposition to the establishment of a Jewish national home, has proved an insuperable stumbling-block every time. 8

Nor did King Hussein of the Hedjaz earn Toynbee’s respect. He referred to his staged coronation on 29 October 1916 in uncomplimentary terms. In his memorandum on British Commitments, he reproduced the Foreign Office telegrams rejecting, on the Allies’ behalf, Hussein’s self-proclaimed title as “the King of the Arabs” and commented:

His Majesty’s Government avoided according Sherif Hussein a title incompatible with their commitments to other independent Arab rulers, but . . . the harm done by the Sherif’s coup d’Etat . . . has never been repaired. The other independent Arab rulers have not been inwardly reassured by our restriction of the Sherif’s title to the Hedjaz; while he, on his part, has only accepted this restriction as provisional. The problem has been postponed, not solved. 9

To Hussein’s letter to Wingate of 28 August 1918, 10 Toynbee reacted with a mixture of disbelief and derision. He took...

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