Aaron Berman, America’s Arab Nationalists: From the Ottoman Revolution to the Rise of Hitler (London, UK: Routledge, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Aaron Berman (AB): At Columbia University, I trained as an American historian with a secondary field in modern Jewish history. I began teaching at Hampshire College in the late 1970s and developed a course on the history of Zionism. Realizing that teaching about Zionism without giving equal weight to the Palestinian experience was both intellectually and ethically bankrupt, I began to read voraciously about the history of Palestine. I soon became fascinated with Ottoman and Middle Eastern history. When I began looking for a new research topic that would allow me to combine my background in American history with my new passion, I realized that there was relatively little written about the United States and Arab nationalism, particularly in the period before the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in 1952. At first, I thought that my book would center on the American encounter with Arab nationalism, exploring how different people responded to the political ideas and movements emerging in the Arab world. But in time, as I dug into archival sources, I found that some Americans not only responded to Middle Eastern initiatives but in fact participated in the work of building an Arab nationalist ideology and politics. In short, some Americans became Arab nationalists.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AB: I was determined not to periodize my study of Americans and Arab nationalism the way a typical historian of the United States would: in other words, not beginning with World War I and America’s entrance into the world arena. Instead, I wanted to follow the periodization of many historians of the Middle East and begin with the Ottoman revolution of 1908. I argue that between 1908 and 1933, Americans could consider the merits and defects of Arab nationalism in a context not dominated by the issue of Zionism. By the 1930s, the rise of Hitler and the plight of Jewish refugees followed by the Holocaust made it impossible for Americans to consider Arab nationalism without having to contend with the question of how it would have an impact on the Jews in Europe and Palestine.
Much of my book centers on the nationalist careers of four main characters:
Howard Bliss was president of Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut) during the Ottoman revolution of 1908 and travelled to France to urge President Woodrow Wilson to support Arab nationalism at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. In 1908, inspired by the ideals of the 1908 revolution and confronted with students filled with revolutionary zeal, Bliss contributed to the ideological debates raging at the time about what it meant to be an Arabic speaking citizen of an Ottoman nation.
Born to a poor family in Ottoman Syria, Abraham Rihbany became a prominent Protestant minister in Boston, Massachusetts. A critic of Ottoman rule, Rihbany embraced the cause of Arab nationalism during World War I and with the support of his congregation, joined the Arab nationalist delegation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Disillusioned by the betrayal of Arab nationalism at the conference, he became an astute critic of Western imperialism and ethics, although he withdrew from active political work.
Also born in Ottoman Syria, Ameen Rihani was a distinguished author and poet. While the betrayal of Arab nationalism demoralized Abraham Rihbany, Rihani threw himself into the post-war nationalist struggle. A Christian by birth and a free spirit by choice, he became an ardent supporter of Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and the champion of Wahhabism. After violent unrest broke out in Palestine in 1929, Rihani emerged as the leading pro-Arab spokesperson in the developing debate between Arab nationalism and Zionism in the United States.
The philanthropist Charles Crane grew enamored of Arab nationalism while co-chairing a commission to investigate Arab sentiment in the wake of World War I. He helped provoke anti-French riots in Syria in 1922 and he supported a major Syrian nationalist revolt in 1925. History has not been kind to Charles Crane. The rabid anti-Semitism that overcame him during the latter years of his life destroyed his reputation and makes it easy for critics to dismiss his achievements. However, I argue that it is a mistake to read his entire career through the lens of the hatred that later consumed him.
I also highlight the activities of long forgotten American public intellectuals, Elizabeth Titzel, Elizabeth MacCallum, Quincy Wright, and William Ernest Hocking, whose critiques of the British and French Mandates in the Middle East and support of Arab nationalist movements reached a large audience.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AB: I have long been interested in the history of ideas and the social conditions that produced them. I am especially intrigued by the dialectical relationship between ideas and actions; how historical actors (elites and nonelites) understand their world and how this understanding shapes their actions, and how the precipitating events and developments, in turn, alter their understanding.
My first book, Nazism, the Jews and American Zionism (Wayne State University Press) explored how Zionism went from being only one of a number of competing ideologies competing for the loyalty of American Jews to becoming the hegemonic movement within the community. I argue that the decision of American Zionist organizations to prioritize Jewish statehood over immediate efforts to rescue European Jewry stemmed from their incorrect understanding of their own history as a long line of tragedies caused by national homelessness.
As I began the reading that led to my latest book, I wanted to look, in a sense, at the other side of the story: how did Arab nationalism emerge as an idea on the American scene? Several able historians have detailed how nationalist politics emerged in Arab diaspora communities. I instead wanted to explore how Arab nationalism emerged within the larger American public, particularly within the vibrant and abundant print culture of the time.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AB: When I began this book project, my goal was to produce a manuscript that would make an original contribution to scholarship while still being attractive to a large non-professional audience. I believe that I succeeded in achieving this goal. Narrative history (telling stories) is an effective way to develop sophisticated arguments while maintaining the interest of non-academic readers.
I hope that academics and students will discover a chapter of in the history of Arab nationalism that has been underexplored. I also hope than a general audience of American readers who have little understanding of nationalism in general and usually see its Arab version as threatening, will learn that Americans played a role in the birth and development of the ideology.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AB: In my book I discuss how American public intellectuals responded to the League of Nations Mandates system, particularly in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. Some immediately saw the Mandates as just another form of colonialism. Others hoped that they would serve as a peaceful means to transition from an imperial world. Susan Pedersen, of course, has brilliantly explored this topic in much more detail and on a larger scale. I am hoping to investigate how some of these early American students of the Mandates (in particular the political scientist Quincy Wright of the University of Chicago and Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking) responded to the collapse of the British and French Empires following World War II. I am especially interested in how they and their peers responded to the bloody partitions of India and Palestine in 1947 and 1948.
A second possible topic (probably for an article) also focuses on someone I discovered in my research. In 1923, Elizabeth Titzel Riefstahl published a prescient essay on the Zionist settlement of Palestine which took my breath away when I first read it. As far as I can tell, she never again wrote on the contemporary Middle East as she went on to become the Associate Curator at the Brooklyn Museum and an expert on Egyptian antiquities. I would love to flesh out her story and give her the recognition that she deserves.
J: What continues to puzzle you about the American Arab nationalists you studied?
AB: Ameen Rihani and Abraham Rihbany socialized and corresponded with Philip Hitti, the pioneering Orientalist at Princeton University. At one point in their lives, they also held similar political views, so much so that one editor suggested to Rihani that he coauthor an article with Rihbany. As far as I can tell, Rihani never responded to the editor and there is little evidence that points to any kind of interaction between the two. Their national prominence meant they each knew of the other. It seems that their lack of any relationship was intentional. I would love to know more about this.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5, The Disillusionment of Abraham Rihbany: The King-Crane Commission, pp. 90-91, 109-110)
Abraham Rihbany’s journey towards Arab nationalism illustrates the complicated often-confused process by which new identities evolve. When describing the life of Jesus to his American readers he explained that the Savior was a Syrian. Later, when he urged the United States to save the Near East he still saw himself as a Syrian, but the Arab revolt and other developments in the Middle East were already changing the dimensions of that label. For Rihbany and many of his brethren, becoming an Arab did not replace or subsume a Syrian identify, but merely enhanced it. Almost without realizing it, they began to use the two words interchangeably. When the Reverend asked his congregation for a leave of absence he cited the danger to his native Syria. Once in Paris he joined the Arab nationalists gathered around Faisal, putting aside the concern he had earlier expressed about Faisal’s father Sherif Hussein.
Rihbany hoped to convince the American delegation to support Faisal and accept a mandate for the Middle East. He communicated several times with Colonel Edward House, Wilson’s confidant. He befriended Albert H. Lybyer, an academic from Illinois who served as an advisor to the American delegation. Lybyer later in his career would be acclaimed as a leading American Orientalist. In 1919 he was a rather junior member of the American delegation, who missed his wife and doubted if his superiors appreciated his work. Rihbany shared many of the details of his life with Lybyer, who took a liking to the Protestant minister from Boston who now championed the Arab cause. After a long conversation, Lybyer confided to this diary that Rihbany was an “intelligent, eloquent man,” who warned that the British had made a mistake in supporting both the Arabs and the Zionists.
In February 1919, shortly after arriving in Paris, an almost euphoric Rihbany wrote back to his church from what he called, “the great ‘capital of the world.’” He had taken up residence at the Hotel Continental (where Faisal and his delegation also resided) and reported that, “I am as close to things as any non-official person can be, and I find hope for the success of my cause.” By late March, however, the endless talk but little action at the Peace Conference had whittled away at Rihbany’s sense of optimism who now grumbled that, “The situation here is so complex and uncertain that even statesmen confess ignorance as to the outcome.”
By May, Rihbany’s confidence had evaporated, replaced by a growing apprehension that colonization, not independence was in store for the Arab Middle East. In a confidential letter to his friend and fellow nationalist Philip Hitti, Rihbany reported that France was sabotaging efforts to dispatch a special commission to Syria. The French aimed to take possession of Syria and knew that a commission would discover that this outcome terrified most Syrians. Rihbany’s faith in Woodrow Wilson was waning and he worried about the President’s support for the Zionist project in Palestine. Colonel House and the Americans were cautious, afraid that a confrontation with France and England would undermine world stability and result in a new conflagration.
Admitting that he was “greatly disturbed,” Rihbany shared his quandary with Hitti. Some of their comrades believed that France was so desperate to enter Damascus and not be “ejected from the East,” that it would accept any mandate offered it. In return for accepting the French, Paris would agree that the mandate could “be as liberal as we want, amounting to almost independence,...” “But,” Rihbany asked, “would she carry out the terms of such a mandate? This is the serious question [underlined in original]. Many of our friends here think that if America cannot be had, France with a liberal mandate would be better for us than war with France. I dread either proposition but what can we do?” While he had not “given up hope of America taking up our cause,” he warned Hitti that, “we must be prepared for the unpleasant alternative.”
Trying to reconcile himself to the “unpleasant alternative” of French rule, Rihbany had a special and secret task for his friend Hitti. He asked the young academic, just starting out on a career path that would take him to Princeton University, to imagine what a liberal French mandate might look like.
The destruction of the Pan-Arab state of Syria at the hand of the French was only a temporary personal setback for Faisal. Within a year the British would install him as the king in their new Mandate of Iraq. Many of his followers, facing arrest fled French seeking refuge elsewhere. They encountered a new Middle East, soon to be divided into League of Nation Mandates with borders that were remarkably similar to those outlined by the British and French in early wartime secret agreements. The French divided their spoils, ruling over the Mandates of Syria and Lebanon. Unifying three different provinces (vilayets) of the Ottoman Empire, the League and the British established the Mandate of Iraq. Palestine also found itself under British control.
Many of Faisal’s supporters went on the play leading roles in the nationalist movements of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. Some never gave up hope and looked forward to being able to unify these new entities into one Pan-Arab state. Few would forget the failure of the United States to live up to Woodrow Wilson’s ideals. Wilson’s failure and America’s betrayal of Arab nationalism affected no one more than Abraham Rihbany.
The reverend who had worked so hard to become an American had arrived in Paris ready to give his all for the Arab cause. Confusion followed by a fear of impending disaster had steadily eroded his optimism and faith in Wilson and the Peace Conference. Confronting a high-ranking French official in Paris, Rihbany asked, “’Why … does the French government deem it its duty to occupy Syria, while fully ninety per cent of its people do not want you there?’” When the Frenchman responded that left on their own the Arabs “’would cut one another’s throats,” the normally restrained Rihbany sputtered, "’What have you been doing for the last four years in Europe but cutting throats on the most colossal scale the world has known?’”
Rihbany left Paris and returned to his Boston church. In late April 1921, his loving congregation celebrated his tenth anniversary as their pastor. His parishioners hoped that Rihbany would spend the rest of his life with them and a somewhat wistful Rihbany reflected, “It may be I will, but --- who can tell.” He was still somewhat active in Arab nationalist affairs but regretted that “our people . . . are more ready to spend time and money on their wedding feast that on their national ideals.”
From Boston he watched events unfold in French occupied Syria. Writing to his friend Philip Hitti who had returned to Beirut in the Spring of 1921, Rihbany remarked, ‘It must have been rather amusing to you to see so many dressed in Franji. You know that the thing which I regret is the fact that that poor mother country has to array itself in the borrowed garments of an imported civilization, instead of rooting itself in a civilization evolving out of its own soul. But this is a big subject, and a task which Syria probably never can face."
Rihbany also had time to reflect back on the Peace Conference he had attended. He had arrived in Paris visualizing it as “a pentecostal Jerusalem out of which was to go forth the gospel of human brotherhood.” With hindsight he realized that the Arabs and the other peoples of “the East” never had a chance of finding a “redeemer” because their futures had been “pawned” in advance by the English and French. He remembered being summoned by Faial one evening. The Emir had just received a memorandum from the French supposedly summarizing the details of an earlier conversation. Faisal had left the meeting believing that he had reached a “harmonious understanding” with Paris. The communication delivered to him however differed substantially from the details of that understanding and included provisions that were “injurious” to the Arab cause. Turning to Rihbany “with a gesture which seemed to sweep over all Paris,” Faisal asked, "’Is this what you call 'Christian civilization'? Do those who are known as great men tell lies so easily?’"
How could Rihbany possibly reply. He arrived in Paris believing that his adopted country would act as the midwife in the delivery of a new Arab nation founded on the ideals of his beloved President Wilson. Instead of a birth, Rihbany witnessed an act of infanticide. It was not only America’s refusal to accept a mandate for a new Arab state that drove the minister to disillusionment. More devastating was the failure of the American government to embrace the spirit of the King-Crane Commission report and Washington’s silence as the British and French squashed Arab independence and put the lie to the promise of national self- determination.
Abraham Rihbany remained at the Church of the Disciples until 1938 and continued to write and publish. Disillusioned by his experiences in Paris, he chose to be more of an observer than an actor in Arab politics in the United States and abroad. Many of his nationalist colleagues however regrouped and prepared to continue their struggle in the new political context created by World War I.