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Remembering Richard Meinertzhagen on Independence Day

Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen was a gentile, a British soldier and diplomat, explorer and big-game hunter, the eccentric scion of an upper-class Victorian family of Danish ancestry. There is a little street bearing his name in downtown Jerusalem, and my friend Stuart says it sounds like a brand of beer. He was a fighter for Israel, a lifelong friend.

In World War I Allied forces— the Brits and the ANZACs— were advancing north from Egypt to liberate the Land of Israel (“Palestine”) from Ottoman Turkish occupation. The Ottoman Empire was a genocidal state and was engaged in the premeditated extermination of its Armenian population at the time, with the assistance of its ally, Germany. It was planning the deportation of the Jews of the Yishuv— the community in the Land of Israel. The Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin was to coin the term genocide only later, in 1942— the Turks called what they were doing jihad. Plus ça change… 

How was England to defeat the Turks? Meinertzhagen worked out a ruse to convince the Turks and their German cohorts that Britain planned to attack from the sea, at Gaza. Carrying the fake plan in a notebook, he rode into enemy territory in the Negev desert, pretending to be an absentminded birdwatcher (he was, in fact, a serious ornithologist), and escaped when spotted by Arab scouts, “losing” his knapsack with the notebook and, to make the act look authentic, his water canteen. You need water when you’re out in the desert. The trick thus involved risk, but it worked. While the Axis waited for an amphibious assault, the Australian light horse surprised under-defended Beersheva with the last great cavalry charge in history. Riding under the Turkish guns, they freed Abraham’s ancient town from millennial Muslim domination and the way to David’s royal city, Jerusalem, lay open to General Allenby.

In the years that followed, Meinertzhagen befriended Chaim Weizmann and became a lonely but indefatigable advocate for Zionism in the largely antisemitic British establishment in the Middle East and London, confiding to his diaries— which ran to over seventy volumes— his hopes for the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in our homeland and his frustration with his bigoted, bloody-minded colleagues. At age 82, in 1959, he published selected excerpts in Middle East Diary 1917-1956. He chronicles his youthful adventures and describes his decidedly odd family in Diary of a Black Sheep, 1964. (One of his aunts was the crotchety, indomitable Marxist Beatrice Webb.) Peter Capstick’s biography of 1998, Warrior, fills in the lacunae of Meinertzhagen’s career in military service in India and Kenya. In the 1930s, the fearless Englishman intervened personally with Hitler in an attempt to save the Jews. He tried, just as unsuccessfully, to reverse the British policy of placating the Arabs and their Nazi Grand Mufti by closing the Land of Israel to Jewish refugees. During the fighting leading up to the Israeli War of Independence, Meinertzhagen was on a destroyer that docked in Haifa. A gun battle was raging on the quay: he jumped ship for the day, joined a unit of the Haganah, and later recorded with great satisfaction having bagged a score of Arab cutthroats.

The diaries are fascinating, with unvarnished accounts of his dealings and conversations with such historical figures as King Faisal, Lloyd George, Sir Winston Churchill, and H.M. King George V. Lawrence of Arabia and Meinertzhagen were intimate friends, and the portrait of Lawrence that emerges is touching, even heartbreaking. Meinertzhagen’s opinions are to today’s microaggressions what an atomic bomb would be to a Fourth of July firecracker. He considered Islam a savage monstrosity; the Arabs, incorrigible and imbecilic barbarians. His evocations of his fellow Brits are fracturing. Here is an example:

“4 November 1919. Cairo.
From Jerusalem we went by rail to Haifa, where I stopped with Waters-Taylor on Mount Carmel. Madame is a most astounding woman, who says whatever enters her head, regardless of propriety or sanity. Her early morning attire is her husband’s jodhpur breeches and his pyjama tops. She then rides down to Haifa beach where she bathes in her husband’s shirt and shorts. Her day dress is some oriental kit, and in the evening she surpasses herself in some native drapery wrapt round her and enormous silver anklets on her legs. She has three pets, an infamous over-fed mongrel dog called ‘Bug’, a Madagascar parrot called ‘Koko’ which bites all and sundry who approach it, and a tailless black cat called ‘Tootles’, very wild, black and skinny. These three horrors live in perfect harmony together and are Madame’s joy in life.” Once Meinertzhagen saw Mrs. Waters-Taylor at swim off the coast, mistook her for a rare Mediterranean seal, and readied his rifle to take a trophy. Fortunately he hesitated, and she emerged, not quite Aphrodite anadyomene but still not a pinniped suitable for taxidermy.

Richard Meinertzhagen, a friend of Israel and a champion of the Jewish people, died at 89 in the summer of 1967, not long after Israel’s victory over our Arab enemy in the Six-Day War. In his final years he regarded the alien, unmanly world around him with dismay. But he had lived to see the dream of Zionism become a reality. He had worked and fought hard most of his life for that dream.

Israel is, miraculously, a vibrant and decent society, an island of the truth in a lying world that celebrates violence, death, and depravity. It is not hard these days to feel alone; but it is the quality, not the number, of a man’s friends that matters. Richard Meinertzhagen was our friend, and his courage is an example for us and our children. I remember and honor him on our Independence Day. So should we all.

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.
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