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Posted in: Anti-Semitism

Published on Jan 20, 2011 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for NewsRealBlog

Freya Stark: Intrepid Arabian Adventurer, Ardent Jew Hater


On the one hand, I am a hopeless Anglophile. I speak and write in English; the first poems and novels I ever read were in English too. I was often among the first in Manhattan to see each new film which depicted British upper class life in the Victorian or Edwardian countryside, in sunny Italy, or in steaming, teeming, India during the days of the British Raj.

I am an American. Perhaps my behavior is similar to others who have also been formerly colonized. It is no accident that filmmaker Ismail Merchant is a Muslim from India and that his script writer, German-born Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is Jewish. (Her husband is a Zoroastrian from India). Together with Protestant-American, James Ivory, their many film ventures have satisfied the world's need for British-based romantic nostalgia e.g. Room With a View, Howard's End, The Remains of the Day, The Europeans, Maurice.

I may be just another ex-colonial lapdog. Nevertheless, I still love the great British actresses: Flora Robson, Cate Blanchett, Glenda Jackson, Judi Densch, and Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth I and I love Helen Mirren as the current monarch who bears her name. For that matter, I love Colin Firth as George VI, Elizabeth's father, in The King's Speech, whose performance is quite wonderful. I love all the British grande dames of the theatre especially Brenda Blethyn, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, and Emma Thompson.

Yes, I love the great male actors as well: Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Ralph Fiennes, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson, Lawrence Olivier, Peter O'Toole, and Robert Shaw.

I could go on and on about the British theatre, its playwrights, its many poets and novelists, but allow me to stand on my Anglophilia or "love" of British culture to make the following point:

Damn Britain! It is a Jew-hating culture through and through, class-bound, snobbish, Arab-loving, and, even today, impervious to the threat of Arab and Islamic jihad both from within and externally. Britain has been in the forefront of the 21st century movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel. Academics, journalists, intellectuals, activists, politicians, and now business people have not only blood libeled Israel but are now dropping Israeli products, such as the Ahava beauty line from their shelves.

Tiny Jewish Israel, struggling to be born, not only had Hitler and his henchmen with whom to contend; she also had the hostile Arabs and the equally hostile Brits who consistently sided with the Arabs. Others have written about this in a far more learned way than I ever could. Dr. Anthony Julius immediately comes to mind. His most recent title is on this very subject and, since there is not much to say, the book is only a mere 864 pages long.

But here's where I can add a little something to the pot of common knowledge. Dame Freya Stark is a well-known British traveler and adventurer (1893-1993) whose work about Arab and Muslim countries was and still is very popular. Reviews of a recent biography about her have described Stark as "a complex figure—heroic, lonely, and entirely human;" as "the last of the great romantic travelers," a "remarkable" and "fascinating" woman." Travel and Leisure describes Stark as "one of the most intrepid adventurers of all time."

Thus, there I was, happily reading one of Stark's books in connection to another project entirely, (East is West, which was published in 1945), when I unexpectedly and unhappily came across an ugly strain of British Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism. In the middle of World War Two, the British Foreign Office had sent the greatly esteemed and Arabic-speaking Stark back into the Middle East in order to help Britain maintain its privileged relationships with the young "effendis" whom she mostly adored.

Stark does not critique Islamic gender or religious apartheid at all. In fact, she actually believes that sequestered Muslim women in purdah exercise a great deal of power and that the then-existing feminism unwisely sought to turn women into men—something which, in Stark's view, would have greatly reduced Muslim women's essential and pre-existing power.

In short, Stark is a typical British Memsahib: Happy to be the only (foreign) woman among many Arab and Muslim men—or among male British officials; happy to be out of rainy, dreary England; happy to do her mixed-gender socializing only within the British colony. She—an agent of the greatest colonialist power on earth, dares to write:

I have always held that force is a monstrous thing to use against a people long settled on its lands to induce it to accept immigration; if the arrivals are angels from heaven, it makes no difference—the habitation of a land for two thousand years gives one a right to close or open the door. And to say that a country's 'absorptive capacity,' or inferior efficiency' give other people a claim to rearrange its populations, whether it be Italians in Abyssinia or Zionists in Palestine, savours too much of what we have spent these years fighting against to be acceptable to a civilized mind.

In other words, knowing that the Jews were being mass murdered in a monstrous genocide in Europe, she still viewed the "Zionist" escapees from countless pogroms the same as she viewed the Italian fascists who were trying to gain a foothold in the Middle East. No, she is not entirely cold-hearted. She continues:

Let us by all means try to help those we care for—and in these I wholeheartedly include many sons of Zion—to obtain their wish, and revisit the home of their childhood which is now the house of our friends: but let us do it by asking, and give to the present owner the privilege of yes or no which is his right, and not stand with a bludgeon on the doormat.

No one has handled a bloody bludgeon better than Britain. Here's Stark's continued view on the Jewish struggle to survive in Palestine:

Palestine would be self-governing already if the Zionist question had not brought into that unhappy country its ancient tangle, renewing in modern form the old wars of Israel, Philistia, Edom and Moab, and the Hittites of the north.

Mind you: In this work, Stark underplays what she herself knows, namely, that each and every Arab tribe and sheikdom remained at war with every other Arab tribe and sheikdom, tended to resist nationalism, or preferred a pan-Arabic vision of one Islamic nation. Stark views Arab nationalism positively, passionately, and views the introduction of Zionism as an irritant, one which has stopped the nation of Transjordan from otherwise flourishing. Listen further to her words:

I have visited agricultural colonies round Galilee and Hule, in the plain of Esdraelon and under the heights of Nazareth, and have seen the remarkable industrial development near Haifa and the ruthless vitality (sic) of Tel Aviv…

What a telling phrase—"the ruthless vitality of Tel Aviv." Would Stark describe the English industrial revolution in quite this way?

Long before 21st century British journalists, activists, and cartoonists turned reality on its head and viewed Israel as a Nazi Apartheid state and the Palestinian terrorists as innocent and helpless victims—here, in 1945, we have Stark's eerily similar view. She writes:

One feels a rather touching quality in the Arab effort in Palestine, due to its financial background, which differs so very much from that of the riches of Zion, drawn from all the world; it is rather like David and Goliath, the other way around.

The riches of Zion went up in gas chamber smoke; the gold, jewels, paintings, real estate, factories, apartments, clothing, hair, shoes, toys forever after, short of ponderous lawsuits, belonged to the Nazis, their collaborators, and their descendants.

Stark accepts Muslim gender and religious apartheid without reservation–but rejects Jewish "exclusionism," which she abhors. She similarly abhors Jewish survival. Although Stark published this particular work (East is West) at the end of WWII, she still heartlessly insists upon comparing "Fascist Rome," "Zionist Jerusalem" and "British Empire." Listen further, I could not make this up.

The skein of the Middle East in all these centuries has gathered threads of very many colours; and no return to simple black and white will ever be possible again—whether it be the dream of Fascist Rome or Zionist Jerusalem, or that British form of empire which has become obsolete…

Dr. Rory Miller, senior lecturer in Mediterranean Studies at Kings College London, was onto Stark long before I was. In 2007, he wrote:

Despite numerous public protestations to the contrary, (Stark's) private correspondence from the 1920s-1940s, is full of statements that are extremely derogatory to both Jews and Judaism. In 1931 she informed Robert Stark that 'I don't think that anyone but a Jew can really like a Jew.' In 1940, during a trip to San'a, she felt it necessary to write to a relative that 'the Jews here are so ugly; their eyes so spaniel soft, their manner so deprecating…these miserable people have been thinking over their wrongs ever since Titus wiped the temple floor with them.' Her antipathy towards Jews was so intense that when, during a visit to the United States in 1943, she made acquaintance with Jews she actually liked it caused her concern. Confiding in a friend after attending a dinner where several Jews were present:

The distressing thing is that I like the Jews I meet here and have to argue with, almost better than anyone else I see, and there was a most disarming mixture of sharpness, kindness and humor about the Rabbi. But the little man on my right…Kaplan…made me long for a pet pogrom (sic, my italics) of my own before we were through the soup…I believe they…don't know how objectionable they are.

Stark has been fawned over by fabulists and fantasists—perhaps even by feminists whom she opposed—as a great hero, an "intrepid" adventurer. And now I feel a little like Ruth Gruber might have felt when she first encountered the great Virginia Woolf's anti-Semitism.

I am distressed, angry, sad, disgusted, and feel a little…dirtied by having spent time reading the works of such a Jew-hater. On the other hand, can one simply dismiss her work out of hand? Some say that Shakespeare himself was an anti-Semite. Others argue that, for his time, the Bard tried to present Jews sympathetically. For all we know, Freya Stark hated Jews less than other Brits of her era did.


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