The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies was one of the great works of the eminent 20th-century historian of the Arab world, Elie Kedourie. To mark the 50th anniversary of its publication, Robert D. Kaplan reflects on its author’s legacy. But first he explains the book’s title:
Chatham House, or the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and its director of studies for three decades, Arnold Toynbee, become in Kedourie’s book illustrative of an elitist British sentimentality toward the cultures of the Middle East (and to Arab nationalism in particular) that hid from, rather than faced up to, the impure, realist requirements of politics and necessary force.
In other words, the “Chatham House version” of things was not unlike the orthodoxies held by the American State Department or the British foreign office today. Kaplan continues:
Elie Kedourie grew up in a wealthy Jewish family in Baghdad, and as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy witnessed close-up the June 1941 pogrom, known as the farhud (“looting”), in which the Iraqi army and police murdered over 180 Jewish men, women, and children, and raped countless Jewish women. . . . Kedourie, in The Chatham House Version, blames the British authorities for failing to protect the Jews, despite having taken over responsibility for Mesopotamia from the Ottoman empire in the aftermath of World War I.
Kedourie’s essential diagnosis of Great Britain’s Arab policy in his lifetime was that the British foreign office’s awe of an exotic culture, combined with the “snare” of a misunderstood familiarity toward English-speaking Arabs—who used the same words, but meant very different things when discussing such issues as rule-of-law and constitutions—led to a profound lapse of policy judgment: toward which, one must add guilt regarding the post-World War I border arrangements that allowed for, among other things, a Jewish national home in Palestine.
In the minds of this naïve generation of British officials, once Zionism and imperialism could be done away with, the Arabs would enjoy peaceful and stable institutions. Fifty years ago, Kedourie countered with what in recent decades has since become a commonplace: that neither imperialism nor Zionism was the problem.