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Antonius, George Habib (1891–1942), colonial official, historian, and political activist, was born on 19 October 1891 in Dair al-Qamar, a small town in the Lebanese mountains, the third of five sons of Habib Antonius (d. 1931), a merchant, and his wife, Émilie Hobeika (d. 1943). Of Greek Orthodox faith, the family prospered under the religious and cultural tolerance of Ottoman administration in Greater Syria before moving to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1902 because of Habib Antonius's expanding business interests. George attended Victoria College in Alexandria (1902–10) and then read mechanical engineering at King's College, Cambridge, graduating with a pass degree in 1913.

In the following year Antonius joined the public works department of the British-administered Egyptian government. With the outbreak of the First World War he transferred to the political intelligence department (headed by Gilbert Clayton) at Britain's headquarters in Cairo, where he worked as a press censor. Among his friends was fellow King's graduate E. M. Forster, who described him as ‘a very nice and amusing fellow’ (Boyle, 62). By the end of the war, however, the cheerful disposition had turned into distress because of the disease and famine ravaging his homeland. He was also concerned about British policy, supposedly sympathetic to Arab nationalism, in the wake of the Balfour declaration in November 1917 and the publication by the Bolsheviks of the Sykes–Picot agreement a month later. He nevertheless continued in his post until December 1918, after which he acted as a translator for Feisal ibn Hussein's delegation at the Paris peace conference in 1919.

The post-war division of Greater Syria into French and British mandates was a massive blow to the idea of a unified Arab nation. But while many other Arab nationalists lost faith in Britain, Antonius remained loyal. In July 1921 he secured a post in the education department of the Palestine administration. A Jewish homeland in Palestine, he believed, was not in itself contradictory to Palestinian independence, given that nine-tenths of the population were then Arab. He spent his first year touring the country and impressing on villagers the need to build schools: educated Palestinians must one day rule themselves. At the end of 1923 Herbert Samuel established a commission to investigate local government in Palestine. As the senior Arab in the administration, Antonius was invited to participate and it was he who drafted its interim report in the following June. His arguments for decentralization went against the colonial mindset, however, and were consequently set aside.

Despite this setback Antonius was valued as an interlocutor between élites, not least because of his patrician English accent and charm. Thus, when Arthur Balfour visited Palestine and Syria in 1925, Antonius (who became a Palestinian citizen that year) acted as tour guide. Balfour came across as abysmally ignorant of the local residents. From September Antonius was employed as a translator by Brigadier Clayton, his old chief, in a mission to settle border disputes in the Arabian peninsula brought on by the collapse of the kingdom of Hejaz. His responsibilities soon extended to mediation, and when Clayton became ill he took over as mission leader. The first assignment lasted for nine months, and was followed by two more between 1926 and 1928. He was awarded a CBE for this work in August 1927.

On 29 December 1927 Antonius married Katy Nimr (d. 1984), daughter of Dr Faris Nimr Pasha, an Egyptian senator and newspaper proprietor. Katy—like George—was attractive, sophisticated, and witty, but both were passionate in their views, and the relationship had a tormented edge from the start. The couple hosted grand dinner parties at their home in Jerusalem, which a visiting Richard Crossman described as a political salon in the French style. Katy's sister was married to Walter Smart, oriental counsellor at Britain's high commission in Egypt. In August 1927 Antonius was transferred from education, where he had been promoting reforms aimed at Arab advancement, to a less contentious position as assistant secretary for Arab affairs. Regarding this as virtual dismissal, he repeatedly requested a return to his old department and was eventually successful in October 1929, albeit in a post that was tantamount to demotion—assistant director of education. Besides pushing the Arab cause too vigorously in a government sensitive to Zionist pressure, he incurred the jealousy of some British colleagues because of his wealth and social standing. Frustrated by the continuing discrimination against him, he resigned from the Palestine administration in May 1930.

Antonius subsequently decided that writing was his route to influence. An appointment as the Middle East representative of the New York-based Institute of Current World Affairs gave him a salary for reporting on regional developments while enabling him to work on longer-term projects. An article, ‘The machinery of government in Palestine’, was published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 1932. His next enterprise originated in his meeting in 1931 with Hussein ibn Ali, the embittered former king of Hejaz, who granted him access to documents detailing Hashemite contacts with British officials during the First World War. Antonius decided to use these papers as the core of a book on the origins of Arab nationalism.

Meanwhile, the situation in Palestine was growing increasingly tense, owing to a massive increase in Jewish immigration. Despite his nationalist credentials Antonius came under suspicion in some Arab quarters as a British spy. When a local newspaper published a story to this effect he successfully sued for libel in February 1932. Two months later bullets were fired into his house, obliging him to hire security guards. Adamant that negotiation was preferable to violence, he maintained contacts with the British administration and had regular informal meetings with Arthur Wauchope, the high commissioner (1931–8).

Before the outbreak of the Palestinian revolt in 1936, Antonius worked on his book, interviewing officials and consulting papers in Britain and France, and also completed a lecture tour of the United States. He was offered an appointment as a visiting professor at Columbia University in 1936, but Zionists pressed university administrators into retracting the invitation. Instead, he stayed in Palestine and witnessed the full might of British imperial power being used against his countrymen. Testifying before the Peel commission of inquiry (November 1936–January 1937), he identified the ‘rigid colonial system’ as the cause of the uprising. Fearing that his papers might be confiscated in Palestine, Antonius completed his book in Alexandria. The result was The Arab Awakening (1938), a seminal account of the birth of Arab nationalism (with the notorious Hussein–McMahon correspondence included as an appendix). Zionist policies during the last decade had resulted in Antonius's views on a Jewish homeland in Palestine being upturned: ‘no room can be made … for a second nation except by dislodging or exterminating the nation in possession’ (p. 412).

In February–March 1939 Britain held the St James's Palace conference in London to decide Palestine's fate. The Palestinian delegation chose Antonius as its secretary, and he also acted as secretary-general for all the Arab delegations. Made ill by overwork, he nevertheless conducted business from his bed, buoyed up by his personal satisfaction that The Arab Awakening was being used as a point of reference. The conference ended with Britain promising to restrict Jewish immigration over a five-year period to 75,000, thus keeping the Jewish population to one third of the total.

After the professional peak of the St James's conference came a personal trough from which Antonius never recovered. He and his wife separated in 1939: she stayed in Jerusalem with their daughter Soraya, while he moved to Beirut. Illness (probably ulcers) dogged the last years of his life. At the start of the Second World War he offered his services to the British, French, and American authorities, but none was interested. In reaction to these rejections, he courted his old friend the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and the Iraqi prime minister, Rashid Ali, both of whom were damned in allied eyes by their Nazi connections. These efforts to find a wartime role, coupled with deteriorating health, resulted in his neglecting his duties for the Institute of World Affairs. With dismissal imminent, and a week after his marriage annulment, he died of a perforated intestine on 21 May 1942. He was buried two days later in the Greek Orthodox cemetery on Mount Zion, just outside Jerusalem's old city walls. Denied a prominent role in public administration because of colonial prejudices, he instead found influence as the Arab historian who challenged the British version of events during the First World War. His premature death deprived Arab nationalism of one of its most persuasive voices. An annual lecture was established in his honour at St Antony's College, Oxford, in 1978.

Michael T. Thornhill

Sources  

S. S. Boyle, Betrayal in Palestine: the story of George Antonius (2001) · D. Hopwood, ed., Studies in Arab history: the Antonius lectures, 1978–1987 (1990) · D. Fromkin, A peace to end all peace (1989) · G. Antonius, The Arab awakening (1938) · M. Kramer, ‘Ambitions discontent: the demise of George Antonius’, The great powers in the Middle East, 1919–1939, ed. U. Dann (1988) · A. Hourani, The emergence of the modern Middle East (1981) · G. Kirk, ‘The Arab awakening reconsidered’, Middle East Affairs (June–July 1962) · Y. Porath, The Palestine Arab national movement: from riots to rebellion, 2: 1929–1939 (1977) · E. Kedourie, Nationalism in Asia and Africa (1970) · J. P. Jankowski and I. Gershoni, eds., Rethinking nationalism in the Arab Middle East (1997) · private information (2004) [Soraya Antonius]

Archives  

Institute of Current World Affairs, Hanover, New Hampshire, papers · State of Israel Archives, papers |  King's Cam., E. M. Forster papers · St Ant. Oxf., Middle East Centre, Humphrey Bowman papers; Thomas Hodgkin papers · U. Durham, Gilbert Clayton papers


Likenesses  

photographs, repro. in Boyle, Betrayal in Palestine · photographs, repro. in W. Khalidi, Before their diaspora: a photographic history of the Palestinians 1876–1948 (1991)