An American in Palestine: Elwood Mead and Zionist Water Resource Planning, 1923-1936

By Rook, Robert E. | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

An American in Palestine: Elwood Mead and Zionist Water Resource Planning, 1923-1936


Rook, Robert E., Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


A RECENT ARTICLE EXAMINING ZIONIST ideology and water resource development during the pre-state period and its influences upon contemporary Israeli water policies provided readers with an oblique glance at the multi-faceted assistance Americans furnished Zionist and early Israeli leaders with regard to water resource development issues. [1] To date, most examinations of Zionist, and later Israeli, water resource plans and programs rarely fail to mention Walter Clay Lowdermilk, James B. Hays, and John L. Savage, individuals who made significant contributions to Israel's "land-water nexus" in the late 1940s and early 1950s [2] That these individuals provided significant technical expertise and, equally important, political leverage to Zionist arguments that Palestine was a despoiled paradise awaiting more enlightened management is undisputed. But Lowdermilk, Hays, and Savage were not the first American advisors to assist Zionist settlers in their quest to capture Palestine's hydraulic future. Credit for that b elongs to Elwood Mead who advised Zionist leaders throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

An internationally recognized authority on irrigation, hydraulic engineering, and water law by 1920, Mead eventually won acclaim as the Hoover Dam's chief engineer and eventually became the Commissioner of the United States Bureau of Reclamation. During this same period, Mead also advised Zionist leaders on water management issues in Palestine and lobbied the British mandatory regime on their behalf. As much as any American at the time, or arguably since, Elwood Mead understood the critical land-water nexus and its centrality to the success of Zionist endeavors in Palestine. Mead lent hard-won experience and expertise from the American west to Zionist settlers in the Middle East and in the process became the first "conduit" of American hydraulic expertise in support of Zionist activities in Palestine.

To Mead, the American west had much to offer Zionist Jews in their campaign to create a new nation in the Middle East and, although initially engaged as a technical advisor, Mead provided valuable political leverage for Zionists. Chaim Weizmann, the president of World Zionist Organization, attempted to use Mead's technical reports to win political support for a Jewish state in Palestine. Mead, however, was not an uncritical Zionist advocate. In fact, he bore neither a religious nor a sentimental attachment to Zionism. Accordingly, he was unwavering in his condemnation of Jewish settlers who elevated political ideology above cost-benefit analysis and sound engineering principles. Mead was an engineer and a practitioner of what environmental historian Samuel Hays has labeled "the gospel of efficiency," according to which the efficient use of natural resources was more than a means to an end -- it was a goal unto itself, an essential indicator of a society's fitness. [3] Mead's frequently rigid analytic approac h was nevertheless tinged with strong ethnic and racial biases that clearly influenced Mead's interpretations of Jewish land reclamation efforts in Palestine, a fact that prefigured future Zionist propaganda campaigns in America. Mead contended that Jewish settlers were making the best use of Palestine's land and water resources, unlike Palestine's Arab population. And efficient, judicious resource management was a major factor, in Mead's eyes, in any decision on who should ultimately control Palestine's future. Mead's arguments reinforced a central Zionist idea that Jewish settlers were Palestine's best hope for economic development. In the process, Mead demonstrated that water resource development was an exercise both in hydraulic management and in public relations. But, an understanding of Mead's plans for Palestine's requires a brief examination of the career path that led to Mead's eventual arrival in Palestine in 1923.

THE ROAD TO PALESTINE

A boyhood spent on a farm in Indiana convinced Mead that his destiny lay elsewhere both geographically and vocationally.

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