Much Ado About Nothing

Much has been written and spoken about US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Even though the international community has, since 1948, held that Jerusalem is too important to be placed in the hands of the Jews it despised, Israel has always made access to all three so-named Abrahamic faiths (Islam isn’t…) available to everyone.  This is in strict adherence to the core principles of the Balfour Declaration which stated that “…nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”

However, the so-called “Trump Declaration”, like the Balfour Declaration before it which was an opinion of the majority of the British cabinet, was less an article of law than a statement of the opinion of a majority of Trump’s administration. However, both friends and enemies of the Jewish state understood, then and now, its significance. (after Abu Yehuda blog).

Learned tomes have been written on why Jerusalem is central to the cultural, spiritual, political and religious aspirations of the world’s only Jewish state. Statistics have been provided that show populations shifts this way and that under the Ottomans and during the time the Ottomans were actually pushed out of Palestine by the British (with Hejazi Arab help in the Arabian peninsular…). UN rulings have chronicled who is and who isn’t a refugee and what, in the international arena, should happen to Jerusalem as a focus for three major religions. The purpose of this piece is to pick apart some of the significant but lesser known developments that took place 100 years ago which show that the “Trump Declaration” was just one of a string of similar such moves, albeit from highly unlikely sources.

With regard to the Ottomans, on August 12, 1918, one year after the Balfour Declaration, Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha in Istanbul ordered the co-triumvir in Palestine to officially declare, in the name of the Ottoman government, abolition of the extremely repressive sanctions placed on Jews through the wars years 19414-1918 aimed at wiping out the Jews in the Levant. Further, the Grand Vizier expressed sympathy “for the establishment of a religious and national Jewish center in Palestine by well-organized immigration and colonization.”

Specifically, Talaat Pasha stated, “Regarding my invitation to several Jewish organizations, I declare once again, as I already did to the Jewish delegation, my sympathies for the establishment of a religious and national Jewish center in Palestine by well-organized immigration and settlement, for I am convinced of the importance and benefits of the settlement of Jews in Palestine for the Ottoman Empire.”

It is probable that Talaat knew full well that he would never have to implement the declaration given the outcome of the efforts of the Triple Alliance on the Eastern Front.

Nevertheless, the significance of the Turkish declaration cannot be overstated because, apart from ensuring the safety of Jewish communities in those parts of the empire still in Ottoman hands, it provided Istanbul with a potentially valuable card for the postwar peace talks. And, much like the bi-lateral Israeli-Saudi-Egyptian rapprochement and alignment in 2017, the 1918 Turkish Declaration flagged a significant break with Islamic and Ottoman taboos, by putting the Jews on a par with their Muslim counterparts and viewing them as a nation deserving of self-determination.

For their part, the Germans under Kaiser Wilhelm II were well disposed to Zionism. Wilhelm considered Zionism “a question of huge importance.” He favored its main goal—the revival of the Holy Land by the “capital mighty and industrious Israel”—and tried to impart his enthusiasm to Sultan Abdulhamid II during his visit to Istanbul in 1898 without much luck.

After the outbreak of WWI, the Kaiser had to strike a balance between this general sympathy  for Jews and Zionism and the need to avoid antagonizing the Ottoman leadership or the Triple Alliance,  even though the Ottomans treated its national minorities with outright repression.

Thus, for example, his order to the German consuls throughout the empire to protect the Yishuv, including the new Jewish immigrants arriving from enemy states (notably Russia), was presented as being in Istanbul’s best interest.

In December 1914 when the Jaffa governor ordered the deportation of all Jews who had not become Ottoman subjects, the German Ambassador Hans von Wangenheim approached Talaat Pasha himself with the request that the deportations be halted. The Ottoman leadership complied.

In April 1917 Djemal Pasha, the co-triumvir in the Levant, ordered the expulsion of the 9,000-strong Jewish community of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, as well as that of Jerusalem, for “military reasons,” chief of staff, Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, persuaded Djemal to abandon the Jerusalem plan, but did not succeed in doing so for the Yafo deportees (after Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2018).

In a great historical irony, ninety-nine years after the Ottoman Empire, the then-temporal and religious leader of the world’s Muslim community and Palestine’s longtime imperial master, voiced support for “the establishment of a religious and national Jewish center in Palestine,” the Palestinian leadership  [in Ramallah. Parenthesis mine…] demanded an official apology from Britain for endorsing the same idea at about the same time.” (Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2018).

In 2017, the “Trump Declaration” is additionally criticised as being dismissive of “Palestinian” Arab refugee rights of return to Jerusalem (as well as the area between the river and the sea…). In line with international law though, the UN stated clearly that it viewed these refugees “…Persons whose normal place of residence was (British Mandate of) Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

Throughout the history of the world populations have transferred during times of war. In no other corner of the world, and in no other recorded conflict in history, have people been granted refugee status in perpetuity. Created in December 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) after the stunning defeat of 5 Arab armies in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, UNRWA has no parallel in any other conflict zone in the world. Not in Burma, not in Tibet, not in Cyprus, not in the Maghreb, not in the Ukraine, not in South Sudan, not in the Central African Republic to name but seven hotspots. And not even in Syria………

The implication is clear.

The “Trump Declaration” is political hay-making by an intransigent Arab voting bloc unable to defeat Israel in war, and a self-interested but miffed EU volubly supported by America’s Liberal Democrats who still cannot get over the win of a real estate tycoon over a well established political dynasty.

As I said, precedent has been established. The current howlings and swirling around are, indeed, much ado about nothing. Of substance.









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