How European Empires came to the Rescue of Christians and Jews in the Nineteenth Century

Here is Part B of essay Two in the series: The Suffocation of Christian Communities in the Middle East from Paul Merkley, reprinted by permission of Paul and from The Bayview Review. See the links at the end for direct access to the rest of Paul’s work.

The “Discovery” of the Middle East in the Nineteenth Century. 

Historians note a conspicuous improvement in the situation of the Christians and the Jews of the Middle East beginning around the middle of the Nineteenth Century. The immediate cause was the “discovery” of the Middle East by the public and by politicians in Europe and America.

Ironically, modern re-discovery of interest in the Middle East began with an eccentric gambit of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1798, General Bonaparte, the hero of the campaign of 1795 to drive the Austrians out of Italy , took to his political masters in Paris (the Directorate) a hare-brained scheme to put the British Empire out of action by attacking and annexing Egypt . The plan was adjudged brilliant by the Directorate, whose whole motivation was to get him  off the political scene. Napoleon’s military expedition (1798-1799) bogged down almost immediately, and so Napoleon applied his usual remedy in times of disaster – he turned the project into something bigger and sold it again under an improved label. The new game plan was to conquer the Holy Land and break up the Empire of the Turks by liberating the Jews and the Christians of the region. Within weeks of the defeat of his armies by the Ottomans, aided by the British,  Napoleon fled the scene, returned to Paris ,  and picked up the usual reward of French generals after disasters – promotion. A few years later, he became the Dictator of France under the title of First Consul. About five years later, this self-appointed Messiah of Democracy had become the Emperor of the French and the Imperial master of Europe (1804-1815.)

The long-lasting effects of the Egyptian campaign of 1798-1799 were ones that neither Napoleon nor anyone else had foreseen. These effects followed from the implanting on Egyptian soil of scholarly societies which did indeed deliver incredible, unanticipated scientific breakthroughs in the decipherment of Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Mesopotamian languages, laying the foundations of  modern scholarship in the Ancient civilizations. Immediately, the collective imagination of Europe was engaged by archeological discoveries in Palestine and in its neighborhood, bringing into view for the first time indisputable remains of the great Empires that make their appearances in the Bible — in Mesopotamia  (ancient Babylon ),  Assyria , Syria , Canaan, Transjordan  and Egypt . These archeological advances were made possible by recovery of ancient texts and their decipherment after literally millennia during which they spoke to no one alive. The accomplishments of the British and the French in these arenas inspired parallel projects everywhere throughout the western world, notably by the Americans. [For this story, I recommend (inter alia)  Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America (New York: Schocken Books, 1983); Naomi Shepherd, The Zealous Intruders (he Western Re-Discovery of Palestine (New York: Harper, 1987); and  Michael Oren,  Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East ( New York : Norton, 2007.)]

Thoughts of Empire in the Holy Land

At an early point, the mind of the British public was turned to possibilities of closing the gap between their growing empire in India (which in those days included everything that is now Pakistan , Bangladesh ,  and much more) and the Mediterranean . Henceforth, it was a fixed element in British foreign policy that the Middle East must have a variegated and respected British presence in it – armies, diplomats, scholars, missionaries, educational institutions, scientific institutions, archeological projects, philanthropic societies– all of them waving the Union Jack. As these developments proceeded, politicians with large geopolitical imagination began to see a need to pre-empt any active diplomatic role in the region by potential future enemies – Imperial Germany and Imperial Russia. Early on, the Church of England collaborated closely with the Nonconformist Churches and with a impressive empire of interdenominational bodies in forming new missionary societies, including the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Among the Jews that  spearheaded the campaign to make Palestine , in effect, a missionary province.

Crucial to the timing of this story is the fact that the collective memory of the unhappy ending to the last of the Crusades had by now thoroughly receded. Over recent centuries, the European spirit of adventure and the instinct for exploration and for exploration had found ample room in the New World and in the Far East . As Britain ’s  empire grew to such proportions that the sun never set upon it, a new significance was attached to Egypt , Syria , Lebanon , and “the Holy Land” – all of it now seen as a great bridge between the Mediterranean world and India . 

Europe takes up the task of Protection of the Jews and Christian in the Ottoman empire

All of this work was carried out without the necessity of declaring formal empire over the region – a striking contrast to the chapters of European interest in Africa and Asia in the same time period. Equally, all of this activity provided opportunity and pious cover for expression of European Christian concern for the Jews and the Christians of the region – people whom Europeans had virtually lost sight of for several hundred years.

This expression of support for Christians and for Jews in the region materialized just in time. The mid-to-late Nineteenth Century was marked by spectacular examples of popular Muslim rage directed against Jews, while the local Christian communities stood aside, content to let wrath fall upon the Christ-killers rather than upon themselves. In picturing the effects of this characteristic Muslim rage we are assisted these days by television news coverage of recent events in Pakistan and Afghanistan – enraged mobs attacking and burning down churches, gang-rapes of Christian girls, government leaders standing by, fearful to intervene or actually cheering on the violence. This is not happening to Jews today in Arab Middle East – for the good and sufficient reason that the Jews have all been driven out during our lifetime. 

The Damascus Blood Libel and its aftermath

One memorable instance of mob violence against Jews is usually mentioned in the general histories of this period. This was the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840.

In this instance, mob violence was triggered by the disappearance of a French priest and the quick emergence of the story that he had been murdered and his blood – all of it — collected for the purpose of making thematzoh bread that Jews use for Passover. Jews have been doing this for  centuries, as everyone knew. Versions of this story circulated widely in Medieval European times, usually surfacing afresh whenever a boy disappeared without a known reason. In the case of Damascus in 1840, the leaders of the local Jewish community were arrested. Those who did not die under torture saved their lives by publicly proclaiming their conversion to  Islam. The synagogue was besieged and its scrolls were destroyed. A particularly painful feature of this particular case was that the accusations of ritual murder that triggered it came from certain French monks serving in Syria .

Anti-Jewish mayhem on this scale was not new in the region. What was new about this Nineteenth Century episode was that it was observed by Europeans and described in  diplomatic dispatches. News about future events of this kind henceforth travelled by telegraph to European and American newspapers and were instantly discussed all over the western world.

The violence in Damascus might have gone on forever had it not been for the intervention at the court of the Sultan of the government of Great Britain, led by Prime Minister Lord Melbourne and Foreign Minister Lord Palmerston, who compelled the Sultan to accept England as the rightful Protector of the Jews and Christian minorities of his Empire and to open the doors to English missionaries.  From 1840 onward, Britain built around her self-appointed  role as protector of the Jews a  permanent diplomatic presence in the heart of the Old City of  Jerusalem, where its consulate stood at the side of the newly built Christ Church , just inside Jaffa Gate.

A decisive role in this event was played by the Seventh Lord Shaftesbury, the master-spirit behind England ’s great missionary and evangelical empire of those days and, not incidentally, the nephew-in-law of Melbourne and the stepson-in-law of Melbourne . The British public took up cheerfully the obligation of protection of the Jews, partly in hope of winning their conversion, but fundamentally as a humanitarian obligation expressed in terms which would nowadays be considered un thinkable: in defense of the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity.

The British intervention in Jerusalem and its vicinity saved the Jewish population there and set it upon a path of modest but steady growth. Here were the first fruits of the Zionist project.

A great paradox lies in the fact that while the Blood Libel incident of 1840 did serve to stir up concern for the fate of the Jews in the Arab world, and opened wide the door for diplomatic intervention with the Ottoman regime on behalf of the Jews, it also set off terrible copy-cat pogroms in many places in Europe by bringing back to local memory the blood libels against the Jews that had triggered massacres in Europe in medieval times. The first serious consideration of restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land , under the banner of Zionism, took place in response to pogroms  throughout the Russian empire that were immediately triggered by  blood libels.

The Long-term effects of the withdrawal of European Empire from the Middle East

This episode is typically dismissed nowadays as an assertion of sheer political and economic imperialism and there is no doubt that in the back of the minds of the  statesmen there were visions of future opportunity on the political and economic landscape as well as the satisfaction of assisting scholars in the newly-developing field of scientific archeology.  But this episode is better seen as a great and proud  expression of the benign side of empire.

In the seventy years or so since Britain withdrew her imperial presence from the region, the Arab world has notably reversed the trend towards religious liberty that the British imagined that they had established. The first step in this work of reversal was the total elimination of the Jewish minority from the region,  accomplished between 1949 and 1955. The second step, presently ongoing, has been the drastic reduction of the numbers of Christians.

In his article, “A Grim Future for Christians in the Islamic Middle East Muslim Persecution of Christians at a Crossroads: The time to act is now or never,”  Raymond Ibrahim, a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum, offers some little-known historical perspective to this story.

During the colonial era and into the mid 20th century, when Western influence in the Muslim world was strong, Christian persecution was markedly subdued. Because of the lull in persecution, generations of Westerners came to see events closer to their time as more representative of reality. They tended to overlook the historic and doctrinal roots of Christian persecution under Islam, and thus failed to comprehend what is otherwise so obvious.

In other words: whereas in the past it was the presence of Western, nominally Christian, governments and other institutions that kept Muslim violence against non-Muslims contained to some degree, the removal of these forces by degrees over the last half-century has let them loose again.

Post-script: Present-day enthusiasm for the Blood Libel in the Arab Middle East

Before we leave the Damascus incident, we should  note that the accusations against the local Jews that triggered the original mob hysteria still circulate in the Arab Middle East. They are, for example, the substance of a widely-read book,   The Damascus Blood Libel written by a man who was a few years ago the Minister of Defense of Syria, Mustafa Tlass. That book in turn serves as the basis of a dramatic television series in which the audience gets to see the boy being captured, his throat slit, and the rabbis in recognizable costume dancing feverishly as the do the kitchen duty. The series is particularly popular in Egypt and in the Palestine Authority. [MEMRI “Inquiry and Analysis #99, June 27, 2002. http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/688.htm] See also: http://www.algemeiner.com/2013/05/01/egyptian-newspaper-features-two-blood-libel-articles-in-a-single-day/]

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