Thursday, December 10, 2009

9 December 1917: General Allenby Captures Jerusalem

The Ottomans surrender Jerusalem to British forces, December 1917. It was a most welcome development for the Entente in the wake of the disasters of Passchendaele and Caporetto. In June, Prime Minister Lloyd George had asked General Allenby to "to take Jerusalem as a Christmas present for the nation." Allenby famously entered via the Jaffa Gate on foot, a gesture generally described as one of deference to Jesus, who had ridden a donkey, but in fact also a political one intended as (in Conor Cruise O'Brien's words) "a snub to the Kaiser, who had entered the Holy City nineteen years before, mounted on a white horse, under a triumphal arch."

In November, the government had issued the Balfour Declaration, in which it announced that it viewed "with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people," a charge that became part of the League of Nations mandate for Palestine assigned to Great Britain in 1920.

The Great War lent an impetus to both Arab and Jewish national liberation movements, which some members of each regarded as sympathetic and compatible. Although much contemporary discussion either emphasizes or merely assumes monolithic Arab hostility to the Declaration, Matthias Küntzel reminded us in his recent popular book that this was not always the case, citing in particular examples from the Egyptian elite who welcomed Zionism as a force for rejuvenating the region. As late as 1925, "Egyptian Interior Minister Ismail Sidqi took action against a group of Palestinians protesting against the Balfour Declaration in Cairo. He was at the time on his way to Jerusalem to take part in the opening of the first Hebrew university." [1]

The other point that has been lost to collective memory is Christian hostility to the British victory: The Vatican, for example, regarded Jerusalem as the "patrimony of Christ." As Richard Rubenstein observes, "Over the centuries the Christian churches, both Orthodox and Latin, had achieved a modus vivendi concerning Palestine with the Ottoman Empire. The conquest of Palestine by Protestant England, which had made a qualified promise to the Jews of a 'national home,' did not sit well in Rome." [2] More generally, his essay on the "witness people idea"—namely, that the Jews are a crucial but ambivalent sign in Christian thought—goes a long way toward explaining the seemingly inexplicable modern western obsession (positive or negative) with the Jewish state without recourse to the sometimes misleading or tautological explanation of antisemitism.
[1]Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 (NY: Telos Press, 2007), 6.
[2] "The Witness-People Myth, Israel, and Anti-Zionism in the Western World," in Michael Berenbaum, ed., Not Your Father's Antisemitism: Hatred of Jews in the Twenty-First Century (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2008), 293-327; here 301-2.

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