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Opinion: Horror and Carnage in the Middle East - In Historic Context
A New Perspective on the Balfour Proclamation

By Lenny Ben-David

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on November 27, 2016. Space limitations would not allow the pictures that originally accompanied the column.

The human toll of the Middle East war was horrific.

Disease and famine pandemic. Orphans wandering in the streets. Unspeakable atrocities described only by the bravest critics. No red lines. Emergency deliveries of aid essential.


For God’s sake, would at least one person of international stature speak out?



Thankfully, yes, but that was 99 years ago, and his name was Lord Arthur Balfour. No one of his stature today has so proclaimed the need to provide shelter for the millions suffering in Syria under the barrage of Assad’s troops, Iran and Russia.

The Palestinian leadership today threatens to sue Great Britain because of the Balfour Declaration issued in November 1917, which declared, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people....”

Detractors of Israel held a quackathon in the House of Lords on October 25, 2016, squawking about the declaration’s evil colonialist intentions and demanding an apology. To them, the Balfour Declaration was no birth certificate for the Jewish nation; it was confirmation of a bastard colonial creation. None of the detractors complained about the modern-day Russian and Iranian colonialists or the mass destruction in Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Damascus.

The Balfour Declaration is condemned today by Israel’s detractors and hailed by Israel’s friends as a great historic document establishing the principle of a Jewish state – almost on par in its significance with the Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, or the Emancipation Proclamation. Yes, it deserves its place in the pantheon of Jewish history.

But Balfour’s 120-word declaration must also be seen in the context of the horrifying events in the Levant during World War I. The catastrophes were so crushing that the Jewish leadership in Palestine, Britain and the United States warned about the threatened eradication of the indigenous Jewish community in Palestine. They correctly expressed a sense of urgency.

Many Jews of Jerusalem depended on the chaluka, charity funds that came from Jewish communities in Europe.

With the onset of the war, Turkey prohibited the funding from its enemies.

On August 31, 1914, the American ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, sent an urgent telegram to the New York Jewish leaders: “Palestinian Jews facing terrible crisis.... Serious destruction threatens thriving colonies...Support families whose breadwinners have entered army [forced conscription].”

Amb. Morgenthau requested aid for the Jews of Palestine
On October 6, 1914, the first of 13 U.S. Navy ships anchored in Jaffa and delivered money, food, medicine and aid to the Jews of Palestine.

The Jews “would have succumbed had not financial help arrived from America,” the Zionist Organization of London reported in 1921. “America was at that time the one country which through its political and financial position was able to save [Jewish] Palestine permanently from going under.”

In December 1914, the Turks expelled 6,000 Jews of Russian origin from Jaffa. With Russia at war with Germany and Turkey, Russian Jews were seen as the enemy. They were evacuated by US Navy ships to Alexandria.

Expelled Jews arriving in Alexandria, Egypt, in late 1914, early 1915 on the USS Tennessee

Calamities had befallen the Jews of Palestine almost a year before the massacre of Armenians by the Turks. The Armenian atrocities, begun in April 1915, were witnessed with great trepidation by the Jews of Palestine. Some perceived signs of Turkish preparations to replay the brutal expulsion of Armenians, and some witnessed actual acts of mass murder. In response, several Jews organized the NILI spy ring to assist the British in the war in Palestine.

Ultimately, German commanders in Palestine blocked the Turkish expulsion plans.

A severe locust plague hit Palestine in April 1915. The New York Times reported on April 23, 1915: “Distress in Jerusalem, Many Deaths from Starvation Reported – Plague of Locusts. [Alexandria] – Seventy Jews who arrived yesterday from Jerusalem on an Italian steamer...describe the economic situation as terrible. Flour costs $15 a sack. Potatoes are six times the ordinary price. Sugar and petroleum are unprocurable and money has ceased to circulate. Many deaths from starvation have occurred.”

With major battles taking place in Gaza, on April 6, 1917, the eve of Passover, the Turks ordered the expulsion of approximately 8,000 – 10,000 Jews from Jaffa and Tel Aviv.An estimated 20 percent of the expelled died from hunger and contagious diseases.

On October 31, 1917, Australian light horsemen captured Beersheba, opening the way for Jerusalem’s capture in December 1917. At the major Turkish base in Beersheba, scores of Jewish forced laborers were employed by the Turks in construction, milling, tailoring, railroad work, cutting wood, and as teamsters. They fled as the Australians and British approached. Many others died from disease, flash floods and British aerial attacks.

It was at this point of history that the Balfour Declaration was declared on November 2, 1917. And on December 9, 1917, the British army liberated Jerusalem.

In 1918, even after the liberation, poverty was still crushing.

Balfour received in Tel Aviv, 1925
The first British military governor, Roland Storrs, reported finding “many ladies of doubtful reputation [presumably not all Jewish]... On our entry into Jerusalem we had found no less than 500 such women living in a special quarter.” Thousands of orphans were living in the streets.

For the indigenous Jews of the Holy Land, Arthur Balfour was no less a hero and savior than British commander Edmund Allenby. When Balfour toured the Jewish communities in Palestine in 1925, he was tumultuously received by appreciative throngs of Jews who had survived hardships and punishments of truly biblical proportions.

Whatever the intent, the Balfour Declaration was a humanitarian proclamation as much as a political/diplomatic announcement.



The writer is the author of the forthcoming book US Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs (Urim Publishers). He is now writing World War I in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs. He is director of publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Why Were 19th Century Photographers so Interested in Peasants' Plowing?

"Native ploughing with his wife and donkey, Palestine" (original caption)
(Credit: Keystone-Mast Collection, California Museum of
Photography at UCR ARTSblock, University of California, Riverside)

"Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass together."
לא תַחֲרֹשׁ בְּשׁוֹר וּבַחֲמֹר יַחְדָּו
Deuteronomy 20 (Library of Congress, circa 1890)
For Jews in synagogue tomorrow, the answer is found in the Torah portion.

Virtually every vintage collection that we'veanalyzed contains a picture of an Arab farmer in Palestine plowing with a rudimentary plow pulled by an ox and an ass.

Why? 

"Thou shallnot muzzle an ox in its threshing"
לֹא תַחְסֹם שׁוֹר בְּדִישׁוֹ
Deuteronomy 25 (circa 1900)


Wesuggest that the photographers, many ofwhom werewell-versed in the Old Testament, focused on agricultural prohibitions found in the Bible. The photographs, slides, and postcards were usually sold to a Bible-reading public.




"Plowing with an ox and an ass" (April, 1929, Torrance
Collection, University of Dundee)





The photographers illustrated the prohibition "Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass together" (Deuteronomy 20)and provided pictures of the prohibition "Thou shallnot muzzle an ox in its threshing"(Deuteronomy 25).

The photograph above in the UCR collection went one step further, showing an Arab farmer using his ass and wife to pull the plow.


Plowing with a cow and and an ass(circa
1900) See also here(Library of Congress)


Peasant plowing(circa 1900)
(New York Public Library)


















"Plowing with an ox and ass" -- the original caption. (Credit: RCB Library, 1897)

Jordan River Water Was Shipped to the U.S. in 1906 and May Have Flushed an Anti-Semitic U.S. Diplomat Out of His Job


The International River Jordan Water Company was launched by Col. Clifford E. Naudaud of Covington, Kentucky, in 1906. He secured "the sole right of shipping the water of the Jordan River from the banks of the stream in Palestine to all parts of the world for baptismal and other purposes," according to a Kentucky newspaper,The Bee, published in Earlington, KY.

The water was "shipped in casks bearing the seals of the Turkish Government and the American Consul," according to The Bee. "The water will be bottled in the United States in bonded warehouses."

The American Consul granting his seal for the commercial venture may have cost the veteran diplomat his job. His departure was a blessing for the Jews of Palestine. The Consul-General was undoubtedly thenastiest anti-Semite to ever hold that post.

Details on the U.S. diplomat and his legacy in the American foreign serviceare discussedin the forthcoming book, American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs. Order itherenow.

19th Century Paintings of Jerusalem Found in the Ottoman Imperial Archives

We pay tribute again to archivists and librarians who digitize their historical treasures. Pictures of these two paintings were found in the Ottoman Archives.


The first painting is by German artist Johann Martin Bernatz (1802-1878) who traveled in the Holy Land in 1836.


Jews Praying at the Wailing Wall by Johann Martin Bernatz. The Ottoman Archives provided a date of 1868.
(Author's digital photograph collection)





The second painting is by another German artist, Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904).

Jews Praying at the Wailing Wall by Gustav Bauernfeind. The Ottoman Archives provides a
date of 1888. (Author's digital photograph collection)

Bauernfeind moved to Jerusalem in 1898. He is buried in the German Templar Cemetery in Jerusalem. In 2007, his oil painting of the Wailing Wall sold for 4.5 million Euros at Sotheby.

When President Calvin Coolidge Hosted the Chief Rabbi of Palestine in the White House, 1924

The caption reads "Rabbi Dr. Abraham I. Kook, 4/15/24"
Where was this picture taken?
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), one of the most influential rabbis of the 20th Century,was a renowned Talmud scholar, Kabbalist and philosopher.He isconsidered today as the spiritual father of religious Zionism, breaking away from his ultra-Orthodox colleagues who were often opposed to the largely secular Zionist movement.


September 6, 2016 corresponds with his yahrzeit (anniversary of his death) on the Hebrew date of thethird of Elul.



Born in what is today Latvia, Rabbi Kook moved to Palestine in 1904 to take the post of the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa.




Thepicture above hasappeared in various Israeli publications in recent years, but few know it was taken in Washington D.C.on the dayRabbi Kook met with President Calvin Coolidge in the White House. The picture was found in the Library of Congress archives.



What was Kook's mission, what messages were exchanged?




The details onRabbi Kook's visit to Washington D.C. and the White Housewill beavailable in the forthcoming book, American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs. Order it now here.





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