The United States, despite the non-interventionism policy it once held, has had a hand in the bubbling cauldron of Middle East diplomacy for the last 150 years. The first manifestations of U.S. diplomatic involvement in the Holy Land date back to the mid-19th century. To many Americans, this was the biblical Promised Land, and they came here as emissaries – both official and independent. From the local perspective, the U.S. was a new and promising – but also somewhat naïve and suggestible – entity in the region.
Given the involvement of European powers in the Holy City, the U.S. administration equivocated with regard to just how keen it was to leap into the fray, and the appointment of consuls was sometimes clouded by irrelevant considerations and dictated by personal or partisan alliances.
Some of the consuls dispatched to Jerusalem were filled with religious fervor, while other saw themselves as pioneers of modern research. American consular activity in Jerusalem from the mid-19th century until World War I was characterized by instability and transience; no fewer than sixteen consuls served in Jerusalem during this period. Their main priorities were handling the affairs of American residents of the region, giving patronage to Ottoman subjects or Jews who had lost their European patronage, and reinforcing ties with the various Jewish communities.
Daydreams and Dubious Diplomats in the Holy Land
The manuscripts, artifacts and books exhibited reflect the complex reality encountered by U.S. consuls in the Holy land, which often lured them into both grandiose promises and diplomatic fiascos. All of the documents are presented here for the first time, and they depict some incidents that could hold their own in an adventure novel.
First among these is the story of Warder Cresson, the first consul – almost. As he was making his way to Jerusalem, rumors of his strange character reached both
Washington and Istanbul and he was recalled. This did not stop him from presenting himself as consul, divorcing his wife in the U.S., converting to Judaism, conducting a controversial law suit and establishing a Jewish family in Jerusalem.
The second consul, John Gorham, addressed the difficulties experienced by American settlers in the region. One of the exhibits is a shocking report he wrote to the Senate about a case involving murder, rape, and robbery. The victims were members of the American Dickson family and Prussian Steinbeck family (grandfather of the writer John Steinbeck). They had settled in the wilderness near Jaffa, in the area of today’s Menachem Begin Boulevard. Another consul, a Frenchman who had fought in the civil war, was injured and fell in love with the American people and the spirit of freedom and liberty – was not even an American citizen. All the same, he was a fierce defender of those under his patronage though he neglected to honor the liberty of others.
On a certain Sabbath evening, one of his brutish body guards was sent to arrest an elderly, respected rabbi for hiding a Jewish girl from American missionaries.
The consul with the longest record of service in Jerusalem was Selah Merrill, a scholar and theologian who, like many of his colleagues, published books about The Holy Land. However, he devoted most of his three terms of office in the city to a tireless war against American citizens: the founders of the American Colony in Jerusalem. He suspected them of heresy and his bitter struggle led him to go so far as disinter their dead from the cemetery on Mount Zion in order to sell the land to Germans who wanted to build a church there.
An American consulate in Tiberius? This too almost happened, but street skirmishes left the city on the banks of the Sea of Galilee without the esteemed institution.
Rabbi Isaac Lipkin (also the ancestor of a well-known figure, the late Amnon Lipkin-Shahak) switched citizenships at a mind boggling rate. He forfeited his American citizenship because the disagreements between the Pasha of Jerusalem and the consul were harmful to his business interests. Today not many would be as quick to give up the coveted U.S. citizenship.
Among the many documents exhibited is President Abraham Lincoln’s consent to
appoint a particular individual consul to Jerusalem for no reason other than because that person desired the position.
Letters, among them official letters of appointment, sent to Washington testify to the disparity between the vision of the holy city of Jerusalem that prevailed in the minds of people of the land of infinite possibility, America, and the reality encountered by U.S. diplomats in the real Jerusalem. Perhaps the best description of the scenario was written by a Jerusalemite who derides American consuls and representatives who came to Jerusalem and fell prey to the religious and ethnic zealotry that abounds in the city:
“Many say ‘who will lead us to America, the golden land, the land of liberty where every man can do as he sees fit?’ I have never been to America, and I cannot deny all that is told of the place, but I have noted that even the Americans who come to this place where religious zealotry prevails, are also bound to learn these evils.”
Halevanon, February 1868.
The above incidents notwithstanding, and though it is difficult to believe, there were several consuls who requested transfer out of Jerusalem because, of all things, it was boring!
This is the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s second collaboration with the National Library in exhibiting materials pertaining to U.S. and Holy Land relations.
The majority of the items and illustrations on exhibit are from books and documents produced by consuls. They bear testimony both to the consular activity and to the social, political, economic, legal and religious involvement of the consuls in the daily life of the country and its inhabitants.
The Shapell Manuscript Foundation is dedicated to the collection and research of original manuscripts and documents of historical significance. The Foundation's focus is on the histories of the United States and the Holy Land, with emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries.
The collection includes original manuscripts and documents of leading political figures and world-renowned individuals, among them American presidents, writer Mark Twain, Nobel laureate Albert Einstein, Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl, and many more. The Foundation strives to shed light on formative moments in human history and on the character and emotions of the people who shaped that history.
The Shapell Manuscript Foundation has initiated studies exploring the rich heritage of American Jewish life, revealing the achievement and contribution of American Jews to the American people as a whole. Research on the lives of the Jewish soldiers who served during the American Civil War brought to light new facts about the degree of Jewish involvement and participation in that war.
The Foundation’s historical documents illustrate the interesting relationship Americans have had with the Holy Land, from Presidents Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt and authors Herman Melville and Mark Twain.
The Shapell Manuscript Foundation was the only private collection invited by the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. to exhibit manuscripts of President Abraham Lincoln in the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition. The Foundation regularly cooperates with the Smithsonian Institute, American presidential libraries and independent cultural institutions. Internationally, the Foundation has exhibited with the Tsarkoye Selo State Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the National Archive in Moscow, and has a permanent exhibition at the National Library of Israel at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem with themed exhibits that display manuscripts and letters.
The Foundation’s publications include comprehensive research on the first Jaffa-Jerusalem railway, a documentary film about Jews in the American Civil War that was aired on PBS through the USA, a book about hotels in the Jerusalem in the 19th century, a book and film about the travels of Mark Twain in the Holy Land, and many more.
Motivated by a sense of educational purpose, the Shapell Foundation makes its treasures available to the general public by means of its internet site, where the visitor can explore and experience manuscripts, fascinating historical video clips and first hand written accounts of historical events.