William Blackstone was born in a town called Adams in New York State in 1841. At this time the U.S. was going through a religious revival which was called the Third Awakening. Adams was particularly affected by this revival as it was the home of a famous theologian and preacher, Charles Finney (d.1825) who played a prominent role in this movement. It was said that Blackstone was very much influenced by this atmosphere from his youth and he was ‘born again’ since he was 16-17 years old. He began to attend religious circles and meetings for the study of the Bible and began to be influenced by a movement whose main proponent was John Nelson Darby (d.1882) who was British of Irish origin. Through his intensive study delving into the Bible he came up with a theory which says that the world has to pass through seven dispensations and we are about to enter the seventh dispensation in which Jesus will appear and rule the world for one thousand years (millennium).
But before Jesus reappears there will be many events and disasters which will strike the world and its people such as plague, fire, volcanoes, floods and so on. This would continue for a seven year period which he called tribulation. Then the Anti-Christ will appear to fight the Battle of Armageddon. During this battle Jesus will save the believers personally and he will take them to heaven and they will come down with him when the battle is over and the Anti-Christ is defeated. And this he calls the Rapture. Then Jesus will start his rule from Jerusalem for 1,000 years, a rule which will be characterised by peace and prosperity. Darby also believed that this whole process should include another important element that is the gathering together of the Jews in Palestine which he thought to be necessary for this process to work. This movement is now called Dispensationalism after the seven Dispensations which divide the phases of history.This movement nowadays has a huge following particularly in the United State.
Blackstone became a staunch believer in this theory and began to propagate its principles. In 1878 he published a book called “Jesus is Coming” which sold one million copies and was later translated into 20 languages. Subsequently he left his job as a business man and devoted his life to preaching. He then moved to Chicago and established an organisation called American Messianic Fellowship International. One of his main works in this organisation was to help the Jews to settle in Palestine and for this reason he embarked on a trip to the Holy Land where he met some Jewish emigrants and encouraged them to stay. He praised their work and said to them that their living in Palestine is a blessing to the Ottoman Empire and promised them help. After his trip Blackstone began seriously to gather as many Jews as possible in Palestine as he thought that this would hasten the reappearance of Jesus. Then in 1889 he convened a conference which was attended by Jewish and Christian personalities which was the first time this had happened. This conference was convened under the banner of the past, present and future of the Jews.
At the end of the conference the participants declared that the Jews should be helped to emigrate to Palestine and found their national home and they demanded that the American government use its influence and prestige with other countries to treat Jewish communities better. They also demanded that the Russia about whose treatment the Jews were complaining, should “lift its hard hand from these people” and the participants sent a letter to the Tsar to that effect.
In 1891 Blackstone presented his famous memorandum to the President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison. The memorandum was entitled “Palestinefor the Jews”. In it he defended the Jews and deplored their condition in Russiawhich he described as miserable.
He began his memorandum by asking the question “What should be done for the Jews of Russia?” and the answer he gave was “Why do not we give them Palestine back”. He quotes several verses from the Old Testament which he thought prophesised their return to Palestine.
And in order to help the Jews to go to Palestine and to found a national home he suggested to the President and his Foreign Minister that they start a political action in order to implement this idea and to convince European countries and empires to convene an international conference “To look at the condition of the Jews and the possibility of helping them to live in Palestine and remove their suffering”.
He also said in the memorandum “That the time has come for the Christian nations to have compassion on the Jews and to take them back to their land”. He also suggested that the Ottoman Empire be compensated for Palestine with the participation of rich Jews in this project.
Blackstone signed the memorandum in his capacity as Chairman of the Jewish Christian Conference with four hundred and thirteen personalities who also signed with him. Among them were congressmen, judges, heads of churches, industrialists and editors of newspapers and included John Rockefeller and W McKenally who subsequently became President of the United States and who was assassinated during his second term of office.
Blackstone attached a letter with his memorandum addressed to the President and his Secretary of State detailing the ideas laid out in his memorandum. In this letter he emphasised that the signatories were only a few but represented a very large number of people who supported the memorandum. He also mentioned in his letter that he had visited Palestine in 1889 and found that founding a national home for the Jews in Palestine was in fact practicably possible and politically acceptable. Again he emphasised the Old Testament verses which indicated the return of the Jews to that country. He also requested the convening of an international conference and stated in the letter “My wish is that the President and his Foreign Minister will have the honour to concern themselves with this great matter and to secure a national home for the Jews through such a conference”.
He mentioned to them that if they did that their deed would be like that of Cyrus II the Persian king who let the exiled Jews go back to Palestine to build their temple. When the President received the memorandum he promised to look at it.
Blackstone also wrote articles emphasising the ability of the Jews to establish a state which could take millions of them and he also mentioned the commercial advantage to the West. In his articles he also stated that the country needed only a government which could prepare it for the emigrants, and said this government should have control over the area of the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
He also suggested the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple which in his opinion would encourage the Jews, particularly the Orthodox, to go to Palestine. On this point he is in agreement with the Zionist Christians who likewise call for the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple.
When the Zionist Movement appeared on the world stage at the end of the 19thcentury Blackstone was in touch with its leaders. When the Ugandan option was suggested by Britain to Hertzel, the leader of the movement, after the option of al-Arish was abandoned, Blackstone discouraged him and sent him a copy of the Old Testament marking the verses which he thought prophesised the return of the Jews to Palestine. This copy is now in the Hertzel Museum in Israel.
Blackstone continued to write and give public talks about his ideas regarding the return of the Jews to Palestine and the Second Advent of Jesus and when the book of “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was published he wrote articles in newspapers criticising the content of the book saying that it was false and accusing those who believed in it of being anti-Semitic.
He travelled to many countries including the Middle East preaching and publicising his book. He also went to China after translating the book into Chinese. During the First World War he published a second edition of his book and it was a best seller at that time because of the events of the war which Christians thought would usher in the Second Advent of Jesus . During this time he submitted his memorandum again to President Thomas Woodrow Wilson and this time it was signed by 80 well-known personalities. He also attached to it a letter in which he stated “I was honoured to get support to submit the memorandum on behalf of the Jews and I am convinced that the development of events indicated that the time is approaching to take a noble decision like the one taken by Cyrus II, King of Persia. I am sure of your sympathy and your desire to help the Jews in their miserable condition and I pray that you will seize this opportunity to secure for yourself and for our nation the blessing which God promised to Abraham and his seed and to show mercy to the Jewish people”.
The memorandum had a very positive reaction among the Zionists of America. This is clear from a letter written by Lewis Brandeis, the leader of the Zionist Movement in the United States, addressed to James Rothschild which states regarding the memorandum “A memorandum was written for this purpose (supporting the Zionist idea) and it was signed by many well-known Christian personalities and it will be submitted to the President at the right time in order to gain more support”. Brandeis also wrote a letter to Blackstone in which he praised his efforts and expressed his great happiness with all his work for the benefit of the Zionist Movement and appreciated the influence which the memorandum had had. Brandeis also said to him in his letter that he considered him the father of Zionism “Because your work preceded that of Hertzel”. Brandeis also considered him as the most important non-Jewish ally of Zionism.
Before he died in 1938 Blackstone left a great amount of money in his will to Brandeis to help the Jews to emigrate to Palestine – Blackstone died in 1938. Some scholars such as Maxwell Koda believe that Blackstone’s efforts and activities on behalf of the national Jewish home played a big role in the emergence of the Zionist Movement. Others say that Blackstone is considered one of the few Americans who played a very important role in establishing a national Jewish home. The newsletter of the Zionist Emergency Committee said on the 50th anniversary of his memorandum “It proposed a real solution like that which Hertzel proposed in his book “The Jewish State” and Blackstone should be considered as the pioneer of political Zionism”. The Encyclopaedia Judaica has an entry on him and in it it praised Blackstone’s Zionist activities and his efforts towards establishing a home for the Jews. It also states that his memorandum might have had an influence on President Wilson in his support for the Balfour Declaration which was issued by the British government in 1917 regarding the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In appreciation of his work towards this cause, Israel planted a big forest in his name.
The American Messianic Fellowship International which he founded more than a century ago is still functioning particularly in its efforts to help immigrants to Israel. It also has a big website. This organisation calls for the demolition of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in its place.
Both Islam and Judaism have their origins among the Semitic peoples of the Middle East. Differences between the two faiths obviously exist, of course, but in spite of these, the followers of both religions were able to live side by side for many centuries in the lands governed by Muslim rulers. One of the most important reasons for this co-existence is that Islam considers the followers of Judaism “Ahl al-kitab” (people of the Book) and believers in one God and regards their prophets as both holy and as messengers of God. Indeed, there are some Quranic verses to that effect. As people of the book, therefore, it is not surprising that the Jews were usually left alone to practise their religion and regulate their internal affairs according to their own customs and traditions.
According to Abraham Halkin “The extension of internal autonomy to the Jewish communities under Islam made possible the continuance of a Jewish way of life or at least the semblance of it” and in the words of one of the Jewish leaders in Palestine, Yehudai, “When the Ishmaelites (The Muslims) came they left them (the Jews) free to occupy themselves with the Torah”. ( N.Rejwan, The Jews of Iraq pp. 87 and121 ). There is little information about the condition of the Jews in the Arab lands in the first two centuries of Islam. But the little that we do have shows that the Jews had welcomed the Muslim rulers. According to one report, the Jews of Iraq who had suffered from persecution at the end of Sassanian Persian rule (226-642AD) sympathetically received the Muslim conquerors of the land. It is reported that in 658 AD the head of Punbeditha Academy, R. Isaac (d. 660AD), went out to welcome the fourth Caliph Ali b. Abi Talib with many thousands of Jews and was recognized by him as the spiritual leader of the Jewish community. (S.W.Baron A Social and Religious History of the Jews vol.3, p.99).
A statement in an apocalyptic book called “Mysteries of Rabbi Simon bar Yohai” apparently written in part during the days of the Arab conquest of Palestine in the seventh century says “The Holy one blessed be He, is only bringing the kingdom of Ishmael in order to help you (the Jews) from the wicked one”. (S.W. Baron,op. cit. vol 3, p. 93) A remarkable development that one ought to mention here is that soon after the Islamic conquest the Jews in general in the Middle East gave up the languages they spoke such as Aramaic and adopted Arabic. This was in striking contrast to the situation in medieval Christendom, where the Jews made very limited use of Greek and virtually none of Latin. The period discussed in this paper had witnessed a number of Muslim empires in the Arab Lands. First of these was the Umayyad Dynasty which lasted until the middle of the eighth century and ruled from Damascus. We have very little information about the situation of the Jews during this period. However, it is related that the Umayyad Caliphs exercised tolerance towards non-Muslim subjects and employed both Jews and Christians, some of whom obtained high posts in the government hierarchy. It is attested that several Jews were in the court of Maawiya the first Caliph of the dynasty and during the reign of Abdul Malik a Jew was in charge of the mint . When Fustat (Old Cairo) was founded in the seventh century a relatively large Jewish community established itself there. The Abbasid empire which followed, lasted from the eighth to the thirteenth centurie. When Baghdad was founded by the second Caliph al-Mansur in 762AD many Jews moved to the city to live . Baghdad soon became the centre not only of the Muslim Empire but also of Babylonian Jewish learning and life. Shortly after its emergence as a capital and metropolis, it gradually became the seat, first of the Exilarch (head of the Jewish community) and then of the Geonim (Heads of Jewish Academies) (N.Rejwan, op. cit. p. 99). The traveller Benjamin of Tudela writing in the second half of the twelfth century about the Jews of Baghdad says “There are approximately 40,000 Jews in Baghdad, among them scholars and exceedingly wealthy people. They live in peace and tranquillity and honour under the great Caliph and there are twenty eight synagogues and ten yeshivot (religious schools).” Then he goes on to tell us about the elaborate procession of the Exilarch through the streets of Baghdad. He also mentions that the Muslims called him “our master” (sayyidna) the son of David. In Kufa a major centre of trade and learning, the Jewish community there grew very rapidly. Of even greater significance though was the Jewish community in the city of Basra which rivalled Kufa as an intellectual and commercial centre.
In all these centres of Islamic culture and literature, educated Jews developed a considerable taste for literature in Arabic whether it was poetry, philosophy, history or other subjects. They even used the Arabic language to discuss Jewish theology. David Sasson says the following about the Jews in Basra in the ninth century: “We find scholars and medical men who were born in Basra officiating in Palestine and in Egypt”. ( N.Rejwan op. cit. pp. 83-84). In this period some important works were written by Jewish scholars such as the first Arabic translation of the Bible by Saadia Gaon who lived in the tenth century in Iraq. It is worth mentioning here that some Jewish authors in this period, encouraged by the tolerant scholarly climate, felt free to criticise the basic tenets of the Muslim faith and were often outspoken in their critique while enjoying a wide circulation of their work without any overt hindrance by the authorities. An example of this is a book, written by a prominent member of the Jewish community, the philosopher, Ibn Kammuna (d.1285) who lived in Baghdad, entitled “Critical Inquiry into the Three Faiths”. The author allotted to Islam almost two thirds of the book in which he defended Judaism and criticised the Muslim faith. (N Rejwan, op. cit p. 161). Such literature did not cause any immediate reprisals from the Muslim authorities and, most significantly, we have no record of the burning of any Jewish books by Muslim authorities ( S.W.Baron, op. cit.vol.3, pp 133-134). A good deal of easy social intercourse particularly in earlier times existed amongst Muslims, Christians and Jews who, while professing different religions, formed a single society in which personal friendship, business partnerships, intellectual discipleships and other forms of shared activity were normal and, indeed, common. A testament to this social cooperation is the fact that Jews often attended Muslim festivities and family celebrations, and entertained Muslim friends in their homes (S. W. Baron op. cit.vol 3 pp.132-4). In the sphere of trade Jewish merchants were free to travel throughout the empire to do business in different types of merchandise. In this regard the Jews were not subject to occupational restrictions such as we find in Europe in the period we have discussed. After the Mongol conquest of Iraq in1258 the Jews suffered and indeed did the rest of the population. We have little information about the Jews in this turbulent period. In Palestine, another centre of Jewish learning, religious schools were established and their academy in Tibarias, headed by Gaonim, flourished. This city was also the centre for a group of scholars who for the first time developed vocalization for the Hebrew Bible and standardized its text around the eighth century. Some scholars believe that this work was influenced by what the Muslims had done in regard to the Quran a century earlier. (See J. H. Hassan “The Jewish Qaraite Sect pp.83-84 ). The Jews in Palestine also began to build new synagogues, the most famous of which was the synagogue of Anan b David, (founder of the Jewish Qaraite sect) which was built in the ninth century. This sect also called on its followers to emigrate to Palestine from many different countries.Cosequently it became the main centre of their activities and learning. In Egypt the number of Jews increased when according to documents from Cairo Geniza a considerable number of Iraqi Jews emigrated there from the mid eighth century and established a separate community called the Iraqi congregation ( N.Rejwan, op.cit. p 98). During the Fatmid Period many Jews who had only recently settled down in North Africa moved to Egypt with them in 969 AD when they conquered the country.
At this time Egypt became the centre of a vast and powerful empire which at the end of the tenth century, included Syria and Palestine as well as almost all of North Africa. The unification of these countries brought a period of prosperity to the region in both industry and commerce from which the Jews also benefited. Of even greater importance perhaps was the characteristically tolerant attitude adopted by the Fatimids towards non-Muslims. They permitted the construction and repair of non-Muslim houses of prayer, and according to some Jewish sources they even granted financial support to the (yeshivot) Jewish religious schools in Palestine. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Fatimids). They also intervened to solve Jewish sectarian disputes. The only ruler of this dynasty to depart from the policy of tolerance towards non-Muslims was al Hakim (d.1020) who, in fact, also discriminated against some sections of Muslim society, such as women. Towards the end of his rule, however, he did change his policy. The first vizier of the Fatimids was Jacob ibn Killis (991), a Jew who converted to Islam but remained loyal to his former coreligionists. He appointed a Jew “Menassah al-Qazzaz” to head the administration in Syria. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, ibn Killis) Al-Kazzaz utilized his power on behalf of the Jews and granted many of them positions in the government. His son Asiya was also a high ranking official. In the eleventh century the office of the Nagid (head of the Jewish community) was established and some of these Nagidim also became court physicians.
During this period some Jews reached very high positions among them Abu Sa’ad al-Tustary (Abraham b. Yashar) who had the power to make and break viziers, a power which he did in fact exercise (N.Stillman,The Jews of the Arab Lands, p.51). In the early 12th century the chief minister of agriculture was a Jew called Abu al-Munajja (Solomon ben Sha’ya) who ordered the digging of the canal which still bears his name. According to some Jewish authors the Jewish community of Egypt in the Early Middle Ages was affluent, influential and on the whole stable and secure and well organized. There was a sizeable Jewish population in Egypt during the eleventh and twelfth centuries and over ninety cities, towns, villages and hamlets with Jewish inhabitants are known (N.Stillman op. cit. p. 48-52). Life continued to be well organized and Jewish cultural and religious activities were maintained during the time of the Ayyubids (1121 AD-1250 AD) who ruled from Egypt to East Asia in the East and Yemen in the South. This new dynasty showed tolerance towards Jews and Christians. In 1190 Saladin allowed the Jews to settle again in Jerusalem after the Crusaders had compelled them to leave the city and consequently their numbers in Palestine increased. In Syria a lengthy list of physicians and government offcials is mentioned by the Hebrew poet Judah al-Harizi when he visited the country in the 1st quarter of the 13th century. Egyptian Jewry benefited from the stable regime and Jewish scholars from Christian countries came to join the communities. The most famous Jewish scholar and philosopher who lived at this time was Maimonides, who was also a physician of Saladin. The autonomous organisation of the Jewish communities in Egypt remained intact and continued under the leadership of the Nagidim during the rule of the Mamluks. This dynasty were former slaves brought by the Ayyubids from Russia and the Balkan peninsula who came to power in Egypt in 1250 AD and also ruled over Palestine, Syria and adjacent regions in North Africa and Asia Minor.
Although the Jews in this period did experience limitations and restrictions imposed on them by the government and there occurred the occasional violent popular outburst, these never turned into massacres such as took place in the wake of the Crusades (75). Any discrimination that did take place in this period against the Jews was not aimed specifically at them but also included Arabs who, for example, were not allowed to dress like the Mamluks or ride horses. In Spain the Jews not only welcomed the Muslims when they conquered the country in 711AD but in fact they actively made alliance with them against the Visigoths.This seems to be a very rare occurance in the history of the Jews.(N.Stillman, The Jews of the Arab Lands. pp.24and54) The immediate sequel to the conquest was that many Jews who had left Spain at the time of religious persecution by the Visigoth kings and their descendants, returned from North Africa where they had found shelter. The economic situation of the Jews in Spain prospered and they were successful in many occupations including medicine, agriculture, commerce and crafts. Jewish scholarship and culture flourished alongside its Arab counterpart and was influenced by it. A real Jewish cultural revival began in the tenth century when Cordoba was a centre of both Arab and Jewish culture. This was the time of the political rise of the court physician, diplomat and statesman Hasdai b. Sharput who headed diplomatic negotiations with Christian rulers on behalf of the Caliphate. Another personality who should be mentioned here is Samuel Hanagid (d.1055) ( known by the Arabic name of Ibn Nagrila) who was both scholar and poet and served as vizier and commander of the army of Granada for more than 25 years. Furthermore, he was also head of the Jewish community in Islamic Spain. It is interesting to note that he too was the author of a criticism of the Quran which was cited by the contemporary Muslim historian and philosopher ibn Hazm. (Encyclopedia Judaica ,Ibn Nigrila ). Some Jewish contemporaries of Samuel Hanagid in Saragossa and Seville also rose to the ranks of Vizier and in the words of Norman Stillman, author of “The Jews of Arab Lands” “no office, except that of the ruler, seemed out of the reach of a talented and ambitious Jew”(. p. 57). B.J. Bamburger states in his book “The Story of Judaism”, “Oppressed for centuries under the Christian Goths, the Spanish Jews began a new and happy era in the eighth century when the peninsula was conquered by the Arabs. Under a series of enlightened Moslem rulers they attained a status of security and honour such as they had not known since their own national life was destroyed. In numbers, wealth and prestige the Jewish community of Spain became by far the greatest in the world. The civilisation to which they belonged was the most advanced seen by Europe between the decline of Rome and the Renaissance.”(p.154).
In North Africa, the Jews in general led a relatively peaceful existence and those of Hafside Tunisia, in particular, enjoyed the most tranquillity of any North African Jewish community during the period of the Middle Ages. Only the narrow minded al-Mohads who ruled in North Africa and Southern Spain at one point forced Jews and Christians to convert to Islam. The later al-Mohads, however, modified their stance and permitted non-Muslims to practise their religions. (Lewis 52) . Jewish authors stress that the al-Mohad period was a definite aberration in the history of the Jews in the Arab lands, or any Muslim country for that matter. Salo Baron says that al-Mohad extremism was exceptional and proves the general rule that under Islam the Jews resided in their respective countries as of right, and not merely on temporary sufferance (111. p.127). In the 13th and 14th centuries, some Jews in the Further Maghreb, as Morocco was called in Medieval Arabic, rose to high positions. One of these was Aaron b. Batash, who was a Vizier during the reign of Abd al-Haqq b. Abi Sa¢d (1421-1465) (N. Stillman,op.cit. 79) and Abraham Cabassa, head of the Spanish community in the Kingdom of Marrakesh who was minister to the First Saadian Sultan in the 16th century. His brother Samuel was financier of the court and another brother Isaac controlled Morocco’s foreign trade.
The fifteenth century saw the rise of a new and powerful Turkish Dynasty, the Ottomans, who conquerd much of the Middle East and North Africa. As Muslims they continued to allow the Jews in their domains to practise their religion and regulate their internal affairs. The The Ottoman government was happy to provide a haven for large numbers of Jewish refugees from the Iberian peninsula. Sultan Beyezid II (1481-1512) welcomed the Sefardic Jews into his realm and issued firmans (decrees) to his provincial governors specifying the terms of Jewish settlement and ensuring the protection of the newcomers (87) Beyezid is said to have considered Ferdinand of Spain a fool for impoverishing his own kingdom while enriching his (N.Stillman,op. cit. 87). The Jewish refugees from the expulsions of 1492 and 1496 were soon followed by Marranos (Jews who had been compelled to accept Catholicism) fleeing the terror of the Inquisition. When Egypt, Syria and Palestine all became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517 large numbers of refugees began taking up residence in these countries as well. (N.Stillman,op. cit pp.82-88) The prosperity and relative security of the sixteenth century was enjoyed by Jews in most of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. In each province, Jews lived their own independent communal life (Stillman p.90). and some of them such as Don Joseph Nasi, Soloman b. Ya’ish and Moses and Joseph Hamon became very influential at the Sublime Porte. The Turks created the position of Hakham Bashi (Chief Rabbi) and the position of Sarraf Bashi (Chief Banker) a position which usually had a Jewish occupant. Jewish communities were internally organized and stable but the decline of the Empire after the sixteenth century was, of course, reflected in the life of Jews in the provinces of the Empire. The rise and fall of the False Messiah Shabbatai Zvi in the seventeenth century, whom many Jews believed in and followed from Poland to Yemen did nothing to help their situation and in fact caused harm to many of their communities. Few prominent scholars are known to us from this period. One of them is Joseph Caro (d. 1575) the author of a well known manual on Jewish law called ‘Shulhan Arukh”. Another is Isaac Luria (d.1572) the famous Cabbalist. Both of these scholars lived in Palestine. After reforms were introduced by Sultan Muhamuad II (d. 1839) and continued by Sultan Abd al-Majid (d.1862) the situation of the Jews and the Christian minorities greatly improved and they participated fully in cultural and economic life and began to hold government posts, to establish businesses and to found schools for their children.
Throughout Ottoman times the situation of the Jews in Arab lands was generally peaceful and undisturbed. In summary one can perhaps state the following points: Throughout the centuries Jews lived in the Arab Lands and managed to live together in relative peace and harmony. They did not experience anti-Semitism, expulsions or massacres nor were they forced to live in ghettos as Muslim law never called for segregated quarters for different faiths. Also they were not forced to convert as the overwhelming majority of Muslims accept the Quranic dictum “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) Those that did convert were usually welcomed and well treated and they were absorbed rapidly into Muslim society. Of course there were some exceptions but these, fortunately were very few.
* This paper was presented at a seminar held in the House of Lords on the 25th of March 2004. Other speakers were Ms. Karen Armstrong and Professor Bernard Wasserstein.
The Pakistani and Israeli foreign ministers have met publicly for the first time. This meeting came about after Israel had decided to withdraw from Gaza after 38 years of occupation. After the meeting Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, called it a “historic and huge breakthrough” and expressed his happiness and said “We are hoping to establish diplomatic relations between our countries”. The Pakistani foreign minister, Khursheed Kasuri, said that Pakistan had decided to “engage” with Israel and called the meeting “a gesture to underscore the importance we, in Pakistan, attach to Israel ending its occupation of Gaza”.
Historically this was not the first contact between the two countries aiming at establishing diplomatic relations. In fact, contact with this aim in mind goes back to the 1940s, almost immediately after Pakistan and Israel joined the United Nations. The two representatives of the two countries at the world body, Abba Eban (later foreign minister of Israel) and Ahmed Shah Bukhari, initiated the contact to establish diplomatic relations. The Pakistani foreign minister at the time, Zafarulla Khan, whom the Israel Intelligence Service called al-Ahmedi (because he was of the Ahmediyya Sect) encouraged the contact. Zafarulla Khan also called on Arab countries to make peace with Israel after the Arab Jewish war ended in 1948.
The contact (negotiation) continued for some time but ceased when the Prime Minister of Pakistan Liyaqat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951, the cause of which remains a mystery. According to a report submitted by Abba Eban, Pakistan was on the verge of recognising Israel.
It is not known why Pakistan started these early contacts with Israel despite the disquiet among people in the Muslim world after the United Resolution in 1948 to divide Palestine, as a result of which Israel emerged as an independent country and also despite the uproar and demonstrations in Pakistan itself at the time.
The suggestion of Abba Eban that the reason for this contact was that Pakistanwanted to embarrass India which had not recognised Israel yet, was not, I think, either a good or a justifiable one. Later on there were other contacts between the two countries though they were not very serious ones. These contacts took place in the 1950s, between the Pakistani foreign minister Fairuz Khan Noon and Shabtai Rosen, an Israeli ambassador. There were also some casual and clandestine contacts.
One of these clandestine contacts is detailed in a recently published book by the journalist George Crile in which he mentions the secret deals by the Pakistani army, then headed by General Zia ul Haq, and Israel, through the CIA, for weapons to supply the Afghan Mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union.
The recent initiative by Pakistan towards Israel was prepared for by some statements by the Pakistani leader, Pervez Musharraf, such as his statement in an interview with a private TV channel in 2003 in which he said “We have to review our policy towards Israel and to look at it anew devoid of sentiment …because we do not want to be Palestinians more than the Palestinians themselves and not to be Catholics more than the Pope”. And when Shimon Perez met him two years ago at the Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland the former said to him “There are many rumours that relations have been established between our two countries”. Musharraf replied by saying “We are putting great efforts towards this aim but you have to make progress towards the conflict with the Palestinians”. President Musharraf also agreed for the first time to give a speech to a conference in America organised by a Jewish group, which was convened last September and in the same month met Ariel Sharon during the United Nations Summit meeting.
It is also reported that he was saying to the Americans who have always pressurised him to recognise Israel and to do so publicly, that he was waiting for the right moment to do this.
According to the Jerusalem Post General Musharraf himself initiated the recent contact and he himself wanted it to be public and Turkey was asked to hold the meeting of the foreign ministers of the two countries. However, he subsequently emphasised in New York during the UN annual gathering that there would be no normalisation with Israel until after the Palestinian State was established. The Pakistani foreign minister stressed that the meeting did not mean recognition and this would come after progress in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. But I believe such statements by the Pakistani officials are made only to calm the domestic and Muslim opposition to this move. Because there was some disquiet in Pakistanwhen the meeting took place and one of the opposition leaders in Pakistan said “It is a dark day for the Pakistani people and we object to (diplomatic) relations with Israel”.
Regardless of how much Pakistan tries to trivialise the move, it is obvious that it is the beginning of the normalisation of relations. This was emphasised by the Israeli sources which said that the next move would be to cancel the ban on Pakistanis travelling to Israel so that the Pakistani people could travel to Israel in great numbers, as Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia. This would then be followed by delegate visits at ministerial level and so on. All these activities would finally be crowned by the establishment of diplomatic relations.
Many people have asked the question what prompted Pakistan to take this step despite the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians which has not yet been resolved? Has Pakistan been pressured or does it need diplomatic relations with Israel?
Some analysts believe that there are two important issues at work here. One of them is Pakistan’s relations with the United States and the other is its relations with its historical enemy India. As for its relations with the former, Pakistan has come to the conclusion that to get the support and help of the United Statesparticularly after the invasion of Iraq, it should establish diplomatic relations with Israel as the United States had been asking President Musharraf to do. The opportunity for Pakistan came when Israel decided to withdraw from Gaza.
As for its relations with India, Israel established official relations with India in the early 1990s and has been developing them since then and one of the important aspects of these relations was military involvement such as selling equipment, arms and sophisticated planes to India besides the exchange of intelligence information. And because of all this Pakistan, the experts say, wanted to balance this relationship in order that, that between Israel and India would not be at her expense, and she would not be on the losing side. Some believe that Pakistanalso needs to send her students to improve their knowledge of technology and advanced science at Israeli universities because the United States is putting many conditions on her students after the 11th September.
Whatever the reasons are, relations between the two countries will have important implications for the politics of the Middle East. First of all it will open the door wide for other Arab and Muslim countries many of whom are now negotiating in secret with Israel for this very purpose. This relationship will be very beneficial economically to Israel as it has many goods and a lot of expertise to export to Pakistan. In addition, many Pakistanis will flock to Israel as tourists and this will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to the Israeli economy. With this relationship Israel will have another important country to support it in the international organisations by which Israel is complaining that she is neglected and not given a role suitable to her status in these organisations.
There is another advantage Israel will gain in that she will be closer to Iran which she considers an existential threat to her and enemy number one plotting to destroy her and she will be able to gather intelligence more effectively.
Lastly there is another important point which not many people are aware of which is related to the Judaising of some tribes who live between Pakistan and Afghanistan and who some Jewish organisations think are originally Jewish but who converted to Islam many centuries ago. Jewish organisations such as Kullanu (all of us) and Amishab (my people returned) are working very hard but secretly to convert them to Judaism. Some of these activities include publishing books and making videos. These operations will be easier after Israel has established diplomatic relations with Pakistan.