A friend in need is a friend indeed! But sometimes his motives must be scrutinized.
A STONE TOO MANY
One hundred and fifty years ago, the ten thousand Jews of Yerushalayim were living under the mercy of old-fashioned, corrupt, Turkish law. Who could protect them against the depredations of hostile Moslems and Christians?
“It was distressing to behold the timidity which long ages of oppression had engendered,” the British Consul, James Finn, wrote at the time. “Many times a poor Jew would come for redress against a native, and when he had substantiated his case and it had been brought by the Consulate before the Turkish authorities, he would, in mere terror of future possible vengeance, withdraw from the prosecution and even deny that any harm had been done him, or, if that was too manifest, declare that he could not identify the criminal, or that the witnesses could not be produced…”
For many Jews of West-European origin, there was an address. Since the Turkish Empire had great respect for the powerful states of Europe, mistreated Jews could complain to their local consulates in Yerushalayim and this often helped.
The British Consulate, established there in 5598/1838, went a step further. Disgusted by the Turks’ barbarism, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, directed his Consul “to afford protection to the Jews generally.” Later, he was more specific, instructing that “the Consul should therefore investigate any oppression against Jews and report them to the Embassy. Although only officially with rights on behalf of people under British protection, the Consul was on every suitable occasion to make known to the local authorities that the British government felt an interest in the welfare of the Jews in general, and was anxious that they should be protected from oppression. He was also to make known the offer of the Porte (Turkish authority) to attend to cases of persecution that might be reported to the Embassy.”
The most famous British Consul in Yerushalayim of those times was James Finn, who served there for seventeen years. He obeyed Palmerston’s rules to the letter, recording many such events in his voluminous journals and diaries. For example, he related what happened in 5607/1847, when a Greek Orthodox boy, on pilgrimage in Yerushalayim, threw a stone at a Jewish boy.
“Strange to say,” chronicled Finn, “the latter had the courage to retaliate by throwing one in return, which, unfortunately hit its mark, and a bleeding ankle was the consequence.”
This happened in March, when Yerushalayim was always thronged with pilgrims celebrating their festival that occurs every year around Pesach. Since they claim the Jews killed their getchke around this time, this season was notorious for anti-Semitic violence worldwide and a tumult was raised. “Direst vengeance was denounced against all Jews indiscriminately for having stabbed (as they said) an innocent Christian child with a knife in order to get his blood for mixing in their Passover biscuits.”
The police took both parties to the Seraglio (court) and the case was discharged as too trivial for notice. Dissatisfied with this peaceful end of the incident, the clergy stirred the matter up again, proving from their ancient books to the Pasha (Turkish ruler) that the Jews were addicted to non-Jewish blood. The Pasha commanded the Jews to give a response the following day.
“In the meanwhile,” continued Finn, “Greeks and Armenians went about the streets insulting and menacing the Jews, both men and women, sometimes drawing their hands across the throat, sometimes showing the knives they generally carry with them, and, among other instances brought to my notice was that of a party of six catching hold of the son of the late Chief Rabbi of London (Herschel) and shaking him, elderly man as he was, by the collar, crying out, ‘Ah! Jews, have you got the knives ready for our blood?!’”
The great debate took place the next day, on Thursday. Greek priests produced fake records to back up their claim against rabbis, “pale and trembling, arguing from the Old Testament and all their legal authorities the utter impossibility of the perpetration of such acts by their people.”
The rabbis concluded by appealing to the Sultan’s Firman (Edict) of 5601/1841, which declares that after investigating the matter after the Damascus Blood Libel, the Jews were found innocent of the crime attributed to them. Since the next day was Friday, the Moslem day of rest, the Jews were instructed to bring the Firman to court on Shabbos.
“I then arranged with the Pasha that I should be present at the meeting and early on Saturday went down to the Seraglio,” Finn recorded. “But earlier still, His Excellency was happy (he said) to acquaint me that the Firman had been produced, and on his asking the accusers and the Effendis in council if they could venture to fl y in the face of that document, they had, with all loyalty pronounced it impossible. He therefore had disposed of the case by awarding a trifling fine for the medical treatment of the wounded ankle.”
Finn’s wife affirmed in a footnote that it was chiefly her husband’s interest in the incident that led to this swift conclusion.
A STEP TOO FAR
Later, Finn reported how he intervened in yet another incident roused up by fanatical pilgrims around that time. This happened when a Jew, newly arrived from Europe, had not yet had time to learn the rules and did not know that laying foot in a certain part of the Old City was tantamount to a death sentence.
Without warning, he was attacked and almost killed by a crowd of fanatical Christian pilgrims after he crossed the far side of the open square in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This site was strictly out of bounds to Jews although not, of course, to Moslems. Having no consul of his own, the Jew appealed for justice to the British Consulate.
“I appealed to the Pasha,” Finn writes. “The Greek ecclesiastics pleaded before him that the passage was not a public thoroughfare but part of the Sanctuary of Christianity, and only used for transit on sufferance. They even dared to send me word that they were in possession of an ancient Firman which fixed the Deyeh, or blood-fine, to be paid by them if, in beating a Jew in that vicinity for trespass, they happened to kill him, at the sum of ten paras, about one halfpenny English.”
After an inquiry was sent to Constantinople to ascertain whether this claim was true, word came back that no such document existed.
“Thus that mischievous untruth was silenced,” Finn concluded. “But the incident shows the disposition of the high convent authorities towards the Jews. It may be that they themselves believed there was such a Firman: if so, what degree of pity of liberality could one expect from the multitude of brutal pilgrims? The Pasha said that he knew of no such Firman as that referred to, but that Greeks, Latins and Armenians, all believed that a Jew might be killed with impunity under such circumstances.”
Finn reported that the number of Russian Jews in Yerushalayim began increasing rapidly, many of the new arrivals smuggling themselves out to escape conscription. In 5608/1848, the Russian government took action.
“At length,” Finn wrote, “the Imperial government resolved… to get rid of the troublesome responsibility involved in looking after people who never meant to return… It was therefore determined to set adrift all the Russian Jews then found in Palestine, furnishing them with papers of dismissal, which also allowed them to resort for protection to an European representatives they might think it proper to select, but recommending the
The Jews were delighted.
“Only those who have ever known the sentiments of the Jews within the Russian dominions can adequately imagine the joy of these emancipated people,” Finn continues. “They were as ‘those who dream’ and they fl ocked in large numbers to the English Consulate for protection…”
Finn cited the Address of Russian Jews in Tsefas on their coming under English protection in 5609/1849:
“We acknowledge to the L-rd and praise Him that He had put into the heart of the Glory of the Pity of the mighty Crowned Queen, the pious, the precious, the upright, who reigns over the provinces of England and its dependences, to do good to the people of Israel and to succor them with every kind of aid, for great and small, and to defend them from those who rise up against them, etc.”
A MOTIVE TOO MANY
However, Finn’s friendship was not entirely altruistic. During this incident, British authorities sent Finn a note rebuking him for trying to convert Russian Jews, fl ocking to him for protection. Also, when he built the Kerem Avraham farm (now swallowed up inside the Geulah neighborhood of Yerushalayim) to provide Jews with parnassa, many rabbonim opposed the project, suspecting that it was a ploy to ensnare Jewish souls.
Nevertheless, he recorded that Jews were not ungrateful for the services he rendered:
“Among other affecting tokens of gratitude, individuals have on several occasions resorted to the ‘Western Wall’ of the Temple to pray for my children and also for myself in times of sorrow and illness. I have never had to modify an old remark of mine, that, from the effect of their domestic morality and family affections, these were the people of Jerusalem who could best afford to look an Englishman straight in the eye.”
Towards the end of his journal, Finn described how he attended a special ceremony of gratitude to the British government, which took place inside the ruined walls of the famous Churvah Shul. He writes, “…my consulate and the powerful advocacy of our Ambassador, Lord Stratford,” helped obtain a Firman sanctioning the shul’s rebuilding. He felt that this symbolized the return of Jewish pride in Eretz Yisroel, thanks (of course) to his beloved British Empire:
“It was, indeed, a new thing in Jerusalem for them to be able thus to lift up their heads and erect a synagogue that should be visible all over the city and from the county around. Never, surely, could the Jews of Palestine go back again to the condition of oppression in which we had first known them and from which they had been delivered, mainly through the protection extended to them through the British Consulate by direction of Lord Palmerston. Well might they offer prayers and thanksgivings for here most gracious majesty, Queen Victoria!”
(How friendly the English were to the Jews we found out during WWII and throughout the British Mandate.)
(Source: Finn, James, “Stirring Times.” C. Kegan Paul & Co.: London, 1878.)