Discover more from Bastiat's Window
Jews, Massacres, and U.S. Presidents
Hamas's atrocities and Biden's visit to Israel have old, old antecedents
On October 25, I offered to donate $1,000 of paid subscriber revenues to the American Friends of Magen David Adom (MDA—Israel’s version of the Red Cross) along with a $500 match from my own pocket; that $1,500 has now been sent. For the rest of November, 50% of paid subscription revenues will go to MDA. Thanks to all of you.
FOREWORD: Despite the atrocities inflicted upon Israeli men, women, and children by Hamas on October 7 and the ongoing retaliation by Israel’s defense forces, there is much reason for optimism about the future of Arab-Israeli relations. In 2020, the Abraham Accords established diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab nations (bringing the total to six). There are indications that normalization with other nations—notably Saudi Arabia—are still on track and may even be enhanced by a hoped-for demise of Hamas and reduction of Iranian influence in the region. Perhaps most importantly, there are indications that the Hamas attacks have drawn Israel’s 2 million Arab citizens closer to, not farther from, Israel. For those unaware, Arabs have served in every Israeli Parliament since 1948, and Ahmad Tibi currently serves as Deputy Speaker. Israeli Arabs have served in cabinets since 2001, and there are Arab Israeli generals, ambassadors, and Supreme Court justices. Optimism, of course, should be tempered in today’s volatile circumstances. With this in mind, the essay below focuses on ancient and ugly realities in the region—essential to an understanding of the conflict with Hamas (as distinct from the larger Arab World).
Joe Biden is the most recent U.S. president to intervene in the Levant (Israel and its environs) against carnage unleashed upon Jews by Arab terrorists. The cause, we are informed by mobs sending Jews into hiding on American campuses and in American neighborhoods, is “occupation” and “colonialism.” Rape, torture, beheading, kidnapping, and murder, they assure us, are valid tools in this struggle.
One can legitimately debate the profound disputes between Israelis and Palestinians. But one cannot craft a post-Enlightenment defense of the medieval horrors of October 7 or of the orgiastic demonstrations in support of Hamas on American campuses, in American cities, and around the world. Understanding Hamas (as distinct from the larger Arab society) demands a long historical perspective, and one can gain a hint of that perspective in the following question:
“Who was the first president of the United States to intervene in or around modern-day Israel to halt the ongoing wholesale slaughter, injury, kidnapping, rape, and torture of Jews by Arab terrorists?”
Harry Truman? … Not Even Close
Ask the question, as I have for decades, and the first guess is usually “Harry Truman.” In November 1947, the United Nations voted to divide previously Turkish and, later, British Palestine into a gossamer-thin Jewish state alongside a Palestinian Arab state. Six months later, as the weary British dawdled and then abandoned the project, Israel declared its independence on the lands allocated by the UN. Eleven minutes later, Truman publicly recognized the new state, making the United States the first country on earth to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Hours later, the armies of five Arab nations attacked the fledgling country, intent on destroying it and its citizens. They lost. But Truman’s not the answer.
Britain’s Palestine Mandate was aflame with turmoil during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 (which began with the murder of two Jews). But FDR mostly stayed far from the fray. In 1941, the Farhud (pogrom) massacre occurred in Baghdad. Writing for the Stanford Humanities Center, Iraqi-born Ali Shakir wrote:
“Following a failed pro-Nazi coup d’état in 1941, angry Muslim rioters killed 175 Jews, injured 1000, and robbed and destroyed 900 Jewish homes. Many Jewish girls were raped and children maimed in front of their families.”
Baghdad is over 500 miles east of Jerusalem, but the 1941 massacre had a Levantine connection. Like the 1936-39 riots in Palestine, the pro-Nazi coup attempt in Iraq and the Farhud that followed shortly after were both partially instigated by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (Hajj Amin al-Husayni), who also communed with Hitler and organized SS units for the Nazi efforts to murder Jews in Croatia and Hungary. (More on the Mufti-Hamas connection in a forthcoming post.)
Winston Churchill communicated with Roosevelt about the importance of keeping Hitler away from Iraq’s oil reserves, but I find no indication that Roosevelt acted on behalf of the Jews of Baghdad. Of course, the U.S. was still staying clear of direct involvement in the war, and the Farhud ended after two days. All of this is irrelevant with regard to my question, however. Other presidents intervened long before FDR.
“Herbert Hoover” has been a guess now and then—and a logical one. There was an infamous massacre of Jews by Arabs in 1929 in the city of Hebron; and Hoover was a great internationalist. As described by the Shapell Manuscript Foundation:
“On August 15, 1929, a flag-waving demonstration by Jerusalem schoolchildren at the Western Wall set off, seemingly inexplicably, two weeks of pogroms in which Arabs slaughtered Jews while the British did nothing. The Hebron Riots of 1929, as the violence came to be called, sent shock-waves around the world. Americans were particularly aghast: newspapers reported that of the 68 Jews massacred at Hebron, a dozen were yeshiva students from New York and Chicago.”
Killings spread to Safed (Tzfat), Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere, but Hoover seems to have remained silent. He did not wish to jeopardize the Anglo-American relationship, so he avoided commenting on this massacre on British-ruled territory. But again, presidential interventions long predated Hoover.
One person long ago guessed “Warren Harding,” and, in fact, Harding is a pretty good guess. As I noted last June, in 1921:
“Harding gave the single most courageous speech on race relations ever delivered by an American president—and only a few months into his presidency.”
Five months earlier, only three months into his presidency, Harding clearly and publicly stated:
“It is impossible for one who has studied at all the service of the Hebrew people to avoid the faith that they will one day be restored to their historic national home and there enter on a new and yet greater phase of their contribution to the advance of humanity.”
In fact, the Harding Administration did intervene in September 1922 to halt the slaughter of Jews in Tehran, Iran (Persia, at the time). His minister (ambassador) to Persia was Joseph Saul Kornfeld, a Reform Rabbi Harding had known in Ohio. That September, Kornfeld intervened to halt a gathering pogrom. The servant of a mullah was riding his donkey past a Jewish school; the school’s Jewish custodian halted the donkey to prevent it from colliding with exiting schoolchildren. As reported in the Times of Israel:
“The Islamic cleric demanded retribution against the uppity Jews, and called for a general strike in the city. Local thugs and hoodlums armed with sticks and clubs randomly beat up Jews in the street. … The following day many hundreds of armed rioters surrounded Tehran’s Jewish ghetto seeking vengeance. … [Kornfeld] went to the minister of war [and soon-to-be Shah], Reza Khan Pahlavi. The minister dispatched cavalry to the Jewish ghetto to break up the riot; and calm was restored with no Jews being killed.”
A fuller account is found in Dr. Habib Levy’s Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran (1999). Harding, thus, is a reasonable conjecture, but incorrect for several reasons: (1) Iran is 1,000 miles east of modern-day Israel; (2) Iranians are not Arabs; (3) So far as I can tell, it was Harding’s envoy, not Harding himself, who interceded; and (4) The subject of my question was much earlier.
Another frequent guess is Theodore Roosevelt, whose muscular foreign adventures extended around the globe. He did famously send American armed forces steaming toward the Arab World to end a kidnapping, and he did help halt a murderous pogrom against Jews. However, the former did not involve Jews, and the latter did not involve Arabs.
In the first case, Roosevelt demanded an end to the kidnapping and ransoming of a Greek-American, Ion Hanford Perdicaris and his British stepson, Cromwell Varley, by Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (a.k.a. “Raisuli”) in Tangier. Roosevelt sent warships and Marines steaming toward Tangier and issued a simple, but foreboding message via telegram to the Sultan of Morocco. Signed by Secretary of State John Hay and shared with the press, it said:
“This Government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”
But this event was 2,500 miles west of modern-day Israel and, as noted above, did not involve Jews. A year earlier, in 1903, Roosevelt had played a significant role in halting the Kishinev Pogrom—in the city my own grandfather had left only a decade earlier. Kishinev (Chişinău today) is in present-day Moldova and was then in the Russian province of Bessarabia. Nevertheless, the details bear repeating here as they parallel the Hamas massacres of 2023 and also the events that led to object of my question—the first such presidential intervention in the Levant. The Kishinev Pogrom:
“began, as these things usually do, with a blood libel. A gentile child was found dead; Jews, then, must have murdered the boy for his blood, to put into their Passover matzos. … According to an eyewitness report published in New York's Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward, for three days Russians, and neighboring Romanians, unimpeded by local civil or military authorities, ‘armed with knives and machetes... broke into Jewish homes, where they began stabbing and killing, chopping off heads and stomping frail women and small children.’ This orgy of bloodletting, rape and destruction left 50 Jews dead, ten times that wounded, and some 1500 Jewish homes and businesses, looted.”
A senior Russian official said Jews had been taught a needed lesson, though before the pogrom even began, officials already knew the boy was killed by his uncle in a dispute over money. In October 2023, a Washington Post article (“A 1903 Pogrom Sparked Calls for a Jewish State—to Prevent Attacks Like This One”) explored the connections between the Kishinev and Hamas Pogroms.
Theodore Roosevelt played an important role in ginning up world outrage over the massacre, but his name is not the correct answer to my question. (1) Kishinev is 1,000 miles north-northwest of Israel; (2) The pogrom was initiated by Russians, not Arabs; and (3) There was at least one earlier presidential intervention that meets all the criteria of the question.
The Correct Answer (probably)
So far as I can determine, the correct answer is “Martin Van Buren.” In 1840, the eighth president authorized diplomats to demand an end to atrocities against Jews by Arabs (with French complicity) in Damascus—now the capital of Syria and an hour’s drive from modern Israel. This was the so-called “Damascus Affair” (a.k.a. “Damascus Blood Libel”), and the facts are sickeningly close to those that would transpire 63 years later in Kishinev. In 1840, “Greater Syria” (modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine) was ruled by the Ottoman Turks and had been for centuries. The borders that divide the present-day nations of the region were only sketched out when the Turks ceded control of the region to the French and British after World War I.
The Damascus Affair began when a French monk and his Muslim servant vanished. As described by the Sephardic Heritage Museum, French consular officials, anxious to avoid confrontation with Arab authorities who governed the area, conspired with Arab officials to blame Jews for the disappearances:
“In 1840, rumors begin to circulate in Damascus about a monk named Father Tomaso who had not been seen in several weeks. Christians accuse the Jews of killing him, and using his blood to make matzah. Eight Jewish community leaders, including Chief Rabbi Jacob Antebi, are arrested and tortured. They are burned and their teeth and beards are pulled out, to force them to confess. One man dies during torture. Another converted to Islam and incriminated the Jews.”
The events led to Van Buren’s unprecedented involvement in the events. From the Jerusalem Post:
“Martin Van Buren, following the lead of the protesting Jewish notables, protested the arrest and torture of the Damascus Jews. Through his secretary of state, John Forsythe, Van Buren stated that ‘he cannot refrain from expressing surprise and pain that in this advanced age such barbarous measures be resorted to in order to compel the confession of imputed guilt.’”
Van Buren’s message to the Sultan referred to America as:
“a friendly power, whose institutions, political and civil, place on the same footing, the worshipers of God, of every faith and form, acknowledging no distinction between the Mahomedan, the Jew and the Christian.”
In Damascus, foreshadowing the atrocities of 2023, 63 children were kidnapped and held as ransom in order to coerce confessions from their mothers regarding the hiding places of ritual blood—which, of course, did not exist. In the end, it appeared that the Capuchin monk and his Muslim servant were, in fact, murdered by Arabs in a business deal gone sour. Under pressure from Europeans and, to a lesser extent, Van Buren, Egyptian authorities who ruled the region as part of the Ottoman Empire, freed the Jewish prisoners, but without acquitting them. Later that year, when the Ottoman Turks reasserted tighter rein over the area, the Sultan issued an edict, absolving Jews of the accusations:
"... and for the love we bear to our subjects, we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented as a consequence of accusations which have not the least foundation in truth..."
The Damascus Affair is critical to understanding contemporary events. In 1840, the Jews in the Levant were small in number, mostly poor, politically powerless, deeply religious, and living mostly in their own segregated neighborhoods—often outside the walls of Arab towns. They had lived there continuously for over three thousand years. None of the accusations hurled at Israel today were present—no “occupation,” “colonialism,” “Zionism,” “oppression,” “apartheid,” or “cycle of violence.” And yet the same barbarism was applied then to the Jews of the region that Hamas applies today.
Was Van Buren Really the First?
I’ve found no earlier instance than 1840 of a U.S. president acting to halt an Arab massacre of Jews (in the Levant or anywhere else). But I’m not a professional historian, and those who are may know of earlier instances. There were other possibilities.
In 1834, during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, there were Arab massacres of Jews in Safed and Hebron. While John Quincy Adams was president, there was the 1828 Baghdad massacre. A massacre occurred in Algiers in 1815, while James Madison was president, along with another Algiers massacre in 1805, while Thomas Jefferson was president. Jefferson sent the Navy and Marines to Algiers to quell the Barbary Pirates between 1801 and 1805. But I have found no evidence that Jefferson, Madison, Adams, or Jackson interceded specifically to save Jewish lives. Of course, there were no U.S. presidents available to protest Arab massacres of Jews in Basra in 1776, Fez in 1465, Granada in 1066, or in countless other episodes stretching back to Medina in 627 A.D.
Why All This Matters in 2023
The massacre of 2023 is merely the repetition of an ancient pattern. Attackers find some recent event as an excuse to exact mayhem and cruelty on the Jewish population. In 2005, Israel pulled all military and civilian Jews out of Gaza but continued supplying utilities and employment—but the absence of “occupation” did not halt the rain of attacks. Going backward, contemporary pretexts for violence against Jews peel away one-by-one, yet the massacres form an unbroken chain stretching back into antiquity. The specific tools—property destruction, murder, decapitation, rape, kidnapping, torture—have been consistent over the eons. Hamas, itself, is transparent as to its aims. In 1988, Hamas issued its original Charter, which stated:
“The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: ‘O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.’”
Hamas speaks not of “Israelis” or “Zionists,” but of “Jews”—worldwide.
1840 was 183 years before Hamas surged into Israel. It was long before Netanyahu, the Six-Day War, the State of Israel, the U.N. Partition Plan, the Palestine Mandate, the Balfour Declaration, the First Zionist Congress, or any inkling of a Jewish state.
Today, denizens of American campuses justify and celebrate Hamas’s carefully coordinated, choreographed barbarities. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But plenty of scholars celebrating the slaughter know their way around historical sources. Perhaps, contrary to Santayana, the salient warning should be, “Those who conceal the past are anxious to repeat it.”
Let’s close this post on a high note—a 2023 performance of the national anthems of the United Arab Emirates and of Israel. Israel’s anthem is “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”), and the UAE anthem is “Ishi Biladi” (“Long Live My Country.”) In Hebrew, one says, “shalom aleichem,” and in Arabic, the same expression is “as-salamu alaykum.” Both mean, “peace be unto you.” May the future be blessed by Arabs and Jews of goodwill, such as these singers.