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    Sultan Abdul-Hamid and the Zionist Colonization of Palestine


    Sultan Abdul-Hamid and the Zionist Colonization of Palestine: A Case Study from Jerusalem.By Dr. Hala Fattah

    There is a certain school of thought among Zionist historians that detects anti-Semitic overtones in every action or utterance of Muslim rulers of the Middle East. Sultan Abdul-Hamid II's famous refusal to allow Dr. Theodore Herzl, the founder of Political Zionism, to settle Palestine with Jewish colonists is a case in point. Herzl probably thought that he was offering the Sultan a bargain, knowing that the Sultan's dearest wish was to rescue the empire from the indebtedness it had fallen into as a result of easy European loans.
    Herzl offered to buy up and then turn over the Ottoman Debt to the Sultan's government in return for an Imperial Charter for the Colonization of Palestine by the Jewish people. For having refused, the Sultan is painted in the lurid colors of the Muslim bigot and presented as the first of a long series of Jewish-hating rulers particularly characteristic of the Muslim Middle East.

    And yet, this is far from the truth. The fact that Jews native to the Ottoman empire had long coexisted and made contributions to Ottoman culture is totally ignored, although it was a reality recorded in many of the archives of the provinces of the Ottoman empire. Ottoman Jerusalem, for instance, was, and is still famous for the coexistence of many different ethnic, religious and confessional groups often living together cheek by jowl.

    The reasons for Abdul-Hamid II's decision not to initiate the beginnings of Jewish political settlement in Palestine had to do with the internal or foreign affairs of the empire, and were not based on racial or ethnic bias. At a time when the multinational Ottoman empire was being torn apart by secessionist movements in the Balkans and East Anatolia, the Turkish government feared the creation of yet another nationality problem . The Sultan's government also recognized that the venture would sow the seeds for Jewish expansionism that might affect negatively other Ottoman provinces. Finally, the Great Powers posed as the protectors of religious minorities in the empire and the Sultan did not want to provide them with further advantage. As a result , the Ottomans devised a series of entry restrictions that prohibited all foreign Jews, with the exception of pilgrims, from visiting Palestine. Through active European involvement, however, European Jews were granted official protection as bona-fide minorities, thereby increasing the number of "native" Jews in Palestine, and thereby flouting Ottoman laws.

    In Jerusalem, the governor, Ali Ekrem Bey was hard put to stem the tide of Jewish immigration and often laid the blame for the phenomenal rise of Jewish migrants at the door of foreign Consuls who offered protection to all minorities . The governor realized that laws were not enough to prevent the sale of land to foreign Jewish settlers because many lands had been acquired by private agreements and the connivance of corrupt officials. Moreover, the local Sephardi community was becoming susceptible to "the winds of change" and falling under the influence of Zionist ideas. Although he actively fought against these tendencies , in the end Ali Ekrem Bey was forced to conclude that the foreign Consuls had usurped a large role in the conduct of minority relations with the Ottoman state. Suffice it to say that largely as a result of that foreign interference, by 1908 when Sultan Abdul-Hamid II's rule collapsed, it was estimated that the Jewish population of Palestine had risen to 80,000, three times its number in 1882, when the first entry restrictions were imposed. And Jews had acquired some 156 square miles of land, setting up 26 colonies.

    March 11, 1999

    Of Iraqi origin, Dr. Hala Fattah is a historian of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire, especially Iraq. She is the author of The Politics of Regional Trade of Iraq, Arabia and the Gulf, 1745-1900 (S.U.N.Y Press, 1996). Presently, she is an Independent Scholar.

    References
    Oke, Mim Kemal, "The Ottoman Empire, Zionism and the Question of Palestine" in International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol.14, 1982.