From the British Consulate to the US Embassy in Jerusalem

From the British Consulate to the US Embassy in Jerusalem


Nearly a decade ago, while doing research for my PhD dissertation about British Consulates in Basra and Baghdad, I discovered Meir Verete’s article, “Why was a British Consulate established in Jerusalem?” among the Oxford Journals dated 1970.

The question in the title implied a certain statement, as there had been no need to have a British Consulate in Jerusalem, since not many British nationals had been living there nor had any British companies been operating there. So, what was the need for a British Consul in Jerusalem if it did not serve British citizens or commerce? Moreover, how was Viscount Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, manipulated to make such an appointment?

After the Balfour Declaration issued by the British government, which announced support for establishing a “home for the Jewish people” in Palestine following World War I, books published on Jewish settlement in Palestine provided a revisionist history of the real motivations behind Great Britain’s appointment of a consul to Jerusalem in August 1838. Jewish historians like A.M. Hyamson and J. Parkes connected this appointment with sympathy felt by the British government for the return of the Jews to Palestine. However, Vereté well exhibits and demonstrates through his research that there were two main motivations behind such a decision, the first being political and the second, religious. It is undeniable the British had wished the Jewish people to return to Palestine, but in 1838, they had wished for them to return as converted Protestants, not as Jews.

The conventional purpose of consulates is to promote the commercial interests of a country. For Great Britain, there had been a procedure for appointing a new consul to a country and/or region. Analysis of the correspondence in the 1830s shows the British Foreign Office did not follow the above procedure in the case of Jerusalem. Given there had only been one or two English missionary families living in Jerusalem at the time, and minimal commercial trade considerations, what moved the Foreign Secretary to propose a consul would be useful and necessary in Jerusalem?

As a very small town in the early 19th century, Jerusalem was considered within the duty area of the British Consul stationed in Damascus. Later, when Kavalalı Mehmed Ali Pasha, the governor of Egypt, extended his sphere of influence to Syria, the consul in Cairo was designated to cover the area of Jerusalem for British nationals.

In 1834, the British Consul in Damascus, J.W.P. Farren, became the first to write to Palmerston about the Roman Catholic subjects in the Ottoman Empire and the Catholic Church in France’s influence over them. Citing good relations and connections of Anglican missionaries with Armenians since the 1820s, Farren proposed an Armenian, Mr. Merad, a subject of the Ottoman Empire, as a candidate for the post. Palmerston almost ignored Farren’s proposal at the time.

However, in the spring of 1836, the British Consul in Cairo reported the arrival of valuable gifts to the region from the Russian government for the Greek Church in the Holy Sepulchre. This news really caught Palmerstone’s attention towards Russia’s activities in the region, leading him to note “it would be expedient to have an English consular agent in Jerusalem.”

During this period of history, we witnessed a major Anglo-Russian rivalry on generating influence over the Asiatic lands of the Ottoman Empire. Appointing consuls in various parts of Ottoman lands was one of the implications of this rivalry. With the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi signed in July 1833, Russia’s right to defend Orthodox Christians in the empire had to be recognized by Sultan Mahmud II. Palmerstone later described not standing by the sultan and allowing Russia on this march as “a grave failure of the English government’s policy.”

So clearly, it could be said the rivalry between the Anglo-Russian powers had played the largest role in this appointment. The records from the period do not provide any evidence referring to the Jewish problem, the Jewish return to Palestine or generally the protection to be afforded Jews in Palestine as claimed by 20th century historians. Nor can one talk about British public sympathy towards the Jews. On the contrary, a very common dislike for the Jews is evident in the literature and press from 19th century England. This dislike is expressed clearly and somehow criticized by Charles Dickens in his novel, “Our Mutual Friend.”

Now, approximately 200 years later, the Anglo-Russian rivalry has been rejuvenated with the American-Russian version. The world watches as the United States moves its embassy to Jerusalem and recognizes the Holy Town shared by the three monotheistic religions, as the capital city of Israel. Palmerston, a wise man of his time, and other contributors, like the London Missionary Society, had dreamed of a Protestant Palestine, yet had ended up with a Jewish Israel. I am very curious about what future historians will find. Will they write about the Trump administration’s decision-making process behind that recognition, and what will the results be for the U.S. and for others regarding the country of Palestinians?