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Emet m'Tsiyon

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Professor Biger's Turkophilic Fantasies -- More Distortion of History

UPDATING 7-22-2008, see bottom

Gid`on Biger is indeed an expert on the internal adminstrative boundaries in the Land of Israel during the Ottoman period [see previous post]. However, he has an unfortunate proclivity to apologize for Muslim misdeeds. Hence, he has been taken to the bosom of a Turkish apologist website, "Tall Armenian Tale." Remarks that he made several years ago at an Israeli-Turkish conference of historians at Tel Aviv University were recorded and summarized by Abraham Rabinovich, for many years a correspondent of the Jerusalem Post.
Prof. Gideon Biger of Tel Aviv University said that Israeli and other Jewish historians have been distinctly ungenerous to the Turks in making them out to be "the big bad wolf."

Acts of villainy attributed to the Turks during the World War I in fact constituted moderate, even civilized, behavior in the context of war, he said.

WHEN fighting broke out in 1914, there were 85,000 Jews in Palestine, most of whom had arrived in the decades after 1882. Most did not adopt Ottoman citizenship, preferring to retain citizenship of their home country, with the protection that offered.

With the outbreak of war, some of these home countries — like Britain, France and Russia — became enemies of Turkey. Their nationals were given a choice of becoming Ottoman subjects or leaving the Ottoman Empire. If they became subjects, they would be liable to draft but, as a gesture, the Turks said they would defer draft for a year.

About 15,000 foreign Jews who refused to take Ottoman citizenship were forced to leave the country. Noting that Israeli history books refer to this as "the cruel deportation," Biger said that no country behaved more gently to citizens of enemy states during a war. [report of lecture by Abraham Rabinovich]
What Biger doesn't ask is why Jewish immigrants into the Land of Israel --which did not exist as a political or administrative-territorial entity under any name under the Mamluk and Ottoman empires-- preferred "to retain citizenship of their home country, with the protection that offered," rather than take on Ottoman subjecthood. We say subjecthood, since the Ottoman Empire had subjects not citizens. Actually, Biger errs. The bulk of the immigrants were Russian Jews. The Russian Empire provided minimal "protection" --if at all-- to their Jewish subjects in the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Empire hated Jews and the Russian Jews generally hated that empire. The tsar's empire did not "protect" or represent the Russian Jews in Jerusalem, for example, except minimally and sporadically perhaps. The Russian tsars wanted to renew Greek Orthodox domination of the Land, as embodied in the Byzantine Empire before the Arab conquest, and in the future to be embodied in Russian leadership or domination. For this purpose, Jews in the Holy Land were seen as a hindrance.

It is reasonable to conclude that most Russian Jews in the Land of Israel would have been happy to take on Ottoman subjecthood ["nationality"] if it had been better than, an improvement over, Russian subjecthood. The Russian Empire was notorious before WW1 for persecution and harassment of Jews, particularly in areas of thick Jewish settlement, Russian Poland, Belarus and the Ukraine [in outlying, non-Slavic, areas like Bukhara, Russian rule was an improvement for the Jews over previous Muslim oppression]. Actually, one of the ways in which the Russian Empire oppressed Jews early in the 19th century was to impose on them a practice copied from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans for hundreds of years confiscated children from the Christian natives in the Balkans, Serbs, Greeks, Rumanians [then called Vlakhs or Wallachs] in a system called devshirme and forced them to convert to Islam and serve in the army or other state agencies. The comparable Russian practice was called the Cantonist policy, which was in fact milder than devshirme, since it gave the Jewish child recruits a chance to return to their families if they had not converted after 25 years of service. The policy was discontinued in the mid-19th century. Given the loathing of most Jews in the Russian Empire for their oppressors, Jews from Russia in Israel would have gladly taken up Ottoman subjecthood, if it had been an improvement. Indeed, during the Crimean War against Russia, the local Ottoman officials in Jerusalem enlisted local rabbis of both the Sefardim and the Ashkenazim [many of them from the Russian Empire] to lead prayers for an Ottoman victory in the war [actually, French and British forces defended the Ottoman Empire against Russia] at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

The question that we would ask Biger is: Why did so many non-Muslim natives of the empire, Christians as well as Jews (especially Christians), take on the protection and citizenship [sometimes called then "nationality"] of Western powers? Their purpose was to avoid the disabilities, the social and juridical inferiority imposed on non-Muslims under Muslim dominion.
Moreover, the historian George Clark tells us of the Ottomans:
It has often been said that their empire was an army of occupation and not a political power.
[G Clark, The Seventeenth Century ( 1st ed. 1929; 5th printing: New York: Oxford Univ Press 1961), p 172].
For the same reasons, the same could be said about the early, pre-Crusades Arab empires. For related reasons, I would accept in some ways Biger's defense of the Ottoman state. The oppression of non-Muslims as dhimmis that so many wanted to escape was carried out not only by the Ottoman state but by local Muslims. Indeed, sometimes the Ottoman state protected dhimmis from oppression and persecution by local Muslims that went beyond the commands of Muslim law [shari`ah]. When the Ottoman state was strong it could supply such protection. But when it was weak local Muslim notables and strongmen felt that they could act without restraint. This was why many or most Jewish immigrants did not seek Ottoman subjecthood, Professor Biger, especially after it became possible to take on a Western citizenship or "nationality."

The Turkish apologist website then goes on to falsify Ottoman imperial history:
Here's the deal: after centuries of prosperity, practically all the minorities of the Ottoman Empire decided to take advantage of the weakened Ottoman Empire and stabbed their nation in the back. Years later, groups from Armenians to Greeks to Assyrians would dishonorably present the reaction to their treachery as "genocide."
It's too funny --"after centuries of prosperity." So the oppressed dhimmi subject peoples "stabbed their nation in the back." Their "nation" or their state? As if they owed something to the Ottoman Empire. It should be needless to say that the above is asinine but in the 21st century no knowledge or understanding --on the part of the uneducated or the university- educated alike-- can be taken for granted. That is, historical knowledge is so meager among ordinary people and "intellectuals" and academics, even regarding events within living memory, like the Holocaust, like Palestinian Arab collaboration in the Holocaust, that one cannot take it for granted that people know anything.

Be that as it may, after blaming Jews for not taking Ottoman subjecthood, Prof Biger gets to another related issue.
THE MOST emotion-laden grievance against the Turks [on the part of Jews in Israel] involved their crackdown on the Nili spy ring, founded by a group of young Jews in Zichron Ya'acov to help the Allied war effort [during World War 1]. The ringleader, Aaron Aaronson, managed to escape but the Turks hanged other members of the ring and tortured Aaronson's sister, Sara, who finally shot herself.

The known facts are correct, said Biger, but the prevailing Jewish attitude is too narrow.

The only people punished by the Turks, he noted, were those actually involved in the ring — and only after a military trial. There was no collective punishment against the Jews of Palestine or even of Zichron Ya'acov. "No house was burned and anyone can visit today the original house of the Aaronson family. The woman who committed suicide was actually a spy who received the 'usual treatment' of spies during war."
[Abraham Rabinovich, "The Secret Crescent Cause"]

Yes, many other countries have executed spies. The United States executed --during peacetime-- the Rosenbergs, husband and wife, who indeed spied for the Soviet Union (the wife's activity was marginal). The press of the time charged the Rosenbergs with giving the secrets of the atomic bomb to the Communist USSR during WW2, while the USA and USSR were allies. In fact, Harry Hopkins, a White House advisor of FDR, has been accused of seeing to the transport to the USSR of cartons of documents produced by the Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bomb, in addition to having heavy water shipped there. Furthermore, certain atomic scientists who actually worked on the bomb and knew much more about it than Rosenberg did, and gave information about it to the USSR, were sentenced to only light terms [i.e., Klaus Fuchs]. So even the USA executed spies. By executing members of the NILI, the Ottoman government was doing nothing exceptional, as Biger says. However, he does not ask WHY the NILI group spied for the British on the Ottoman Empire.

In fact, they were well aware of the Armenian genocide. Sarah Aaronsohn had seen how the Armenians were being herded toward their death, suffering abuse, as she watched from her train window on a trip from Kusta [the Hebrew name; it was then called Constantinople in the West, now Istanbul] in 1915. Jews in the NILI group spied for Britain out of fear that the Armenian massacre might be applied to Jews in Israel. The Jews had no special loyalty to Russia, the UK's ally in the war. The NILI group were well aware of the Armenian genocide. Zionists and other Jews outside of Israel were well aware of the Armenian genocide and worried that it might be extended to the Jews. Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Max Nordau and Prof. A.S. Yahuda wrote during WW I about the concern for the survival of the Jews in Israel during the war. The Turkish/Ottoman apologist quoted above supplies the name of another Zionist writer on this matter, Alfred Boehm, through a quote from an Ottoman Jewish subject of that time. I am not familiar with Boehm's writings.
As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk pointed out, however, there was one exception among the different millets [subject ethno-religious groups with autonomy as dhimmi peoples]: Ottoman Jews remained loyal. In an emotional encounter, one summed it up:
"So now the unethical genocide industry has gotten wind of this episode. Creepy Zionists like Alfred Boehm have written books making ugly statements such as, If Palestine had not been freed by the English at the end of 1917, the Jewish Yishuv (settlement) [Yishuv= the Jewish population in Israel] would have been exterminated by Djemal."
Jamal Pasha was part of the triumvirate ruling the Ottoman Empire during WW I. He and his friends took power in 1908 through the Young Turk movement, formally known as the Committee for Unity and Progress. Nasser's Free Officers were much like the Young Turks when they took over in 1952. They too were seen as "progressives," "reformers," "uncorruptible," etc.

Getting back to the threat to the Yishuv in Israel. Jabotinsky discussed the threat in an article in Yiddish entitled "Activism," which he published in 1915 in Copenhagen in neutral Denmark [in Di Tribune, 10 October 1915]. This article was influential at the time, although it is barely remembered today. It may never have been published in English, although I am personally aware that the bulk of it was translated into English. Jabotinsky in 1915 was well aware of the Armenian genocide but believed that Jewish influence in the capitals of the Ottomans' major allies, Berlin, Vienna and Budapest, would prevent the Committee of Unity and Progress, the Ittihad government, from bringing upon the Jews in Israel the same fate as the Armenians were suffering.

Prof Yahuda was concerned about the fate of the Jews in Israel from the very beginning of WW I. He wrote [in German] to Oscar S Straus, a prominent Jewish leader in New York. Straus answered him [in English] on 23 October 1914:
I am in receipt of your letter of October 5th in regard to the condition of the Jews in Palestine, and a foreshadowing of what may happen to them should war break out between Turkey and Russia.
Straus wrote on 30 October 1914 to Nordau, who had also written to him of his concerns:
I also communicated with the German Ambassador, informing him that should Turkey enter the war on the German side and a massacre occur in Palestine, the civilized world would hold Germany, the dominant power, responsible.
A.S. Yahuda's background is of interest. He was born in Israel in 1877 (d. 1951) of a family that had come from Iraq. He was educated in Israel and later went to study in Europe, eventually becoming a professor at the Higher School of Jewish Studies in Berlin [Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums], and later at the University of Madrid. His book on parallels between the Biblical accounts of Egypt and archeological findings there --The Accuracy of the Bible-- seems to have been a major influence on Immanuel Velikovsky and his citation of Egyptian documents confirming the story of the Exodus [in Worlds in Collision, Ages in Chaos, etc]. Yahuda also purchased personal papers of Isaac Newton, the famous physicist. These papers demonstrate Newton's interest in the Bible and the Jewish role in history, papers that the British universities were not interested in purchasing from Newton's family. These papers are now in Jerusalem at the Hebrew National and University Library.
The letters quoted above are in Yahuda's article in Hebrew, "The Effort to Defend the Jewish Population in Israel during the First World War," in A.R. Mal'akhy [ed.], Yisrael (New York: Shulsinger Bros, 1949-50), pp 73-84.

Prof. Biger is technically correct in most of what he said, but he avoids the conditions of those times that are necessary for understanding the Ottoman state's actions as well as those of the Jews in the NILI.
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UPDATING 7-22-2008 Eyewitness Testimony by a NILI Member on the Armenian Massaces
Here & here & here
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Coming: More on Hebron, more on peace follies, more on Jews in Jerusalem, etc.


  • "That is, historical knowledge is so meager among ordinary people and "intellectuals" and academics, even regarding events within living memory, like the Holocaust, like Palestinian Arab collaboration in the Holocaust, that one cannot take it for granted that people know anything."

    How true!

    By Blogger Cosmic X, at 4:05 PM  

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