Failed Religious Diplomacy at the Birth of Israel

March 31, 2014 Topic: ReligionSociety Region: IsraelPalestinian territories

Failed Religious Diplomacy at the Birth of Israel

Well-meaning Protestant aid groups tried, and failed, to keep the peace in Jerusalem.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief (New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), by Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander H. Joffe. A note from the authors introduces the book:

Before the UN launched it seemingly permanent relief effort for Palestinian refugees in 1950, UNRWA, it oversaw another, smaller program called United Nations Relief for Palestinian Refugees (UNRPR). In 1948 and 1949 aid was administered for the UN by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the League of Red Cross Societies.

AFSC and its leaders represented their participation in UNRPR as an outgrowth of relief work they had done in Europe and elsewhere during and after World War II. This work had, with some lobbying, earned a Nobel Peace Prize for the AFSC and its British counterpart in 1947.

But the real origins of the AFSC’s participation were quite different, namely the failure of three unsuccessful efforts at “religious diplomacy” in the months prior to being asked to participate in Palestine relief work. This was the real prompt for the AFSC going to Gaza, which conflicted with its unprecedented and little-documented bid to lead the American Protestant community in the name of pacifism and nuclear disarmament.

In this excerpt we describe some of the failed religious diplomacy, another point where American religious history intersected with diplomacy and foreign policy:

THE INITIAL INVOLVEMENT of the AFSC in the Middle East was a matter of religious diplomacy, not refugee relief. Jerusalem had posed a central problem for the United Nations as it contemplated the Palestine question in 1947 and 1948. In August 1947 the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) had recommended partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states with an international zone consisting of Jerusalem and its environs. In contrast, the minority report proposed a federal state with Arab and Jewish components and recommended that Jerusalem be divided into two separate municipalities.Jerusalem’s holy places, however, had long been subject to separate legal regimes that complicated further relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians, and the potential division of the city.

Throughout the fall of 1947 the United Nations focused additional attention on the problem of Jerusalem, which culminated in complex recommendations for a corpus separatum to place it under a United Nations Trusteeship Council that would appoint a Governor. These were part of United Nations Resolution 181, adopted by the General Assembly on November 29, 1947.Working out the details of this plan would prove difficult, particularly as civil war broke out between the Arab and Jewish communities. Despite intensive diplomatic efforts, the appointment of a governor could not be scheduled until April 1948, at which point the political and strategic situations had changed dramatically.Most Protestant denominations with representatives and institutions in Jerusalem had strongly opposed partition but the AFSC had publicly endorsed the November 29th Partition resolution, a stance that had caused deep shock and alienation among Palestine Arab Quakers, in particular Khalil Totah.

Though Pickett later implied that he was the first choice for the position of Governor, by then entitled Special Municipal Commissioner, in fact the United Nations first asked Percy Clarke, general manager of the Barclays Bank in Jerusalem, to take the post. When Clarke declined, Pickett and his biographers state that the position was offered to him. When he too declined, well-known Philadelphia lawyer and AFSC member Harold Evans accepted. Curiously, Pablo de Azcárate, secretary of the United Nations Consular Truce Commission in Jerusalem, and deputy Municipal Commissioner, mentioned only Evans in his account of the affair, suggesting that neither Clarke’s nor Pickett’s nominations were of much significance. Evans’ appointment lasted all of six weeks before the escalating conflict made it impossible for him to exercise any authority. He returned to the United States in June and the position of Special Municipal Commissioner lapsed.

Quaker religious diplomacy was also proceeding on several different tracks. Early in 1948 the elderly Rufus Jones [founder of the AFSC] had been approached by Francis B. Sayre, then president of the United Nations Trusteeship Council, and was asked to organize an appeal to religious leaders in the West to be addressed to religious leaders in Palestine.Jones and AFSC Executive Director Clarence Pickett then initiated a petition addressed to both Arabs and Jews and calling for an immediate “Truce of God” that would halt the fighting and preserve the sanctity of Jerusalem. In March 1948 the appeal was signed by a number of American churchmen and sent to Rabbi Isaac Herzog, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine, and Amin Bey Abdul Hadi, head of the Supreme Muslim Council.No response was received. At the same time, a small mission was dispatched by the AFSC and the British Religious Society of Friends to further investigate the possibility of Quaker facilitation of direct negotiations and toward a truce that would preserve Jerusalem from destruction. James Vail, an American chemical engineer, and Edgar B. Castle undertook the assignment.

While Castle had been to the Middle East before World War II, and had expressed hostility toward Zionism in the years since, neither he nor Vail had any particular familiarity with the region nor experience with diplomacy, religious or otherwise. Nevertheless, they traveled to Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Amman and Jerusalem for an intensive series of meetings with representatives of various organizations. Their reports indicate a diffuse series of discussions.

In Beirut Vail and Castle were told that rich Jews had fled Aleppo due to anti-Jewish and anti-American rioting but they noted that they were awaiting another “objective report” on the situation. In Jerusalem, which was under siege, they met a variety of Jews, including Abraham Bergman, Assistant to the Mandatory District Commissioner, whose view they characterized as seeming “less extreme than those of other more prominent Jews we were soon to meet.” Regarding their meeting with Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, they noted, “being obliged to report that we found little understanding of the feeling of the Arabs that Jews are invaders from the West.” Their naiveté was unintentionally revealed in the report on their discussions with Leo Cohen of the Jewish Agency. Cohen indicated that Jews would support a truce but he sought clarification whether this meant the two sides would refrain from shooting into or out of the city, and how the 2,000 Jews in the Old City would receive food.

Vail and Castle had no answers for Cohen. But their report from Cairo was more effusive, particularly regarding their meeting with Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League. They judged that Azzam receiving them at his home was a sign of the “serious concern and respect with which he viewed our mission.” Azzam was also able to “appreciate the ultimate spiritual objectives of our concern because of his own wide comprehension of the spiritual values involved in the Palestinian conflict for the whole world and for the Middle East in particular.” Azzam welcomed Quaker services and assured Vail and Castle that the Holy Places could be secured, were it not for the Irgun and Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary forces. He also assured them that in a binational Palestine, Jews would have “full cultural autonomy and full civic rights on a democratic basis of proportional representation.” He even agreed to accept Jewish immigration “if there was also full freedom of emigration.”

A variety of other meetings impressed Vail and Castle with the direness of the situation and the need for Quaker action, particularly on the issues of refugee relief and the internationalization of Jerusalem. But a small and revealing comment noted that, when addressing other Quakers in Beirut and Ramallah, “some apprehension was felt regarding the possible misinterpretation of our impartial distribution of relief between Arab and Jew. Any help given to the Jews would be interpreted by Arabs as a pro-Jewish action and might react adversely on local Quaker social and education activity.” Vail and Castle recommended that the Quakers dispatch a small contingent to help the International Committee of the Red Cross, and proposed to Azzam that he support a truce, which would help bring about “a new understanding of the moral qualities of Islam” and help it achieve “a strong position of moral leadership.”

The Vail/Castle mission was as doomed as it was naïve. Writing in The Spectator in mid-May, Castle bravely pushed truces and internationalization, and touted Azzam’s proposal of April 28th regarding a truce. He noted, however, that “If, at this juncture, the Jews were to demand access to the Wailing Wall, it would be a pity, much as one has to sympathise with their desire, for this would introduce avoidable complications.”But at the same time that Azzam had been reassuring Vail and Castle, he was negotiating with Arab leaders and attempting to overcome disputes prior to a united invasion of Palestine. Preparations for war were accelerating in all Arab states.Azzam had also issued his threat to the Jews regarding a “war of extermination and momentous massacre” a full six months before meeting the Quakers.Like Rufus Jones’ wartime meeting with Reinhard Heydrich’s associates, Vail and Castle appear to have heard what they came to hear.