Monthly Archives: June 2012

Hong Kong, Singapore, building which nation?

Posted by dianamuir on June 29, 2012
Museums of National History, Uncategorized / Comments Off on Hong Kong, Singapore, building which nation?

The Hong Kong Museum of History opened in 1998 – the year after the handover – and it shows.    This is a museum intended to persuade visitors that Hong Kong has always been Chinese.   The Museum strikes an interesting claim to indigeneity  by beginning in the beginning (of the world) and devoting one of its two exhibit floors to Hong Kong before the British arrived.    That’s quite a lot of floor space considering that Hong Kong didn’t exist until the British grabbed the island, (while it is true that farmers, fisherfolk and traders lived on the Kowloon Peninsula, it was an insignificant place).    And yet the exhibits begin with Hong Kong’s geology and natural setting, and a lengthy exploration of the unremarkable Paleolithic and Neolithic prehistory of this place (news flash: Neolithic residents used stone tools).   After the Neolithic they walk you though a potted history of the Chinese dynasties.

But most of the of the first floor is dedicated to colorful, full-scale replicas of the  life of four groups of villagers who lived on the peninsula before the British grabbed the island.  The British don’t arrive until the second floor.

The British land grab is treated with stunning even-handedness.    Those who have never toured one may not be aware that  the category of most outrageously inventive origin story presented in a museum of national history is a highly competitive one.   Only consider the national museum in Ottawa, capital of   the former British colony of Canada.   The Canadian Museum of Civilization  opened in 1989.   I visited in the early 90’s and worked my way through Canada Hall.  I had passed the  explorers, Acadians and  voyageurs, and was somewhere in the late eighteenth century when I realized that the British hadn’t conquered Canada.  Bemused, I walked back throughout the galleries just to make certain that I hadn’t somehow overlooked a gallery showing Wolfe dying heroically  on the  Plains of Abraham after conquering half of a continent for the British Empire.   But Wolfe was not there; no conquest, no war, no French surrender.   When you consider the fact that in  1989 the British conquest of Canada was far too hot a topic for a Canadian national museum to tackle, the Hong Kong museum’s treatment of the British is admirable.

Hong Kong does a fine job with the Opium War and the 1841 British seizure and occupation of the island.   There’s even a pretty evenhanded description of why this foreign colony became the great entrepôt of the Chinese Empire  (The short answer is political stability; merchants – including Chinese merchants – enjoyed security of life and property courtesy of the British Empire while China had a very rocky century and a half.  Political stability and the rule of law built a great city.)

This is all in the text at the museum, at least, if you read between the lines, and assuming that you actually read the text.     But, who reads museum texts?   Only people who read blog posts like this.

The centerpiece of the Hong Kong museum is a full scale replica of a shop street in old Hong Kong, complete with family quarters over the shop houses.   The hordes of schoolchildren who troop through can be forgiven if they come away believing that British Hong Kong was a Chinese city.   It is what they are meant to believe.   The individual displays are not inaccurate; the overall impression is.    After the drama of the Opium Wars, the British are pushed to the side – literally into a few little rooms off the main street,  to make room for the story of Chinese Hong Kong.  The Brits reappear to surrender to the Japanese whose behavior as an occupying power gets an almost uniformly  negative – and therefore thoroughly fair – treatment.     But the spotlight is on  the Chinese.   And the argument is that Hong Kong belongs to the Chinese nation.

The National Museum of Singapore  is is intriguingly different because rather than claiming that Siingapore is a Chinese city, this museum makes the claim that Singapore is a nation.    If the names of the two museums don’t signal that sufficiently, the exhibits do.

Like Hong Kong, Singapore was a British invention and the curators in Singapore handle this awkward fact much as the curators in Hong Kong do: they accurately portray the 1818 creation of the British colony, but they arrive at the story only after beginning with the big bang theory of creation presented as a dazzling multi-media show in a dramatic round chamber.   And impressing us with an archaeological gallery boasting of an improbable level of grander for long-vanished settlements on the peninsula.

But the heart of the museum is dedicated to telling the story of Singapore as a multi-cultural city, a place where Chinese, Brits, Malay and Tamil (Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus) – Singaporeans all! –  work together to build a better Singapore.

The curators have the space to take us to little-known corners of the past, for example, British colonial policy that provided only primary education for Malays, but offered  secondary education for Chinese.   The  British administrators explained that the colony needed only so many clerks and,  since educating the the Chinese could supply them, it would be wasteful to educate the Malay.   The post-World War II galleries are more problematic, but, then, so is Singapore.

Singpore simply fails to fit into any of our conventional paradigms.   Wealthy despite the fact that it has no natural resources, Singapore is clean, law-abiding, safe, and doing better than almost any other country in the world when it comes to providing a good education and good jobs for all of its citizens.   Not to mention first-rank galleries and concert halls.   The authoritarian downside to Singapore is well known, but a great many Malaysians, Indonesians and other Asians would ignore all that if they could get landed status.   Which brings us to Singapore’s ethnic policy.

Not the official ethnic policy, of course.  That is as multi-cultural as the National Museum.   Unofficially, however, the policy is to insure that Singapore continues to be Chinese.   This is difficult in a state that is, after all, a tiny spur on the Malaysian peninsula and a short ferry ride from Indonesia.   Immigration policy has long unofficially favored immigration by Straits Chinese, the ethnically Chinese minorities in what are now Malaysia and Indonesia who have lived in the region as distinctive, culturally  Chinese communities since long before the birth of Islam.   They continue to immigrate to Singapore, but not in sufficient numbers to supply  Singapore’s  voracious demand of labor.

The government of Singapore seeks out and admits growing numbers of mainland Chinese in what most observers see as a deliberate effort to insure that the Chinese continue to be the majority ethnicity.   Discrimination in favor of Chinese (ergo, against Malay and Tamil)  is said to be endemic in hiring, and visible in job listings that specify “Mandarin-speaker”.

This is at odds with the narrative of the National Museum, but it is also at odds with Lee Hsien Loong’s goal of building a Singaporean nation.    To do that , Lee will have to persuade Singapore’s Malay, Tamil and Chinese  not only that they are Singaporeans, but that Singaporean  is a real identity.    But as long as Singapore’s  Tamil and Malay citizens are treated as less than the equals of their Chinese fell0w citizens, there is no reason for any citizen, Tamil, malay or Shinese, to believe in a Singaporean nation.

Building a National Museum is a lot easier than building a nation.




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Posted by dianamuir on June 29, 2012
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An interesting contest is being waged over a Judean hilltop known as Betar or Battir.


This hilltop village with a  system of stone-walled hillside terraces has been nominated by the Palestinian Authority for recognition as a World Heritage Site, and has won the Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes, awarded by UNESCO.

Is the Mercouri prize political?   Well, this is a biennial  prize, first awarded in 1999  to  Elishia’s Spring, Jericho, Palestine ; the 2011 award to Battir, Palestine marks the first time the prize has been given twice to a the same country.

The World Heritage site nomination  caught the attention of a number of  commentators since the village is best known under the older, Hebrew version of the name: Betar.    Betar was the military headquarters of the Bar Kochba Revolt, a Jewish revolt against Roman rule in 135 CE, and it was that revolt’s last stronghold.  When Betar fell, the defenders and their leader, Shimon Bar Kochba, were  killed.   The event is commemorated by the villagers who call the ancient defensive tower “Khirbet el-Yahud”, “the Jewish ruin”.

Amusingly, UNESCO does not mention this historical significance in the Mercouri prize citation, although it is more than slightly relevant to the landscape being honored.     The village dated back to the Iron Age, the archaeological discovery of a “Lmlk” seal impression establishes that it was part of the Judean kingdom in the eighth century BCE, and the stone terraces may predate the Arab conquest.     Bar Kochba apparently chose the small, hilltop farming village because it has a constant spring of water and was on a defensible hill beside the Jerusalem-Gaza road.  The site was abandoned after the battle.    The archaeological survey done in 1993 by David Ussishkin (D. Ussishkin, “Archaeological Soundings at Betar, Bar-Kochba’s Last Stronghold”, Tel Aviv 20, 1993, pp. 66-97) reports that the the Jewish liberation fighters hastily threw up crude stone fortification walls, incorporating parts of the walls and buildings of the Jewish village.

In effect if not in intent, UNESCO has awarded the Mercouri prize to a set of retaining walls at least the upper tier of which belonged to an ancient Jewish village.

The Jewish claim to the land is that Jews are the original people of the land, as attested by the ancient Jewish kingdoms.

The Arab claim to the land is that they are the indigenous people of the land, as attested by farming villages like this one.   It is not an unreasonable claim, but perhaps nominating an ancient Jewish village for UNESCO World heritage Status is not the most effective way to make it.



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The Ottoman Footprint

Posted by dianamuir on June 18, 2012
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The Ottoman Empire had a terrible and enduring impact on the lands it conquered.   Look at the map.  Start in Algiers and let your eye follow the footprint of Ottoman occupied land around the Mediterranean until you reach Sarajevo.  Country after country, all of them political and economic disasters, with only minor exceptions.  Turkey itself is not too badly off, but the lands the Osmanli Turks conquered and ruled are in bad condition.

It’s something about the Ottomans, and Morocco and Greece are the proof.   Morocco, never conquered by the Ottomans, is far from perfect, but it is more peaceful and better governed than most of former Ottoman lands. Greece has been an independent country since 1821, but twentieth century Greek political history is a litany of crises, coups, and wars.   Nobody pays their taxes and nothing gets done outside the patronage system.   Until it entered the European Union in 1981, the Greek economy consisted of olives, sheep, tourism, and shipping magnates.   Shipping was the great exception in a peasant economy.  All of this was very like the story of rest of the former Ottoman world, peasant economies from which huge numbers of people emigrate.

Since joining the European Union Greece has been on the dole.  Rivers of German money have poured in, building roads and luring young people off the farms.  By the 1990’s the impact of EU transfers was so great that people abandoned the  farms on the islands and in the mountains to move to the cities, and a forest began to grow on  mountains of the Peloponnese that had been pastures since the Homer was young.     But despite all the lovely EU money and an enormous tourism boom, no industries developed, nobody started paying taxes, and you still need patronage to get anything done.

Is there a former Ottoman colony that has done better?   You can make a case for Hungary.  Jordan, Tunisia and Cyprus are not  the world’s worst governed or poorest countries.   The Saudis, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait have oil.   Israel has both democratic government and one of the world’s most dynamic economies, but is under constant attack from badly governed neighbors.    Overall, the Ottoman lands are in terrible shape.   The Balkan  states may be beginning to recover from a decade of war, but almost all the countries from Iraq to Algeria have been political and economic disasters.

The footprint of Ottoman rule outlines a series of countries with bad – often brutal – governments and pathetic economies.


It’s not genetic.  Immigrants form the old Ottoman lands are often successful: the Syrian Christians who immigrated to South America are famous for their commercial success, the United States has large numbers of Arab immigrants who arrived as students and stayed to make successful careers, and Greeks appear to be able to become successful, even rich, everywhere except Greece.

The problem with the former Ottoman lands is that  cultural patters are very hard to change.   There was no security of property under the Ottomans, and taxation  was erratic and confiscatory; it trained people to cheat, hide their assets and bribe tax collectors.    In the former Ottoman lands today tax evasion is endemic.

The Ottoman government was routinely unable to keep its subjects safe.    The Aegean, Mediterranean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf were overrun by pirates,  while large areas of fertile land lay abandoned because it was too unsafe to farm them.   Bedouin,  Kurds and other tribal groups lived largely by raiding farmers and caravans.   Everyone was armed, even Christians villagers in some regions were armed although for a Christian to carry a weapon was against the law.   Survival depended on having a group of people who you could trust to defend you: a tribe.   It was unwise to trust anyone  outside the family or  tribe.  Many people in the old Ottoman lands still do not.  No where except in Israel has a former Ottoman colony  been able to produce the kind of mutual trust that enables nations to achieve democratic governments and fair courts; the kind of government that citizens of nation-states like Denmark and the United States take for granted.   That kind of government is based on our ability to trust strangers: bank officers, government officials, judges and, in general, everyone we deal with to apply the same set of rules to each of us.   In the old Ottoman lands shopkeepers have different prices for different customers, clerks in the Department of Motor Vehicles  decide whether or not to give an applicant a  valuable commercial driver’s license, and  school officials decide  whether or not to register a child depending on what family the applicant is from and whether some powerful person is willing to speak in his favor.

The Ottoman footprint can be seen in the enormous trust deficit that stretches from Bagdhad, to Algiers to Belgrade.   When the World Values Survey tries to measure trust, Turkey shows up as one of the least trusting places on earth.

The Ottoman Empire  still holds the power to ruin lives, after all these years.



Addendum – Life Satisfaction

There are 36 countries in the OECD.  Here’s how the former Ottoman countries rank in the Life Satisfaction Index

Israel – 8

Greece – 32

Turkey – 33

Hungary – 36


Pretty dismal.  The rest of the former Ottoman lands aren’t even in the OECD.

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We will kill you, marry your young wives, and inherit your estates. Armenia 1915.

Posted by dianamuir on June 15, 2012
Armenian genocide, Uncategorized / 4 Comments

bookjacketThis post will focus on a single aspect of Taner Akçam’s remarkable new book,  The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity:
The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire
.     Because genocide deniers  have claimed that by  relying on evidence from Turkey’s “enemies”, (Armenian survivors, Western diplomats and missionaries who witnessed the genocide) historians prove nothing,  Akçam sets himself the task of demonstrating  that the deliberate and official nature of the “ethnic cleansing of the Ottoman Greeks and the genocidal policy against the Armenians can be demonstrated through (surviving government) documents alone.”  He succeeds.

But this post will focus not on the book as a whole, but on the fate of some number of  Armenian children and young girls.  Most Armenian children and girls died, many were raped or confined in brothels to be raped before they were murdered.  Some were sold and the money pocketed by officers detailed to carry out the genocide .  For a few piasters, Muslims could purchase  Armenians children as cheap labor; Armenian girls  were exhibited naked for sale in temporary Armenian slave markets in villages along the deportation routes and in Damascus.  But the government also planned to add strong, healthy Armenian children and young girls to the Muslim population.  To this end, the Interior Ministry cabled instructions regarding “the children who are likely to become orphans”.   (p. 317)

The story plays out in a series of government cables.  Financial inducements were offered.  You could take an Armenian child into your household and become the legal heir of the property of the child’s murdered family.   You could even marry a young Armenian wife and become the legal heir to the property of her dead husband.   Well-connected Turks angled to adopt the children of wealthy families and to wed the widows of wealthy Armenians.  Some officials managed to get several.   Soldiers and officers along the deportation routes selected wives.

The numbers who survived this way are unclear, tens of thousands according to Akçam, though some estimates range as high as one or even two hundred thousand Armenian children and girls converted to Islam and added to Muslim households.   The Armenian genocide, according to Akçam was about annihilating the Armenian nation.   The  horrors of the  Einsatzgruppen all appear  in Armenia, only the gas chambers do not.    Armenians were forced to dig their own graves, marched out of town to be shot, herded into buildings and burned, roped together and thrown off cliffs into the Euphrates,  babies were torn from their mother’s arms and women  raped as their doomed families watched in horror.

But this was not a genocide of Nazi race theory.    Initially, an Armenian could save himself  by accepting Islam.   Early in the genocide, large numbers of Armenians attempted to save their lives by converting.    Conversion of adults was generally forbidden during the genocide because  the goal was to extinguish Armenian culture and it was believed that adult converts, or large groups of converts, would remain culturally Armenian.     And yet, the men who commanded the genocide were  technocrats who  calculated that the underpopulated Ottoman state would be strengthened  if  if small numbers of numbers of healthy, young Armenians were made into Turks  under conditions that annihilated their Armenian-ness.   And so some of the young were selected to live and become Turks.

Akçam’s  Chapter 9, Assimilation, is one of the most remarkable chapters ever written about a genocide.  Read it and recoil at the  monstrosity of a government that cold-bloodedly ordered a genocide, then rewarded the men  who carried it out by  giving them not only the property, but even the wives and daughters of the men they murdered.


The Joke’s on Jobbik

Posted by dianamuir on June 12, 2012
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In case anyone doubted the fundamentally racist nature of the Hungarian  Jobbik  Party, a Jobbik Member of Parliament demonstrated his ignorance  by getting  a genetic testing company to screen his DNA and certify that he does not have Jewish or Roma (Gypsy) ancestry.

There are, of course, no genetic markers that will infallibly distinguish Roma or Jewish ancestry; they, like all peoples, are  diverse.

The one,  minor point that I wish to make here is that while there is no such thing as a “pure” race of people (members of all human groups marry in and out)   the Hungarian Magyars are more motley than  most.    Examined by geneticists curious about what light DNA markers can throw on human history, modern Hungarian speakers are found to be descended from a wide range of  West Eurasian  peoples: there are no racially pure Magyars.

For the curious, here’s what a certificate of no-Jewish and no-Roma ancestry looks like:

The key words are “Roma es Zsido” in the last paragraph.   For the record, lots of people are curious about who their ancestors were for innocent reasons; but there is nothing innocent about the racism of Jobbik.

Some recent papers on the historical genetics of the Magyars can be found here, here, and here.






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Lebanon restores old synagogue – Why?

Posted by dianamuir on June 08, 2012
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File:Maghen Abraham Synagogue (side).JPG

Lebanon has paid for a handsome restoration of a crumbling 1925 synagogue.   Why?

Political officials and community leaders became convinced it could show that Lebanon is an open country, tolerant of many faiths including Judaism.”    Is the world really that easily  gulled?


Among the many absurdities here, I will focus on the most trivial, the assertion that this is a “Moroccan-style synagogue“.




It is, in fact, Rundbogenstil.   One of hundreds of synagogues built worldwide in the style of the 1839 synagogue at Kassel.



Here is one at Krakow am see




and one in Layfayette, Indiana


File:Temple Israel in Lafayette front.jpg

Nothing Moroccan about the Maghen Abraham building in Beirut.  In 1925 the congregation was making a statement that called attention to it’s  fashionable, modern,  international style.

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Daily plebicite in Schleswig Holstein

Posted by dianamuir on June 08, 2012
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Schleswig-Holstein is becoming more interesting for ideas than for milch cows.   The ethnic Danes have official minority status, which includes public schools in the Danish style and language, and some Germans prefer their style.  The Schleswig Voters Committee (a political party) may be about to win a seat in the legislature.  Changing nationalities at the border.

Turn the Temple Mount into a Museum

Posted by dianamuir on June 08, 2012
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Temple Mount in the Umayyad period reconstructed by Leen Ritmeyer and copied from the best source on the physical history of the Temple Mount.


This week huge Muslim crowds surged around one of the holiest sites in Christendom, held back by guards refusing to allow them to enter for prayer. (Photos here)     Hagia Sophia  was built by the Emperor Justinian in 532, replacing a cathedral destroyed by soccer hooligans.  It was the greatest church in Christendom; work did not begin on St. Peter’s basilica in Rome until 1506, some decades after Hagia Sophia was taken over by Islam.

Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453.     The Parthenon in Athens was converted into a mosque in the same conquest.   Far to the west,  the  expulsion of Muslims from Cordoba in 1236 meant that a Cathedral nave was built into the center of the eighth century mosque considered too beautiful to tear down.   But the eight-century mosque had itself been built upon an even older Visigothic church.   Claims to the “right” to worship here are complicated, not least because of the claim by some Muslims that all of Iberia is lost Muslim territory that Muslims have a duty to repossess.   Meanwhile, Cordoba is a cathedral that welcomes tourists and visitors of every faith, although only Catholic worship services may be held.   Recent years have seen a series of violent incidents in which Muslims attempt to hold group prayer in the cathedral.

Ataturk had a moment of great wisdom in 1945 when he turned Hagia Sophia into a museum.   Neither Christian nor Muslim can kneel in prayer, and neither group can assemble for prayer.    But everyone, Atheists, Greek priests, even pagans, can walk freely into the great, domed building and marvel at the glory that was Rome.

The Parthenon, built as a Temple to Athena, used as a Christian Church, then as a mosque, is now used as a museum.

Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is different from the Cathedral of Cordoba because the Muslim religious authorities in control of the site do not permit free access to people of other faiths.   Non Muslims are admitted to the Temple platform only at certain hours on arbitrarily announced days, are often turned away even on days when opening hours have been announced, and are refused entrance into the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, although non-Muslim tourists were welcome to enter these holy places only a few years ago.  At Cordoba, the Catholic Church allows non-Catholics to enter during regular hours and explore the building. As do the authorities at the Parthenon and Hagia Sophia.

The Temple Mount is regularly used as a base from which to launch violent attacks on worshipers praying at the Western Wall plaza.

But beyond the political and religious aspects of mismanagement by the Waqf, there is the issue of physical destruction.   The Waqf has carried out a series of highly destructive  projects, removing deep strata of ancient material in an effort to create more underground Muslim worship space for use on the major holidays.

Ataturk had a better idea.  He turned Hagia Sophia into a museum.   This has enabled people of all faiths and of none freely to visit and experience the glories of the great church.   But it has also enabled teams of expert conservators and scholars to study the ancient building, with its layers of Christian and Islamic decoration, recording and preserving it for future generations.

It is time for Israel to do what Ataturk did.   Remove the Temple Mount as a perpetual flashpoint between contending groups by making it into a museum, open to everyone to study and to visit, but open to no one as a space to hold public services of worship.

When the messiah arrives, we can let him (or maybe her) take charge.

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Emergency Zionism

Posted by dianamuir on June 05, 2012
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If you think that European sympathy for Jews living in Displaced Persons camps in the wake of the most shocking genocide in human history led the United Nations to authorize the creation of the state of Israel, think again.

Margarete Myers Feinstein’s review of In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order by Gerald Daniel Cohen (Oxford 2011)   will persuade you that the Jewish State was created because  politicians in France, Britain and Belgium did not want to admit Jews as immigrants (they happily admitted large numbers of displaced persons who were Christian).  And because Poland and the USSR did not want their displaced Jewish citizens back.   The European  politicians who did not want to admit Jews to their countries were decent men.  They could see that an enormous injustice had been done.  Their solution was what Cohen calls “emergency Zionism”; Zionism as the solution to an emergency.  The emergency was that something had to be done with Europe’s displaced Jews, other than admitting large numbers of them to European countries.

The phrase “emergency Zionism” was used by  Peter Novick in his  book “The Holocaust in American Life” (p. 75)  to describe the post war support for the creation of a Jewish State  among  American Jews who had previously been opposed to Zionism, not because they had come to agree with Zionist ideas, but out of a feeling that something must be done to help the displaced Jews of Europe.

Novick’s use of the phrase has probably made people who recoil from Novick’s lack of sympathy towards Jewish victims of Nazism recoil from the phrase,  but it is time to rehabilitate it for the simple reason that it is useful.   It describes the attitude of a great many people who supported the creation of Israel.

It also describes the attitude of the men who signed the 1891 Blackstone Memorial, a petition that asked:

“Why not give Palestine back to them again? According to God’s distribution of nations it is their home, an inalienable possession from which they were expelled by force.”

“Why shall not the powers which under the Treaty of Berlin, in 1878, gave Bulgaria to the Bulgarians and Servia (Serbia) to the Servians now give Palestine back to the Jews? These provinces, as well as Romania, Montenegro, and Greece, were wrested from the Turks and given to their natural owners. Does not Palestine as rightfully belong to the Jews?”

The emergency the signers ( John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, William McKinley, and other movers and shakers of the era) were responding to was a wave of government-backed pogroms in the Russian Empire in the 1880’s that persuaded many Jews and non-Jews of good will that Jews could not continue to live in Russia.  Yet, like the European statesmen after World War II, they did not want huge numbers of Jews coming to America as penniless immigrants.   The solution to the emergency was Zionism.

Emergency Zionism; a phrase that should come back into the conversation.