The US consul crusade

’Dreams and Diplomacy in the Holy Land’ showcases the burgeoning relations between the United States and the Land of Israel

4th of July Celebration521 (photo credit: American Colony collection)
4th of July Celebration521
(photo credit: American Colony collection)
Rightly or wrongly, we Israelis often view our country, and particularly Jerusalem, as occupying a permanent berth in the international media. But 150 years ago, few Western countries showed much interest in our capital.
“At that time, Jerusalem was a very neglected and not very attractive place,” says Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa, curator of the “Dreams and Diplomacy in the Holy Land” exhibition, which opened at the National Library on March 19 and will run until March 16 next year. “So, in fact, there were not too many people lining up for the position of US consul in Israel at that time.”
The exhibition is based on material and documents from the Shapell Collection of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, and deals with the burgeoning relations between the United States and the Holy Land (the foundation’s Dina Grossman was also instrumental in creating the exhibition).
Naturally things are different today, although Shalev Khalifa observes that some things don’t change.
“We opened the exhibition to coincide with [US President Barack] Obama’s visit here,” she says. “He comes here with some kind of American naiveté, which was recently exemplified with the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ – the Americans looks at all this with their ideas of freedom, but the fact of the matter is that the Middle East is a different kettle of fish.”
The United States did not take much interest in the Holy Land at all until the mid-19th century.
“At the time, the Ottoman Empire was starting to unravel,” says the curator, “and that’s when all sorts of Western powers started trying to grab a piece of it.”
The Americans were the new kid on the block.
As the exhibition blurbs note, the appointment of the early American consuls was often based on personal connections rather than professional ability. There were also consuls who simply showed a keen interest in coming over here, often fired by missionary fervor.
As a result, all manner of characters came over for a diplomatic jaunt, and often not with particularly favorable results.
“The consuls had plenty of time to burn, because they didn’t have a lot of duties, and some of them became alcoholics,” says Shalev Khalifa.
Of course, not all of them hit the bottle; some used their spare time to research areas connected to this part of the world, including religious and historical themes, and wrote books on a wide range of subjects.
For some reason, American consuls did not stay in office in Jerusalem for long: No fewer than 16 held the post between 1857 and the outbreak of World War I.
Among the areas the consulate addressed were matters concerning American settlers, protection of American citizens and Ottoman subjects or Jews whose European patronage was endangered, and strengthening connections with the local Jewish community.
One of the more colorful characters who came over as a Jerusalem-based consul was Warder Cresson, the first American to hold that post here. A man of considerable means and a devout Christian, he left a thriving agricultural empire behind to take up his appointment in the Middle East in 1844.
There was more than a faint whiff of controversy behind his relocation. For a start, he was a married man with a family, but left his wife and children behind without so much as a by-your-leave. Also, it seems there was some opposition in American government circles to Cresson representing US interests in Palestine, and in fact, his appointment was withdrawn in the middle of his arduous, month-and-a-half-long odyssey from the States to the Middle East. He heard about the cancellation of his posting while he was in Europe, but chose to ignore it and came here anyway.