Monday, 16 April 2007

Cyprus: the Promised Island and the world's first Zionist?

Khaled Diab
Almost four hundred years before the creation of Israel, Cyprus was on the cards as a Jewish colony and safe haven for Europe's persecuted Jewish minority.
I found this little nugget while brushing up on my history in preparation for my trip to Israel and Palestine.
The idea was the brainchild of the colourful Jewish financier and statesman Joseph Nasi (1524-1579), one of the 16th century's top movers and shakers. Born as a 'New Christian' or Conversos in Portugal half a century after the start of the Inquisition in neighbouring Spain, he was a 'secret Jew' or Marrano. As the Portuguese Inquisition kicked off in earnest around 1536, he fled that and moved north to the Habsburg Netherlands and settled in Antwerp, where he was very successful and much respected, until the Spanish Inquisition caught up with him there, whereupon he moved to France and Venice.
But, like many Jews of the time, he settled in the far more tolerant Ottoman Empire and became one of the Sultan's most influential advisers. He also openly professed his faith for the first time in his life. What I find interesting about his life story is how different Jewish attitudes to Arabs and Muslims were back then – and vice versa.
Nasi is best remembered for starting the first resettlement programme of European Jews to Palestine, when the Ottoman sultan appointed him Lord of Tiberias (in Galilee) and allowed him to set up a small colony there of a few hundred Jewish families.
But Tiberias was actually a consolation prize offered by Sultan Selim II, who was not too keen on Nasi's Cypriot designs. At the time, the majority of Jews saw Palestine as a pilgrimage destination, at the very most, and believed they would only 'return' there with the coming of the Messiah. For uninformed Christians and Muslims, Jews do not believe the 'anointed one' has arrived yet.
But what if the Sultan had reacted favourably to Nasi's plan. How different would subsequent history have been and how different would today's geo-political landscape be? How long would the colony have lasted? How would the native population have reacted? Would there have been a local 'intifada' against the colonists? Well, as it so happens, when his negotiations with the local Jewish community were uncovered, the non-native Jewish population of Famagusta was expelled in 1569 - native Jews were allowed to remain.
Would Cyprus have attracted Jewish immigration? I suppose 'Next year in Nicosia' would not have quite the same ring to it in Jewish ears as 'Next year in Jerusalem'. But there had been a large Jewish community there since Greek times and Jews were facing persecution in many parts of Europe, so these may have been major selling points for the colony. Would there have been a long and bitter conflict, like the one currently plaguing Israel-Palestine and, if so, how would it have been resolved? Would Cyprus have joined the EU as an island divided along a different Green Line? Would the subsequent colonisation of Palestine have taken place?
The original Zionist?
Binyamin Ze'ev – better known as 'Theodor' – Herzl is widely regarded as the father of Zionism. But given his various attempts at establishing Jewish colonies, does Nasi deserve the title of the first 'Zionist'? Both men were motivated by the persecution of their people: the Inquisition for Nasi and the pogroms in eastern Europe for Herzl, as well as the infamous Dreyfus Affair in France.
"We Jews are even now constantly shifting from place to place, a strong current actually carrying us westward over the sea to the United States, where our presence is also not desired. And where will our presence be desired, so long as we are a homeless nation?" he wrote in Der Judenstaat, the first book on Zionism.
However, Nasi had just about managed to keep one step ahead of being personally persecuted himself and seemed to be driven mostly by the pragmatic need to protect his people and give them somewhere where they could practice their faith in peace. He also set about avenging his near persecution and that of his people by stirring up trouble against the intolerant Spanish, such as encouraging he Calvinists in the Netherlands to revolt against Spain and promising the Ottoman support, as well as
On the other hand, Herzl was a comfortable member of the European intelligentsia – German-speaking Jews of his time were well integrated and more often than not part of the affluent middle and upper classes. Of course, he revealed a certain amount of pragmatism in that he was ready to form his Jewish state away from Palestine: the Jewish State is conceived as a peculiarly modern structure on unspecified territory," he wrote in Der Judenstaat.
But it was Palestine which he yearned for, in a secular manifestation of the Promised Land: "Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency," he extolled. In addition, his ideas were effused with the 19th century brand of cultural chauvinism, racism, imperialism and disregard for the will of the local population. "We should there [in Palestine] form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism," he said in the same book.
Although the only Arab character in a novel he wrote was grateful for the then fictional Jewish colonisation of Palestine, Herzl's memoirs reveal a darker intention for the local population of whatever piece of land would become the Jewish state: "Spirit the penniless population across the frontier by denying it employment… Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly," he wrote in his diary in 1895. Of course, this kind of cavalier attitude towards the will of the native population was fairly common in pre-20th century colonialism (including the Arab and Muslim variety). But it find its most perfect implementation in the near wholesale erasure of the native population of many parts of the Americas.

We are living with the consequences of Herzl's unrestrained drive to build a Jewish nation at any cost and the tragic near-extermination of European Jewry in the first half of the 20th century.

Written on 12 April 2007

©Khaled Diab

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