JERUSALEM – The adage that Israel is a country with too much history and too little geography was born out here twice recently — with the opening of a temporary exhibit on the historic 1898 visit of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to Ottoman Palestine, and the dedication of a bust of Winston Churchill — whose decisions as Britain’s colonial secretary and later as wartime prime minister left a profound effect on Israel and the Jewish people.
The exhibit “The Kaiser is coming!” which opened at the Tower of David Museum Oct. 29 and runs through March, documents the imperial visit through a modern lens, cleverly utilizing iPads disguised in antique cameras to project a series of huge images and virtual newspapers illustrating the story of the royal tour. Visitors can pose for a picture in a reconstruction of the imperial tent and then send it via Facebook to their friends.
Sailing from Venice on the imperial yacht SMY Hohenzollern II — collectors of postage stamps from the Second Reich’s overseas colonial empire will recognize the ship — the kaiser docked at the brand new jetty in Haifa at the foot of the town’s German Templer Colony, today renamed Ben Gurion Boulevard, built by pioneering archaeologist Gottlieb Schumacher. From there the entourage with its 112 luggage trunks made its way up to Jerusalem. A high security 75-tent encampment was set up on the posh Street of the Counsels, today ha-Nevi’im Street, not far from the Old City.
The royal party spent Oct. 29 to Nov. 4, 1898 in Jerusalem. Their frenetic visit received unprecedented coverage from the local press and reporters from La Stampa, Le Figaro and The New York Times, amongst others.
“It’s a story almost of Cinderella,” said curator Renee Sivan.
The Turks went to great lengths to beautify the impoverished city. Jerusalem’s many beggars and stray dogs were banished lest their presence spoil the Potemkin Village Oriental fantasy.
“They threw out the poor people so the kaiser wouldn’t see them,” Sivan said.
Underlying the fin de siècle imperial visit was dark and tragic ambition recalling the Grimm Brothers.
Astride a regal white stallion brought from Germany, the kaiser rode beneath three newly built arches — the Jewish Gate, City Council Gate and the Turkish Gate. The former was decorated with Torah curtains and a Torah crown. Hordes of Jewish Jerusalemites tuned out in their silk and fur Sabbath finery to witness the kaiser’s procession, and to avail themselves of the rare opportunity to recite the blessing upon seeing a king.
But not all of Jerusalem’s Jews showed up that Sabbath afternoon. Absent was Rabbi Chaim Yosef Zonnenfeld, leader of the city’s ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi community. Perhaps anticipating the Holocaust, Rabbi Zonnenfeld believed that Germany was the embodiment of Israel’s biblical archenemy Amalek; he ruled that no blessing should be recited upon seeing an Amalekite king.
Also missing that warm October 1898 day was Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, who the year before had staged the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. The kaiser briefly met Herzl outside the gates of the Mikveh Israel agricultural settlement near Jaffa. But Wilhelm II snubbed Herzl’s request to intervene with Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the granting of a settlement charter. The Jewish people would have to wait 19 years until Turkey’s wartime collapse when in 1917 Great Britain issued the Balfour Declaration.
Herzl’s adjutant David Wollfsohn, armed with a brand new camera, was supposed to record the historic meeting. But he missed the shot. Instead he created a montage, photoshopped as it were, showing the two figures greeting one another. The shadows of the kaiser on horseback and Herzl standing, cast in different directions, symbolically represent the lost historic opportunity. Visitors to the exhibit can recreate Wollfsohn’s faked photo — and appreciate court photographer Ottomar Anschutz’s superior black and white images.
The imperial trip was intended to cement the alliance between the Hohenzollern and Ottoman empires — part of a skein of diplomatic and military ties, which inexorably led to the outbreak of World War I. In Jerusalem, Wilhelm and his glamorous wife, Kaiserin Augusta Viktoria, dedicated the new Church of the Redeemer, a Lutheran landmark with a 40-meter steeple dominating the city’s skyline built atop Teutonic Crusader ruins.
The ceremony was staged Oct. 31 to echo the date in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church, beginning the Protestant Reformation.
Wilhelm was careful also to include his minority Roman Catholic subjects in his colonial ambitions, laying a cornerstone for the Roman Catholic Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion. He also acquired the site for the Augusta Victoria Protestant pilgrim hospice on the Mount of Olives — erected in 1907 — which was used for Nazi Party rallies in the 1930s by Jerusalem’s Templers. No such gestures were made for Germany’s 500,000 Jewish citizens.
Bertha Spafford Vester, a doyenne of Jerusalem’s European and American elite, accompanied the kaiser on his visit to the Mount of Olives. Tellingly she recorded the kaiser’s comment that a hairpin turn in the road should be straightened to permit cannons to ascend the mountain.
Wilhelm’s bellicose megalomania led to the catastrophe of World War I. Though Imperial Germany collapsed in 1918 in the aftermath of that unprecedented global conflagration, three buildings — the Redeemer Church, Dormition Abbey and Augusta Viktoria — stand sentinel here as a legacy of the kaiser’s 1898 visit to the Holy Land.
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By coincidence a second commemoration relevant to the story of the Anglo-German competition for hegemony in the faltering Ottoman Empire was held here this week — the unveiling of a bust of Sir Winston Churchill dedicated Sunday, Nov. 4, at Mishkenot Sha’ananin in the presence of Churchill family members, British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould and senior officials of the British government.
The bust was made from a cast created by Oscar Nemon, originally Oskar Neumann, a Jewish sculptor born in Osijek, Austro-Hungary, who fled to London from Vienna in 1938 and went on to sculpt more than a dozen public sculptures and busts of Churchill.
Churchill’s long career in public life culminated in his becoming Great Britain’s prime minister from 1940 to 1945, when he led his beleaguered island kingdom through its darkest hour. But in Israel, Churchill is also known for several policy decisions that negatively impacted on this country’s fate.
In March 1921, Churchill visited Palestine — newly configured as part of the British Empire — and met a delegation of Muslim leaders. They protested that the ultimate objective of political Zionism was to give Palestine to the Jews. Pointing out that Arabs had occupied the country for more than 1,000 years, they asked Churchill to use his influence to correct what they considered a grave injustice.
Churchill famously responded: “You ask me to repudiate the Balfour Declaration and to stop (Jewish) immigration. This is not in my power … and it is not my wish. … It is manifestly right that the scattered Jews should have a national centre, and a national home to be re-united, and where else but in Palestine, with which for three thousand years they have been intimately and profoundly associated?]
“We think it will be good for the world, good for the Jews, good for the British Empire, but also good for the Arabs who dwell in Palestine … they shall share in the benefits and progress of Zionism.
“I am told the Arabs would have done it for themselves. Who is going to believe that? Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine. They would have been quite content to dwell — a handful of philosophic people — in the sun-scorched plains, letting the waters of the Jordan continue to flow unbridled and unharnessed into the Dead Sea.”
A broad street in Jerusalem leading to the British War Cemetery on Mount Scopus is named for Churchill, who, as Britain’s colonial secretary, was responsible for the division of Mandate Palestine. In 1921 the eastern part — the great majority of the country — was severed to create the Emirate of Transjordan, today the Kingdom of Jordan. Jewish settlement was banned on the east bank of the Jordan — the territory of the biblical tribes of Gad, Reuben and half of Manasseh.
Indeed the erratic zigzag boundary between the new emirate and the emerging kingdom of Saudi Arabia was dubbed Churchill’s Hiccup or Churchill’s Sneeze. According to legend, Churchill drew the border after a lunch with too much champagne. While the story is apocryphal, it suggests the power over life and death that Britain had during its empire.
In 1939 when Britain’s White Paper severely restricting immigration to Palestine was issued on the eve of the Holocaust, Churchill was sitting in the opposition in London’s Parliament. But when he became prime minister the next year and so nobly led his country in its desperate struggle against Nazism, it must also be remembered that Churchill failed to rescind the policy. Millions of Jews died in the Holocaust clamoring for immigration certificates to Palestine while Britain denied them refuge here.
In the final analysis, Churchill, like Wilhelm, acted in the interests of his empire. The impact of their policies on the Jews of Palestine and Europe was of secondary importance.
(Gil Zohar is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem.)