By Mohamed Shaaban
In early 1904, the President of the World Zionist Organization, Theodore Herzl, presented a proposal to the Italian King Victor Emanuel III to divert the Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to Tripoli in Libya, so Jews can settle there and have an autonomous region under Italian laws and institutions.
Herzl did not take this step randomly but did so after discovering Italy’s intentions to colonize Libya, said Dr Amin Abdullah Mahmoud in his book Jewish Settlement Projects From the French Revolution Until World War I.
But Herzl was shocked when he received a reply from the Italian king that his country could not provide support to the Zionist organization for this project because “Tripoli is home to others” and Italy had no authority over it.
It seems the Italian king opted not to make any binding commitment to the Zionist Organization for fear of revealing Italy’s intentions to colonize Libya, which would have caused problems in its relations with Britain and France, as well as the Ottoman Empire, according to Mahmoud.
Settlement attempts in Libya were renewed after Herzl’s death in July 1904, but this time under the supervision of the Zionist Regional Organization, headed by Israel Zangwill, who sought to find a suitable settlement spot for Eastern European Jews with a favourable climate and arable land adjacent to the sea, where Jews would seek autonomous rule within a state.
Mahmoud noted that interest in Jewish settlement in Libya began after the visit of University of Paris’ history professor Nahum Saloush to Tripoli in July 1906. Saloush reported to Zangwill that the Ottomans were willing to accept the idea of Jewish settlements in the Jabal Akhdar area in Barqa province.
Meanwhile, the British government had instructed its Consul General in Tunisia Harry Johnston to propose to Zangwill the idea of establishing a national homeland for the Jews in the same area and sending a mission to study the conditions of the region, assuring him of the willingness of the Ottoman governor of Libya, Recep Pasha (1904-1909) to provide all possible assistance to the members of this mission.
Zangwill and members of his organization studied the Saloush report and Johnston’s proposal and came to believe that Barqa province was a suitable place for Jewish settlement.
The area lay on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, which facilitates the process of bringing Jewish immigrants from Russia and Romania, and its proximity to Palestine led many Jews to believe that they would move eventually at a later stage to the “Promised Land,” Mahmoud said.
Moreover, Saloush believed that Barqa province (formerly known as Cyrenaica had a special place in Jewish heritage, as it had been home to a large number of Jews since the days of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemies, and thus was more related to Jewish history than Cyprus, Uganda or other countries proposed for Jewish settlement.
Zangwill believed that it was easy to achieve the predominance of Jewish influence and ensure demographic supremacy by bringing in large numbers of Jews and pushing the indigenous population to migrate towards the desert.
Welcomed by the Viceroy
After the idea became fully formulated in the minds of the organizations’ members, these raced to communicate with the Viceroy of Tripoli who as the head of the Turkish armed forces in Africa, had almost all the powers as the Sultan’s representative as described by Mustafa Abdallah Bayou in his book “The Zionist Project to Settle the Jews in Libya”
Zangwill took the opportunity of Salloush’ visit to Tripoli and studied the possibility of the project with him. When he arrived in Tripoli, he met with Recep Pasha and the secretary of state Bakir Bey.
He discussed with them the economic conditions of the Jews of Libya and the possibility of developing their agricultural activity by granting them the opportunity to accommodate Jews fleeing Russia in Tripoli.
According to him Recep Pasha showed friendliness towards the Jewish people, and confirmed his readiness to do everything in his power to liberate the Jews from their suffering.”
It seems that the Ottoman Governor was sympathetic to the Jews of Russia influenced by the tense Turkish-Russian relations, which made the Turks live in constant fear of Russian ambitions, and he wanted to use this settlement as a way to put an end to Italian ambitions in Libya.
But surprisingly, Recep Pasha “did not only consider in his study of the project of Jewish settlement in Libya the agricultural activity of the Jews in the country but also contemplated the stimulation of the development of the state and its industries and discussed some engineering projects in the country and the establishment of large ports and the construction of a Jewish commercial fleet in the Mediterranean sea according to Bayou
Saloush’s discussions with the Basha and his men touched on the issues of financial and religious independence of the Jews in their project and the need to guarantee them protection from the abuse of junior employees of the state and to allow them self-government while giving them military protection against any aggression they might face from the people of the country, leaving the rest of Libya as is.
Saloush’s task was obviously easy not only because of the Ottoman governor’s response to Jewish demands but also because of fellow Jew Jacob Krieger who was the official dragoman of the Tripolitan governor.
Bayou recounted how Krieger came to Tripoli from Greek Thessaloniki, replacing the Christian Catholic Georges Faeq.
Although the Tripoli governor did not welcome Krieger initially for they feared he would collaborate with the foreigners in Libya, as did all Jews who lived in Libya, to tage advantage of the privileges granted to Europeans in the Ottoman Empire, but Krieger was able with great skill to gain the trust of the Basha enabling him to provide many favours to Jews especially Saloush.
Thus, the state government provided all the necessary aid for the Jewish historian, and the governor even advised him to visit the regions of Maslata and the Western Mountain and explore their possibilities for Jewish settlement before going to Barqa.
The Settlement Plan
In his book, Bayou noted that the plan to settle Jews in Libya was based on expediting their exit from Russia in small groups of 10 or 20 Jewish families every few weeks, thus enabling Ottoman authorities to properly absorb the Jewish immigrants.
In that way, too, the state government could easily ask the High Porte to approve hosting the Jewish refugees, who would be able to live in Libya as Ottoman nationals but retaining their independence.
According to Bayou, Zangwill preferred to start direct negotiations with the High Porte government without delay, in order to take advantage of the Turkish policy aimed at preventing European non-Jewish people from migrating to Libya.
The Jewish organization perceived that as protection of the Jewish immigrants moving to Barqa from the tyranny of Europeans, especially the Italians.
A Scientific Mission
Despite the tempting offers presented by Recep Pasha and his administration, the Council’s cautiousness was overshadowing the project.
The Geographical commission that was formed by the council to study the project was hesitant to act quickly and demanded that a scientific mission to go conduct field research.
In mid-July 1908, the organization sent a specialized scientific mission, whose members were non-Jewish in order to receive an objective report with no bias.
The mission was led by Professor Gregory, a professor of geology at the University of Glasgow, according to Mustafa Mohammed Shaabani in his book “Jews of Libya: a Political and Legal Study on Their Claim for Compensation From Libya.”
According to al-Shaabani, the mission included experts such as John Trotter, who was entrusted with the study of agricultural conditions, Reginald Middleton, Walter Hunter, and Matthew Duff, their task was to study the available resources and the architectural possibilities of the area, There was also M. Kidder whose mission was to study the health conditions in Barqa and its suitability for settlement.
Nahoum Saloush was the only Jew in the mission and his task to study the historical background of Judaism and Jews in Barqa as a basis for the establishment of the Jewish homeland.
The Sultan’s Approval
In the meantime, Zangwill contacted his Jewish friend Arminius Vambery, professor at the University of Budapest and a personal friend of Sultan Abdulhamid II, and presented the project to him because of his high standing in the Ottoman court, and Vambery welcomed him and expressed his belief that it would be easier to implement the project in Libya rather than Palestine, especially since it would mean avoiding conflict with Muslims and Christians as Palestine is important to both groups.
Vambery not only gave his opinion, but sent the project to the Ottoman Sultan through his first secretary Tahsin Pasha, and enclosed with it documents describing the political circumstances that will accompany the project, such as the Sultan recognizing the settlers as his subjects, granting them autonomy in return for an annual levy they collect themselves and hand over to the Turkish treasury.
According to Bayou the Sultan did not express dissatisfaction with the project so Vambery requested that Zangwill write himself to the Sultan assuring him that the latter would answer his letter quickly.
Change of Circumstances
While Zangwill was preparing to send the letter to Tahsin Pasha, news came of a coup in Constantinople by the committee of union and progress which resulted in the removal of Sultan Abdulhamid II in April 1909, and his brother Sultan Mohammed V took power.
When the mission returned from its trip to Jabal al-Akhdar to Tripoli, it found that Recep Pasha had left the country and was on his way to Constantinople to be the minister of war in the new ministry.
Although the Jewish organization was bothered by Recep Pasha’s departure from Tripoli, their hopes were revived after the man became a senior official in Constantinople and at the forefront of the new era of army supported rule, His position as minister of war made the organization feel that their project would be a success according to Bayou.
Contrary to the expectations of the organization, its project received a severe blow. Within days, Recep Pasha set sail for Constantinople amidst great fanfare but after a few days, he died.
His death was a great loss for the Jews, said Zangwil who confessed that the organization did not pay him or any of his associates a bribe in exchange for his friendly and enthusiastic position regarding the project.
But the most painful blow was the report published by the Jewish organization on January 1, 1909, of the findings of the mission called the “Blue Book”.
The report included the findings of the mission, which were disappointing as it was revealed there was a lack of groundwater in Barqa because of its geological composition, which did not allow the soil to retain rainwater.
The report called for taking measures to face famines that followed drought years in order to ensure that Barqa would be fit for the settlement of Jews, pointing out that to do that would cost exorbitant sums according to Shaabani.
Despite all of this, Zangwill and the members of his organization were undaunted and remained determined to implement the project.
However, the Council’s preoccupation with severe internal problems made the support of the Sultanate for the settlement Libya irrelevant, especially after the death of Recep Pasha, according to Mahmoud.
The escalation of Italian ambitions, which culminated with the invasion and occupation of Libya in 1911 complicated matters further, it was a matter of few years and the whole world was taken by World War I, and thus the dream to establish a Jewish homeland in Libya was shattered.