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Could the Ottoman Empire Have Prevented Jewish Migration to Palestine?

Palestine, which remained under Ottoman rule for four hundred years, was subjected to intense Jewish migrations starting from the era of Abdulhamit II. Despite all the measures taken, migrations continued both during this period and during the Ittihad and Terakki (Union and Progress) era.

ABDULHAMIT II ERA MEASURES

The Ottoman Empire’s stance was crucial after the decision of Jews to settle in Palestine. The most obvious solution was to persuade the Ottoman administration to allow migration. Otherwise, European countries could pressure the Ottoman Empire, and as a last resort, Jewish immigrants could be settled in Palestine through illegal means.

Initially, Jews followed a persuasion policy towards the Ottoman administration. In 1879, Laurence Oliphant presented a memorandum to Abdulhamit II on this matter. Born in South Africa, Oliphant had worked as a writer, lawyer, diplomat, and Member of Parliament in England. In 1882, he came to Palestine, settled in Haifa, and died there.

The reason Oliphant presented the memorandum was that the Berlin Treaty allowed those living in the territories abandoned by the Ottoman Empire to sell their property and migrate. Although the treaty did not explicitly mention Jews, they could also be included in the migrant groups.

In his memorandum, Oliphant requested the establishment of a migration center for Jews migrating from Anatolia and Rumelia to the lands of Arz-i Filistin (The Land of Palestine). He believed that Jewish settlement in the area would promote agriculture, make the region more secure, and civilize the Bedouin Arabs. In addition, the treasury would obtain money from land sales.

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Laurence Oliphant

Oliphant’s memorandum clearly aimed at laying the foundation for a Jewish state in the Palestinian territories by allowing the Ottoman Empire to buy land and establish autonomous governance. Abdulhamit referred this memorandum to a commission for discussion, and later, the memorandum was debated in the Meclis-i Vükela (Council of Ministers) and rejected. The reason for rejection was the concern that establishing an independent administration in the region would lead to serious conflicts.

While the Ottoman Empire rejected Oliphant’s memorandum, anti-Jewish movements, especially in Russia, increased significantly. This resulted in Jews leaving the places they lived. The first wave of Jewish migrations from Russia occurred between 1881 and 1891, with approximately 145,000 Jews migrating. The second major wave began in 1892 from Eastern and Southeastern Europe, and this mass migrated to America, England, Canada, and Ottoman territories.

Some of those who came to the Ottoman territories were Ottoman citizens of Jewish descent from the areas lost during the 1877-1878 War. Another group consisted of foreign nationals who wanted to come to Ottoman territories. The Ottoman Empire accepted Jewish citizens within its jurisdiction. However, Jews generally wanted to go to Palestine or nearby areas.

The general attitude of the Ottoman administration was to prevent Jews from settling in Palestine, even Syria. To achieve this, unauthorized Jewish immigrants who arrived at Syrian ports were sent back before disembarking, and those who reached Akka were sent to other places. Moreover, no one would be accepted into citizenship without the approval of Babıali (the Sublime Porte). Another solution proposed by Babıali was to settle Caucasian and Rumelian migrants in the region.

Despite the measures taken by the Ottoman Empire, Jews began to come to Palestine, this time disguised as “pilgrims.” In response, Babıali introduced a visa requirement. Those who wanted to go to the region had to obtain a visa from Ottoman embassies and pay a deposit that would be refunded upon their return. However, this was not a solution, and the pilgrimage visit was limited to three months.

Jews who came to Palestine bought land from the local population to settle in the region. Babıali responded to this by amending the 1858 Land Law, prohibiting the sale of land to non-Ottoman Jewish citizens. However, this did not work either because Ottoman Jewish citizens and the British purchased land on behalf of immigrant Jews.

During this time, Zionists had established a bank and, through this bank, had assisted Jewish colonists in purchasing land.

In contrast to the measures taken by the Ottoman Empire, the British had been acting as protectors of the Jews for a long time, especially since other anti-Jewish movements had increased in Europe. For this reason, even Mehmet Ali Pasha, who temporarily controlled the region, was offered a deal. In 1840, British Foreign Secretary Palmerston wrote to the British ambassador in Istanbul, stating that allowing Jews who suffered persecution in Europe to settle in Ottoman territories would also be beneficial for the Ottoman Empire.

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Lord Palmerston

The Ottoman Empire did not oppose Jewish migration to its territories, as long as it did not lead to the establishment of a Jewish state. However, despite various offers, they did not permit Jews to migrate in a way that would pave the way for them to establish an autonomous government in Palestine. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that the measures taken prevented migration.

One of the key factors was the weakening of the Ottoman Empire due to political losses, such as the heavy defeat in the 1877-1878 War and continuous territorial losses, as well as its economic weakness. These were the realities that Ottoman administrators faced in all Jewish initiatives.

Another factor was that even Germany, which pursued a policy of ridding itself of Jews during this period, preferred to maintain a distance due to its close relationship with the Ottoman Empire. Russia was also encouraging Jewish migration.

Apart from the British, the other significant supporting state was the United States. Having gained significant influence in Ottoman territories through missionary activities, American schools, and commercial activities, the United States was working to lift the prohibitions that prevented Jewish migration. The United States also propagated that if migration was allowed, the Ottoman Empire could receive support from Jewish capitalists.

In conclusion, it is evident that both Abdulhamit and the Ittihadists (Unionists) did not oppose the migration of Jews to Ottoman territories in response to the pressures they faced in Europe. However, they did not allow Jews to migrate to Palestine in a way that would pave the way for them to establish an autonomous government. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that the measures taken prevented migration.

The Ottoman Empire’s helplessness during this period, its severe loss of political power, significant territorial losses due to the 93 War, ongoing economic weakness, and more importantly, its relationship with Germany and support from even Germany for Jewish migrants, were all significant factors. All these realities were obstacles that confronted Ottoman leaders in Jewish initiatives.

During this period, the land sale process was not due to the willingness of the local population; it took place through pressure, indebtedness, enforcement, forgery, bribery, purchasing land at exorbitant prices, and the tolerance of some officials. In contrast, the most significant event that changed the region’s demographics was the rapid migration process that took place during the British Mandate period after Palestine left Ottoman rule.

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Sources: Arı, M. S. (2005), “Jewish Settlement Efforts in Palestine During the Era of Abdulhamit II”, Akademik Araştırmalar, S. 109-126; Arslan, A. (2007); “The Strategic Use of Jewish Migration from Europe to Turkey (1880-1920); Security Strategies Journal, S. 5, pp. 7-40; Ortak, Ş. (2014), “Policies of Ittihad and Terakki Administration Against Jewish Migrations to Palestine,” XVII. TTK Congress Proceedings, Ankara, S. 24, pp. IV, Part II, pp. 693-712; Kodaman, B., İpek, N. (1993), “A Memorandum Presented to Abdulhamit II in 1879 Concerning the Settlement of Jews in Palestine,” Belleten, S. 219, pp. 555-580; Tellioğlu, Ö. (2014), Jewish Migration to Palestine, Istanbul University Graduate School of Social Sciences Doctoral Dissertation, Istanbul.

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DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.
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