A tale of secrecy and business: The attempted sale of the Western Wall during WW1.

By Roberto Mazza
Submitted to Session P4858 (Tales of Espionage, Diplomacy, and War, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
On the 17th November 1915 Arthur Ruppin, head of the Zionist Office in Jaffa, wrote to Richard Lichtheim, the representative of the Zionist Executive in Istanbul, telling him that Cemal Pasha, the military governor of Syria and Palestine, made a quite irresistible offer to sell the area in front of the Western Wall in order to dismantle the nearly 30 houses owned by Moroccans and create a space ‘reserved for the prayers of the Jewish people and the rest could be turned into a public garden.’ Since the mid-19th century wealthy European Jews tried to purchase the same area from the Ottomans but to no avail. The reasons for a denial were different but things did not change even under the British. With the establishment of the Mandate for Palestine and the support given to the Jews with the Balfour Declaration, Zionist leaders were expecting to be able to turn the area of the Wailing Wall into an open space in order to highlight the sacredness of the sites for the Jews. The British, however, wary of the potential for conflict between Arabs and Jews over this site, turned down Zionist offers. Obviously after the riots occurred in 1929 any possibility to acquire the Western Wall or to convert the Maghrebi quarter into a plaza was postponed. While history unfolded, plans were only postponed and if the war of 1948 was certainly seen as a setback as the Old City was in Jordanian hands, the war of 1967 gave the Jews, by now Israelis, the chance to execute a plan had been in the making for a long time.
This paper will discuss the offer made by Cemal Pasha – addressing also the reasons for this offer - through the intensive correspondence between a number of Zionist leaders based in the Ottoman Empire, Germany and America and the possible reasons for their refusal. More importantly the paper will address the question of secrecy as the individuals involved took an oath not to ever discuss this business. As a result the only evidence available was in a neglected file at the Central Zionist Archives. This paper will briefly offer a literature review suggesting that this event had been discarded by traditional scholars as the refusal could have been a source of embarrassment, division among Zionists and it could have challenged the linear Zionist historical narrative.