The Jewish Pasha |
During the twenty-five years separating the Dreyfus Affair from the end of
World War I, a fiery Damascan Jew named Albert Antébi had his finger in every pie in Palestine.
An agent of the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle, Antébi was an Ottoman citizen,
equally at ease with all of that empire’s ethnic and religious communities. At first he simply
organised technical training for Diaspora youths, but eventually he signed Rothschild’s cheques
to purchase every square metre of available land in Palestine.
Antébi’s ‘nation’ was the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Diaspora, including the Jews
of Palestine. Antébi was not a Zionist. For those who sensed, and sometimes envied or feared,
the role Antébi played on the Ottoman stage, he was a reincarnation of Herod. For others,
he was a behind-the-scenes builder who worked not with bricks and mortar, but with human
beings. During the cholera plague of 1902, Antébi organised aid, distributing free flour and
liming houses. In these tragic circumstances, Antébi realised that his mission was to protect
a Jewish community that was under the yoke of aging rabbis, egoistic administrators and
ruthless bankers. He dreamed of a peaceful economic conquest of Palestine, a dream not
inspired by the Zionists. Antébi spent the months before his death, at the age of forty-five, in
Constantinople, where he devoted his energy to the repatriation of refugees whose lives had
been disrupted by the turmoil of World War I.
If Judaism embraced sainthood, Albert Antébi would be an ideal candidate. Israel’s first prime
minister, David Ben-Gurion (who owed his liberty, if not his life, to Antébi’s intervention with
Djemal Pasha in 1915), described Antébi as ‘the most notable personage in Jerusalem’.
Elizabeth Antébi’s book reflects the great complexity of the Middle East at the turn
of the century. Her dramatic saga is every bit as pertinent in the annals of the modern
state of Israel as best-sellers such as Exodus and O Jerusalem! Her grandfather emerges as
a pragmatic, multicultured Jewish secularist who would not be out of place among the
Arab and Israeli statesmen who are creating the Middle East of tomorrow. Albert Antébi’s
vision has been superseded by an authentic grand nation peopled by men and women
whose vision of the future is no doubt close to the most profound dreams of the worldly
Damascan teacher and organiser.
Portrait; hardcover; c. 600 pages
232 x 152 mm