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The Holy Land Appropriated: The Careers of Selah Merrill, Nineteenth Century Christian Hebraist, Palestine Explorer, and U.S. Consul in Jerusalem
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The Holy Land Appropriated:
The Careers of Selah Merrill, Nineteenth Century Christian Hebraist, Palestine Explorer, and U.S. Consul in Jerusalem

I. Selah Merrill and the Jews of Palestine

“The Jew needs to learn that his place in the world will be determined by what he can do for himself, and not so much by what Abraham did for himself four thousand years ago. It has a most mischevious effect to be always associating the modern Jews with eminent men and deeds in the remote ages of the past.”* So wrote Selah Merrill, U.S. Consul in Jerusalem, in a report on Palestine. Merrill felt impelled to include in his report a long section entitled “Jews and Jewish Colonies in Palestine” in response to the Blackstone Memorial of 1891, which petitioned President Benjamin Harrison to support the convening of an international conference to discuss Jewish claims to Palestine. The Blackstone Memorial had over four hundred prominent signatories, the vast majority of them Protestants; for many of them the contemporary Jews were the natural heirs of the ancient Hebrews: “Why not give Palestine back to them again? According to God’s distribution of nations, it is their home, an inalienable possession, from which they were expelled by force.” 1

It was just such restorationist sentiment that Merrill so vehemently opposed. His report calls the memorial “one of the wildest schemes brought before the public.” It is the “character and habits of the modern Jews” that will doom their Palestine settlement efforts to failure. According to Merrill, the originators of the petition “appear to be ignorant of two great facts, (1) that Palestine is not ready for the Jews and (2) that the Jews are not ready for Palestine.”

Merrill’s sentiments were not unusual among American Protestant [End Page 151] elites, especially among those serving in the diplomatic and consular services. As Ruth Kark has noted, Merrill’s first term as consul (1882–84) coincided with the beginnings of Jewish agricultural settlement in Palestine. Merrill was in the unique position of being able to respond negatively to Jewish immigration, to oppose Jewish settlement, and to shape State Department attitudes towards these settlement efforts. As Peter Grose writes in Israel in the Mind of America, Merrill’s 1891 report was “the first considered assessment of the Jewish restoration in the State Department files.” As Merrill’s assessment was highly negative and artic-ulated by a man considered “the most serious and influential of the nineteenth-century Jerusalem Consuls,” its conclusion, that the U.S. should not lend any support to the settlement of Palestine by the Jews, was taken to heart by many of Merrill’s colleagues at the State Department. 2

In examining Merrill’s attitudes towards Jewish settlement in Palestine it is worth noting that Merrill’s 25 year career as U.S. diplomat (1882–1907) was preceded by three other careers. He served as a Congregationalist minister, teacher of Hebrew in a theological seminary, and archeologist in Palestine. Up to the time of his appointment to the Jerusalem consulate by President Arthur, Merrill’s life was devoted to the study of the Bible and the Holy Land, and of those very “eminent men and deeds in the remote ages of the past” whose modern descendants he so heartily disdained.

Merrill’s study of the ancient Hebrews did not stop when he entered the consular service. During his tenure as consul in Jerusalem he deepened his knowledge of the Biblical world through study of ancient languages and recovery of lost artifacts. His books and articles—among them East of the Jordan (1881), Galilee in the Time of Christ (1881) and Ancient Jerusalem (1908)—demonstrate a flair for writing and an ability to popularize new discoveries. His influence on other archeologists and biblical researchers was considerable, though to a large extent unrecognized.

This combination of acute interest in the ancient Hebrews and intense disdain for their modern descendants bears examination. While Christian writers on Judaism often displayed ambivalence toward Jews, Merrill’s case is especially intriguing because his attitude towards Jews had political consequences. With the advent of Zionism, these ambivalent attitudes affected the consideration of Jewish claims...