By Shelomo Alfassa / November 16, 2007
On November 2nd, 1918, the very first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the Chief Rabbi of Salonika and future first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Haham Jacob Meir, declared, “this date is henceforth a fete day (celebration), for it was on this day that Israel was recognized as a NATION among the other nations.” His declaration was met by official representatives of England, America, France, Italy and Greece with great applause, and he was congratulated for his statement.
It was during Jacob Meir’s term as chief rabbi in the holy land, that Sir Herbert Samuel, a Jew, had been appointed as the first British High Commissioner of Palestine in 1920. Under his direction, thousands of Jewish immigrants settled in the land. In each of the years between 1920 and 1923, about 8,000 Jews entered Palestine. In 1924 the number jumped to 13,000 and the following year to more than 33,000. Sadly, many Jewish people came to Palestine because they could go nowhere else, as America closed its doors to mass immigration in 1924. In 1920, Rabbi Meir was appointed by Samuel to be head of the Spanish Jewish Community of Palestine (from which all chief Sephardic rabbis were chosen) and soon after was honored with the Commander of the Order of the British Empire award for service to the British.
Jacob Meir was a peace maker; he was a profound student of Talmud, a patient and astute scholar, fluent in Hebrew as well as five other languages. He was a student of modern Hebrew letters, and enjoyed a reputation as one of Jerusalem’s great rabbis. A demonstration of his passion for harmony, is his 1936 letter called an “Appeal for Friendliness.” This was a call to Muslims of Jerusalem to make peace, he wrote:
"Our Moslem brethren in places near and far…I am eighty years of age today, and Providence has privileged me with the duty of serving the Faith of Israel for over sixty years…In my path of life I have met Heads of the Moslem and Christian Churches, and they have all expressed their appreciation and sympathy to the People of Israel and His Holy Writ, upon which rest the foundations of the faiths of the world. I recall the wise words that I have heard from Caliphs and Sultans, rulers of Turkey, who have had an unbounded admiration for the People of Israel, who are truthful in all their ways…For many generations past, we Moslems and Jews, have lived as brethren, as well in Palestine, as in other countries, and have ever extended one to the other a truly helping hand. In the Holy City of Jerusalem, in Baghdad, in Granada, in Algiers, in Damascus, in Medina, in Fes, Tunis, in Cairo, in Constantinople…and in all other Moslem countries…We are all the sons of Abraham and Isaac, all the sons of the same Father in Heaven and we have common usages, which it is the duty of all of us to live up to....
I was born in Jerusalem, and all the leaders and heads of the Moslems in Palestine and in adjacent countries know me personally and appreciate that truth has ever been the torch by which I was guided. To all of those of my Moslem brethren who appeared before my religious court I meted out justice. My attitude to all sons of the Arab race, Christians and Moslems alike, has always been one of respect and true friendliness. Like the Prophet Samuel I can truly affirm today in the presence of the Almighty: ‘Whose Ox have I and my people taken? Or whose Ass have I taken? Or whom, have I defrauded”. Or whom, have I oppressed? Or of whose hand have I taken a ransom to blind mine eyes therewith?’.
Therefore, I beg you to pay your attention to the following. The Almighty God, Senior of all nations, wanted that the people of Israel should return to its Holy Land as it is ordered in our Holy Torah, in which you also believe, so who can oppose the volition of God? I deem it unnecessary to repeat our contention that any intention to prejudice the rights of the people of this country is far from our minds.
Therefore, I appeal to you, my brethren, why cause any harm? Clear your hearts of all hatred and animosity. I affirm before the Almighty that no Jew has any design on your Holy Places. Come and rally to the service of God Almighty. Learn His commands and abide by His ways, and thereupon will be fulfilled the words of the Prophet: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against Nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and the wolf shall dwell with the lamb. So help us God.’”
Arab violence against Jews was a common occurrence during Jacob Meir’s tenure. Even though he was a man of peace he was not a man to back down and he stood for the ideals and interests of the Jewish people. It is remembered that when testifying to the League of Nations Wailing Wall Commission of 1930, he declared, “The Bible is our kushan (deed) to this last relic of our Temple. Even with the rabbis emotional statement, the British commission concluded that the Muslims had absolute ownership of the Wall. Yet, they felt the Jews had the uncontested right to worship and to place seats in the narrow street, though not to blow the shofar there. The Arabs objected, and the Jews agreed, except for the last point, considering it a humiliation. In response, each year, proud Jewish youths would blow the shofar near the wall at the termination of Yom Kippur, which would always lead to the intervention of the British police who enforced the law against the blowing of the shofar.
Rabbi Jacob Meir died on May 26, 1939, he was 83 years old, his family was at his bedside when he passed. Over 10,000 Jewish residents of Jerusalem, representing all sections of the population took part in the funeral of the rabbi. The blue and white colors hung half staff from the offices of all Jewish public institutions. Many orations were made for the late Meir. Rabbi Yosef Levy declared it was a day of sorrow for all, that the passing of Jacob Meir had robbed Israel if a great leader and scholar, one of the last of the Knesseth Gedola (Great Assembly). Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Herzog said it was more than difficult for him to adequately mourn the saintly and scholarly man, whose efforts for unity had been so strenuous and successful. The loss was exacerbated for the “Betrayal Paper” was then hanging over Jewry. Herzog went on to ask that the spirit of Rabbi Meir would intercede for mercy before the Throne of the Almighty to annul the “evil decree” This decree that Herzog was speaking about was the British White Paper. This was the notorius document in which demonstrated the British had reneged on the earlier Balfour Declaration and announced that creating a Jewish state was no longer a British objective. Thus, it was their opinion, that only a divided Palestine could permanently settle the ongoing Jewish-Arab violence, and their first implementation of this new agenda was to severely restrict the number of Jewish refugees desiring to emigrate to Palestine. Shamefully, history demonstrates that during this period, Arab attacks on Jews increased, often under the eye of the British.
Haham Jacob Meir ZS"L
First Chief Rabbi of Israel