In 1840, the news of the terrible fate of the Jewish community of Damascus (Syria) reached the shores of America and brought the disparate Jewish communities of the young American nation together. The Damascus Affair, as the incident became known, occurred when the French Consul in Damascus accused the Jews of murdering a monk named Brother Thomas. Several Jews were arrested until a confession was finally extracted by torturing one of the detainees. In their quest for a confession, the Syrian authorities had seized more than 60 Jewish children and held them under dire conditions. With the false confession in hand, the French went to Sultan Mohammed Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, Syria and Arabia, to seek a death penalty for the other detainees.
Jewish leaders around the world protested and took action. The efforts of the Jewish communities of the United States were led by the New York and Philadelphia communities (led by the Jewish leader of Philadelphia, Reverend [Rabbi] Isaac Leeser). The communities held rallies and sent petitions to President Martin Van Buren.
Subsequently, they were informed that the Secretary of State had already written the following to the American Minister to Turkey:
“The President has directed me to instruct you to do everything in your power with ... the Sultan ... to prevent and mitigate these horrors.... The President is of the opinion that from no one can such generous endeavors proceed with so much propriety and effect, as from the Representative of a friendly power, whose institutions, political and civil, place on the same footing, the worshipers of God, of every faith and form, acknowledging no distinction between the Mahomedan, the Jew and the Christian.”
American pressure probably had less of an impact on Sultan Ali than the diplomatic pressure that came from the Jewish communities of England and France. On August 28th, the nine (out of 13) prisoners who had survived the ordeal were released and declared innocent. Additionally, it was acknowledged that there was no truth to the initial blood libel.
While there are no other indications of President Van Buren having important interactions with the Jewish community, his actions in 1840 will always be appreciated by the Jewish community.
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