For the residents of Israel, and the Middle East as a whole, the American presence in the region is as natural and expected as the hot sun overhead in the middle of August.
American diplomacy in the Land of Israel, however, was historically random, coincidental, and at its best, can best be referred to as a big, hot mess. This is why we have history books – to preserve the truth and the actual story within their pages.
The true history of American diplomacy in the Land of Israel is a matter of reality being stranger than fiction. No one could be so creative as to have invented a character as colorful, wild and, according to friends and family, of questionable sanity, as was Warder Cresson, the man who was almost the first U.S. consul in Jerusalem.
For those paying attention, it was easy to spot the clues that could have indicated the trouble this man would cause. After all, his questionable actions and dubious personality were raising eyebrows long before he left America for the mission of a lifetime.
So, who was this “almost consul?”
During the 19th century, many Christian Americans turned their focus toward the Holy Land. The reasons for this were many, but not least among them was the disappointment from the failure to arrive of the salvation that had been promised to them in America. In its place, Christians looked toward the original concept of salvation, as promised in the historical Israel.
One of the beliefs that accompanied the faith that swept through the United States at the time was the idea that, in order for Christendom to flourish and for Jesus to return and save all of humanity, the Jews must return to their historical homeland. It was this belief that burned within Warder Cresson, a farmer from Philadelphia who came from a Messianic Quaker family.
Cresson (1798-1860) believed so strongly in the need for the return of the Jews to their homeland that he decided to make it his life’s mission. Through acquaintances who knew the secretary of state at the time, John Calhoun, he asked to be appointed the U.S. consul in Jerusalem. In 1844, Calhoun agreed (it didn’t hurt that Cresson offered to do the work without pay), and indeed, Cresson became the first person to hold the position of American consul.
Rumors of his eccentric nature and his not-so-secret ulterior motives made Cresson’s appointment rather controversial, so that, when his appointment came before the Ottoman officials who had authority over Jerusalem at the time, they did not approve of Cresson and he was barred from holding the position.
That, of course, did not stop Cresson. While the position continued to be hotly debated in the upper echelons of American diplomacy, Cresson arrived in Jerusalem, planted the American flag, and declared himself the U.S. consul in the city.
Though it was originally feared that Cresson’s missionary motives would stir up trouble, he instead declared war on the Christian missions that he believed were exploiting the poor Jews of Jerusalem. He wrote up his charges in pamphlets and articles that he signed with the pseudonym “Michael Boaz Israel.”
Every time the Ottoman authorities or American diplomats reminded Cresson he had no authority in Jerusalem, he ignored them. He made a point of how much of his own money he was laying out on fulfilling the task, and that he wasn’t even receiving a salary – and remained adamant that all he wanted was protection for himself and the poor persecuted Jews.
This sense of duty became a sense of identity, to the extent that Cresson converted to Judaism, four years after his initial appointment. In so doing, he took on his new name, Michael Boaz Israel, the pseudonym he had been using on his publications. To justify his unconventional decision he began writing the book “The Key of David: David the True Messiah,” in 1848.
When Cresson returned to the U.S., following his conversion, to settle his finances, his arrival caused a scandal when his ex-wife, son and brother requested that the Philadelphia court issue an injunction declaring Cresson insane and incapable of handling his assets.
The trial was heavily covered in the media, and although Cresson was initially declared insane, he appealed that decision and was eventually cleared of the charge. He ended up returning to Jerusalem in 1852, but not before leaving most of his property to his family.
Upon his return, Michael Boaz Israel worked in the building of the Jewish Yishuv in Jaffa and Emek-Refaim in Jerusalem. His goal was to reduce the dependency of Jews on Christian charities, and to make them as self-sufficient as possible for he knew the Christian institutions were mainly interested in converting the Jews away from the true religion.
He made a new life for himself in Israel and became a prominent leader in the Jewish community. He remarried to a woman name Rachel Moledano and had three children, Abigail, Ruth and David Ben-Zion, all of whom died young. Following his death, Cresson was buried on the Mount of Olives.