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The Don Pacifico Affair

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

David Pacifico, known as Don Pacifico (1784 – 12 April 1854), was a Portuguese Jewish merchant and diplomat
David Pacifico, known as Don Pacifico (1784 – 12 April 1854), was a Portuguese Jewish merchant and diplomat

As diplomats shuttle to and from the Middle East and countries threaten each other the USA has sent its navy to the Mediterranean, it is worth going back to look at the Don Pacifico Affair 176 years ago.

It involved a Jew and the governments of the United Kingdom, Portugal and Greece and was the classic example of what came to be known as gunboat diplomacy. Sending in the fleet to get what you want!

I had first heard of Don Pacifico in an English History class about nineteenth century politics. Pacifico was a colorful Jew, a businessman and a diplomat. A chameleon and an adventurer, who told various different stories about his origin. His family had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and had moved around the Mediterranean. His grandfather had settled in Gibraltar which became part of the British Empire and his parents married in Bevis Marks Synagogue in London in 1761. He was born in Portugal where his father was in business but considered himself British. Although when it suited him, he claimed other nationalities too.

He was involved in the Portuguese civil War of 1828-34 and rewarded for being on the winning side with a consulship in Morocco. From 1837 to 1842, he served as consul-general in Athens where he also engaged in commerce and became prominent in the local Jewish community. He helped build a synagogue. But then he got into trouble and was fired for overstepping his authority. Nevertheless, he stayed on in Greece.

In April 1847, in order not to offend a visiting Jewish financier, who was a member of the Rothschild family, the Greek government had banned the traditional burning of an effigy of Judas Iscariot, the Jew. According to the New Testament he betrayed Jesus and became a symbol of Jewish evil and why Jews were so hated. Every Easter when the events were supposed to have happened, throughout the Christian world, Jews were attacked and often killed for being responsible for the death of Jesus. Poor Judas Iscariot took the blame. To this day in Italy there is a popular curse “Porco Giuda,” Judah Pig.

The pious Christians of Athens were so furious that a Jews could prevent a Christian custom (like many Muslims today), they reacted by rioting, and attacking Pacifico’s house, beating him, his wife, and children, and looting and destroying the building.

Three days after the incident, Don Pacifico sent a formal complaint and claim for damages to the Greek government. When they rejected it out of hand, he turned to the British Minister Plenipotentiary to Greece asking for compensation as a British Citizen. This set in motion a huge political debate that divided Parliament and the country. Lord Palmerston, the foreign Secretary, declared that “a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.

Which said something about the attitude of the British Government towards prominent Jews even if they still had not received full civil rights. Pacifico also claimed compensation for land of his that had been confiscated by the Greek state. While this claim was accepted, the Greek government ignored his claims relating to the riot and essentially told the British to get lost. A diplomatic furor erupted. The affair came to a head in January 1850, when the Royal Navy blockaded Athens to force Greece to settle Pacifico's claims and those of other Jews who had suffered from the riots.

Palmerston justified his actions in a speech to the house on 25 June 1850. He condemned the anti-Semitic prejudice that "because a man is of the Jewish persuasion, he is fair game for any outrage." In a vote on an opposition motion, the right of a British subject to appeal for aid anywhere in the world was affirmed by the house with a majority of forty-six.

Lord Palmerston’s action initially caused Greek intransigence. Greek King Otto and his government, in addition to refusing to settle any other claims of British citizens and had stopped payments for a loan of 1832. The British navy went into action and all the vessels of the Greek government were detained.

The blockade lasted for two months, and the affair ended when the Greek government capitulated. Don Pacifico's claims were submitted to a special Commission, composed of the French, British and Greek ministers in Lisbon. The Commissioners met in Lisbon in February 1851. And Don Pacifico was compensated.The affair was one of the most significant international crises of the era.

Don Pacifico died at 15 Bury Street in London on 12 April 1854 and was buried two days later at the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' cemetery at Mile End Road. In an obituary published 21 April in the Jewish Chronicle he was described as an "individual who … caused so much sensation in the political world."

Despite his international prominence, Pacifico was unpopular with British Jews. In those days too many Jews preferred to remain in the shadows and not make a fuss. In truth that has been the defining feature of Anglo Jewry as indeed it had in the USA right through to the Roosevelt years when Jews were reluctant to protest in public over the holocaust. It began to change in the USA with the campaign for Soviet Jewry.

The recent Hamas outrages and the eruption of antisemitism all over the world has galvanized American Jewry and brought out the very best of a newly proactive Anglo Jewry which no longer prefers to work in the shadows. We have relied on others for too long.

Jeremy Rosen Nov 16th


Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.

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