From “The Shores of Tripoli” to the Blockade of Gaza: Following Jefferson’s Lead

June 18, 2010

By Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman*

Israel’s announced its own investigation of the Gaza Flotilla incident. The US’s tepid, wait-and-see response will ensure critics will continue to push another kangaroo court at the United Nations guaranteed to condemn Israel for crimes against humanity for the casualties on both sides aboard the Mavi Mamara. They have no interest in a truthful investigation that would begin with Hamas’ crimes including suicide bombings, 8,ooo rocket attacks on civilians, and the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. It would have to detail the support of Hamas by Tehran’s mullahs and now also Turkey’s Islamist regime. That’ll never happen. Not with the hypocritical posturing by the international community-including the U.S., which blockaded Germany and Japan during World War II and “quarantined” Cuba during the 1962 Missile Crisis, but has dropped its previous support of Israel’s naval blockade of terrorist- controlled Gaza.

The Obama Administration could use a refresher course about blockades going all the way back to the early years of the United States. The young American Republic fought two wars from 1801 to 1815 with North Africa’s Barbary pirates-who kidnapped Christian “infidels” with the tacit approval of the pirate regimes’ nominal overlord: the Ottoman Empire. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello library contains the Quran, but more important was his experience with Islamic imperialism. In 1786, as U.S. Ambassador to France, he joined John Adams, U.S. Ambassador to Britain, in a failed attempt to obtain the return of captive American seamen from Muslim regimes. The two future American presidents met in London with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the Bey of Algiers’ ambassador to Britain, to negotiate a peace treaty and ransom 21 sailors captured when the American trader Betsy was taken by Moroccan corsairs, followed by Algerian and Libyan pirates capturing two more merchant men in 1785.

Jefferson and Adams explained that Algiers’ refusal “was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners.”

During President Washington’s Administration, Barbary pirates seized an additional 11 U.S. ships and 126 sailors. In 1796, the fledgling U.S.-no longer enjoying the protection of the British Navy-agreed to a Treaty paying Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli (Libya) tribute valued at 20 percent of all annual federal tax revenues!

An outraged American public demanded “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.” In 1801, when President Thomas Jefferson spurned more blackmail demands, Tripoli declared war by cutting down the flagpole in front of the U.S. consulate. Jefferson sent two-thirds of the small U.S. fleet to the Mediterranean to fight. Between 1801 and 1803, Commodore Edward Preble blockaded Tunis, disrupting the importation not only of naval supplies but also of grain so that America’s enemies would feel “the pinch of hunger.”

Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson praised Lieutenant Stephen Decatur’s daring raid that inspired the line- “to the shores of Tripoli” -in the Marine Corps Hymn. Yet British traders on Malta sold the pirates a frigate to run the blockade. Napoleon’s Foreign Minister Talleyrand also initially praised the American war effort-but then raised objections to the U.S. blockade. Despite European non-support, the conflict ended in 1805 with an American victory and a new Treaty. But then, the U.S. had to fight the Second Barbary War in 1815 after pirates took advantage of American setbacks during the War of 1812 to renew their depredations.

Like Israel along the coast of Gaza, the U.S. on North Africa’s coast during the first Barbary War resorted to a naval blockade of impeccable legality. The difference is that Israel-honoring the provisions of today’s international humanitarian law-limits its blockade to military equipment and supplies: not food or medical shipments. Thomas Jefferson, in contrast, tried to impose a total blockade- a far cry from President Obama’s characterization of Israel’s naval self-defense as “tragic and unnecessary.”

While the European powers waffled during the Barbary Wars, the Ottoman Sultan was complicit with North Africa’s piratical regimes: just as today’s Islamizing Ankara regime is in bed with Hamas’ funding network-initials IHH-that bankrolled the Gaza “freedom flotilla.” Its flagship, the Mavi Mamara, was an armed camp waiting to lynch lightly armed Israeli sailors who should have been equipped with stun guns and noise and shock grenades-not primarily paint ball guns.

Though Israel makes mistakes, the Jewish State cannot fold up its naval blockade of an enemy sitting 40 miles from Tel Aviv. The right to blockade of Iranian arms remains even more essential to Israel’s self-defense and survival than blockading an enemy thousands of miles away was to America in the age of Thomas Jefferson.


*Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center