Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Thriving Jewish Presence: Gaza, like you never knew it - by Nadav Shragai

For modern-day Israelis, Gaza is synonymous with terrorism and alienation. But Gaza has a long history of a thriving Jewish presence, explains researcher Haggai Hoberman.

The Margolins' flour mill 
 Photo: Joseph Margolin's archive
Nadav Shragai..
Israel Hayom..
19 March '20..

"Gaza will be like Ponevezh," the famous Israeli tea merchant Ze'ev Kalonymus Wissotzky predicted in the summer of 1885, as he laid out his revolutionary vision of "building urban Jewish neighborhoods in Arab cities like Lod, Nablus, Bethlehem, Tyre, Sidon, and Gaza."

Wissotsky made his proposal after he concluded that the Jewish agricultural settlement that existed in the Land of Israel was insufficient to provide for the new olim coming in from Russia. Wissotzky 's vision began to become a reality a year and a half later. A founding core group arrived from Jaffa under the leadership of Avraham Haim Shlush and Nissim Elkayam. Later, other families from Jerusalem and Hebron joined them, and eventually, the Jewish community increased to 30 families. The Arabs of Gaza, as difficult as it might be to believe, welcomed them.

Journalist and researcher Haggai Hoberman has just published a new book about the venture, titled "A Jewish Community in Gaza," in which he tells the story of the city's Jewish history. If today, "Gaza" is synonymous with terrorism and alienation, a place with a Philistine and Palestinian past, Hoberman's new research tells the unknown story of the Jews who lived there for generations, from the days of the Hasmoneans, during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, in the Middle Ages, and until the early 20th century.

In our era, Gaza and its religious leaders are seen as demonic. An image bolstered by the TV series Fauda, Hoberman reveals that once, Gaza was home to Islamic religious leaders who were no less devout than those of our time, but different. It almost reads like science fiction. Who would believe that only 110 years ago, then Chief Rabbi of Gaza Nissim Binyamin Ohana, and then mufti of Gaza Sheikh Abdullah al-Alami, co-authored a book?

"In Gaza," Ohana wrote in one of his essays, "I wrote a book, Know What the Heretic Will Say in Response with the mufti of Gaza, Sheikh Abdullah, who would visit my home twice a week because he wanted to know the exact meaning of the verses copied from the Old Testament into the New Testament by the apostles."

Ohana also wrote that he initiated the construction of a mikveh (ritual bath) for women in the city, as well as a project to purchase ground for a Jewish cemetery after he saw how the dead of Gaza were transported to Hebron for burial on the backs of donkeys.

The children of Gaza – Jews and Arabs – liked to wear daggers embellished with locally produced beads. On Muslim holidays, Avraham Elkayam would take part in horseback and wrestling competitions.

"We purposely lost to the Bedouin, lest they be offended," the Jews of Gaza would later recall.

In September 1910, the newsletter "HaPoel HaTzair" reported that "relations between Arabs and Jews are very good, and no Jew has ever suffered in Gaza for being a Jew."

In 1914, Zvi Hirschfeld, the founder of the Ruhama moshava in the western Negev, wrote in his diary that "On Tu BiShvat the children from the Gaza school had an excursion on our land and planted trees and ate the fruits of the land and celebrated the New Year for trees in a befitting manner, with songs and poetry."

The decision to take the schoolchildren to Ruhama was not a random one. Hirschfeld, who hosted them, embraced Gaza's Jewish history. He even bought a fragment of a pillar from an ancient synagogue from the priests of the Catholic church that had been built on the ruins of that same synagogue. The fragment was inscribed with the words, "The angel who redeems me from all evil will privilege me to go up to Jerusalem."

When Ruhama was destroyed, Hirschfeld took the fragment with him to Rishon LeZion, and when he died of typhus in 1918, his relatives set it on his grave, where it remains today.

Here are a few key points on the history of the Jews in Gaza: It was conquered by Jonathan Hasmonean in 145 BCE; it is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud in the fourth century CE; Nathan of Gaza, who smashed the Torah of the false Messiah Shabbtai Zvi, who converted to Islam. Nathan of Gaza is the one who, on the eve of Shavuot 1660, declared Zvi "the savior of Israel." He did so in the synagogue of Gaza. The famous Cairo Geniza also fills in some details about the Jewish community in Gaza through the generations. There is also the rabbi and poet Yisrael Najara, possibly the most famous of the Gazan Jews.

Najara was the chief rabbi of Gaza for five years until he died in 1625. He was the son of the Safed rabbi Moshe Najara, who was one of the students of Rabbi Yitzhak Ben Shlomo Luria. Yisrael Najara wrote 650 poems, both secular and religious, some of which have never been seen in print.

Q: The biblical Samson, one of the most famous Bible characters, lived in Gaza. Did the Jews who lived there or visited the place for generations mention him, or sites linked to his name?

"One of the most famous travelers to visit the Land of Israel, who recorded his visit here in 1481, is Rabbi Meshulam of Volterra. Rabbi Meshulam tells that the Jews of Gaza made wine, describes a small synagogue that was active in the city, and mentions the location of Delilah's house, where Samson lived. A French Crusader who visited the Land of Israel in 1395 mentions Samson and, just as interestingly, describes the dress of the Gaza residents in that period: the Muslims wore white turbans, the Christians wore light blue head coverings, and the Jews wore yellow ones!"

Vines and olives

One of the more exciting events he unearthed took place two years before the 1967 Six-Day War, when Jews no longer lived in Gaza. At the time, the Egyptians wanted to build a casino near the Gaza Port pier, and the construction work uncovered a beautiful mosaic. At first, Christian religious officials claimed it was part of the remains of a fifth-century church, but archaeologist Professor Michael Avi-Yonah and a formal archaeological dig that was conducted there after the war determined that the mosaic had belonged to a 1,500-year-old synagogue.

The mosaic included many drawings of vines and olives, as well as a detailed depiction of a harp, over which the name David appears. The mosaic was in poor condition, but luckily, the Catholic priest of Gaza – who had always thought the site had been a synagogue, not a church – photographed it when it was comparatively intact.

In 1921, when news of the rioting in Jaffa spread, the Jews of Gaza decided not to test their relations with the local Arabs and left the city, even though Mufti Hajj Said al-Husseini, a personal friend of Nissim Elkayam, begged them not to. He promised no one would harm them. Only when things calmed down did the Jews return.

Eight years later, in 1929, when the slaughter of the Jews of Hebron at the hands of their Arab neighbors became known, the British assembled the 44 Jews who still lived in Gaza in a hotel courtyard to protect them. On Aug. 25, Arab mobs armed with swords and daggers took to the streets. Shortly thereafter, they launched an assault on the hotel. The British police ran for their lives. David Gshouri, one of the Jewish residents, was licensed to carry a gun. He fired in the air and the crowd fell back. Another mob of rioters managed to break into another room, where the local pharmacist, Dr. Yakar, and a few other Jews were hiding. One of the Arabs attacked Dr. Yakar, who sprayed him with sulfuric acid, forcing him back.

At this point, city dignitary Hajj Said a-Shawa, whose son Rashad would become the mayor of Gaza in the 1970s, arrived. A-Shawa stood at the hotel entrance and tried to calm the rioters, but found it difficult. The British decided to take no chances and removed the Jews from the city. They were taken to the train station in trucks. En route, Arabs attacked the trucks and again, it was Said A-Shawa and two of his other sons who demonstrated courage and got into the trucks with the Jews and repelled the attackers. That night, a train arrived from Alexandria and the Jews took it to Lod. Even when they were on board, mad Gazans hurled rocks at the train windows.

An ancient alliance

The Jews of Gaza, Hoberman says, never forgot the help they received from the A-Shawa family. Later, they repaid them. After the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Lt. Col. Mordechai Elkayam, Nissim's son, was appointed deputy governor of Gaza.

Elkayam appointed another one of A-Shawa's sons, Rushdie, mayor. Rushie A-Shawa had been deposed by the Egyptians on the eve of the war. But A-Shawa thought his re-appointment would cast him as a collaborator. To protect him, officials with the Israeli military government wrote a nationalist, anti-Israeli speech for him to give.

The speech made A-Shawa's willingness to accept the job conditional upon significant aid to Gaza from the Israeli government. A-Shawa had originally planned to give a flattering, pro-Israel address that he wrote himself. The trick worked. The thousands of Gazans who had gathered at the city hall plaza cheered him and put him back in power.

The second time Israel helped the A-Shawa family was when it learned that Arab nationalists were planning to murder Rashad, Rushdie's younger brother. The murder was planned as revenge for Israel having restored Rushdie to the position of mayor.

At the time, Rashad was the leader of a criminal gang and was also in touch with an Egyptian terrorist organization. Elkayam, who was still deputy governor of Gaza, arrested Rashad and put him in prison to keep him alive. The official excuse was his membership in the terrorist group. Rushdie was summoned to Elkayam's office to protest the arrest of his brother and only when the circumstances were explained did he relax.

Israel repaid the A-Shawa family a third time in 1971, when Ziad al-Husseini, commander of the "liberation forces" in the Gaza Strip, committed suicide in Mayor A-Shawa's basement. Al-Husseini left a letter in which he called the A-Shawa family "the dirtiest in the history of Palestine."

Hoberman says the letter was "ungrateful."

"For weeks, Mayor A-Shawa had been conducting negotiations with the IDF to secure free passage for al-Husseini and his friends, and never revealed that the terrorist fugitive was hiding in his own house," he adds.

After Al-Husseini's suicide, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan issued orders to bomb A-Shawa's home, remove him from all his official positions, and put him on trial. Yet again, the Elkayam family rushed to save the A-Shawas.

Moshe Elkayam, the brother of the deputy governor, appeared on television and told viewers how the A-Shawa family had saved his own relatives in the 1929 riots. Dayan, who knew the Elkayam family story, helped arrange the TV appearance, both to help A-Shawa and give himself a reason not to bomb the latter's house.

Hoberman devotes the last several chapters of his book to the history of the Gush Katif settlements and their evacuation in the 2005 disengagement. Hoberman sees those settlements as the continuation of the earlier Jewish community in the city of Gaza, the "southern gate to the Land of Israel." He believes that one day, the synagogues of Gush Katif will be rebuilt, just like the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem – which the Jordanians shelled in 1948 – was rebuilt and refurbished a decade ago.

In the meantime, Hoberman is content with researching and documenting the generations of history of Jewish presence in the Gaza Strip.

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