When Tel Aviv was a wilderness

By Tom Segev , 5/10/2009

In the spring of 1917, roads in the south of the country overflowed with tens of thousands of refugees. The Turks who then ruled the land had expelled them from Gaza. It happened after the British had twice failed in their attempts to conquer Gaza. Moshe Smilansky, a farmer and writer who wandered a good deal among the Arabs, saw the waves of refugees and described them in his journal: "All of them bear the mark of hunger, fear and disaster." The disaster was not theirs alone, he wrote: "A terrible panic befell not only the residents of Gaza, but the entire land." Because, he maintained, the authorities intended to resettle some of the Arab refugees in communities belonging to the Jews: "We were very fearful about these guests, because of the overcrowding, lack of cleanliness, and disruption of the usual order. But still we took comfort in this - better that they expel the Arabs to us than that they should expel us to them," Smilansky observed. Little did he know.

A few weeks later, the residents of Jaffa and Tel Aviv were also forced to leave their homes; some of them found shelter among Arabs.

Around 50,000 people lived in Jaffa at that time, including some 10,000 Jews; nearly 2,000 Jews lived in the adjacent garden suburb, Tel Aviv. The authorities claimed they had to vacate Jaffa for their own protection. The military governor of the country was Cemal Pasha, one of the leaders of the Young Turk movement, who is also known as the mastermind behind the Armenian genocide. As with the expulsion of the civilian population from Gaza, the authorities claimed that Jaffa's evacuation was necessary to protect the residents, ahead of the British invasion. "You cannot fight for a city to the sound of women screaming and children crying," Cemal Pasha explained.

A foreign diplomat stationed in Jerusalem at the time offered the view that the authorities were hostile to the Jews of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, and would take advantage of the evacuation to harm the Zionists. He was right: Only a few Jewish youths were given permission to remain in the city to safeguard the houses. All the rest were forced to get out.

A deathly silence

The evacuation took about two weeks. It began in an orderly fashion, but rapidly descended into chaos. A local reporter described a confused mob of people, horses and mules, and piles and piles of belongings. Men, women and children were stretched out over their bundles, waiting outside day and night for their turn, until a cart would arrive to collect them. Wagon after wagon departed, numbering in the hundreds: wagons laden with household wares and carpets, heavy furniture and even pianos; wagons full of Torah scrolls from the synagogues; and wagons carrying wheat and other foodstuffs. They left behind them a long trail of animal excrement. Moshe Smilansky saw a baby carriage hitched to a donkey and driven by two children.

Before Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen departed from his home at 11 Herzl Street in Tel Aviv, he gazed one last time at the two oleander bushes in his garden, one beside the fountain, the other next to the verandah. Another few days and their lovely flowers would give off their scent, he mused, but who will smell them? The roses would also be abandoned. Tears choked him. Hacohen, a businessman, civic leader and writer, was among the founders of Tel Aviv. He also kept a journal. He vowed to return home, but had to resort to a great deal of pathos to convince himself it would happen: "Our entire existence has collapsed," he wrote.

Smilansky wrote: "Tel Aviv was a wilderness," and added: "A deathly silence reigned throughout the streets. It seemed like a plague had stormed through the place." A local reporter spotted graffiti in a child's handwriting on the wall of one of the houses: "Goodbye Tel Aviv."

Most of the Jewish exiles settled initially in Petah Tikva, but after a while they were forced to move on, northward. One of these was the writer and teacher Yosef Haim Brenner, formerly secretary to Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen. En route to the Galilee, he noticed a woman sitting on the ground with a dead baby girl beside her. Many of the exiles were put up in makeshift housing. Within weeks, a typhus epidemic spread through their ranks. "Holocaust upon holocaust," Smilansky wrote.

Refugees did not have an easy time finding shelter in other Jewish communities; they were hardly welcome everywhere. At about the same time, the Turks uncovered a Zionist spy network that was helping the British, and many Jews were arrested, interrogated under torture, deported, and even executed. Many people were afraid to take in strangers, and a lot of refugees were forced to keep moving on to new locations. Hacohen wrote: "And what will happen now to the poor families of bereaved wives who were left without their husbands since the start of the war? And they and the children dependent on them tumbled throughout the spring and summer months between lean-tos and tents in Jezreel and Galilee settlements, and when at long last they came to rest awhile on coming to Haifa, now once again the wretched families will be driven from their resting place in Haifa and be tossed - where? Terrible, it is a terrible situation."

'Loyal Europeans'

Many of the Jews who settled in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the 20th century did not renounce their previous citizenship; thousands of them hailed from Russia. World War I presented them with a cruel choice: Leave the country or wait to be deported, or else take on Ottoman citizenship, despite the mandatory military service that entailed. The latter was a Zionist initiative, aimed at preventing a decline in the number of Jews in the country. Its advocates included David Ben-Gurion, who was then in his late twenties.

On his rounds among the Jews to lobby them to accept Turkish citizenship, Ben-Gurion wore a turban and looked like a government official: In speaking about the Ottoman Empire, he referred to "our country." He believed that the Turks would be victorious, and hoped that after the war they would establish a Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel. Ben-Gurion's loyalty failed to impress the Turks, who deported him from the country; he went to the United States.

The expulsion from Jaffa and Tel Aviv put an end to the residents' willingness to support the Ottoman cause: "We will never forgive Cemal Pasha for this offense," Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen wrote. His anger stemmed from a most personal reason as well: His son David served in the Turkish army. Like many other fathers, he was proud of his son's officer rank, but when he was expelled from his city, he told himself that his son was risking his life to serve a rotten empire that everyone was praying would fall. When he first heard about the order to vacate the city within days, Hacohen toyed with the idea of resisting. If Cemal were to see that the Jews are unwilling "to be led like lambs to the slaughter," he wrote, perhaps he might shrink at the last from carrying out the expulsion.

But that was just a momentary notion, an expression of helpless rage, "since after all, what is a flock to do and how are sheep to confront a wild wolf?" That was the choice the Zionist society in the Land of Israel would be faced with on more than one occasion, between weakness and force, between forbearance and fighting, between holding their heads high in patriotism while endangering the population and being submissively responsible to the point of inaction.

Hacohen's weakness galled him. He directed his anger at the Arabs: Many of them had managed to remain in Jaffa despite the evacuation order, and many returned to their homes after a short while. "We are Europeans, loyal, accustomed to obeying orders and following them punctually," Hacohen wrote, perhaps in arrogance, perhaps in self-pity. Even then, as he documented the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, Hacohen was pondering some of the fundamental issues of Jewish existence in the world and the future of the Zionist dream. He loathed the Jewish existence in the "Diaspora," but the Jews in Palestine needed the support of world Jewry. That dependence deepened Hacohen's hatred. The hesitation of Germany's Jews to aid the expelled residents of Jaffa before their government's position on the matter became known prompted him to use quasi anti-Semitic language: "Our yids in the lands of absorption and assimilation can always smell with their noses that have remained long as ever which way the wind blows in this world," he wrote. Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen was one of the pillars of the Israeli establishment; one of his daughters married the son of the writer Ahad Ha'am, and another married Dr. Arthur Ruppin, himself one of the founding fathers of Zionist settlement. Hacohen's son David later served as Israeli ambassador to Burma and chaired the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Among Hacohen's descendants were numerous individuals of note, politicians and Israel Defense Forces generals, including Yitzhak Rabin. During his eight months of exile, Hacohen kept tabs on the British army's progress and yearned for its triumph.

'Go restore the homeland'

The British army's failure to conquer Gaza led to the appointment of a new commander, Sir Edmund Allenby. The scion of a family that counted Oliver Cromwell among its forbears, Allenby was a tall man with an impressive eagle nose, who radiated power, authority and charisma. His troops worshiped him. The 75,000 infantrymen and 17,000 cavalrymen under his command managed to vanquish the Turks. In mid-November 1917 they reached Jaffa.

The first British soldiers to enter Tel Aviv, after months of fierce fighting in the scorching desert, were impressed primarily by the possibility of obtaining fresh bread and a bath. "Europe! Europe!" they shouted with joy. Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen, who rushed to return home, saw this as a compliment: "The British would never hope to find in wild Asia such an orderly city, whose houses and streets are clean and straight," he proudly wrote in his diary.

Many of the first soldiers who entered the Land of Israel at the time were Australian. "All are likable and lovely of face," Hacohen wrote. "Their faces are good like those of older children," he added. "Generous of heart and hand were the Australians," a girl from the city would later write: "Once when I was playing jump rope in front of my house, an Australian soldier joined in and jumped with me. We both laughed. He took the rope and swung it in his hand and I tried to jump up high with him. In the end he handed me a big packet of chocolate."

They brought along a band, and Tel Aviv sent Moshe Hopenko, one of the city's first violin teachers, to perform with them. Moshe Smilansky encountered his first Australian while wandering through one of the citrus groves; the soldier was a shepherd. "From his flock of sheep he volunteered to join the army that went to conquer Palestine," a pleased Smilansky wrote, "while still a boy he had learned the Bible with other schoolboys and knew that the land of the Bible had been taken from the people of the Bible and that it is suffering under the Turkish yoke, and when the world war broke out and the Australian people were called upon to volunteer and the Australians' wives collected money for the war in Palestine, he, too, reached for the sword and his mother and sister blessed his journey and said: Go restore the homeland to the one people in the world that is without a homeland." Smilansky made a note of the young man's name, thereby guaranteeing his place in history: Sid Sheerson.

Hacohen also viewed the Australians as messengers of salvation: "These youngsters, all of them of army age, stand on the sidewalks along Herzl Street and watch a camel caravan pass carrying the wounded, or else the seriously wounded are transported in automobiles. The youngsters stand and watch the sad parade out of curiosity, and after all it is for our sakes, for their sakes, for the sake of our own future that blood is being spilled, that these [soldiers] do suffer!" A few of the British soldiers engaged in looting. They broke into Tel Aviv homes whose tenants had yet to return from exile, broke furniture, defaced books, and yanked out doors and window frames to use for kindling. One veteran resident recalled that her mother managed at the last minute to salvage a piano that soldiers had stolen from one of the houses. She heard about "various undesirable incidents that happened to little girls."

The national language

Hacohen and his fellow community leaders in Jaffa complained to the commanders of the force, who suggested that they "waive" their complaint, since if they did not, the looters would have to be tried and sentenced to death. Hacohen and his friends preferred to "waive." There is no choice but to accept the soldiers' rioting lovingly, Hacohen wrote; perhaps the soldiers thought Tel Aviv was a German neighborhood, he comforted himself. He also took comfort in the fact that the British brought with them order and justice, law and discipline.

He and his friends demanded that the British military governor issue his orders to the population in Hebrew. The governor, a colonel named Alfred Chevallier Parker, refused. Hacohen took down the exchange between them:

The governor: We issue the announcements in the common language of the place and in general in languages that our government requires.

We (Hacohen and friends): If the government cannot issue its orders and announcements in the Hebrew language because it does not have the necessary people to do so, then we are prepared to provide it with a responsible translator, and at our own expense.

The governor: This is a very complicated issue and I cannot issue on behalf of the government things that I do not understand, and I cannot be certain that the translation will be perfectly accurate.

We: Then the government should provide its announcements in English, because we do not understand Arabic, and we will publish the original along with the Hebrew translation.

The governor: Then you would like the government to recognize you as a collective that is completely autonomous, and for it to address you separately and not together with the rest of the residents?

We: For now we merely intend that the Hebrew public, most of which understands Hebrew (including school pupils who understand only this language), have clear knowledge of the government's orders. That is for starters: and secondly, the question of language is a national one for us, a question of life.

The governor: Gentlemen, this is a very grave question and it is too early to discuss it.

Back in London the Balfour Declaration had been published a few days earlier, laying the groundwork for establishing a Jewish "national home" in Palestine, but Hacohen did not know that yet; evidently neither did Governor Parker. Hacohen was happy even without knowing of the declaration: "We are saved, redeemed!" he wrote.

But the war was not over yet. German planes bombed Jaffa, and Hacohen's diary has this entry from early December 1918: "There were shots all night long, and these were especially terrible at the ninth hour of the evening. In the dead of night the cannon fire was visible and was like ceaseless thunder."

Petah Tikva passed from hand to hand and Allenby set his sights on his next target: Jerusalem.

Tom Segev is a historian and a member of Haaretz's editorial board.
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