(Haaretz) – “The war had already had an impact on Palestine. Not a single gunshot had yet been heard, but hundreds of lives had already been claimed by the contagious diseases introduced by the Turkish forces. The crisis had only just begun, and the ‘sick man’ (Turkey) had already demonstrated its state of rottenness, its lack of culture, its lack of organizational skill.”
These words were written by Boris Schatz, founder of the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, at the time of the outbreak of World War I. Later, at the height of the war, he added, “All of the disease, the cholera, typhus fever, dysentery, malaria and the other angels of destruction have been forgotten due to the starvation … The synagogues have removed the silver crowns and ornaments from the Torah scrolls to sell them by weight – from their silver they have made whip handles … The Arabs wore our prayer shawls on their heads; the shopkeepers used our sacred books to package their goods … Mothers sold themselves to save their children from death … Thousand upon thousands have died of starvation.”
During those war years, a mortal blow struck the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. More Jews died during the Great War than in all the wars of the State of Israel combined. In four years beginning at the start of the World War I, this community shrank from 85,000 to approximately 45,000 or 50,000, at its end. Half the Jews who died were residents of Jerusalem – a third of the city’s Jewish population.
The historiography, and writings by contemporary writers Avshalom Feinberg, Moshe Smilansky and Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld, underscore the terrible suffering experienced by Palestine’s Jews during the war years, but the dimensions of the loss have never been properly investigated or documented.
Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote in March 1918, from Cairo: “They are saying that the mood in the Land of Israel is positive. The colonies and the pioneers have made an outstanding impression. But Jerusalem is in a bad state. Even though half of the people who receive the charity handouts perished – fortunately – before the English arrived, it is enough that we have the remaining half … They squabble with one another, they write slanderous things, and their honorable ladies and young women often engage in ‘the easy livelihood.’ All of this is painful and depressing.”
A few weeks later, Chaim Weizmann, who chaired the Zionist Commission, wrote: “It is so dismal in Jerusalem! … Jerusalem is not a Hebrew city! One barely discerns the young Hebrew presence, and the old people … are merely broken vessels, weakened and shrouded in generations of mold. The Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem are nothing but filth and contagious disease. It is impossible to describe in words the poverty, the absolute ignorance and the fanatic zealotry; the heart weeps at the sight of it all!”
Historical research mainly focused on the Zionist narrative – the establishment of the Zion Mule Corps by Jabotinsky and fellow Zionist activist Joseph Trumpeldor, the battles fought by the Jewish Legion, and the anti-Turkish Nili underground, which was spying on behalf of the British – and tended to disregard the catastrophe experienced by the country’s long-time Jewish residents. In the generation that followed, research focused on attempts to evaluate the dimensions of the calamity, based on statistical approaches and demographic methodology.
Studies by the late Prof. Isaiah Friedman, who analyzed the war from the German perspective rather than through an Anglophile prism, examined the political repercussions of Ottoman policy on the Yishuv, a subject not adequately studied. The large quantity of documents he gleaned from archives of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Vienna and the German Empire in Berlin raise a question: Did Ahmed Jamal Pasha, one of the Ottoman rulers, intend to obliterate the Jewish community in Palestine – or the Zionist entity within it?