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Did Germany Help Save Palestine’s Jews During World War I?

(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?

A second Armenia

On July 28, 1914, one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, crown prince to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Austro-Hungarian empire declared war on the kingdom of Serbia. Three months later, Turkey joined the axis of central European powers, and Jamal Pasha, one of the triumvirate of governors who controlled the Ottoman Empire (and its navy minister), was appointed commander of the Fourth Army and ruler of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and the Hijaz).

The devastation of the civilian governance system in Palestine began with an announcement by the Turkish regime, upon the outbreak of the war, that it was declaring a moratorium on repayment of its loans. This caused an immediate suspension of financial activity. A draconian taxation regime was imposed to finance the war, and all critical assets were confiscated.

With maritime traffic brought to a standstill, the transfer of charitable funds for distribution among members of the Yishuv was cut off. Cancellation of the protective status that had been granted to foreign subjects compromised the legal situation of some 40,000 Jews with Russian citizenship who were living in Palestine, as well as thousands of British- and French-born residents. Approximately half the Jews in Palestine were now considered to be citizens of enemy regimes.

The Ottoman regime suspected members of the Yishuv, and particularly the newly arrived Zionists, of disloyalty to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople. On December 17, 1914, Baha al-Din, the governor of Jaffa, issued a general decree of deportation of all foreign subjects who had not yet become Ottomanized. Panic spread throughout Jaffa over fears of an all-out massacre – until the intervention of the government of Germany.

From the start of the war, high-ranking members of the German diplomatic corps had supported settlement in Palestine as a way of enlisting the backing of world Jewry, and American Jewry in particular, on behalf of the German cause. They included the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, and Germany’s ambassador in Turkey. Through pressure exerted by American Jewry and through Germany’s intervention, Al-Din was dismissed in late December.

However, the sense of anxiety did not abate when Hassan Bey al-Basri (Hassan Bek) was appointed in his place. The latter was known for his brutal cruelty toward both Arabs and Jews. Upon his arrival in Jaffa, he declared his intent to eliminate the Jewish presence there, since he perceived it to be a foreign element that served the interests of foreign powers.

In advance of the Turkish military campaign to conquer the Suez Canal, Jamal Pasha arrived in February 1915 at his headquarters in Jerusalem, situated in the Augusta Victoria compound on the Mount of Olives. He was welcomed to the city at an impressive reception hosted by Rabbi Moshe Franco, known as the Hakham Bashi, who was chief rabbi of the Sephardic community.

Jewish communal leaders heard the newcomer crudely proclaiming that Zionism was an anti-Turkish revolutionary movement that had to be wiped out. Thirty prominent Zionists, including Manya and Israel Shochat, Yehoshua Hankin, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, were placed under arrest. Most of them were released through the intervention of Albert Antebi, the representative in Jerusalem of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Jewish Colonization Association, but widespread fear of the Ottoman regime among the Jews increased.

The participation of regiments of the Zion Mule Corps within the ranks of the British army in the battles of Gallipoli in 1915 and 1916 raised the indignation of Jamal Pasha. In September 1916, he exiled Arthur Ruppin, head of the Zionist movement’s Eretz Yisrael Office, to Constantinople (notwithstanding Ruppin’s German citizenship); in December he declared that all means must be used to suppress Zionism, and that Zionists were “diligent and practical people, but due to their ideology, Palestine was liable to become a second Armenia.”

The big shift in the military arena began in January 1917, when the British army conquered Rafah, and intensified 10 months later when it occupied Be’er Sheva and Gaza. In advance of the battles of Gaza, 40,000 residents of that city were expelled from their homes. At the same time, Jamal Pasha expelled all the residents of Jaffa on the pretext that his forces had to make preparations to thwart an amphibious landing in the city by General Allenby’s forces. Howerver, while the Arabs of Jaffa were sent to the nearby orchards “until it blows over” and were permitted to return to their homes a short while later, the city’s 9,000 Jews (including Jews residing in Tel Aviv), were expelled to the Sharon region, the Galilee and elsewhere.

The German consul in Jerusalem, Dr. Johan Brode, suspected that the evacuation of Jaffa was intended to be the start of the deportation of Jerusalem’s Jews; his suspicions were shared by the Austrian consul. It is not surprising, then, that an Austrian attaché at the main headquarters, who had close knowledge of the operational plans, was the first to call attention to Jamal Pasha’s intent to deliver a death blow to the Yishuv.

The agronomist, Nili member and Zionist activist Aaron Aaronsohn wrote from Cairo: “On April 1, the Jews were ordered to leave within 48 hours. About 300 Jews had been deported a week earlier from Jerusalem by the cruelest measures, at which time Jamal Pasha declared that the Jews’ rejoicing at the approaching British forces would be short-lived. He would make them partners in the fate of the Armenians … Jamal Pasha would not issue a call for murders in cold blood. Rather, he would drive the population to starvation and death by disease.”

‘Tragic tactical mistake’

About 10 days after the evacuation of Jaffa, Jamal Pasha convened the consuls and announced that he was compelled to evacuate the entire civilian population of Jerusalem within 24 hours, and transfer it to Jordan and Syria. Due to the firm opposition of consul Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, the chief of staff of the Fourth Army, German authorities intervened and temporarily foiled the plan.

On April 16, 1917, von Kressenstein alerted the German embassy in Istanbul that Jamal Pasha was planning to evacuate Jerusalem in an effort to utterly destroy the city’s Jewish and Christian populations and their institutions. “The evacuation of Jerusalem could have been a tragic tactical mistake,” von Kressenstein wrote in his memoirs. “The uprooting of such a large population would have been liable to cause inestimable results. The catastrophic events that occurred to the Armenians who were expelled, were liable to be repeated here. Thousands would have died through starvation and disease.”

Following the entry of Greece into the war against Turkey in July, the Ottoman authorities expelled Jewish subjects of Greece living in Palestine to Istanbul; hundreds were trapped in the city of Hama in Syria. Two months later, some 550 Jews possessing American citizenship were deported to Damascus, in a state of terrible distress.

In October 1917, the Turks exposed the Nili underground; the capture of its members threatened to wreak devastation on the Jewish community of Palestine. A full siege was imposed on Atlit, Hadera and Zichron Yaakov, where some members of the spy group were active, with elderly people, women and children arrested, but the colonies themselves were not destroyed and Aaronsohn’s home in Zichron remained standing.

The governor of the Haifa district and the military governor of Nazareth, both of whom had taken part in massacres of Armenians, were given responsibility for arrests and interrogations after the exposure of the espionage ring. Detainees at the Nazareth and Haifa prisons were severely tortured. The Jerusalem governor, Izzet Bey, accused the Jews of treason and pressed for their annihilation. Forty Jews were deported on foot to Jordan, while communal figures were jailed at the Kishle, the Turkish prison near Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem.

In November, with the advance of the British army, military command of the Palestinian front was transferred to the German general Erich von Falkenhayn, and von Kressenstein was placed in charge of the forces in Jerusalem, having been promoted to general. Von Kressenstein moved the Turkish, German and Austrian regiments out of the city and positioned them on the ridges of the surrounding hills. Simultaneously, Jamal Pasha again attempted to exploit the moment to get rid of the Jews.

Following exposure of the Nili spies and the charge of subversion against the Jewish community, and on the pretext that the evacuation of Jerusalem was necessary due to “military requirements” – Jamal Pasha planned to expel all the city’s Jews. Documents uncovered by Isaiah Friedman revealed that it was thanks to the firm intervention of General von Kressenstein on November 5 that the planned deportation of that community was thwarted.

Yaakov Thon, Ruppin’s replacement, wrote to the Zionist General Council: “If not for the strong hand of the German government, which protected us in our hour of danger, we would have suffered a mortal blow … To our great fortune, during these recent critical days, supreme command was placed in the hands of General von Falkenhayn. Had Jamal been responsible for events, he would have acted upon his threat and would have expelled the entire population… and turned the country into a pile of ruins.”

On December 9, 1917, the British army entered Jerusalem. Some 730 years of Muslim rule in Jerusalem came to an end.

Ottoman abuse

In December 1914, it was easy to discern the anti-Zionist elements of Turkish policy, which employed deportation and starvation to repress population groups suspected of disloyalty. The deportation of the Jews of Jaffa and Tel Aviv signaled the implementation of a policy of harassment that would be applied to the entire Jewish community of Palestine. The veteran members of the Yishuv, the weakest link, absorbed the harshest blow of all.

Deportations, draconian taxation and abuse of Jews in the country were carried out under the same doctrine of punishment and repression that the Turkish regime imposed throughout its disintegrating empire. Coercive enlistment, expropriation of food and property, mass deportations and starvation were used to threaten the existence of Palestine’s Jews. These heavy-handed methods were imposed by the empire on national minorities suspected of disloyalty. These also included massacres of Christians, Assyrians and Greek communities; the Armenian genocide was, indeed, carried out in the same way.

Historian Yair Auron has written about the genocide of the Armenians (in his book, “The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide”).

“An important component of the annihilation process (in the summer of 1915) was the evacuation and deportation of the Armenian population,” he writes. “Usually, the population was given a period of a few days to prepare to be evacuated, ostensibly dictated by needs of the war. Evacuees were permitted to take a limited amount of baggage, and they were assured that their homes and assets would be preserved. The deportees were concentrated in convoys that began to move toward the Syrian desert. Once they left the villages and cities, the men were separated from the women and were murdered nearby.

“The women, children and aged,” he notes, “were then subjected to a slow and prolonged death as they were forced to walk on foot for hundreds of kilometers. Along the way, the convoys were attacked in sporadic ambushes. The hunger, thirst, cold, heat and epidemics raised the number of victims. Very few of those who began the journey succeeded in making it alive to the end.”

Jamal Pasha was known to have systematically executed those who rose up against him in Hijaz, Beirut and Damascus, and to have taken part in the massacre of the Armenian people. His modus operandi in Palestine was identical to that adopted in the repression of the Armenians and the Assyrians – except that in Palestine he was prevented from realizing his final solution as a result of the German government’s influence on the Turkish leadership.

Reliable evidence of the policies and character of Jamal Pasha may be found in the autobiography of Richard Lichtheim, the World Zionist Organization’s representative in Istanbul, who was a primary figure in forging contacts between the Yishuv and the Ottoman leadership. Lichtheim writes that he vehemently opposed Jabotinsky’s plan for enlistment in the British army, which sparked “great opposition among the Turkish authorities, and which was capable of becoming a source of trouble for the Jews of the Land of Israel.” Lichtheim added that in early February 1915, it clearly seemed as if “Jamal Pasha and his friends were plotting to destroy and annihilate the Zionist settlement enterprise in the Land of Israel.”

Referring to Jamal Pasha’s character, Lichtheim wrote, “He was full of contrasts, and these usually depended more on mood than on judgment. Could it be that he was more anti-Semitic than the rest of his vizier colleagues in Constantinople? Or did he hold a special hatred for Jews? No and no … The attempt he made to arouse the Muslim to jihad and to thereby win the hearts of the Arabs who would stand together with Turkey proved unsuccessful, at which point he set out to commit even crueler acts against the Syrian nationalists, in which he sentenced their leaders to death by hanging. Nevertheless he did not alter his hostile position toward the Jews.

“Jamal Pasha was the individual who initiated a politics of persecution of all of the non-Turkish nations in the Ottoman Empire, which led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Greeks from their homes and to the horrific slaughter of the Armenians in Anatolia, in which over one million people fell victim.”

During World War I, there was sharp disagreement within the World Zionist Organization on the matter of that movement’s diplomatic orientation. Following Allenby’s victory and the Balfour Declaration, the pro-British line gained ascendancy, as the position that had supported (the by-then defeated) Germany shriveled.

Following the Holocaust (and before the archives were opened), no historiographic effort was invested in elucidation of hypothetical scenarios from the past, and the role played by Germany was once again shrouded in mystery. Now, with a full century having passed, it can be stated that it was thanks to the strident intervention of Germany that the danger of annihilation faced by the shattered and desperate Yishuv was avoided.

Excerpted from the essay “A Century Without Monument and Memory: A Public Appeal for Commemoration of the Jewish Community of Eretz Israel’s Fallen in World War I,” published in the Hebrew journal Aley Zait Vacherev (Olive Leaves and Sword), The Galili Center for Defense Studies.

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