On May 1, 1921, exactly 100 years ago this week, massive Arab rioting broke out in Jaffa against the Jews of Palestine. Many were murdered including Yosef Chaim Brenner, a pioneer of Hebrew literature known as a moral conscience of the Yishuv. New immigrants, who had recently disembarked from a ship in the harbor, were killed by Arab rioters who raged unhindered under the eyes of the British mandatory authority. From Jaffa, Arab unrest spread throughout the region including the small agricultural settlement of Petach Tikvah that was first established by a group of religious Jewish families from Jerusalem in 1878.
Word came to the leadership of Petach Tikvah that it was about to be attacked, and Abraham Shapira (1870-1965), the head of the town’s Jewish guards (shomrim), organized the settlement’s defense. He tried to keep the peace first by meeting with Arab leadership in the region with whom he had shared friendship and who respected him as a man of honor and dignity, but these Arab leaders stood aside and allowed the storm to rage.
First, K’far Saba and Ein Hai, two small villages fell. Their Jewish residents were evacuated to the larger town of Petach Tikvah.
Then, on May 5 thousands of rioters marched towards Petach Tikvah, attacked from the north, and set fire to the Moshav. The front, approximately two kilometers long, was guarded by a handful of Jewish defenders. The campaign intensified, a number of young Jews were killed, and replaced by their elders who with sticks and pitchforks fought ferociously. In the end, miraculously, Petach Tikvah’s Jews were victorious in the defense of the settlement.
Word circulated throughout the Land of Israel that the courageous few defending Petach Tikvah had held the rioters at bay, and news of their heroism spread throughout the greater Jewish world.
When British soldiers met with Shapira after the battle, they expressed their amazement that he, as the commander of the shomrim, had never been formally trained in tactical warfare. That aside, the British arrested him, allegedly due to his carrying a weapon, but in fact as leverage to justify their imprisonment of the head of the rioters against Petach Tikvah, the Sheikh of the Bedouin village of Abu Kishk, two kilometers from Petach Tikvah. It was not, according to the British, possible to imprison an Arab without also imprisoning a Jew, and so that fate fell upon Shapira. After interrogation, he was released. However, Shapira then led a second front in the battle against the release of the Sheikh until he paid a penalty for the damage he inflicted on the Moshavah. He was sentenced to more than fifteen years in prison. He was released on condition that he forge a peace treaty with Petach Tikvah.
Despite the heavy causalities and deep resentments, over time Shapira and the Sheikh stabilized their relationship and the relationship between the Arabs of Abu Kishk and the Jews of Petach Tikvah for years to come. Theirs was a relationship based upon strength and respect on the one hand and cooperation and mutuality of interest on the other. They knew one another well personally, and those relationships were critical to the maintenance of a stable peace. Shapira was so well respected that Arabs and Bedouin came to him to settle disputes between themselves.
Shapira is known in Israeli history as “The shomer of Petach Tikvah.” He came to be respected throughout the Land of Israel by Jew and Arab alike. As the foremost guard of the Yishuv, he guided Lord Edmond Baron de Rothschild (the great benefactor of the early Jewish settlements in the country), Chaim Weizmann (the first president of the State of Israel), and many dignitaries from around the world whenever they visited Palestine. Chaim Weizmann wrote of Abraham Shapira in his autobiography Trial and Error (New York: Schocken, 1949, pages 252-253):
“Abraham Shapira was in himself a symbol of the whole process of Jewish readaptation. He accompanied me on most of my trips up and down Palestine, partly as guide, partly as guard, and all the while I listened to his epic stories of the old-time colonists. He was a primitive person, spoke better Arabic than Hebrew, and seemed so much a part of the rocks and stony hillsides of the country that it was difficult to believe that he had been born in Lithuania. Here was a man who in his own lifetime had bridged a gap of thousands of years; who, once in Palestine, had shed his Galuth environment lie an old coat.”
Abraham Shapira was my great-grand-uncle. My maternal grandmother was his niece. He and his family left Lithuania in 1878 for Palestine, lived in Jerusalem for two years and then joined the few families in Petach Tikvah. My branch of the family left for North America twenty years later, entered the new world through Nova Scotia, journeyed to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and then, in 1932, moved to Los Angeles.
My maternal aunt and uncle visited Israel in 1953, and for the first time in 75 years, the two branches of our family reunited. Uncle Avram (as we all called him because that was how my grandmother called him) visited our family in Los Angeles in 1956 when I was six years old. My mother told me on our way to the gathering to welcome him: “Uncle Avram is a very great Israeli.”
Though I was only six years old, I remember Uncle Avram clearly. He was a large man who sat quietly in my aunt’s family room and spoke Yiddish and Russian to my grandmother who translated for the rest of us. I sensed his dignity and simple nobility, and then when I lived in Israel from 1973 to 1974 as a young rabbinic student, I visited his niece and nephew in Petach Tikvah over numerous weekends. They told me many stories about him.
When my aunt died in the mid-1990s, she left me a two-volume Hebrew biography of Uncle Avram written by Yehuda Eidelshtein in 1939 as well as a smaller Hebrew volume written by Gezel Kressel in 1955. These volumes sat on my bookshelf for all these years and at last, after I retired as a congregational rabbi in 2019, I read them. I was stunned by the dramatic significance of his life as the founding shomer of one of the first settlements established by early Zionists at the end of the 19th century. I realized that though many Israelis over a certain age know about him, non-Hebrew speaking Jews in the Diaspora likely have never heard of Abraham Shapira. It was then, for the sake of my family most of all, that I decided to translate the smaller volume.
As I read the story of the Arab attack on Petach Tikvah on May 5, 1921, I realized that we are fast approaching the 100th anniversary of that fateful battle – hence, this blog.
Many Petach Tikvah Jews were lost on that day, among them Avshalom Gisin, Chaim Tzvi Greenshtein, Natan Rapaport, and Ze’ev Orlov. They were young, and they gave their lives for the safety and well-being of others. For many decades Abraham Shapira and the people of Petach Tikvah mourned them on the 27th of Nisan — Zichronam livracha.