David Silon

Gaza’s ignored history

The last Shabbat in November was designated by the Israeli government as a day to commemorate the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab countries as well as to honor their burial places. But we should also remember that, 20 years previously, the Jewish community in Gaza was also ethnically cleansed during the Arab pogroms that took place that year throughout Mandatory Palestine. As the war in Gaza rages on, and the Prime Minister seems to be content with dragging it out with his dilly-dallying on the invasion of Rafah, most people around the world, and especially the Zionists, have chosen to ignore the fact that Gaza once had a Jewish community – a community that was over 2000 years old.

The earliest mention of Gaza in the Bible occurs in Gen. 10:19 where it is described as the southern terminus of the land of Canaan. The Philistines, a sea-faring people from Crete, had begun to settle in the area during the time of Abraham and, in later centuries, developed a powerful confederacy which was dominated by their five principal cites that included not only Gaza, but also Ashkelon, Gat, Ekron, and Ashdod. These kingdoms lasted until the reign of David and Solomon.

According to Josh. 15:47, “Gaza, with her towns and villages unto the River of Egypt (today Wadi el Arish in the Sinai) and the Great Sea” was allotted to the tribe of Judah. It was later the scene of Samson slaying the Philistines in the Temple of Dagon.

Solomon conquered Gaza, which by then contained a mixed gentile population, making it part of the southern limits of the Kingdom of Israel. Centuries later, it would trade in slaves with Edom, a practice which the Prophet Amos fiercely condemned. In the Talmudic period, it was a pagan city, but the local Jews made it into a center Talmud. In 508, a synagogue was built in Gaza attracting pilgrims from all over Israel and the Diaspora. According to the 10th century Karaite scholar Sahl ben Matzliah, Gaza was one of the three cities in the Land of Israel that served as a place of pilgrimage (the others being Tiberias and Zoar).

Byzantine rule, which commenced shortly after the beginning of the Talmudic period, was very harsh toward the Jews but in spite of the situation, Gaza flourished. With the Arab invasion in the 7th century, the Jews of Gaza actually fought alongside the Byzantines. However, the Arabs took it in 634 and, as the first Arab settlers began to migrate to Palestine as a whole, so too did they settle in Gaza. Gaza continued to thrive under Arab rule although the surrounding communities began to decline. It became a center of Masorah under a certain Rav Moshe. The Spanish linguist Dunash ben Labrat lived there for a time and during the 11th century, Rabbi Ephraim went from Gaza to the important rabbinical community of Fostat in Egypt.

The Crusader invasion in 1099, under King Baldwin III, destroyed the community in Gaza (although visitors still described one there) and most of the surrounding area. The mixed gentile populations were also driven out with the exception of the Christians. After the Mameluke conquest in 1291, the Jewish community of Gaza revived. Arabs also came to settle in the town which soon contained an Arab majority. This was a comparatively peaceful period. Gaza grew and achieved some level of prosperity. The cultivation of wine and the raising of cereals were occupations that the local Jews engaged in. The city also became one of the important enters of the Samaritan community along with Jaffa, Tulkarm, and certainly Shechem. Over the years, the Samaritans migrated to other parts of Israel and the Levant, dwindling the community.

By the 15th century, Gaza became the largest city in Palestine and the first city that was encountered by travelers coming from Egypt. As the Mamelukes, sometimes aided by the Arabs, began to oppress the Jews with a heavy burden of taxes as well as other types of social restrictions. Gaza, along with Hebron, served as a place of refuge for Jews, especially those from Jerusalem, fleeing from the oppression of the authorities. By the 1480s, Gaza prospered under its Chief Rabbi Moses of Prague.

The Ottoman conquest in 1516 benefitted the Jews of Gaza. Gaza, and later Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre, was deemed by the rabbinic authorities in Jerusalem to be an integral part of the Land of Israel according to halacha and therefore, the local farm owners were obligated to observe the Biblical laws of agriculture – laws which could only be applied within the borders of Israel.

Among the many individuals who have visited, or lived in, Gaza since the Ottoman conquest:

· David Reubeni, false messiah who claimed to be a representative of a Jewish kingdom in Arabia. In 1523, he preached the coming redemption to the Gazan Jews.

· Najara, prominent rabbinic family from Damascus, settled in Gaza in the 16th century and contributed to the local rabbinate. Yisrael ben Moshe Najara, author of “Zmirot Yisrael”, was Gaza’s chief rabbi and president of the tribunal in the middle of the 17th century. He was buried in Gaza and was succeeded by the son Moshe Najara II.

· Rabbi Abraham Eliakim, respected Gazan rabbi, lived around 1601.

· Eliezer Arhi, a Hebron refugees who fled a plague that broke out in that city in 1619, was so revered by the community that he became Gaza’s chief rabbi.

· Rabbi Abraham Azulai of Fez, also from Hebron, Kabbalistic author and commentator, wrote “Hesed l’Avraham” in Gaza.

· Samuel ben David, Karaite scholar who, during his pilgrimage to Palestine in 1641, visited Gaza and described the community in detail.

· Nathan of Gaza, mystic. He was a native of Jerusalem and son-in-law of a rich and pious German Jew, Elisha Halevy haAshkenazi. A fanatical Kabbalist, he convinced the mystic Shavtai Zvi that he, Zvi, was the messiah, thus starting a movement later to become known as Shabbateanism. Gaza became the center of this movement which Nathan proclaimed to be the new capital of Israel.

· Rav Tzedakah, 17th century rabbinic scholar.

· Castel, prominent rabbinic family who settled in Palestine, and eventually Gaza, shortly after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Castels became the ruling rabbinical family in Gaza throughout the 18th century, much like the Najaras in the 17th. They were also skilled craftsmen. Abraham Castel was Gaza’s chief rabbi during Napoleon’s invasion of the country in 1799. In contemporary history, Moshe Castel was a prominent artist.

With Napoleon’s invasion, Gaza was the first to fall. Even though Napoleon himself was known to be a friend of the Jews, reports from Gaza noted the terrible abuse the local Jews were suffering at the hands of the French soldiers, at times joined by the local Arabs who had long ago, became more fanatical. They, therefore, fled in numbers mostly to Hebron. Some Jews remained in Gaza for several more years afterwards however, but owing to continued Arab persecutions, even they fled. By the first decade of the 19th century, the old Jewish community had vanished. Several years later, the Arabs expelled the small Samaritan community. During the war between the Ottoman Empire and the rebellious province of Egypt, stones from the old Gaza synagogue were removed by the Egyptian Muslim army and were used to build a fort in Ashkelon.

At the close of the 1870s, a group of Jews managed to settle in Gaza. The community grew in the 1880s under the leadership of Nissim Elkayam, scholar and businessman. The Jews were, in the main, barley merchants who traded with the Bedouin for barley which they then sold to the breweries in Europe. But the presence of a reestablished Jewish community bothered the Arabs and in 1890, the Jews of Gaza became victims of a blood libel. In that year, a couple of local Jews had employed an Arab boy as a servant. One day, the boy was playing with another boy who owned a camel. Unfortunately, they both had guns, a custom in Arab society, and tragically, the servant accidentally killed his friend. Almost immediately, the victim’s next-of-kin killed the servant in revenge. Shortly afterwards, the Jews informed a Turkish judicial tribunal in Jerusalem of the incident. But due to intense propaganda from the local Arabs, the authorities became convinced of the age-old-belief that Jews tended to use gentile blood for Passover and that they, instead, had killed the boy. The Jews were arrested and thrown in jail. This caused an international incident as these people were under foreign protection, as so many other Palestinian Jews were at that time. To ease the situation, the authorities promptly set them free prompting the Arabs to force the Turks to restrict Jewish immigration to any part of Israel. Arab immigration continued unhindered.

Jews, along with the other segments of the local population were expelled from Gaza by the Turks during World War I. By the end of 1917, Palestine came under British rule. Jews returned to Gaza soon after and in 1919, on the ruins of the old pre-war Talmud Torah School, they established the Shimshon School, one of the most important schools in the entire area. In 1920 and 1921 during the first of many post-war Arab riots, the Gaza Arabs engaged in ethnic cleansing of the local Jews. In the 1929 riots, the rest were driven from their homes and the Arabs, thereafter, banned Jews from living there. All evidence of a Jewish presence in Gaza, including the cemetery, were summarily desecrated, with the full approval of the Zionist authorities. This is the situation to this day. The community was now dispersed throughout Palestine but they made their contributions to Israeli society. Marcel Liebowitz for example, a native of Gaza, became a successful film distributor in the 30s, working with local and international film companies. In the meantime, due to the British military presence and the accompanying opportunities of employment, Arab immigrants poured into the area as they did the rest of Palestine, without any hindrance from the British. Such immigration continued until the War of Independence.

In 1930, a certain Tuvia Miller of Rehovot, purchased a plot of swampland near Gaza City and built an orchard. This plot was the site of the ancient Jewish town of Darom which flourished in the Talmudic era. Although the orchard was later destroyed by Arabs, the site continued to remain under Jewish ownership and in 1946, it was acquired by a Jewish group and the Kibbutz Kfar Darom was built. During the War of Independence, the Jews of Kfar Darom were expelled by the invading Arab army of Egypt which was also closing in on Gaza City. A story was told of one Abu Ish, Mukhtar of a neighboring Arab village who had gone to Gaza City on business. An Arab Muslim, he was a descendant of 7th century Jewish refugees from Arabia. Because of his ancestry, and because of his village’s good relations with the Jews, he was accused of being a Zionist spy and without any trial or investigation, was promptly hanged in the public square.

Toward the end of the war, the entire area was conquered by Egypt and it soon became known as the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Arab refugees swelled its population as did Palestinian Jewish refugees did in what became the State of Israel. Between the end of the war and the beginning of the Six Day War, Jews were banned from entering the Gaza Strip. Instead, the Strip was used as a springboard for raids, once again with Zionist approval, by the Fedayeen terrorists. The Suez Campaign of 1956, in spite of its international condemnation, stopped all that with Israel’s recapture of the Strip. Between then and 1967, the status of the Gaza Strip was in limbo, but it came officially under Israeli control after the Six Day War. Three years later, Kfar Darom was reestablished. This time, the Jews were determined to keep their long and historic presence in the area and by the end of the 70s, 3 more communities were established – Netzer Hazani, Atzmona, and Ganei Tal.

Before the expulsion of 2005, the Jewish presence in the Gaza area had grown to 25 communities centered around the block of communities known as Gush Katif (without harming the local Arabs, god forbid). Before the intifada in 1987, Jews and Arabs in the area mixed more or less freely, security permitting. Jews often visited Gaza City and Arabs were often employed by the local Jewish communities. When the intifada broke out, all that changed, although many Arabs were still employed by Jews. After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Gazan Jews were threatened, once again, with expulsion, this time, by the Zionists. When the second intifada broke out in 2000, all contact between Arabs and Jews was cut off completely. Arabs and Zionists banned Jews from visiting Gaza City and the inhabitants of Gush Katif had to put up with gunfire and bombs directed at them as well as 4000+ Kassam rocket attacks on their communities, again with Zionist approval.

In spite of everything, the Gazan communities had the will and motivation, not to mention thousands of years of local Jewish history, to continue to grow and flourish. In spite of the Oslo War, the community grew to over 8000, and the largest of the communities, Gan Or and Neve Dekalim, expanded. So much so that the Gazan communities considered themselves to be the breadbasket of Israel, contributing around $40 million to the Israeli economy.

Beginning in 2004, the threat of expulsion was renewed by the Zionist Sharon government which, as it turned out, was more concerned with expelling Jews than protecting Israeli citizens. The term the government used was “disengagement” of Jews from Arabs in Gaza. From that time until the day of the expulsion, Sharon made sure that the coming expulsion would go smoothly. As is typical of Zionists vis a vis Jews, the Zionist army and police became like the SS and the Gestapo respectively and any activist who organized demonstrations against the expulsion would be arbitrarily arrested. Just as during the months leading to the expulsion from Sinai, Israel ceased being a democracy in which state it remains to this day. In August of 2005, the residents of Gush Katif were thrown out of their homes by the Zionists. Their only crime was being Jewish.

About the Author
David currently lives in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles pursuing many interests. He is totally anti-Zionist and is a pro-Israel blogger who also blogs about the histories of the other Arab-occupied indigenous peoples of the Middle East and North (see His booklet, The Occupied Territories [by David Marc], about these indigenous peoples, is currently sold on Amazon.
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