Yosef Agiv, the oldest Jew to be born in Gaza City’s ancient Jewish community, remembered being expelled with his family before World War I
Photos: Moshe Stern, Machon Katif, AP Images
He passed away 10 years ago at 100, yet he never gave up the vision of Jews moving back to this seaside settlement that has become the Arab capital of hate and aggression
“Every time PLO chief Yasser Arafat proposed that all Jews return to their native lands, I would tell myself that I would return to Gaza City where I was born, and Arafat would return to Egypt where he was born,” my friend Reb Yosef Agiv a”h used to say.
Reb Yosef, who passed away a decade ago at the age of 100, was the oldest surviving Jew born in the Jewish community of Gaza. He was a fount of memories, clear as a whistle until his last days, and was happy to teach anyone who would listen about the better days of the community before the Jews were expelled, first by the Turks and then by the British.
Although the city was totally liquidated on the backdrop of the 1929 riots in which Arabs attacked a number of Jewish settlements in Eretz Yisrael, Yosef was only two when he and his parents were banished from Gaza during World War I, when the Turks expelled all civilian residents from the city, transforming it into a battle zone for their war against the British.
Although he was just a toddler when the family was expelled from Gaza to Jaffa, Yosef — a grandson of Reb Eliyahu Arvutz, one of the famed wheat merchants of the Jewish community of Gaza — returned as a teen, and his memories of that ancient Jewish city were always clear, focused, and eager to be shared.
“Today Gaza has many streets and is a bustling city,” he told me shortly before his death, “but in the past, there was only one small street along the length of the sea. My parents lived near the city’s ancient synagogue, but there was also another large synagogue in Gaza, with a huge, well-cultivated yard, and this was the core of Jewish life in the city.”
Jewish settlement in Gaza started many centuries before. In fact, the area was conquered and settled over 2,000 years ago by Yonasan and Shimon, brothers of Yehudah ben Mattisyahu (Maccabi). There was a Jewish community in Gaza in the period of the Mishnah as well, and on one of the pillars of the present-day great mosque in Gaza is the inscription, “Chanania bar-Yaacov” in Greek and in Hebrew, and above is engraved a menorah, with a shofar on one side and an esrog on the other. There is also the famed mosaic floor of a Talmudic-era shul.
Many centuries later, Reb Yosef’s family, like most of Gaza’s Jewish families, were merchants who sold Gazan products abroad. His father and grandfather crossed borders and traversed continents, with the active Gaza port as their base.
How did a modern urban Jewish settlement begin in Gaza, when so much of Eretz Yisrael lay in waste until the aliyot of the 19th century? According to historian and journalist Chagai Huberman, the credit goes to a fellow named Ze’ev Klonimus Wissotzky — the famed tea manufacturer (whose name still appears on the tea bags of the company he founded) — who visited Eretz Yisrael in 1885. While touring the country and its struggling settlements, he promised to help its Jewish residents to the best of his ability.
One of his most innovative ideas was to establish urban Jewish settlements within populated Arab cities, because he saw that the agricultural settlements during those early years of the First Aliyah at the end of the 19th century failed to provide the many Russian immigrants with sufficient livelihoods. Wissotzky suggested to a number of prominent community leaders that Jews be sent to Arab cities or regions in Eretz Yisrael, such as Lod, Nazareth, Shechem, Gaza, Ramle, Bethlehem, Ashkelon, Amman (today in Jordan), and Tzor and Sidon (today in Lebanon), and open businesses there.
At the two meetings Wissostzky held with the forum, it was agreed that the first three cities to which a garin (a small group of people planning to establish a new settlement) would be sent, would be Gaza, Lod, and Shechem. At that time such a group was referred to as a minyan, because it was said that if it didn’t contain at least ten men, it wasn’t considered a settlement.
The first group was sent to Lod, mainly because of the city’s proximity to Yafo and its port. The first settlers left for Lod at the beginning of 1885. A number of months later, a second group went to Shechem and complemented the small Jewish settlement that was already there.
The Gaza group was the largest, headed by Avraham Chaim Shlush and Nissim Elkayam, who were among the heads of the Jewish community of Yafo. By the end of 1886, there were 30 Jewish families in Gaza.
The traders in Gaza required banking facilities, and at the initiative of Zalman David Levontin (who had been the director of the Anglo-Palestine Bank, forerunner of Bank Leumi), a branch of the bank was founded in Gaza, just before the outbreak of World War I. Avraham Elmaliach, who had formerly been the director of the Jewish public school system in Damascus and the secretary of the Damascus rabbinate, was appointed its director.
“The Jewish settlement in Gaza wasn’t very large, but as in all the other settlements, Arab-Jewish relations were good,” Reb Yosef would tell me, sharing his memories of the stores and workshops that were on both sides of the long street.
Reb Yosef would share that the Jews of Gaza found many innovative ways of earning their living, and most of them were actually considered wealthy. Some had traveling stores, and would set up tents in Bedouin camps where they sold groceries and household items. Yosef’s grandfather was a wheat merchant who exported his products to Germany. I know that my grandfather’s family was very wealthy.
So if there was such a wealthy community, where are those assets today?
“Actually,” Reb Yosef told me, “not many Jewish assets remained in Gaza, because all the Jewish families lived in rented houses.” Each house had between eight and twelve rooms, and other Jewish families would rent from them. It was important that they lived in closed quarters because most of the men were away for a good part of the year.
“In my family,” Reb Yosef told me, “there was tremendous hospitality. Every family had a guest room, where Jews who stopped in Gaza on their way to Egypt would sleep. There were no kosher hotels or inns in Gaza. The travelers would arrive in the shul, where residents would direct them to a warm Jewish home where they could eat and rest. Within the few dozen families, there were such diversified backgrounds that every group had its own small synagogue.”
Reb Yosef remembered the way holidays were celebrated. He loved to share about how everyone would gather in the succah of the neighbor with the largest yard, how the children would bring the pots and serve the food, and how up to 50 people even managed to get in. His mother always spoke about the holiness of the town’s rav and the G-d-fearing shochtim. She regaled us with her memories of the holidays, and especially loved Succos. The succahs were decorated with colored chains and the Seven Species. At times, people ate, sang, drank, and slept in one Succah.
ife in Gaza became precarious with the outbreak of World War I. During that year, the situation of Gaza’s Jews had become critical. Most of the Jewish families originated from foreign countries such as Britain, France, and Spain, and were regarded as citizens of enemy countries. As such, they were placed under surveillance of the Turkish police who accused some of them of spying for Britain. Shortly after the outbreak of the war, the Jews were expelled to Jaffa and Jerusalem. Eventually the foreign citizens were sent to Egypt, while the Ottoman citizens were forced to enlist in the Turkish army or to pay huge ransoms to be released from military service.
Very few Jews remained in Gaza. At least one prominent family did stay, though — the Elkayam family, who had Turkish citizenship. But they didn’t last in Gaza for long, either. In March 1917 the Turks expelled all of its residents from the city — Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, because they had decided to turn it into a war zone in fighting the British, who would eventually wrest Eretz Yisrael from the Turks.
“This news took my family by shock,” Reb Yosef told me. “My grandfather’s business was based in Gaza, and he didn’t know what to do. With no choice, our entire large, extended family put all the belongings on horses and in buggies and left Gaza. My family settled in Neve Shalom in Tel Aviv, where I grew up.”
World War I came to an end. The British, who were received by the Jews enthusiastically, established their rule in Eretz Yisrael. The non-Jewish residents of Gaza returned to their homes. But many of Gaza’s Jews were no longer even in Eretz Yisrael — many of them fled during the war, and even among those who stayed, few rushed back to this oceanfront town.
wo years after the war, in 1919, Jewish settlement in Gaza began to slowly renew itself, thanks to a wheat grinder from Be’er Sheva named Eliezer Margolin. He accepted Nissim Elkayam’s offer to purchase the city’s defunct German wheat mill. Margolin and his family moved to Gaza in the fall of 1919 and he began to operate the mill. They were soon joined by a number of other Jews, among them a returning Eliyahu Arvutz, Reb Yosef’s grandfather.
Nissim Elkayam returned to Gaza too. When he checked on his storehouse there and discovered that the building and its wares had remained intact, Nissim sought to resume his business in Gaza. His wife, however, refused to join him. So he rented a room in Chan-a-Zait, a building that served as a motel and stopover point for travelers and their various animals. Nissim’s sons joined him as well, and worked in renovating homes that had been destroyed during the war.
The post-war quiet didn’t last, though. During the riots of 1921, all the Jews left Gaza for two months, returning when the situation had calmed down. Nissim’s wife finally joined him in 1922.
The Jewish settlement in Gaza began to expand, but this time, the problem was a severe shortage of homes. The area was in ruins after the war and the Arabs demanded exorbitant rental rates.
According to historian Chagai Huberman, the new settlement in Gaza didn’t have the cohesiveness or motivation of its predecessor. Everything had to be financed anew, and the leaders of the settlement movement in Eretz Yisrael weren’t too excited about that. Furthermore, there wasn’t a cohesive front — many had moved to Gaza thinking they’d make a better living, but they weren’t willing to invest in communal infrastructure.
And then came the riots of 1929. Not only was the Jewish settlement in Chevron liquidated, but so was Jewish life in Gaza. On Shabbos, August 24, 1929, one of Nissim Elkayam’s Arab friends warned him that the situation in the city was worsening, and that all of the Jews should gather in one place.
Chacham Nissim followed his friend’s advice, and assembled all of the Jews in the Jewish Hotel Yafo. On Sunday, August 25, Arab rioters began to threaten the Jews, who by a miracle were saved from slaughter by the intervention of the British.
At about four a.m. a train from Alexandria arrived in Gaza. Escorted by British soldiers, the Jews boarded the train that brought them to the safety of Tel Aviv. After the riots had subsided, these Jews returned to Gaza accompanied by heavy British guard, and collected their belongings and assets, most of which had remained intact. The Jewish hotel, though, and a large grocery store owned by Nissim Elkayam’s son, were destroyed. The Arabs claimed that the grocery store had been burned down by a rival storekeeper who had taken advantage of the opportunity to remove his Jewish competitors. The financial damages amounted to about 2,500 Palestine pounds, a huge sum at the time, but the monetary loss wasn’t all. The end had come for the Jewish settlement in Gaza.
Reb Yosef decided to visit his birthplace when was 18. It was 1930, and by then, the second expulsion had already taken place. There were no more Jews in Gaza, but that didn’t stop him from traveling back to the settlement of his birth. “It was exactly as we had left it,” Reb Yosef told me. “One side of the street was filled with sand, the other side lined by residential houses and workshops. But the Jews were gone. They had been expelled the year before. Still, an Arab woman who realized that I was Jewish called me aside and pointed to a number of places, telling me that’s where the Jews lived.”
Reb Yosef raised a small family in Tel Aviv, becoming somewhat of an icon in his neighborhood, and while the neighborhood changed over the decades, until the end of his life he continued to daven in the small Sephardic shul around the corner.
“Today, people think that Gaza really belongs to the Palestinians,” Reb Yosef told me ten years ago. “But everyone forgets that Gaza has a rich Jewish history and was once a thriving Jewish settlement. At my age, I can’t look too far into the future, but I pray that I’ll yet merit to see the rebuilding of Jewish Gaza.”
He didn’t, but perhaps, finally we will?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 988)
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