In World War I, before the Israel Defense Forces came into existence and even before the Haganah was organized into the Zionists’ first paramilitary group, the Yishuv could not effectively defend itself in combat against any of the powers that were fighting for dominance in the region.
On the eve of Passover in 1917, in the shadows of the larger expulsions of other ethnic communities, there was an expulsion of nearly 10,000 Tel Avivians. With so many important moments in Jewish memory, this one has not been receiving much attention.
Tel Aviv, just a few years old when WWI broke out, was founded by Russian Jews who were able to purchase land through names of other nationals. Due to the belligerent Russian quest for warm-water ports, the Turks were constantly wary of the Russian Empire, and became particularly mindful of Russian influence in Ottoman territory. Zionism’s new political center could easily have been perceived as serving Russian interests.
The Turks had similar yet more substantiated concerns about the Anatolian Armenians, who were closely connected with their Russian Armenian brethren and who had expressed their Russophile inclinations in waves of rebellion since the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 at the dreadful price of massacres.
After years of anticipation, WWI presented a golden opportunity for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, also known as Dashnaktsutyun, to fight for Armenian statehood.
The Zionists of the Yishuv were forced into a dilemma long before they were forced out of Tel Aviv: Should they turn against the antiquated Ottoman rule and align with the Entente Powers to fight for an independent state, or should they resist this tempting development and protect the Jewish communities from harm as much as possible? While their hearts may have desired freedom from Ottoman control, the Zionists had the presence of mind to recognize that the survival of their communities depended on how closely they follow instructions by the Ottoman authorities, harsh as they might be.
The harshness was certainly felt by the Zionists when their budding society was disrupted by the Ottoman 4th Army that ravaged the land like an unrestrained mob, taking away livestock, construction material and equipment, any money or food that was readily available, and even ladies’ stockings. The Ottomans at war proved to be impulsive and callous, but the Zionists bore no animosity toward the Turks; they recalled that following the devastating expulsion of Jews from Spain, the Turks were the ones who opened their gates to the exiled masses.
The Zionists in Tel Aviv were convinced that if they wished to live, and if they wished to live in the land of their ancestors, they had to act as if their fate was bound to that of their sovereign and be loyal Ottomans. Therefore, those who had been there for generations claimed to be “Ottomans, sons of Ottomans,” and Russian immigrants presented themselves as “new Ottomans.” The Yishuv leaders donned fez hats and self-Ottomanized for the sake of their communities, to sustain their existence in the land for which they had already toiled with such dedication.
Their first test was at the start of the war when 32 Zionists were brought to Djemal Pasha’s headquarters in Jerusalem, under suspicion that they were organizing a rebellion against the Ottoman sovereign. While threatening to uproot all Jews from the land, the man overseeing Ottoman military and civilian affairs in the area asked if their purpose was to establish a Jewish state. Significantly, they said no, and left his presence peacefully.
Meir Dizengoff, who administered the building of Tel Aviv and later became its first mayor, wrote in With Tel Aviv in Exile that Djemal Pasha became a friend to the Jews after receiving assurances that the Zionists sought to thrive under the Ottoman banner. Dizengoff played a big role in the Zionist tolerance of intrusive and humiliating searches in Jewish houses by Ottoman soldiers who were uneasy about rebellion or cooperation with the enemy. The Tel Avivians were even warned not to light candles in their homes, lest it be interpreted as a signal to warships. The Ottoman military needs were understood by the Zionists, who did not turn against the Ottoman soldiers and even felt compassion for the soldiers who stumbled, dirty, hungry and sick, before their very eyes.
The first couple of years were critical to establish trust, which was put to the test when the fighting over Gaza began. Following the expulsion of Arabs from Gaza, it was expected that the population in Jaffa and its environs would also be exiled as part of the Ottoman military strategy to defend the next important port up the coast.
The clearing of Tel Aviv was decreed on the fifth day of the Hebrew calendar month of Nisan. As the Jews were preparing to celebrate the foundational Passover story of the Israelites’ return to the land promised to their ancestors, they were struck by the bitter announcement of their evacuation. As quickly as the Israelites had to rush out of Egypt to be set free from slavery, they now had to rush into peril. To them, the 40 years of wandering in the desert were going to be extended yet again.
However, by being careful, the Zionists, who could not avoid being exiled, could help their people’s chances of survival, and a special committee was set up by Dizengoff to handle the daily needs of the Tel Aviv exiles. Instead of warring with Djemal Pasha, they made requests for grains, medicine and provisional housing. Instead of asking their brethren Jews in the Galilee to unite against the Turks, they asked them to assist the exiles through means of transportation and kind hospitality.
As much as they disliked the idea of interfering with Entente propaganda efforts, the Zionists were compelled to maintain Djemal Pasha’s favor by dispelling the false reports that Ottoman soldiers were hanging Jews in Tel Aviv and harassing the population. This relieved the Ottomans from German pressure, and Dizengoff later described his joy at the opportunity to receive Ottoman aid: “Without governmental help it would not have been possible for the exiles to survive even a single month – and behold, the help was given!” By the time the exiles could return at the end of the war, the poor health conditions had claimed the lives of several hundred of them. However, by comprehending the context of wartime expulsions and deciding not to interfere with Ottoman military operations, Zionism was saved. The Tel Aviv homes remained intact. There were no massacres.
Due to political configurations, the British victory did contribute to the establishment of the State of Israel, but in real time the actions of the Nili network of Jewish spies did jeopardize the safety of all Jews in the land, and caused great dismay and worry among members of the Yishuv.
Had the Zionist leadership exhibited the same type of anti-Ottoman sentiment shown by Nili or the Armenian leadership in Eastern Anatolia, the Zionist endeavor would have turned into ashes. Instead, the Yishuv chose to comply with Ottoman demands, preserve what they had accomplished, survive through the war, and live.
In a world of rebellion without accountability, this is a story of accountability before prosperity.
The author is a BA from Tel Aviv University, MTS Harvard Divinity School and PhD candidate at the University of Utah.