The ‘Arab Jew' from Algeria

Aharon Chelouche founded Neveh Tzedek, and his son Yosef Eliahu helped found Tel Aviv.

Tomer Chelouche (photo credit: JOANNA PARASZCZUK)
Tomer Chelouche
(photo credit: JOANNA PARASZCZUK)
Sometime in the 1840s, in the teeming Algerian port town of Oran, a young Jewish boy named Aharon Chelouche boarded a ship bound for Haifa with his family. Half a century before the publication of Herzl’s Zionist novel Altneuland, the Chelouches and 149 other Jewish families were making aliya to Eretz Israel, then an unimportant backwater of the Ottoman Empire.
When they reached Haifa, tragedy struck. The boat carrying them ashore capsized and several passengers were drowned, among them Aharon’s brothers, nine-year-old Yosef and seven-year-old Eliahu.
Grief-stricken, the Chelouches did not want to remain in Haifa. They moved to Nablus, then Jerusalem, and finally settled in the ancient seaport town of Jaffa.
Tomer Chelouche, Aharon’s great-great-great-grandson and Neveh Tzedek tour guide, relates this captivating tale of the Chelouche family – Jewish pioneers, entrepreneurs and community leaders, who championed peaceful coexistence with their Arab neighbors. Enthralled by his family history and the way it is woven into the Hebrew city and its complex relationship with Jaffa, he adds a uniquely personal perspective to the neighborhood his ancestors built.
The Chelouches, he relates, were native speakers of Arabic and had no difficulty settling into life in Jaffa, a thriving, colorful port town that must have shared similarities with their native Oran.
Young Aharon grew up to be a brilliant businessman, a goldsmith by trade who also learned the art and craft of money-changing. His sharp mind, keen eye for a good deal and excellent local reputation soon made him a wealthy man.
By 1887, Aharon had amassed a large amount of capital.
Tired of Jaffa’s overcrowded streets, he came up with a outrageous idea: He purchased a patch of land on the shifting sand dunes north of Jaffa’s city walls.
“People thought he was crazy,” says Tomer. “There was nothing there, just sand.”
While Aharon Chelouche is rightly credited with building the first Jewish settlement outside Jaffa, he was not motivated by any intention of building a Jewish city.
That came later: The official history of Tel Aviv begins not with Aharon and Neveh Tzedek, Tomer Chelouche points out, but years later, in 1909, with the Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood.
“Last year, we celebrated 100 years since the founding of Tel Aviv,” he says. “But Neveh Tzedek was founded before that, in 1887. Aharon wasn’t building a city – just a better place to live.”
The first house Aharon built in 1883 was not in Neveh Tzedek, but on the northern edge of Manshiya, in a completely desolate area. It took four years for him to persuade his family to move there.
In 1892, the Chelouches moved to a newly built family villa in what would become Neveh Tzedek. Beit Chelouche, which still stands, was a stone’s throw from Walhalla, the German Templer neighborhood.
“At first, Aharon built just a single-story house,” says Tomer Chelouche. “The second floor was added later to accommodate his growing extended family.”
Jewish identity was of paramount importance to Aharon, and his Judaism was inseparable from his deep love of Eretz Israel. He was instrumental in advancing local Jewish affairs – in 1904 he purchased a local vineyard and sold it to Yemenite Jews, who built Kerem Hateimanim (the Yemenite Vineyard), another pre-Tel Aviv neighborhood. He constructed a synagogue – still functioning – adjoining Beit Chelouche.
“On Yom Kippur, the villa’s garden was filled with family and neighbors,” adds Tomer Chelouche. Aharon also brought a rabbi, Shlomo Bahbut, from Beirut to teach at Jaffa’s Talmud Torah School.
It is remarkable that Aharon’s passionate concern for Jewish affairs did not conflict, and was even seamlessly compatible with his identity as an “Arab Jew” – a term which seems an impossible contradiction today.
The Chelouches were on excellent terms with the local Arab population.
Aharon would regularly smoke a nargila and drink Turkish coffee with the kayamakam, the Ottoman district governor, a personal friend of the Chelouche family.
Aharon, who dressed in the local Arabic jalabiya (a loose-fitting caftan) and tarboosh, was by all accounts a formidable figure. According to one tale, when a gang of bandits attempted to rob the Chelouche villa one night, Aharon flew into a rage.
“He took a Torah scroll, raised it high above his head, and shouted at the bandits,” relates Tomer Chelouche. “They fled in terror.”
Aharon had two sons, Yosef Eliahu (named for his two drowned brothers) and Avraham Haim. To them, he passed on his love of Judaism and Eretz Yisrael, his keen business acumen, his civic spirit and his desire to maintain good relations with his Arab neighbors.
Yosef Eliahu was fluent in Arabic, as well as in French and Hebrew, which he learned at the Tiferet Yisrael school in Beirut, a privately owned academy for the Sephardi elite. (Among his classmates was a future Iraqi finance minister, Reuven Yehezkiel Sasson Salah.) When he returned to Neveh Tzedek, Yosef Eliahu decided to create a “start-up” with his brother, Avraham.
“They asked themselves what the next big thing would be,” says Tomer Chelouche. “They figured that since more Jews were moving to the neighborhood, a building supplies factory would be a lucrative trade.”
The Chelouche Frères factory (the name, painted in French and Arabic, is still visible at Rehov Chelouche 32) was a success. Tomer Chelouche says it is possible to spot brightly patterned Chelouche Frères floor tiles in some Tel Aviv buildings.
Like his father, Yosef Eliahu was influential in local politics. He made his mark not only on Neveh Tzedek, where he built the Girls’ School and the Alliance School (now the Suzanne Dellal Center), but also on the new city of Tel Aviv. As one of the original founders of Ahuzat Bayit in 1909, he built 32 of its new buildings.
Although keen to develop Jewish interests in Eretz Israel, Yosef Eliahu was deeply concerned about deteriorating relations with Arab residents in the wake of conflicts with the growing Jewish population, which he felt did not do enough to understand the local culture.
“The bitter truth must be told,” he wrote in his 1931 autobiography Parshat Hayai. “Many of those who came from abroad to build our enterprise did not understand the importance of good neighborly relations.”
Yosef Eliahu also pointed out that while Zionist improvements to local infrastructure also greatly benefited the Arab population, this was ignored.
Beit Chelouche still stands, an important Tel Aviv landmark, albeit one that is not open to the public. In 2001, the Chelouche family sold it for around $4 million to Dutch-Israeli hotelier Daniel Varsano, who planned to build two apartment blocks on the land but (thankfully) didn’t. Its current owner is Marius Nacht, millionaire founder of Checkpoint, according to Oren Katz of Neveh Tzedek Real Estate.
“Rumors that it was bought by Roman Abramovich aren’t true,” says Katz. In 2008, the Russian oligarch offered Nacht $30m. for the property, but was refused.
The long-neglected house is currently undergoing careful renovation to make it habitable. Supervising this sensitive project is architect Prof. Amnon Bar Or.
“Beit Chelouche is a very important house, a monument,” he told Metro. “It’s one of a kind. There is nothing like it in Tel Aviv.”
Today’s Neveh Tzedek is a far cry from the quiet, empty place where Aharon Chelouche built his family home so long ago. Once a tiny outgrowth of Jaffa and then a slum, Neveh Tzedek is now a chichi enclave favored by the wealthy. Luxury apartments are sprouting everywhere, the narrow streets are choked with traffic, and many of the neighborhood’s older, poorer residents have moved out.
As Neveh Tzedek grows ever more exclusive, its founding fathers and their message of good neighborly relations should not be completely forgotten.
Tomer Chelouche conducts guided tours of Neveh Tzedek. For more information, contact him on 054-588-1969 or e-mail