My word: The Jews expelled from Jaffa - opinion

During World War I, the Ottoman Empire expelled many Jews from Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and many of them are buried in a cemetery in Kfar Saba.

 THE MILITARY Cemetery in Kfar Saba where victims of the 1917 Turkish expulsion from Tel Aviv and Jaffa are buried in unmarked graves tells a chilling story, seldom told. (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
THE MILITARY Cemetery in Kfar Saba where victims of the 1917 Turkish expulsion from Tel Aviv and Jaffa are buried in unmarked graves tells a chilling story, seldom told.
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)

I stumbled across history last week. During a visit to the sleepy town of Kfar Saba, I went to a local cemetery seeking the grave of a distant family member. I found her grave – and much more. 

Although it is called the Military Cemetery and has a section for fallen soldiers, the graveyard is also the final resting place of early residents of the community in the Sharon. Almost as soon as I entered the gates, I came across a chilling reminder of a little-known chapter in pre-state history: rows and rows of unmarked graves. Silent witnesses to a terrible tragedy. A sign erected by the Council for the Conservation of Heritage Sites and the Kfar Saba Municipality recorded part of the story. This section of the cemetery houses the graves of “The Tel Aviv and Jaffa deportees,” Jews expelled from those towns and others by the Ottoman authorities during World War I.

It was a story of exile and internal displacement.

Fearing that the Jews might support the British war effort, the Turks decided to remove them from the coastal areas and elsewhere. The Turkish authorities presented the decision as an effort to “protect” them. Isn’t that always the case?

Although Muslim residents were also ordered to leave Jaffa, most were able to swiftly return.

 View of Jaffa, central Israel (credit: LIRON ALMOG) View of Jaffa, central Israel (credit: LIRON ALMOG)

Even before the expulsion of April 1917, thousands of Jews left the area or were deported for refusing to “Ottomanize.” Many families traveled overseas, mainly to Egypt. Among them was the Ambache family from Jaffa, whose daughter, Aura, was born in Alexandria and later became wife of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, and mother of the current head of state, Isaac Herzog.

Nothing had prepared me for the discovery of the brutal fate of so many of the internally displaced, mostly poor people who lacked the means to travel to safety.

The 1917 expulsion orders, signed by Turkish military governor Ahmed Djemal Pasha, were executed on the eve of Passover, which must have added to the pain. Here were Jews, finally in the Promised Land, being forced into an exodus in the wrong direction. They would have been aware, too, of what befell the Armenians and other minorities under Turkish rule at the time.

The leaders of the Jewish community tried their best to offer aid. Meir Dizengoff, who later became the first mayor of Tel Aviv, was among those who helped organize Jews in Galilee to send donkey-drawn carts to transport those expelled and provide food for the journey.

Out of the thousands of deportees – estimated to be up to 10,000 – some 1,500 “megurashim” reached Kfar Saba, a shorter journey than to Galilee. Here, too, there was an effort to help the traumatized, impoverished homeless but the numbers were too large for the tiny community to handle.

The majority of the megurashim ended up in the Pascal-Ussishkin Grove where they did their best to create booths from the branches of the eucalyptus trees. They tried to turn the makeshift huts into homes and even to create a school and a synagogue but attempts to create a normal life were doomed. The shelter was woefully inadequate and the DP camp horrifically overcrowded. Diseases like typhus spread easily. Starvation, too, was widespread at a time when food and supplies were increasingly hard to come by due to the war. The situation worsened during the first harsh winter without shelter from the heavy rains and the cold.

It was the results of these terrible conditions that I found in the cemetery. Some 240 people are buried under the plain stone slabs – their stories, hidden. Those who didn’t survive their ordeal, were originally buried haphazardly. Later, it was decided to re-inter them in the cemetery. After the war, gravestones were added, but by then there were no means to identify the individuals who lay beneath the ground, and the graves remain unmarked.

There is something particularly heartrending about wandering among rows of graves with nothing to bring to life those buried there. No inscriptions dedicated to a “Dear wife, mother and grandmother.” No “beloved son.” Nothing. 

The birds chirped in the surrounding trees of the well-kept graveyard but the silence was deadly – the silence of those who leave no sign of lives, loves and dreams lost. How many parents buried their children before they succumbed to illness and hunger? How many grandparents were covered in earth by children and grandchildren who knew that the same fate awaited them before they would have a chance to grow old?

The 240 unmarked graves in the Military Cemetery in Kfar Saba tell only part of the story. There are hundreds of the Tel Aviv and Jaffa deportees buried elsewhere – more than 300 in Tiberias, which had taken in some 1,200 deportees; more than 100 in Safed, (out of some 700); others in Haifa, Yavne’el, Kinneret, and elsewhere, even as far away as Damascus, where about 75 are reportedly buried. 

The threats worsened after the discovery in September 1917 of the NILI espionage ring, who had been spying against the Ottomans and warning of their atrocities. Incredibly, despite the war, the British negotiated with the Germans in Jerusalem to pressure the Turks into halting the deportations. The survivors were able to return home to Tel Aviv only in 1918, under British rule, after the war.

Jewish tragedies

I HADN’T intended to dedicate this week’s column to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa deportees, but the sight of the unmarked graves, was, for lack of a better word, haunting. There was another often overlooked tragic story I wanted to tell, one from the Second World War, not the First.

On June 1, 1941, which coincided with the Shavuot holiday, a terrible pogrom erupted in the Kingdom of Iraq. Iraqi prime minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani ardently supported Hitler and introduced the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini to the Nazi leader. Nazi thinking fell on fertile ground. As always, the Jews paid the price. Here, too, they were scapegoated, particularly after the victory of the  British forces.

Known as the Farhud, more than 180 Jews were killed and some 1,000 were wounded in the two-day frenzy of murder, rape, arson and riots. 

It was the beginning of the end of the proud Jewish community that had lived in the area for around two and a half millennia. After Israel was created in 1948, more than 120,000 Iraqi Jews left for the Jewish state. 

It wasn’t just the date that reminded me of the Farhud. Bucking the overall move to peace in the region, the Iraqi parliament last week passed a law that criminalizes any attempt to normalize relations with Israel. The penalty is life imprisonment or even a death sentence. 

The legislation passed with the support of 275 legislators out of the 329-seat parliament. These lawmakers have failed for months to elect a president and form a new government. They could agree on one thing only: legislation against Israel – and against peace. 

The anti-normalization law was proposed by populist Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party, which has a majority in the Iraqi assembly, opposes ties with both Israel and the United States. It is a message directed mainly toward Iran and Sadr’s Shi’ite supporters. It is also aimed at the Kurds in the autonomous region with whom Israel has warm, albeit unofficial, ties.

Anti-normalization is not normal. It looks back to darker times rather than ahead to a better future. The impact of the mufti’s lies are still felt in the battle cry that “al-Aqsa is in danger,” responsible for many, many more graves. 

Israel is making an effort to broaden the 2020 Abraham Accords in which diplomatic relations were established with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. 

This week, there was good news when Israel and the UAE signed a comprehensive free trade agreement that will benefit both countries.

The victims of the expulsion of 1917 buried in the Kfar Saba could not possibly have imagined that just over 30 years later, the Jews would have a state of their own. Today, 105 years after their tragedy, despite periods of war and violence, the country is thriving. It’s a boon to all – except the anti-normalization brigade.

May the dead deportees rest in peace, and may we be allowed to live in peace.

[email protected]