Gaza sails an eternal sea of controversy. The story is always the same. Nations come and nations go, old religions give way for new, and the land waits.
(4160/400-4397/637) Approximately, four hundred years after the Churban, the decaying Roman Empire was collapsing. Eretz Yisroel fell into the clutches of the eastern Byzantine Empire, which had turned fanatically Christian since the conversion of Emperor Constantine the Great. Jews were struggling to survive. Due to the persecution, Hillel II was forced to abandon determining Rosh Chodesh through witnesses and instead developed a permanent calendar, which established all the subsequent Yomim Tovim.
As the cleric, Hieronymus, boasted, “In the deserted cities of Aroer…the flocks of the Church will enjoy life. We are dwelling in the towns abandoned by the Jews… The Serapaeum in Alexandria and the temple of Marneion in Gaza have been converted into churches… and the cities of Aroer are readied for the evangelic flock.”
Fortunately, the early Christians could not invest all their energies in Jew-baiting because they were busy destroying a pantheon of old-time paganism at the same time. Down in Gaza, the Marneion Temple has the dubious distinction of being the last Hellenist temple destroyed in the area of Eretz Yisroel. This occurred around the year 4169/409 when Bishop Porphyry attacked Gaza’s eight major temples, each one devoted to a different Roman avodah zarah. As a contemporary priest records:
“The soldiers, together with the Christians of the city, went forth against the idols. Wanting to destroy the Marneion Temple first, they suffered a setback when its priests barred the doors of the inner temple with huge stones, took its precious vessels and gods down into the sanctuary and escaped. The Christians spent ten days overthrowing the temples of the other idols. Then, taking liquid pitch, sulfur and swine’s fat, they anointed the inner doors of the Marneion Temple, kindled the fire and, instantly, the entire temple ignited and was consumed” (Life of Porphyry, abridged).
The Gazan Jews not only survived but also even built new shuls. Evidence of the Jewish presence was found in 5725/1965. Egyptians excavating the foundations for a casino in Gaza discovered that they were desecrating holy ground when they stumbled upon a breathtaking mosaic floor, depicting Dovid HaMelech draped in Byzantine robes, plucking on a lyre before an audience of lion cubs, a giraffe and a snake. An inscription stated that this mosaic was donated in 4268/508.
The Church transformed Gaza City into a flourishing metropolis. As an anonymous writer attests, “Gaza is a beautiful and renowned city with noble people, distinguished by every kind of liberal accomplishment. They are welcoming to strangers.”
The Church built new public baths, a new market, a new library and a school of rhetoric (a branch of philosophy). While second only to Alexandria, Gaza was regarded as the greatest center of non-Jewish learning in the Middle East.
Church rule ended abruptly after Moslem hordes invaded Eretz Yisroel in 4397/637. Jews owe a debt to the Gaza of those days since, forty years later, Muhammad ibn Idris el-Shaffi was born in the area. He founded the Sunnite sect of Islam that has locked horns with the more fanatical Shiite sect ever since, and this fraternal conflict consumes energy that could otherwise be spent on anti- Semitism.
During this time, the Jewish presence in Gaza dwindled until the situation improved under the Egyptian Mamlukes. As Rav Ovadyah miBartenura reported during a 5248/1488 visit:
“I saw, in Gaza, the building that Shimshon brought down, burying the Plishtim, as recounted by the Jewish residents of the land. There are about seventy householders in Gaza who follow the rabbonim as well as two Samaritan householders though I saw no Karaites there. We stayed in Gaza for four days and, currently, there is an Ashkenazi rav, called Rav Moshe, originally from Prague, who had fled from Yerushalayim.
He urged me to come to his home and I stayed with him the entire time I spent in Gaza. On Shabbos, all the elders and the Perushim of the community came to eat with us, having brought bunches of grapes and fruit, as is their custom, and we drank seven or eight cups before eating, and rejoiced.”
The Jewish presence in Gaza increased after the Spanish Expulsion and reached its height after the Ottoman conquest soon afterwards. By 5309/1549, Turkish archives attest that 116 Jewish families and five single men were living there.
NATAN OF GAZA
A century later, Gazan Jews were key players in Shabsai Tzvi’s two-year rollercoaster ride to oblivion. At that time, the Gazan community was headed by Rav Moshe Najara, the son of Rav Yisroel Najara, who composed Koh Ribon, and was home to Rav Avraham Azulai, who had fled there from a plague in Chevron, twelve years before.
After the Constantinople kehillah ran Shabsai Tzvi out of town, he went to Yerushalayim where he convinced the people into thinking he was a holy man; they sent him to Egypt as their representative to collect funds. Meanwhile, Natan Ashkenazi, a brilliant young man who knew half of Shas by heart, had moved to Gaza. He had studied under Rav Yaakov Chagiz in Yerushalayim and married the daughter of a wealthy Damascus Jew, Shmuel Lisbona. In Gaza, Natan began suffering Messianic delusions, as he wrote afterwards:
“A spirit passed before me, my hairs stood on end and my knees knocked together… and a voice arose to my ears saying as follows, ‘Behold your redeemer has come. His name is Shabsai Tzvi… and he will overpower his enemies.’” Electrified, Natan began “rectifying” people’s souls in preparation for the great days ahead and his fame spread all the way to Egypt. When Shabsai Tzvi heard of Natan’s escapades, he cut short his sojourn in Egypt and raced to Gaza to meet the new “prophet.” The moment he entered Natan’s home, the “prophet” collapsed at his feet, begging him to forgive him for not going to him first, and told him his delusions.
Of course, Natan found it easy to persuade Shabsai Tzvi that he was a genuine prophet. The two men joined forces and started their campaign by trying to convince people that instead of fasting on Shiva Asar b’Tammuz, they should eat and rejoice because “a time of joy has arrived and the bridegroom has emerged from his chupah. Therefore, in the homes of Yisroel, “there should be only happiness and joy.” Gaza was one of the few places to accept this foolishness. The people “recited ‘Hallel HaGadol’ and rejoiced in gardens and orchards.”
The gedolim of Yerushalayim, who included Rav Yaakov Chagiz and Rav Moshe Galante, were unimpressed and soon children were racing after the audacious pair in the streets chanting, “This is the fool who left as a shaliach (emissary) and returned as Moshiach!” Foolish believers reportedly boasted that when Shabsai Tzvi left Yerushalayim, he cursed its Jews for their lack of gullibility. Then, noticing a group of Jews headed towards the city, his heart softened and he blessed the city instead. Lo and behold, there was a miracle! His terrible curse turned into a blessing and Yerushalayim was spared from tragedy!
After a spell in Syria, Shabsai Tzvi returned to Gaza, where he became known as Amirah, standing for “Adoneinu malkeinu, yarum hodo.”
The Shabsai Tzvi fiasco apparently weakened the Gazan community since, by 5450/1690, it had dwindled down to twenty-six families. Approximately a century later, during Napoleon’s Palestine campaign, the surviving community fl ed from a three-month siege and plague.
During the past two centuries, Jewish Gazan settlement has gone from boom to bust three times.
In 5645/1885, the tea magnate, Zeev Wissotzky, visited Palestine and organized a new Gazan community under the leadership of Chacham Nissim Elyakim. Thirty families moved in, and the community had built three shuls and a talmud Torah by the time the Turks ejected them during World War I.
Although the community picked up again, a newspaper reported that “despite the great efforts and will of activists to increase the Jewish settlement here, the results are not very successful. The urge to live in Tel Aviv has seized most of the inhabitants and they are leaving.”
The next blow occurred on 18th Av 5689/1929, soon after the Chevron massacre, when an Arab warned Chacham Nissim Elyakim that Arab attack was imminent. Forty-four Jews raced to a Jewish hotel and barricaded themselves inside while a huge crowd gathered outside, armed with daggers and swords, and showered them with curses and rocks. British police maneuvered two trucks through the massed Arabs to rescue the trapped Jews, who escaped at four the next morning by train to Lod.
Another attempt to create a Jewish presence in Gaza was made just before World War II, when Jews established a settlement down south in Kfar Darom, and lost it after three months of fi ghting in 5708/1948.
Although Israel captured Gaza during the 5708/1948 War of Independence and the 5717/1956 Sinai Campaign, they handed it over to Egypt each time. However, the aftermath of the 5727/1967 Six Day War was different. Three years later, a caravan of cars crossed the Erez Check point on Gaza’s border and headed south to Kfar Darom. Veterans of Kfar Darom, who had left twenty-two years earlier, were joyfully hurrying to its reopening ceremonies.
This was the prelude to the Gaza Strip’s Golden Age when Gaza probably enjoyed its largest Jewish population in centuries. The chief Israeli achievement was establishing the Gush Katif block with its fourteen settlements, including Neveh Dekalim with 2,000 residents. However, no amount of building could keep up with the explosive Arab growth, which had tripled during the 5708/1948 war and had redoubled by the Six Day War, creating one of the most densely populated regions in the world. By the time of last year’s pullout, Gaza’s 8,000 Jews were living in a sea of 1,400,000 Arabs.
With near civil war among the many Palestinian factions there today, the Gaza Strip still sails the sea of controversy, and still waits for peace.