During the tumultuous days of World War I, the Turks threw the Jews of Tel Aviv out of their homes and left them without a roof over the heads. Cold and hungry, the Jews scattered throughout Eretz Yisroel seeking a place to lay their heads. The Turks barbaric behavior provoked worldwide condemnation. This was the second banishment of the war. Earlier, the Turks had exiled the country’s Russian Jews to Egypt. This worked to Turks disadvantage when the British recruited the Russian Jews to fight for the Allied cause.
The Zion Mule Corps
On October 28, 1914, the Turks made the monumental mistake of allying with Germany. They hoped that by helping Germany whip the Allies they would have a chance to revive their dying empire. First to suffer from the Turkish/German alliance were Jews who had moved to Eretz Yisroel from Russia. They were classified as enemy aliens. Street signs ordered them to become Turkish nationals or leave.
“Twenty days have passed since the local High Command issued a strict order that all those who have not naturalized or not completed the necessary formalities within another ten days, that is, by the 1st of Sivan, will be completely banished from the country,” one poster warned. “We would like to remind the honored public not to take this lightly and not to delay beyond the deadline. Stop being aliens and you will not be forced into exile. Be quick to naturalize and dwell securely in the midst of the land.”
Few Russians took up the offer; becoming a Turkish national meant one could be forced into the Turkish army. On the 15th of December, Turkish troops made a sweep of Tel Aviv and seized 750 Russian Jews. They shipped them to Egypt where British authorities put them in refugee camps and gave them three square meals a day. After a while, the British decided to put them in uniforms and throw them into the war effort.
The job of shaping the Russian exiles into a fighting force was entrusted to Colonel John Patterson, a tough but dreamy Irishman who was famous for shooting two man-eating lions in Kenya. The Man Eaters of Tsavo, a book he wrote of the experience, once deterred a Jewish group from settling Jews in East Africa. Patterson was overjoyed with the job, feeling it plunged him back into Biblical times.
“From the days of my youth I have always been a keen student of the Jewish people, their history, laws and customs,” he wrote in his book about the experience. “Even as a boy I spent the greater part of my leisure hours poring over the Bible… little thinking that this Biblical knowledge would ever be of any practical value in life.
“It was strange, therefore, that I, so imbued with Jewish traditions, should have been drawn to the land where the Pharaohs had kept the Children of Israel in bondage for over four hundred years; and it was still more strange that I should have arrived in Egypt just at the psychological moment when General Sir John Maxwell, the Commander-in-chief, was looking out for a suitable officer to raise and command a Jewish unit.”
Inaccurately, Patterson wrote that up until then, no Jewish unit existed in the annals of world history for some 2,000 years “since the days of the Maccabees, those heroic Sons of Israel who fought so valiantly, and for a time so successfully, to wrest Jerusalem from the grasp of the Roman legions.” Englishmen often mixed up the Greeks and Romans.
In March 1915, Patterson left Cairo for Alexandria where the Jewish refugees were living “as the guest of the Jewish government.” Later that month, they were sworn in. There were about 500 men led by five British and eight Jewish officers, together with 20 horses and 750 pack mules. A rabbi among them proved useful when Jews needed to be buried according to halachah.
The men began drilling under Hebrew words of command and within three weeks they were steaming to Gallipoli, a part of the Turkish Empire on the shores of the Black Sea. Passing a Russian cruiser, the Jews surprised its crew by swapping words with them in Russian. After they hit the shore, their duty was to haul supplies and ammunition on mule back through withering fire. Although the Allies came close to victory, they never broke through the powerful Turkish lines.
Not much of Jewish interest happened during the hopeless Gallipoli Campaign, as this war was known. All Patterson reports is how his men found a mysterious Mogen Dovid in a house they were pulling down to build a stone shelter.
“While we were pulling down a house and excavating the foundation we dug up a slab of marble with a beautiful filigree design carved around the outer edge of it, and in the center, strange to say, was the Shield of David!” he wrote. “The stone must have been very, very old, and how it got there is a mystery. Perhaps it may have been taken from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.”
“My Zion men were delighted at the find and brought the stone in triumph to our camp, and it was kept in the new house as a talisman to ward off the shells. Strange to say, although they fell all round, the building was never touched nor was any one injured in its vicinity.”
An incident Patterson doesn’t report is the time a Jewish soldier guarding baggage was arrested by French soldiers. The fact that he could only speak Russian and Hebrew and that he was armed with a Turkish rifle, convinced the French he was a spy. A sergeant of the Zion Mule corps passed by and rescued him in the nick of time.
In 1917, Patterson became commander of the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, one of three battalions of the Jewish Legion recruited from British and foreign Jews. He wrote of its accomplishments in his book, With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign.
Exiled from Tel Aviv
As the British army shot and bombed its way towards Eretz Yisroel in 1917, Turkish leader Djemal Pasha ordered the Jews and Arabs of ancient Yafo and eight-year-old Tel Aviv to leave and head where the winds took them. Besides a few guards, the towns were deserted for seven months. The ejection order was implemented more forcefully against Jews, leading people to suspect Djemal Pasha was afraid they might help the advancing allied troops.
The day after Pesach, about 10,000 people set off on the open road, and exposed to the elements and with little to eat, they died at the rate of about 25 a week. The graves of over 1,000 Jews who lost their lives are scattered throughout Israel and Syria: 224 in Kefar Saba, 321 in Teveriah, 104 in Tzefas, 15 in Chaifa, and 75 in Damascus.
Djemal Pasha planned to extend Jewish banishment to other towns. This plot was stopped by international outcry. Jewish newspapers in England and the U.S.A. publicized lurid reports of what was going on. In England, the Jewish Chronicle said that Tel Aviv had been destroyed and that Djemal Pasha intended to mercilessly eradicate the Jewish yishuv of Eretz Yisroel. In the U.S.A., the Forward newspaper reported that the Turks were banishing the Jews from Yerushalayim, from Eretz Yisroel, and from wherever the British army was coming near. Jews were not allowed to remain anywhere and had nowhere to go, the paper said. They had been forced to abandon their property and it was being stolen by the Turks. The Yiddish Der Tog paper said people feared the Turks were plotting to eradicate the Jews just as they eradicated the Armenian nation earlier in the war.
In Germany, Jewish papers issued a more balanced report, saying that thirty Jews still remained in Tel Aviv, twelve of them guarding the Jewish neighborhoods. There was no evacuation of Yerushalayim, the papers insisted, and the Tel Aviv refugees were being settled in various towns. Over 3,000 had settled in the lower Galil, over 1,000 were living in Petach Tikvah and Kfar Saba, and the rest were distributed in other places. The papers admitted that the evacuation had destroyed most people’s livelihoods and was a disruption to the whole yishuv, and called upon World Jewry to donate huge funds for the refugees and to look after the settlements’ plantations. Articles and testimony of German officers in German papers also aroused widespread indignation.
Djemal Pasha Strikes a Deal
Unnerved by the clamor, Djemal Pasha invited Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff and other Jewish leaders to come and speak to him. They were amazed at his friendly attitude and defensive tone.
“After all I have done for you, do I deserve all these attacks and insults of the world’s newspapers, especially the Jewish ones?” he told them. “The Allies’ papers speak of Turkish barbarity. But you know what Turkish leaders are like from history, when they received your forefathers very humanely when they fled Catholic Spain.”
He demanded that they telegraph the various papers and deny the reports of horrors and pogroms. Dizengoff argued that this wouldn’t help. He had seen Jews dying of exposure and without food or shelter and if he denied that anything was happening, people wouldn’t believe him. Deeds were needed and not words. Only food, medical care, and work could alleviate people’s misery.
In response, Djemal Pasha promised to do something for the refugees so long as the Jewish leaders sent the telegrams he wanted. He kept his word, providing Dizengoff with food and money, freeing two doctors to care for the sick refugees, and providing 100,000 francs to alleviate the refugees’ suffering. The Jews kept their side of the bargain, sending a telegram to a major German paper to say that the authorities were not harsh as reported. Arabs had been evacuated as well as Jews, they said, and a report of two Jews being hanged was baseless.
The world outcry stopped Djemal Pasha in his tracks and there were no other banishments for the rest of the war. A Turkish officer admitted to one of the refugees, “If it wasn’t for your big mouths, if not that you make an outcry heard from one end of the world to the next whenever anything bad happens to you as you did after the banishment from Yafo, we wouldn’t have left a trace of you.”
Not that the Jews got off lightly. By the end of the war, the number of Jews in Eretz Yisroel was half of what it had been in 1914. The rest had fled, or died of starvation and disease.
(Sources: Mordechai Naor, How Global Jewish Media Made Djemal Pasha Stop Banishing Jews – After the “Tel Aviv” Banishment of Spring 1917, Ariel, volume 189-190, Yerushalayim 2012, pages 149-159. John Patterson, With the Zionists in Gallipoli, New York George H. Doran Company, 1916)