“You are serving the Sultan. Hardship should be sweet!” That could have been the motto of the Eretz Yisroel that the Turkish authorities governed during World War I. By the time Palestine fell to the British in 5677/1917, after four centuries of Turkish rule, its population was diminishing due to starvation.
HELP FROM THE US
The plunge toward poverty began when Turkey was still neutral and communication with Europe was cut off. Chalukah and tzedakah funds stopped coming in and Jews were left destitute. The Turkish army plundered whatever was left, hurling tens of thousands of Jews into even deeper poverty.
The only Jews able to offer assistance were US citizens, who sent money and food through the US Embassy in Turkey or via American warships. The first installment arrived on October 6, when the American warship North Carolina arrived in Eretz Yisroel with $50,000.
Then Turkey revoked Capitulations, agreements with foreign consuls that foreign citizens in Palestine could not be arrested without their consul’s consent. From now on, any Jew, even if he held a foreign passport, could be picked off the streets at a moment’s notice and flung into prison.
On top of that, there was peacetime conscription. All citizens of the Turkish Empire, between the ages of nineteen and forty-five, were eligible for military service, including Jews and Christians, thanks to Turkey’s new constitution of 5669/1909, which granted them equal rights. Jews now discovered that this included the equal right to die on behalf of the fatherland.
As Aharon Aaronsohn, a Jewish spy who spent time in the Turkish army, records in his autobiography, “With the Turks in Palestine,” it was not easy to wriggle off the hook:
“The enlisting officers have a theory of their own — that no man is really unfit for the army — a theory which has been fostered by the ingenious devices of the Arabs to avoid conscription,” he recorded. “To these wild people, the protracted discipline of military training is simply a purgatory, and for weeks before the recruiting officers are due, they dose themselves with powerful herbs and physics, and fast, and nurse sores into being, until they are in a really deplorable condition. Some of them go so far as to cut off a finger or two.
“The officers, however, have learned to see beyond these little tricks, and few Arabs succeed in wriggling through their dragnet. I have watched dozens of Arabs being brought into the recruiting office on camels or horses, so weak were they, and welcomed into the service with a severe beating, the sick and the shammers sharing the same fate.”
To escape conscription, with its attendant danger and inability to keep mitzvos, thousands of Jews went into hiding or fled, while those who remained feared sudden massacre. It was difficult for them to forget that Turkey was in the midst of massacring hundreds of thousands of Armenians in what many historians regard as the first genocide in modern history. Jews became even more nervous when the Turkish authorities ordered them to hand in all their firearms and weapons, as many Armenians had been issued an identical order before being massacred. However, baruch Hashem, the Jews of Eretz Yisroel were spared.
On October 30, 5674/1914, Turkey threw in her lot with the German cause and tried to drum up international Muslim support by announcing a jihad against the British infidels in the form of a fatwa (religious edict) calling for an international rebellion against Britain and her allies. It read as follows:
“If several enemies unite against Islam, if the countries of Islam are sacked, if the Muslim populations are massacred or made captive, and if, in this case, the padishah (ruler of the Empire), in conformity with the sacred words of the Koran, proclaims the Holy War, is participation in this war a duty for all Muslims, old and young, cavalry and infantry? Must the Mohammedans of all countries of Islam hasten with their bodies and possessions to the jihad? Answer: Yes .”
The fatwa continued: “The Muslims, who in the present war are under England, France, Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, and those who give aid to these countries by waging war against Germany and Austria, allies of Turkey, do they deserve to be punished by the wrath of G-d as being the cause of harm and damage to the caliphate and to Islam? Answer: Yes.”
Surprisingly, despite Britain’s concern that the fatwa might raise the ire of the Muslims of Egypt, India, and the rest of the world against them in a violent jihad, nothing of the sort happened at all. Were Muslims more moderate in those days?
Foreigners were given a choice to either become citizens of the Ottoman Empire or to leave. So many Jews chose the latter option that the Jewish population of Eretz Yisroel plunged from about 85,000 to 56,000.
GERMANIZATION OF PALESTINE
A major part of Germany’s dream of world conquest was to seize control of the Middle East. In attempt to achieve this objective, the Germans mounted a major propaganda campaign in Eretz Yisroel.
“As if by magic, the whole country became Germanized,” reported Aaronsohn. “In all the mosques, Friday prayers were concluded with an invocation for the welfare of the sultan and ‘Hajji Wilhelm.’ The significance of this lies in the fact that the title ‘hajji’ can be properly applied only to a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca and kissed the sacred stone of the Kaaba. Instant death is the penalty paid by any Christian who is found within that enclosure; yet, Wilhelm II, head of the Lutheran faith, stepped forward as ‘Hajji Wilhelm.’ His pictures were sold everywhere.
“The German consul at Haifa, Leutweld von Hardegg … traveled around the country, making speeches and distributing pamphlets in Arabic, in which it was elaborately proved that Germans are not Christians, like the French or English, but that they are descendants of the prophet Mohammed. Passages from the Koran were quoted, prophesying the coming of the kaiser as the savior of Islam.”
Turkey’s major military goal was to seize the Suez Canal, which was under British control. As part of his espionage activities, Aaronsohn headed to Yerushalayim to view the Turks’ frenzied preparations.
“It was an amazing sight to see the streets packed with khaki-clad soldiers and hear the brooding silence of ancient walls shattered by the crash of steel- shod army boots,” he writes. “Here, for the first time, I saw the German officers – quantities of them. Strangely out of place they looked, with their pink-and- whiteness that no amount of hot sunshine could quite burn off. … [The Turks] believed firmly that they were going to sweep the English off the face of the earth and enter Cairo in triumph.”
Pressing on to Beersheva, Aaronsohn found utter confusion.
“Beersheva was swarming with troops,” he wrote. “They filled the town and overflowed onto the sands outside, where a great tent city grew up. And everywhere that the Turkish soldiers went, disorganization and inefficiency followed them.”
Although it had been only eight years since the Wright brothers flew the world’s first airplane, the warring nations were already making extensive use of primitive biplanes, mainly for reconnaissance purposes. As Aaronsohn further describes:
“Visits of British airplanes to Beersheva were common occurrences. Long before the machine itself could be seen, its whanging, resonant hum would come floating out of the blazing sky, seemingly from everywhere at once. Soldiers rushed from their tents, squinting up into the heavens until the speck was discovered, swimming slowly through the air; then followed wholesale firing at an impossible range until the officers forbade it. True to the policy of avoiding all unnecessary harm to the natives, these British aviators never dropped bombs on the town.”
These airplanes were serving a vital purpose, as will be seen later. The Turks somehow made method out of their madness and mobilized a powerful army. After assembling 20,000 men, the Turkish leader Djemal Pasha set off through the desert from Beersheva. So certain of victory was he, that just before the attack, he sent out a telegram announcing the overwhelming defeat of the British front lines, and Arabs were overjoyed.
However, British planes had been spying on the preparations in Beersheva and tracking the Turks every inch of the way during their ten-day trek to the Suez Canal, so that when the Ottoman forces began their main offensive on February 2, 5675/1915, the British were ready for them with a hot reception of machine-gun bullets from 30,000 British troops massed on the opposite shore, reinforced by armored trains, airplanes, and warships. Within two days, the Turks lost about 2,000 men, a tenth of their entire army, in a firestorm so terrible that, as one soldier reported, “It was as if the gates of Gehenna were opened and its fires turned loose upon us.”
THE COUNTRY STARVES
To camouflage his defeat, Djemal Pasha sent off another telegram, this time proclaiming that his men had reached the canal, sunk British warships, and routed the British, but that, “a terrible sandstorm having arisen, the glorious army takes it as the wish of A-llah not to continue the attack, and has therefore withdrawn in triumph.”
However, it did not take much time for the truth to be exposed, and before long, the whole population of Eretz Yisroel, including Arabs, was looking forward to British victory in order to end their poverty and suffering. As Aaronsohn continued:
“The country was exhausted and the blockade of the Mediterranean by the Allies prevented the import and export of articles. The oranges were rotting on the trees because the annual Liverpool market was closed to Palestine, and other crops were in similar case. The country was short, too, of petroleum, sugar, rice, and other supplies, and even of matches. We had to go back to old customs, using flint and steel for fire, and we seldom used our lamps.”
After the United States entered the war in April 5677/1917, the situation became even worse for the Jews, when all funding from abroad abruptly ceased. Jews began eating weeds or else died of starvation. It took many more battles and much suffering until the fateful day when British General Edmund Allenby and his entourage reverently entered Yerushalayim on foot on December 11, 5677/1917.
Turkey’s brutal mastery was over. Would the British be better?
(Main source: With the Turks in Palestine. Aharon Aaronsohn. 1916.)