A Brief History of the Jewish Presence in Gaza

            June 2013    
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Gaza is an integral part of the Land of Israel:
A Brief Historical Review of the Gaza Jewish community

By F.M. Loewenberg

Some months ago, the CBS Evening News presented the following:

    Now, we want to remind you what Gaza is and how it came to be. The Gaza Strip was laid out in 1949 after the war that created Israel. It's home to Palestinians displaced in that war. 25 miles long and roughly ten miles wide, Gaza's population is 1.7 million. Israel occupied it until 2005. A year later the Hamas political party won the election there. The U.S. says the Hamas military wing is a terrorist organization. (Scott Pelley, CBS Evening News, November 20, 2012)

How many mistakes you can find in this short paragraph?

For one thing, Pelley suggests that Israel was responsible for "creating" the Gaza Strip in 1949 when, in fact, the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt from 1949 until 1967. Israel's army captured the strip only during the Six Day War in 1967. Even more ingenious is the attempt to start Gaza history with the events of 1949; this cuts out several thousand years of Gaza history. Suggesting that the Jewish connection with Gaza started only in 1949 or 1967 neglects a vital Jewish presence in this area for the past two thousand years. True, Gaza's rich Jewish history is hardly known. Yet a review of this history might help achieve a better understanding of current events.

Today no Jews live in the Gaza Strip because of Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gush Katif in 2005. But even without Jewish residents, the connection of Jews to this area remains as significant today as it was in the past. Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776), a distinguished German Jewish scholar, taught about three hundred years ago that Gaza is an intrinsic part of the Jewish people's national heritage. He wrote in his Mor U'ketziyah that "Gaza and its environs are absolutely considered part of the Land of Israel," and that "there is no doubt that it is a mitzvah (commandment) to live there, as in any other part of the Land of Israel." This ruling was endorsed by many rabbinical authorities in subsequent generations.

Some have noted that the Sages of the Jerusalem Talmud seem to have held a contrary position when they wrote that Ashkelon marks the country's southern boundary - this would place Gaza outside of Israel (TJ Bikkurim 3.3, see also Tokizinsky, Sefer Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, 1972, p. 85). It is clear from the context, however, that these 4th century Palestinian Sages were discussing only the ritual boundaries within which one must observe the agricultural laws that pertain to the Land of Israel, such as the Sabbatical laws, laws of the first fruits and tithes. The observance of these laws, they ruled, is not obligatory as a Biblical commandment in the Gaza area; the contemporary Jewish law is in agreement with this ruling and directs Gaza (Gush Katif) farmers to observe these as mitzvot of the Rabbis without a making a blessing.

There is no real controversy between the position taken by Palestinian Sages and Rabbi Jacob Emden because the rabbinic literature presents a number of different "boundaries of the Land of Israel," including the following:

1. The boundaries promised to Abraham (Gen.15.18-21) and repeated at Sinai (Exod. 23.31).

2. The boundaries of the Land of Canaan which the Israelites who had left Egypt were commanded to conquer and settle when they entered the Land under Joshua.

3. The boundaries of the Land settled by the Jews whom Ezra led back from Babylonia at the beginning of the Second Temple period.

The last mentioned boundaries are the ritual boundaries referred to in the Palestinian Talmud, while Rabbi Emden based his ruling on the first or second definition.

Leaving aside the legalistic discussions, the brief historical overview that follows will reveal that at all times there was a strong connection between Gaza and the Jewish people.

Biblical period. The first mention ofGaza in the Bible is in Genesis 10.19, but this verse has no Jewish connection. It reads And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon as you come to Gerar, until Gaza .. It is mentioned again in Deuteronomy 2.23 but again without any Jewish connection.

God's promise to Abraham that he and his descendants would inherit the Land included the area that is known today as Gaza. In Genesis 15.18 He said, To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates river. While there is no agreement on this identification of the river of Egypt, all commentators place it south of Gaza. Similarly, the borders of the Land of Israel, as described in Numbers 34, include the Gaza area.

Isaac, the only one of the three Forefathers who was forbidden to leave the Land of Israel (Gen. 26.2), left his ancestral home during a famine in order to find shelter in the Kingdom of Gerar which is located south of Gaza. He had planned to move on to Egypt, just as his father Abraham had done during an earlier famine, but God stopped him from leaving the Land of Israel. God's prohibition to Isaac suggests that Gaza (which is north of Gerar) was in God's plan an integral part of the Land of Israel.

The territory that the tribe of Judah received after the Israelites entered the Land included Gaza (Joshua 15.47), yet they failed to occupy this area at that time (Joshua 13.3). Only after Joshua's death did the tribe of Judah succeed to occupy Gaza (Judges 1.18); however, there no records of any permanent Jewish settlements in Gaza during this period. The well-known story of Samson and Delilah is the only Biblical story that is specifically located in Gaza, but at that time Gaza was clearly a Philistine city (Judges 16.1).

Gaza was conquered by King David about 1000 BCE. His son Salomon ruled over Gaza (I Kings 5.4), but its population seemed to remain Philistine. The Northern kingdom controlled Gaza after the United Kingdom was divided. With the decline of that kingdom and the subsequent exile of the Ten Tribes in about 730 BCE, Gaza became part of the Assyrian Empire and later part of the Achamenidian Empire of Persia.

Second Temple Period The Jews who returned from Babylonian exile under the leadership of Ezra did not reestablish a Jewish community in Gaza which at that time was a thriving city with a large non-Jewish population. In 332 BCE Alexander the Great conquered the city only after a five months siege. Following his death the area changed hands frequently between the Seleucids Kingdom of Syria and the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. Throughout this time the city, a center of Hellenism, contained few Jews.

The start of Gaza City's Jewish history can be dated to the year 145 BCE. In that year, during one of the numerous Syrian civil conflicts, the Hasmonean army's chief-of-staff Jonathan, the brother of Judah Maccabee who had been killed in battle earlier, allied himself with Antiochus VI of Syria. He was given the task to persuade the citizens of border towns to support Antiochus; he was successful with some of the cities, but the people of Gaza refused his offer, preferring not to take sides. This provoked Jonathan to besiege them, and to harass their country. He set a part of his army round about Gaza itself, and with the rest he overran their land, and spoiled it, and burnt what was in it. (Josephus, Antiquities 13.5.5).

Simon, the Hasmonean brother who acted as head-of-state of the Jewish kingdom, subsequently ordered the establishment of a Jewish colony in the city (1 Maccabees 11:61-62). Later, when Antiochus demanded that the Hasmoneans withdraw to the "green line" of those days, that is, return to him all the captured territories, including Gaza, Simon rejected his ultimatum, stating: We have neither taken foreign land nor seized foreign property, but only the inheritance of our fathers, which at one time had been unjustly taken by our enemies. Now that we have the opportunity, we are firmly holding the inheritance of our fathers. (1 Maccabees 15.33-34)

Before long the Egyptians recaptured the city. When Hasmonean King Alexander Janneus invaded the coastal plain in 100 BCE in order to expand the Judean territory, Gaza's pagan population invited Ptolemy IX of Egypt to come to their defense; he did so with vigor. To counter this threat Alexander Janneus formed an alliance with Ptolemy's mother, Queen Cleopatra III, who sent an army (with two Jewish generals) to oppose Ptolemy. After numerous battles and a year-long siege, Alexander Janneus was able to defeat the Gazan garrison and to capture the city. Gaza remained under Judean control for almost forty years. Then, in 63 BCE, Jerusalem fell to Pompey's Roman. Gaza, together with many other Judean cities, was "freed" and made a part of the Roman province of Syria (Josephus, Antiquities 14.4.4 76). But in 36 BCE the coastal cities, including Gaza were "transferred" to Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. Six years later, after her death, Emperor Octavius Caesar restored Gaza to King Herod, the Roman puppet king of Jerusalem, as a reward for his pledge of allegiance (Antiquities 15.7.3 217). Thus Gaza again became a part of Judea and remained so for the next thirty years, until Herod's death in 4 BCE, when it was attached to Syria. (Antiquities 17.11.4 320).

Gaza's Jewish community continued to exist throughout all these political and military upheavals until 61 CE when a Roman governor evicted all of the Jews from the city. Jewish forces again liberated the city and its environs in the Great War against Roman occupation of Judea, between 67 and 70 AD, but soon afterwards suffered defeat at the hands of the Roman legions who responded by recapturing all of Judea in a bitter and often brutal campaign. Gaza was recaptured by the Romans, but Jews were permitted to continue to live there. During this period it attracted many wealthy Jews.

Talmudic and Byzantine periods While Gaza was considered "a hostile town" during the Second Temple period, things changed radically in the time of the Mishna. A large and important Jewish community was found in this flourishing Roman city. It soon became a center, both for the Jewish and the new Christian communities; this continued throughout the Roman era and the subsequent Byzantine period (324-636 CE). Even under the harsh Byzantine rule, Gaza's Jewish community managed to flourish. For many centuries Gaza served as the primary port of entrance for Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem; they came by ship from Europe and by land from Egypt. It also was the preferred commercial port for the country's Jewish traders.

A number of archeological finds give evidence of the Jewish presence in Gaza during this period. On one of the pillars in the Great Mosque of Gaza City appears the name (in Hebrew and Greek characters) of "Hananya bar Yaakov"; a picture of a menorah is caved above this inscription, while pictures of a shofar and an etrog appear on the sides of the name. This archeological find was discovered in 1870 and was preserved on-site for more than 100 years. It was destroyed bu the Arabs during the First Intifada in 1987.

A mosaic pavement, dated 508/9 CE, was discovered in 1965 by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities in the nearby port city of Maioumas. One of the figures is King David, dressed as Orpheus in Byzantine royal garments, playing the harp. The name "David" in Hebrew letters appears above it. A Greek inscription at the center of the floor mentions the names of two donors (Menahem and Jesse) of the mosaic and indicates that it was dedicated to the "holy place", most probably a synagogue. The elaborate mosaics and the size of the building suggest the existence of a substantial Jewish community at the beginning of the 6th century. This synagogue was destroyed during the Arab conquest.

While most pilgrims only passed through Gaza on their way to Jerusalem, two Karaite sources note that during the years that the Byzantines prohibited Jews from even visiting Jerusalem, Gaza became the preferred destination because here pilgrims were able to set foot in the Holy Land. Sahl ben Mazli'ah (910-990), a 10th century Karaite philosopher, wrote that during the Byzantine period Gaza was one of the three holy cities visited by Jewish pilgrims to Eretz Yisrael, the other two being Tiberias and Zoar.

Early Arab period The invading Arab armies in the 7th century met their first resistance at Gaza City which was defended by a strong Byzantine garrison under the command of Sergius, the provincial governor. Gaza at that time had a large Jewish community; in fact, at this time it had become the most important Jewish community in Judea. The Jews fought alongside the Byzantines to defend the city, but in the end the Arabs defeated the defenders and captured it in 635. It may seem strange that the Jews joined the Byzantines who had discriminated against them throughout the ages; most likely they chose this course because they remembered the severe penalties they had to pay for supporting the Persians against the Byzantines a decade earlier (Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2nd ed., Philadelphia,1957, vol.3, p.87).

There are not many records are available from this period, but several documents found in the Cairo Geniza give evidence of the existence of an important and vital Jewish community in Gaza during the early Muslim period. This is not surprising since under Arab rule of that time all Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria flourished.

The fact that in the 8th century Rabbi Moses, one of the Masorites, lived in Gaza would indicate that the city had become a center of Jewish learning. From a letter dated 1030 we learn that the Jews of southern Palestine found refuge in Gaza. In March 1052 a group of Karaite Jews from Jerusalem and Gazza visited the fields near Gaza to examine whether the growing corn had ripened sufficiently to proclaim Passover. This account indicates that at this time Gaza, in addition to a Rabbinate Jewish community, also had a Karaite Jewish community.

The Cairo Geniza also provides some information about Jewish life in Gaza in the 11th century. One letter written in the name of the Gaza Jewish community bears the signatures fifteen elders. In another letter a Jew from Gaza complained that the local leaders had incited "the boys of the congregation" against him.

Gaza during the Crusades The Crusaders conquered and destroyed Gaza City in 1100. They killed almost all of the local population, including most Jews. They made no effort to rebuild the city. Toward the end of the Crusader period in 1153 the Templers built a fortress and converted the Great Mosque into the Cathedral of Saint John. Saladin's forces recaptured the area in 1170.

Middle Ages After the Muslim reconquest, especially in the 13th century when the Mamluks ruled, the city again prospered. At this time several travelers reported that many Jews lived in the city. Meshullam of Volterra who visited Gaza in 1481 found 50 (or 60) Jewish householders there. He added that these families had a small but pretty synagogue. The city's rabbi was a Rabbi Moses from Prague who had fled there from Jerusalem. All wine used in Gaza was produced by local Jews. Rabbi Obadaiah of Bentinoro visited Gaza a few years later in 1488 and also noted that the rabbi was a certain Moses of Prague who had come from Jerusalem.

At this time the Jews lived in a Jewish Quarter that was located on the highest elevation of Gaza. Even today, this neighborhood is still called "charat al-yahud" (= Jewish Quarter) by the local Arabs. The Catholic Church in this neighborhood is unlike any other church in this country since it faces toward Jerusalem; this orientation and archeological finds suggest that this church was once a synagogue. Several Greek inscriptions found in the church support this hypothesis. One reads: "for the welfare of Jacob ben Elazar and his sons with thanks to God for this holy place."

Ottoman rule TheOttoman Turksconqueredall ofPalestine in1516. Gaza flourished under their rule and the Jewish community experienced a period of prosperity. The Gaza Jewish community at this time had a bet din (rabbinical court) and a yeshiva. It became known as a center of Torah study and Talmudic learning. Some of its rabbis wrote well known scholarly works.

Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra (1479-1573), known as the Radbaz, while still serving in rabbinical posts in Egypt, received several halakhic questions (she'elot) from Gaza farmers concerning the requirements of observing the laws of terumah, ma'asrot, and the sabbatical year in Gaza. His published responses leave no doubt that he considered the city to be an integral part of Eretz Yisrael.

Many Jews fled to Gaza from Spain and Portugal to escape the ravages of the Catholic Inquisition. Others escaped to Gaza from near-by places. The great medieval kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Azoulai (1569-1643) fled from Hebron to Gaza because of an epidemic and lived the last twelve years of his life in Gaza. He is best remembered as the pious scholar who received Heavenly permission to unearth Rabbi Chaim Vital's buried writings. While in Gaza, he wrote two of his best known books - Chesed l'Avraham, an important compendium on mystical topics and Baal Brit Avraham, a commentary on the Tanach.

When the Kairite Samuel ben David visited Gaza in 1641 he noted that it had a Rabbinate synagogue but did not make any mention of a Karaite synagogue. Three hundred years later the geographer Joseph Schwartz reported that he saw in a ruin in Ashkelon "the large and remarkable stones brought from the Synagogue of Gazza" These stones may have come from the synagogue seen earlier by Samuel ben David.

Rabbi Israel Najara (1555-1628), a native of Damascus, spent most of his life in Safed where he was one of the prominent members of the Kabbalistic school. Forced to leave that city because of a deadly plague, he fled to Gaza where he became the Chief Rabbi and president of the Rabbinical Court. Najara passed away in 1628 and is buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Gaza. He is said to have composed 650 hymns, the best known of which is Ya Ribon Olam. His son Moshe Najara was elected Rabbi of Gaza in 1664.

The Gaza Jewish community suffered a near-fatal blow as a result of the Sabbatarian schism that rent the entire Jewish world in the second half of the 17th century. Shabbatai Zevi, the False Messiah, visited Gaza in 1665; the city soon became a center of his pseudo-messianic movement. Nathan of Gaza (1643-1680) became his principle disciple and most effective publicity person. Born in Jerusalem, Nathan married a wealthy Gazan girl whose father stipulated that he settle in Gaza. This marriage permitted him to devote his life to Torah studies, but actually he devoted most of his time to the study of Kabala. Among his published works is Maggid meYesharim, a record of the conversations of Rabbi Yosef Karo with his Heavenly maggid (angelic mentor). It became widely known that he had visions and that he received Heavenly messages. Shabbtai Tzvi heard about him while still in Cairo and decided to visit him. When he entered Nathan's house, the latter fell at his feet and begged forgiveness for not going to him first. Nathan revealed to Shabbtai Tzvi his appointment as prophet and messiah. Most of the Jews of Gaza soon fell under the spell of these two charismatic figures, and the momentum of their movement spread quickly to the rest of the Jewish world. After Shabtai Zvi's apostasy Nathan was excommunicated by the Jerusalem rabbis; feeling that his life was no longer safe in Gaza, he spent the next 14 years traveling throughout Europe in an attempt to proselytize for Sabbatanism. He died in Macedonia in January 1680 without ever returning to Gaza. The Gaza Jewish community never recovered from these events. What was once a large and important Jewish community now was decimated and barely maintained a minyan.

Rabbi Chaim David Azulai (1724-1806), a Jerusalem rabbi known as the idaHida, visited the city in 1753 on his way from Hebron to Egypt. While in Gaza he prayed with a minyan. After some years new Jewish families moved to Gaza because later reports indicate that the city was again an important Jewish center.

In early 1799, Napoleon led an army of 13,000 French soldiers in the conquest of the coastal towns of Palestine. He captured Gaza on February 24 and found that most of the Jews, fearing the worst, had fled to Hebron before his arrival. The remaining Jews abandoned the city when they discovered that Napoleon had failed to restrain the French soldiers and local Arabs from abusing the few Jewish residents that had remained in Gaza. Their flight marked the temporary end of a Jewish presence in the area.

In 1835 the Egyptian governor of Gaza dismantled the large synagogue because all Jews had abandoned the city. He used the stones to build an Egyptian fortress in Ashkelon. When the remnants of the Gaza Jewish community who were living in Hebron heard about this, they rushed to Gaza and rescued the adorned doors of the synagogue, took them to Hebron and installed them in the Avraham Avinu synagogue - where they served as doors for the sanctuary until the synagogue destroyed during the 1929 Arab riots.

It is not entirely clear when Jews returned to Gaza in the 19th century. Yizhak Ben Zvi reports that he heard that Jews were living there already in 1870-72. Yehiel Brill, the editor of Halevanon, the first Hebrew newspaper in Palestine, visited Gaza in 1883 and found four Jewish families. Others report that a group of ninety families settled in the city in the 1870s; most of the settlers engaged in the very profitable barley trade which they purchased from the Bedouins and exported to the beer breweries of Europe.

Zeev Kalonymus Wissotzky (1824-1904), the founder of the famous tea firm, visited Palestine in 1885 as the representative of the Russian Hovevei Zion. He proposed and actively supported a plan for Jews to settle in Arab cities, such as Lod and Gaza, and to engage there in commerce instead of attempting to establish agricultural settlements. Subsequently, a large group of Jews from Jaffo settled in Gaza. Within a year of his visit thirty Jewish families were already living in Gaza. The community had a rabbi-teacher, two slaughterers, a mikva and a cemetery. By the end of the 19th century the Gaza Jewish community counted fifty Jewish families who, according to all reports, established good relations with the local Arab population.

When Arthur Ruppin (1876 - 1943) visited Palestine in 1907 as the representative of the Zionist Organization he reported that Gaza had a Jewish population of 160 Jews (among a total population of forty thousand inhabitants). In 1908 Eliezer Ben Yehuda was invited by some (but not all) of the Jewish residents to open a Hebrew-speaking school in Gaza. He brought two teachers to Gaza and opened the school in 1910.

The continued growth of the Jewish community in the years before the First World War resulted in the establishment of a branch of the "Jewish" Anglo-Palestine Bank in Gaza in 1914. However, few Jews prospered in these years. Lack of employment and trade caused many to leave. So many Jews left Gaza that the Jewish school was forced to close already in 1913. At the outbreak of World War I the Turks, fearing an attack by the British army which was stationed in Egypt, expelled all Gaza residents, including the Jews.

Mandatory period A small number of Jews returned to Gaza in 1920 but, because of the rise of Arab nationalism, Jewish-Arab relations were never again what they had been in the past. During the 1921 Arab riots the small population of Jews was forced to leave the city because they feared for their lives. After half a year of exile some returned but Gaza City never again became a major Jewish center. A 1922 census showed fifty-four Jews living in Gaza. In the 1920s the Jewish community's school never had more than fourteen students. In 1927 there were fifty adults in the city.

The Arab anti-Jewish disturbances and massacres that took place all over Palestine in 1929 also impacted on the Gaza Jewish community. In August of that year British soldiers forced all Gaza Jews to evacuate their homes because they were unable (or unwilling) to protect them from the Arab rioters who had threatened to slaughter all of them. For the next sixteen years no Jew lived in the Gaza strip, but on October 11, 1946, Kibbutz Kfar Darom was established in the east-central part of the Gaza region; this was one of 11 "tower-and-stockade" communities that were built during that month in the northern Negev.

State of Israel. During the1948 War of Independence the members of Kibbutz Kfar Darom withstood repeated assaults by the Egyptian 1st Army Battalion, even when most of the kibbutz buildings were damaged or destroyed. During the first ceasefire of the 1948 War, Egyptian forces regularly sniped atKfar Darom. Two days before the ceasefire collapsed, Prime Minister Ben Gurion ordered the abandonment of Kfar Darom because he did have sufficient solders or arms to continue to defend it. Later the Egyptian army destroyed the abandoned kibbutz.

In November 1956 during the Sinai Campaign Israel conquered Gaza Strip from Egypt. Ben Gurion supported the permanent retention of the Strip to prevent fedayeen terrorist raids and to shore up Israel's defenses. However in March 1957, after the United States threatened to cancel its foreign aid to Israel and to support Israel's expulsion from the UN, Israel was forced to withdraw its forces.

Ten years alter, during the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli forces reentered Gaza and captured it, but at the time the government had no idea what it would do with the territory. Starting in 1970 twenty-one Jewish communities were established in that part of the Gaza Strip that became known as Gush Katif. These communities, scattered throughout the Gaza Strip, occupied about 18 percent of the Strip's 363 square kilometer area. The largest group of settlements was located along the southern Gaza coastline, with another group located along Gaza's northern border with Israel. In August 2005 Israel unilaterally evacuated all Jews (about 1,700 families) from Gaza Strip. The Israel army has entered the strip several times in order to put an end to repeated terrorist attacks on Israel's southern cities, but no attempt has been made to reestablish any of the Jewish settlements.

Summary Throughout the centuries Gaza has been considered an integral part of Eretz Israel - even when Jews were not living there. The traditional pattern has been Jewish settlement in Gaza, followed by Jewish exile from Gaza, and still later the renewal of the Jewish settlement. Will this sequence be followed again in our days? Those Jews who were uprooted from Gush Katif by the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon and his successor, Ehud Olmert, now wait as refugees for an opportunity to return because they, as many other Israelis, are convinced that Gaza is an integral part of Eretz Yisrael.


from the June 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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