Dossier 1914-1918

The Jewish Yishuv in Ottoman Palestine

Contradictions of the Ottoman Policy

Even before the birth of political Zionism and then from 1882, the first wave of Jewish immigration settled in Palestine. On the eve of 1914, Jews accounted for 80 000, namely about 10% of the local population. Was it worth sparing them or considering them as representatives of the Allies? The Ottoman rulers had to face the dilemma.

World War I generated tremendous difficulties and hardship in the Jewish Yishuv (‘settlement’) in Palestine, which at the time numbered only some 10 percent of the general population and was divided along several lines including language, nationality, ethnicity and culture. In the Jewish collective memory the rule of Cemal Pasha is negatively associated with his stern opposition to Zionism; his expulsion of the Jewish population of Jaffa and Tel-Aviv in the spring of 1917 when the British were approaching Palestine’s southern border, which led to the death of hundreds if not more from disease, starvation, and poor sanitary conditions; the traumatic events surrounding the discovery of the ‘Netzah Israël Lo Yeshaker’ Nili underground network in the autumn of 1917, including the suicide of its member Sarah Aaronsohn who was subjected to torture and the execution of two other members of the underground in Damascus; and finally the constant fear of sharing the destiny of the Armenians.

It is highly instructive to examine how the ways in which the events of WWI are portrayed in the histories produced by the various countries that arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Clearly these histories are still mainly written from nationalist perspectives based on local or Western sources with very little reference if at all to the Ottoman perspective, Ottoman considerations, or Ottoman sources. In recent years the Ottoman archive in Istanbul, which is under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office of Turkey has been progressively catalogued, computerized, and opened to researchers from all over the world. The only sections that are still restricted are those concerning delicate and sensitive matters such as events surrounding the Armenian tragedy. With regards to such files censorship and other restrictions are still apparently enforced.

Enciphered telegrams between Istanbul and the Ottoman authorities in Greater Syria during the War, which are available today to researchers, shed new light on the history of this period in Palestine as elsewhere in the Empire. Such material contributes to historical research on this period whose events are still subject to controversy and debate. They enable rare insights into issues that concerned the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul as well as the Levant at the time, such as the future of the region, the fate of the people of Palestine, public opinion in Europe with regards to the Empire’s population, spies and spying, displacements of populations, and the like.

Contradictory policy towards the Yishuv

As far as the Jewish Yishuv is concerned, the most conspicuous feature of the Ottoman coded correspondence is the difference of opinion between Cemal Pasha who was the commander of the Fourth Army and the Syrian front at the time and the views expressed by the center in Istanbul, particularly by the Minister of the Interior Mehmet Talat Pasha. These two individuals, along with Ismail Envar Pasha, the Minister of War, were part of what is often referred to in the literature as the “triumvirate” which led the Empire collectively during the War.

The telegrams indicate that the Ottoman capital received many inquiries from European consuls and others asking about the Jewish situation in Palestine, often presumably in response to complaints by local Jews who witnessed the events themselves. Istanbul constantly requested clarifications with regard to the situation of the Jews and asked about the accommodation, food and medicine provided for those who were expelled and whether they were treated justly. It even stressed that Jews should not be treated categorically as collaborators of the enemy and that every effort should be made to preserve their support and to encourage them to embrace the attitude of the general public in Palestine vis-à-vis the Ottoman state. Moreover, Istanbul was very concerned about European, American, and the public opinion of world Jewry with regard to the Jews and suggested conciliatory measures.

A law against Zionist activity

By contrast, Cemal Pasha continued stressing the threats posed by Zionist activity, proposed a plan to curb it, and voiced growing impatience with regard to Istanbul’s inquiries. It is unclear whether this was his personal agenda or a policy based on his impressions on the ground. In one of his telegrams to Istanbul, for example, Cemal Pasha wrote to Talat Pasha that he had made arrests in Zionists circles, which he thought were a great danger to the future of Palestine. He mentions that the Zionists had established an independent court in Jaffa and constantly attempted to increase their independence. He suggested that Ottoman law should be enforced with regard to the Zionists and further Jewish immigration should be prevented, even if the newcomers were willing to accept Ottoman citizenship. In addition, he worked to:

- impede the expansion of the colonies;
- stop foreign Jews from engaging in any activity which had to do with settlement activity in Palestine;
- expel anyone who was involved in secret activity;
- force those who had already settled in Palestine to become Ottomans and act within the framework of the Ottoman law;
- prevent Russian Jews from being granted Ottoman citizenship;
- and abolish special laws that allowed Jews who immigrated to settle in various parts of the Empire easily while benefitting from various concessions.

Not to displease Europe nor America

In a situation of war with the Entente Powers, the foreign nationality of most of the Jews worried the Ottoman government, particularly given the precedent of Armenian ties with Russia which the Ottomans perceived as a threat to the integrity of the Empire that might repeat itself. Therefore they ascribed great importance to minimizing Jewish national activity in Palestine. Yet, seeing the larger picture, Istanbul constantly asked Cemal Pasha to provide information on the fate of the populations expelled from Jaffa and Gaza and sent to the interior. It inquired whether they were provided with food, medicine, and accommodation and asked for Cemal Pasha’s opinion about the possible return of some of them to their places of residence. It also demanded that Jerusalem avoid thrusting the Jewish population into the arms of the enemy and try to muster support among the Jews that was equivalent to that of the general public (or at least make sure that they stayed neutral).

Another prominent topic in the telegrams is Istanbul’s sensitivity to European and American public opinion, and particularly that of its key ally Germany and American Jewry, with regards to the way Palestine’s Jewish population was treated. Its embassies thus paid close attention to reactions in the European press and reported back to Istanbul. This information was then passed on to Istanbul with recommendations on how to improve the Empire’s image. Some reports were then transferred to the local Ottoman authorities in the Levant and the Ottoman foreign ministry tried to convince them to cooperate with efforts to improve the Empire’s image and pacify public opinion in Europe, especially with regard to Jews who ’were expelled from Jaffa and Gaza’. It suggested, for example, asking a neutral consul such as the Spanish representative to write a report about the situation on the ground and to distribute it in Europe as a counterweight to fake anti-Ottoman reports in the European media, or authorizing a well-known German correspondent to tour the country and report back. The Foreign Ministry stressed that the explanations provided by the Empire regarding the situation of the Jews were well received in Europe and could gradually lead to a shift in public opinion there. It also asked Cemal Pasha about ways to deal with the damage to the Empire’s image in American public opinion caused by telegrams sent by Jewish deportees from Jaffa who were currently in Alexandria and Port Saʿid in Egypt.

Activities of Nili

The NILI affair is also mentioned in the enciphered correspondence between Istanbul and the Levant. Most probably one of the colonists of Zikhron Yaʿaqov who witnessed a search in the colony by the local Ottoman authorities from Haifa submitted a complaint, perhaps through one of the consuls. Beirut was asked by Istanbul to investigate allegations that several people were badly beaten during the hunt to eradicate the underground movement and that one woman committed suicide after being caught and tortured (the famous Sarah Aaronsohn). The kaymakam of Haifa allegedly threatened the colonists that their fate would be similar to that of the Armenians if they did not extradite Yosef Lishansky, a NILI activist who was wanted by the authorities. In order to better convey his threat, the kaymakam allegedly emphasized his previous role in the Armenian massacres.

This comparison to the Armenian genocide, which has not received enough attention in the literature despite being familiar from several Hebrew sources, is nevertheless crucial. On the one hand, many in the Yishuv were indeed afraid that their fate would be similar to the Armenians and hence opposed NILI’s activity to avoid the inevitable Ottoman revenge. NILI supporters, on the other hand, argued that if the Yishuv did not help overthrow the Ottomans and assist the British, their destiny might be similar to that of the Armenians.

Thus, the centenary of the First World War has elicited growing interest in this period, not only in academic circles but also in the general public, and has led to debates and numerous publications of various kinds. However there is a disparity between the way academic researchers perceive the complexity of events, and the public memory which preserves a more simplistic outlook, which is often connected to national narratives. The example of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine and the way it was treated by the Ottomans teaches us that the way this period is perceived in the Jewish collective memory as a period of anti-Zionistic, cruel and capricious rule, does not necessarily fit the picture identified in research. There the Ottoman policy is much more complex and rational and even involved differences of opinion and tensions between various Ottoman functionaries. This was concretized for example in the stern, brutal measures taken by the government but also in its constant fears of the effects of European and American public opinion on the Empire’s image in the world, and even its defeat.