Who's Afraid of Acco?
Who's Afraid of Acco?

Always seeking to increase our knowledge of Israel's tourist sites we tour guides take refresher tours form time to time.

Recently I joined a group of my colleagues on an in depth tour of the famous ancient port city of Acco on Israel's northern coast. Acco is a gem of history, archeology and folk lore. 

Whether it is the ancient Egyptians,  the Maccabees. Maimonides, Richard the Lion Hearted, Napoleon , the Jewish underground fighters breaking out from the British “Bastille” or the victorious Israeli army of 1967; Acco has seen them all. Its winding old streets and alleys, its picturesque fishing port, all seem eager to tell their story.

Foremost is  the former Turkish/British prison and fortress, where the Jewish underground fighters of the Irgun and the Lechi were imprisoned and nine of them hanged by the British occupation. The museum there offers a state of the art series of presentations that, using the back drop of the actual prison locations, offer a dramatic reenactment and explanation of the events and the zeit geist.

A hand full of determined young men and women defeated the British empire and won their people's independence for the first time in two thousand years. Not a bad story line. If you are a movie goer, you may remember how in “Exodus”,  Paul Newman ran along the roofs as he blew a hole in the prison walls

But our story does not begin with the Hollywood movie.   Archeology has uncovered remains from the times or Alexander the Great who  used the Acco (called Acre) port to disembark on his way to dislodge the Persians.   Yonatan the Maccabee was murdered by his Greek hosts and buried near the “Land Gate “ of Acco.  There are Roman remains from the time when their Legions entered the land through Acco on their way to suppress the Great Jewish Revolt, eventually destroying the Temple in Jerusalem

Jewish slaves  were shipped to Rome from this port.

Still, the most extensive unearthings are by far those of the Crusader kingdom.  When the horde of French and Italians suddenly appeared on the horizon, it was too late for the Muslim defenders to put up a good enough fight. Acco was stormed by the knights of the Crusades in 1096 when Muslims and Jews fought and fell before the sword liberating the holy Land for Christendom. In 1099 Jerusalem was sacked.

When Saladin finally defeated the Crusaders , Richard the Lion Hearted was able to hang on to the port city of Acco for another fifty years until the last Crusader set sail for home.

It is this Crusader city that has been and is still being excavated in a truly impressive way. Since later Mamluk and Ottoman residents built upon the Crusader ruins, the latter were allowed to sleep in the dust of time undisturbed until recently  Hall after hall, on to secret escape tunnels, the knights' grand dining rooms - all are as they looked when the swords and shields were gashing and pounding.

With Saladin' s ultimate victory over the western invaders, famous Jewish luminaries came from the corners of the diaspora to make Acco their home.  Rabbi Yechiel of Paris and a few hundred of the great “ba'ale tosafot”, the post-Rashi sages who wrote Talmudic commentaries in the middle ages, set up a yeshiva in Acco. Eventually the great Ramban – Nachmanadies-- became the head of the Torah studies there.

The Rambam, Maimonides, entered into the land of Israel through Acco port and the spot where he set foot on Israeli soil is named after him.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, hundreds of years later, found himself in Acco at an unpropitious time. He had visited the Holy land and Jerusalem and was ready to depart form Acco when Napoleon began his siege of the city. He escaped on a Muslim ship and was given a gun to help in the battle against the French, a far cry from what he had planned.

When Napoleon made his bid for Mid East conquest, he tried to sway the Turkish governor's key Jewish adviser to join him. He issued the French precursor to the 1917 English ”Balfour Declaration” in which he acknowledged the Jewish longing for their land. He agreed that it was just to restore it to them after their long suffering and longing to come home.

Napoleon promised to make it happen if he won. However, Chaim Farchi, the Pasha's (Al Jazir -” the Butcher”) adviser would not betray his master. Napoleon lost the battle and Chaim Farchi was eventually executed by the Pasha's heir anyway. So much for Jews being rewarded for loyalty.  One wonders, what if Napoleon had indeed won..?..

The Ramchal and the Ohr Hachaim, two famous Jewish scholars, made Acco their home in the eighteenth century.  Today, the synagogue named after the Ramchal is a lone Jewish out post in the otherwise Arab Old city His original synogouge  was  turnd into a mosque and visitors who look obviously Jewish are forbidden entrance.

In 1936 when the Arabs launched one of their rounds of pogroms as the British looked on, Acco's Jews fled , not to return until 1948 when it was liberated by the Israeli army. Many Arabs fled the fighting and Jews forced to flee their homes in Arab lands moved in. There were some wise Arabs who stayed and became Israeli citizens, the only Arabs in the Middle  East enjoying  democracy and civil liberties.

In the last years the Arab population has been expanding to former Jewish neighborhoods and there have been some Arab riots and intimidation as a group of young Jews moved in around the Hesder Yeshiva in an attempt to stem the tide of Jewish flight form the city that is a treasure of Jewish history and martyrdom

The forty artistic signs placed above Jewish land marks in the old city were torn all down by the “Muslim Movement of thhe North" They were replaced with verses of the Koran. The Koranic verses are undisturbed. Our guide apologized in a hushed voice, carefully looking around her, saying "what can you do, at least they are not rioting.." 

 The latest battle for the city is being fought in the real estate offices. I had .occasion to look at a number of buildings in the “changing” , formerly solid, Jewish areas These israelis fled Arab mobb in the 'old country' and are doing the same in their own  “new country”.  It was an eerie site to see many apartments with the mezuzas torn off the door posts and pictures of Mecca instead.

This is the latest battle for Acco. No storming of the walls or cannon fire. It is in the real estate offices where the silent victory or defeat is being determined. I was told by agents that Jews sell to any one in their desire to flee the “changing neighborhood”. Arabs never sell to Jews.

 Paul Newman where  are you! 

[Postscript:: Zionist, idealistic young Israeli families are making it a point to make their homes in Acco today, the site of so much Jewish history. This is fraught  with difficulty, as Arab desecration of holy Torahs and vandalism  have shown, but they are undaunted. For more on present day Acco, click here..]