Forgotten: 1917 Jewish Refugees
Forgotten: 1917 Jewish Refugees

The outbreak of World War I, on August 1, 1914, had dire consequences for the over 90,000 Jews of Eretz Yisrael.

During the traumatic days of the First World War, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael faced a brutal wave of persecution. This wave intensified over Passover, 1917, when Jewish communities were forced from their homes to wander as refugees within their own land who would return to their homes a year and a half later.

On October 28, 1914, the Ottoman Turks made a monumental decision and joined the War on the side of the Central Powers with the Germans, and  Austrio-Hungarian Empire. Jews in Eretz Yisrael with Russian citizenship, now being deemed within the enemy camp, faced the brunt of Ottoman Turkish oppression. By the end of the year almost 12,000 Jews had fled, or had been expelled, mostly to Alexandria Egypt. Some Jews faced conscription into the Turkish army.

Over the next few years Jewish suffering would increase in the Land due to the shortages of supplies, the hoarding of supplies by the Turks, and the stoppage of a large percentage of relief funds from Russian Jewry, resulting in starvation and disease. By the end of the war, the numbers of Jews of Eretz Yisrael were reduced to less than half of what they were in 1914. A large segment of the population was lost to starvation and disease.

As British forces eventually pushed through Gaza into Eretz Yisrael, in early 1917 to oust the Turks; persecutions of the Jews intensified. On March, 28, 1917, the Ottoman Governor, Jamal Pasha ordered the forced evacuation of the total populations of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The Pasha sought to further punish the Jews, and declared that their joy at the arrival of the British would be short lived. The Pasha also stated that the Jews would share the fate of the Armenians, who were being slaughtered by Turkish troops.

As Turkish allies, German Jews spoke out against the persecution. Socialist deputy of the Reichstag Emmanuel Cohn issued a formal complaint to the German Chancellor protesting the atrocities. One German Jewish Newspaper emphasizing Jewish unity stated, “Jews, at this time, all Jewry must prove that it will not desert the pioneers of our generation in the land of our fathers. We approach all Jewry with an urgent appeal. Help! Help! Quickly! Help with love! Jewry must do its duty.”

Some pressure also bore upon the Pasha from American Jewry. A few examples: Forcing the Pasha to allow a few doctors to accompany the exiles and allowing some Jewish guards to protect homes in Tel Aviv.

On April 1, the order was put into effect, which stated that all had to be out of their homes by the 9thof April: The day after Passover. The Pasha stated that those who did not leave during the Passover holiday would be forced out without their belongings. The exodus of several thousand began immediately.  There were no means of transportation; they could only transport those who could not walk and their belongings in carts. Even before their departure, Bedouin gangs were pillaging their homes, under the complicit eyes of the authorities.

It was a scene of tragedy. The roads from the Jewish colonies were swarmed with men, women, and children, roaming helplessly, starving, homeless, facing attacks by bandits. Some of the young men from local settlements tried to protect them, but with limited success as refugees were found along the roads murdered.

Many of the refugees scattered to Tiberius, Kvar Saba, Petach Tikvah, Zichron Yaakov, the Galilee, and some wound up in Jerusalem where three hundred Jews were forced out just weeks earlier.

At that time, assistance was requested from the Jewish communities of the Galilee, who responded with the words, “We are your brothers” helping evacuees leave and to find lodging in communities in the North. Other communities as well opened their doors to refugees saving thousands of lives.

Many perished from starvation, and disease. Two hundred and twenty four evacuees were buried in Kefar Saba, 321, in Tiberius, 104, in Sefad, 15 in Haifa, 75 in Damascus. In total, an estimated 1,500 died out of an estimated 10,000 evacuees.

The new city of Tel Aviv, built up in only eight years, was pillaged and abandoned, as were the Jewish neighborhoods of Jaffa.

Amid the tragedy, relief was on the way with the eventual arrival of the British. Alongside were troops of the 38thand 39thbattalion of the Jewish Legion which joined the fighting on June 5, 1918.

Only after the war ended in October 1918, would the Jews be able to return to their homes, and continue their lives with the bitter memories of April 1917. By the Simchat Torah holiday, a Jewish presence was reestablished in Tel Aviv.

 The descendants of those who survived the travails at Passover time in 1917 are the realization of the words of the Psalms, 125:6, “those who plant with tears, reap with joy.”