Gaza’s Forgotten Jewish Past

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by Aaron Feigenbaum

Considering recent headlines, it’s hard to imagine that the Gaza Strip, a coastal region of modern Israel plagued by conflict and Islamic extremism, was not always the Jewish no-man’s land that it is today. In fact, Jews had a significant presence and rich culture in Gaza that dates to Biblical times. Gazan Jews out-lasted many empires throughout the centuries until they were evicted in the Disengagement of 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This article will outline the course of Gaza’s Jewish history, providing a glimpse into one of the most under-appreciated and politically relevant chapters of our past.

Map

Gaza (called Azza in Hebrew) is first mentioned in the Tanakh by name as one of the five main Philistine cities. The Philistines (also called Kaftorim in the Tanakh) had conquered the land from the Avvites (Devarim 2:23) who had made Gaza an important administrative center. Gaza is best known in the Tanakh as the place where Shimshon performed his heroic feats of strength and where he was later betrayed and killed. Gaza was given to the Israelites and added to the territory of the tribe of Yehuda (see Yehoshua 15:47, Shoftim 1:18 and 2 Melakhim 18:5-8). While the political borders of Gaza have changed since Biblical times, many argue that most, if not all, of modern-day Gaza is indeed part of Biblical Israel.

In fact, the renowned authority Rabbi Yaakov Emden wrote “Gaza and its environs are absolutely considered part of the Land of Israel, without a doubt. There is no doubt that it is a mitzvah to live there, as in any part of the Land of Israel.” (Mor U’ketziyah) As for the Philistines, most scholars argue that they are long extinct as a people and thus bear no relation to the modern-day Palestinians.

After David’s defeat of Goliath and the subsequent downfall of the Philistines, Gaza entered a long period of political turmoil. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Ptolemean Greeks all laid claim to Gaza. Notably, Gaza City was the only city that resisted Alexander the Great’s army.

Though the land was awarded to the Children of Israel in the time of Yehoshua ben Nun, Gaza didn’t come into the possession of the Jews until centuries later in 145 B.C.E. during the Hasmonean civil war. The conquest of Gaza came at the hands of Judah HaMaccabi’s brother King Yochanan the Hasmonean 22 years after Judah and his warriors claimed victory over the Greek pagan king Antiochus Epiphanies.

After the Roman invasion, Emperor Augustus gave the town to the infamous King Herod. However, the Roman governor Gabinius made Gaza an exclusively Roman city in 61 C.E. and expelled the Jews. Jewish forces briefly held the town in the great revolt of 67-70 C.E. but were finally defeated by Rome.

The later defeat of Bar Kokhba’s Second Jewish Revolt in 135 C.E. left the Jewish population in ruins with many sent to the Gazan slave markets (the Tanakh mentions slavery in Gaza in Amos 1:6-7).

In the 4th century, Jews returned to Gaza and made it a thriving commercial port and point of entry for Jews coming to the Holy Land.

Later in 635 C.E., the Romans (now called the Byzantines) were defeated by the conquering Arab army and the region was added to the Islamic empire. Gaza was held by the Crusaders in the early 12th century until it fell once again to the Muslims at the hands of Saladin. The Jewish community declined until the Ottoman empire took over Gaza, along with the rest of Eretz Yisrael.

During the Ottoman period, several notable Jewish figures made Gaza their home. For example, we have Rabbi Yisrael Najara who served as Gaza’s Chief Rabbi and chief of the city’s beis din. He also wrote many beautiful poems and hymns including the famous Zemiros Yisrael and Kah Ribbon Olam which are now key parts of our tefillos. Another important Gazan was the Moroccan-born Rabbi Avraham Azulai, a famous Kabbalistic author who wrote Chesed le-Avraham.

Hesed_leavraham

The Jews of Gaza suffered another brief setback when the French, with the help of the local Arab population, invaded in 1799 and set about persecuting the Jewish community.

All went well after that until August 1929 when Arab riots killed an estimated 135 Jews. As a result the British administration expelled the small Jewish population from Gaza both for their “protection” and to appease Arab sentiments. Despite British wishes though, a few Jews returned and established Kfar Darom, the first modern settlement, in 1946.

This settlement didn’t last very long as Egyptian forces conquered Gaza City and the newly created Gaza Strip during the War of Independence in 1948. The Egyptian occupation was made official as stipulated in the 1949 Armistice Agreement and many Arabs from the rest of Israel moved to Gaza during this period. Egyptian rule in Gaza lasted until the Six-Day War of 1967 when it was liberated by Israeli forces.

The settlement movement began with the re-establishment of Kfar Darom in 1970 and expanded greatly over the next three decades. Before the 2005 Disengagement, there were a total of 21 Gazan settlements including the huge 17-settlement bloc of Gush Katif on the southern coast. The Oslo Accords of 1993 preceded the Disengagement with Israel handing over control of some parts of Gaza to the PLO.

The settlements sustained heavy rocket fire in the Second Intifada but still persisted. With the Disengagement plan, a total of 1,700 Jewish families were expelled at a cost of almost $900 million. These families included farmers who contributed millions to the Israeli economy every year. Many of the families were forced to live in refugee camps for several years and their lives were greatly disrupted. Meanwhile, Hamas and Palestinian mobs looted settlements and bulldozed shuls with police looking on. A museum in the Mahane Yehuda Market section of Jerusalem commemorates the way of life that was tragically lost in the Disengagement. As of now, there are no Jews living in Gaza and most, if not all, physical evidence of Gaza’s Jewish history has been destroyed.

Some of this physical evidence includes a mosaic depicting David written in Hebrew found on the shore of Gaza’s harbor in 1965 by the Egyptian Antiquities Authority. Another notable discovery attesting to the Jews’ millennia-old presence in Gaza is an ancient shul, excavated by an Israeli archaeologist in 1967, that dates back to the 6th century C.E. Ironically, researchers also found a Talmudic-era relief on a pillar of the Great Mosque of Gaza depicting a shofar, menorah, and lulav. Tradition states that this mosque was the original site of the pagan Philistine temple which Shimshon destroyed. In addition to the numerous verses in the Tanakh, these and other archaeological finds provide proof of a Jewish presence in Gaza dating back to at least 1500 B.C.E.

Menorah engraving, Great Mosque of Gaza

A carving of of the Menorah at the great Mosque of Gaza

(Sources: Jewish Virtual Library, Jewish Encyclopedia, Victor Sharpe writing for American Thinker, Gary Fitleberg writing for Israel National News)