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Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The First Jerusalem Liberation Day in the Modern Era – in 1917

Filed under: Jerusalem in Historical Context

The First Jerusalem Liberation Day in the Modern Era – in 1917
British General Edmund Allenby enters Jerusalem on December 11, 1917. Only days earlier, the city was still under the administration of the Ottoman Empire, a 400-year-long occupation. (Library of Congress.)

While Israel and its friends commemorate and celebrate the anniversary of Jerusalem’s unification in 1967, bear in mind that the battle for Jerusalem was the climax of a broad existential war and involved “only” the political, religious, and geographic status of the Holy City.

The British liberation of Jerusalem in December 1917, however, marks nothing less than the physical salvation of the city’s Jewish population suffering from starvation, plague, exile, squalor, and death. It also saved the town from physical destruction by warring armies.

In the scope of Jewish history, the liberation of Jerusalem in 1917 ranks with the salvation holidays of Hanukkah and Purim. Fittingly, the British army entered the city on the eve of Hanukkah in 1917.

German General Erich Von Falkenhayn, the commander of the Turkish and German armies in Palestine, countermanded the Turkish expulsion order of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and ordered the retreat of Turkish soldiers so that Jerusalem would not be destroyed. The Turks were furious and demanded the German officer’s recall.1

The Trouble Started in 1914

With the encouragement of their German allies, the Ottoman army in Palestine began their preparations in 1914 to attack British positions along the Suez Canal. The canal was a critical artery between Britain and its colonies in the east. The attack took place in January 1915.

Turkish troops leaving Jerusalem, passing through the Jaffa Gate. 1914
Turkish troops leaving Jerusalem, passing through the Jaffa Gate. 1914 (From the author’s collection, Ottoman Imperial Archives)

The Turks declared universal conscription in Palestine to bolster their forces, and Jewish men were rounded up and sent to the front lines or to work details. In addition, supplies, livestock, and equipment were plundered from the local population.

Reservists and recruits rounded up in Palestine by the Turks being marched unwillingly to barracks
The caption reads: “Reservists and recruits rounded up in Palestine by the Turks being marched unwillingly to barracks. [In the right picture:] “Troops of the Turkish Regular Army marching newly-raised levies [loot] through Jerusalem to camp in readiness for their projected attack on Egypt.” (From the author’s collection, Ottoman Imperial Archives)

Hemda Ben Yehuda, the wife of the Hebrew scholar Eliezer Ben Yehuda, described the forced conscription in the 1918 book Jerusalem: Its Redemption and Future: “Turkish officials visited the villages and returned driving flocks of young men who were drafted into the army.”2

On August 31, 1914, the American ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, sent an urgent telegram to the New York Jewish tycoon Jacob Schiff. ”Palestinian Jews facing terrible crisis,” he wrote. ”Belligerent countries [England, France, Russia] stopping their assistance. Serious destruction threatens thriving colonies. Fifty thousand dollars…needed [to] support families whose breadwinners have entered army.” Signed “Morgenthau.”3

A letter seeking support for a Jerusalem soup kitchen

In a letter seeking support for a Jerusalem soup kitchen, the American Colony in Jerusalem sent a letter to an American supporter, saying, “[The] government commandeering not only animals but every requirement of life, the wholesale drafting of the manpower, and the dearth of business, since being entirely cut off from communication with the outside world, all these things brought people to an unbelievable state of poverty.”4

1915 and Nature’s Devastating Plague

The locust invasion started seven days ago and covered the sky. Today, it took the locust clouds two hours to pass over the city. God protect us from the three plagues: war, locusts, and disease, for they are spreading through the country. Pity the poor.

– Diary entry for March 29, 1915, by Jerusalemite Ihsan Hasan al-Turjman. In April 1915, he noted the spread of cholera throughout Jerusalem.5

The description “a plague of Biblical proportions” was no exaggeration of the scope of the locust attack that hit Syria and Palestine. According to one analyst, the resulting famine was the “cause of the death of 100,000–200,000 people who died from starvation or starvation-related diseases” between November 1915 and November 1916.6

A tree before the locusts struck
A tree before the locusts struck (Library of Congress)7
Same tree after the locusts hit
Same tree after the locusts hit (Library of Congress)8

American Colony member John Whiting was active in efforts to combat the swarms of locusts and chronicled their life cycle in a series of photographs.9 He wrote, “The locusts were so voracious and numerous that they could swarm over an unguarded infant and devour its eyes within a few minutes.”10 Alexander Aaronson reported seeing “Arab babies, left by their mothers in the shade of some tree, whose faces had been devoured by the oncoming swarms of locusts before their screams had been heard.”11

The locust plague occasionally received coverage in the international press, such as this story in the New York Times from April 23, 1915, which reported “Many Deaths from Starvation Reported.”

New York Times article

The revered Jewish sage Rabbi Aryeh Levin (1885-1969) lost two daughters to the famine in Jerusalem.12

Some Women Were Forced to Go “to the Wrong”

Desperate for food and care for their children and not knowing the fate of their husbands, some women of Jerusalem turned to prostitution.

“Women sold their babies to get money or bread, or left their babies in front of the American Colony,” according to Van Leer Institute’s Abigail Jacobson. “Moreover,” Jacobson continued, “girls and women ‘went to the wrong with German and Turkish troops because they had not enough to live from,’ alluding to the growing phenomenon of prostitution, one of the effects of the war on women.”13

Ronald Storrs, the first British governor of Jerusalem during the British Mandate, recorded in his diary, there were “many ladies of doubtful reputation….On our entry into Jerusalem, we had found no less than 500 such women living in a special quarter.” Storrs “abolished the quarter.”14

The Treatment of Jews

Across Palestine, the Turks ruled with cruelty and rapaciousness. All citizens suffered, especially Jews and Armenian Christians. In December 1914, the Turks expelled 6,000 Jews of Russian origin from Jaffa. With Russia at war with Germany and Turkey, Russian Jews were seen as a fifth column. They were evacuated by U.S. Navy ships to Alexandria. In April 1917, another 8,000-10,000 Jews from Jaffa and Tel Aviv were expelled.

Expelled Jews arriving in Alexandria, Egypt
Expelled Jews arriving in Alexandria, Egypt, in late 1914 or early 1915 on the USS Tennessee (Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center)15

Hemda Ben Yehuda described conditions in the land at the time:

The [Jaffa Turkish] military commander Hassan Bey knew no limits to…wickedness. The [Turks] began by a systematic persecution of the Jews. They arrested the Hebrews, cross-examined them; accused them of concealing arms; of evading military service; of belonging to secret societies; and of working in opposition to the government. After being cast into prison, they were spit upon, beaten, deprived of their watches and money, fined heavily and then released!

More troops of [the Ottoman] military arrived, and on the pretext of military necessity, the government took possession of the remaining supplies in the city and occupied the public buildings that belonged to the enemy countries, the hospitals, orphanages, schools, convents, and monasteries.

Ten thousand Jews left Jerusalem in one week. The streets were filled with the exiles who had no carriages and conveyed their baggage on their own backs. In Jaffa, 700 Jews were commanded to leave the country in two hours.16

Harassed Jewish beggar in Jerusalem
Harassed Jewish beggar in Jerusalem. The picture was taken by a German officer and captioned “a typical merchant in a Jerusalem street market, 1917.” No mention is made of the man being a Jew, although the description of a “merchant” may have been a reference to Fagin, the “Merchant of Venice.” (Imperial War Museum, Q 86351)17
Executions in Jerusalem in 1917
Another picture taken by a captured German officer. Caption: “Hangings outside Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem. Arabs, Armenians, Bedouins, Jews” – official Turkish photo, circa 1917. File number FL1533796. (State Library, New South Wales, Australia)18

By 1917, Jerusalem’s Jewish residents were nearly eradicated. Some 2,700 orphans wandered in the streets.19 The weakened population fell victim to cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid. Ben Yehuda reported:

Most of the houses were closed because the inhabitants were dead, or deported, exiled, or in prison. Deserted were the streets. One dreaded being seen outdoors for fear of falling victim to the rage of the Turks. The women kept house underground, but there was little food to prepare. They had forgotten the appearance of a loaf of bread. The babies died for lack of milk.

Hemda Ben Yehuda described terrifying scenes that we recognize from the Nazi Holocaust.

Fervent prayers were rudely interrupted by the intrusion of Turkish soldiers [who] entered and penetrated down to the cellars and arrested the defenseless Hebrews. They tore the husbands from the arms of their wives and separated the children from their parents….The soldiers goaded them forward like cattle to the assembly places where those who were to be deported were gathered together. The wives and the young women threw themselves upon the necks of their husbands and fathers and brothers, insisting that they should share the horrors of this terrible forced journey. The victims were taken away in the direction of Jericho.

What Could Have Happened to Jerusalem

“Scorched earth” is an apt description of some of the Turkish-British battle sites in Palestine. The aftermath of the battles in Gaza in early 1917 certainly attests to the destruction of the war. Jerusalem would be no different.

Gaza after the two battles in March and April 1917
Gaza after the two battles in March and April 1917 (Library of Congress)20

After capturing Be’er Sheva in October 1917, the British and ANZAC forces turned toward Jerusalem. The prominent hilltop of Nebi Samuel, just three miles north of Jerusalem, was the site of a battle in November 17-24, 1917, between three British and three Turkish divisions.

From her vantage point in Jerusalem, Hemda Ben Yehuda described what she heard: “Even in these hiding places [in cellars of Jerusalem], one heard the roar of Turkish cannon, which was directed against “Nebi Samuel” (the Tomb of Samuel), where the English had fortified themselves.”

Nebi Samuel before the battle
Nebi Samuel before the battle (Library of Congress)21
Nebi Samuel after the battle
Nebi Samuel after the battle (Library of Congress)22

The Redemption of Jerusalem Begins

Hemda Ben Yehuda and the Turks, themselves, describe the last days of Turkish rule of Jerusalem:

Ben Yehuda: The Turkish cannon was destroying the Tomb of Samuel, and the English were making a movement whose objective was to encircle Jerusalem. The Turks and Germans commanded that the city should be defended, and they sent for reinforcements from Damascus. The garrison was not sufficiently strong in numbers or in morale to sustain the attack without aid. When the reinforcements failed to arrive, the Turks perceived that they would be obliged to evacuate. In great haste, they arrested everyone whom they caught on the streets….For the last time on leaving, the hated Turkish soldiers had entered the houses to rob and to spoil, and to carry off everything they could lay their hands on.23

German General Erich von Falkenhayn did not send reinforcements to Jerusalem because he did not want the relics and the holy places damaged because of severe fighting….Dissatisfaction with the advice and command of General Falkenhayn was growing. His inability resulted in the loss of the Gaza-Beersheba line. His refusal to send reinforcements resulted in the loss of Jerusalem….[Turkish leader] Enver Pasha was losing patience too. On February 24, 1918, he replaced Falkenhayn.24

Turkish troops entering Jaffa Gate from the countryside gathered in Jerusalem before their retreat on December 8, 1917
Turkish troops entering Jaffa Gate from the countryside gathered in Jerusalem before their retreat on December 8, 1917. (Author’s collection). The building on the left is a store where the Bezalel Art School sold souvenirs. The name Bezalel is on the tower top. (The picture was also found at Monash University, Australia)25
The surrender of Jerusalem, December 9, 19017
The surrender of Jerusalem, December 9, 19017. Handwritten caption: “The Mayor of Jerusalem Hussein Effendi El Husseini meeting with Sgts Sedgewick and Hurcomb…London Regiment, under the White Flag of Surrender, December 9th at 8 a.m.”26

Details on Jerusalem’s surrender will appear in another chapter and will include details from the grandchildren of the photographer and one of the British sergeants.

From the Depths of Despair

Hemda Ben Yehuda bemoaned:

Hanukkah, the Feast of Deliverance in former days, and now approaching as the day of destruction! The women, weeping, prepared the oil for the sacred lights, and even the men wept, saying that this would be the last time they should keep the feast in Jerusalem! They strained their ears to hear the horses’ hoofs and the tread of the soldiers coming to arrest them and drive them forth. The women pressed their children to their breasts, crying: “They are coming to take us!”

Then, suddenly, other women came rushing from outside down into the depths, crying: “Hosanna! Hosanna! The English! The English have arrived!” Weeping and shouting for joy, Jews and Christians, trembling and stumbling over one another, emerged and rushed forth from the caverns and holes and underground passages. Pious Jews uttered thanksgivings to the Lord God of Hosts who had wrought deliverance in this great historic day, in the very hour of the beginning of Hanukkah, the Feast of the Miracle of Lights.

To the Heights of Joy

On the next day after the beginning of Hanukkah, the troop of English conquerors entered and shared their own bread with the famished populace, and offered the support of their hands to the feeble and the aged. On the following day, when the great English army entered the city, the women threw themselves on the necks of the soldiers, calling for the benediction of heaven upon them. Young women kissed the hems of their garments, and children threw flowers on their path.

One year later, the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem posted this announcement commemorating the first Jerusalem Liberation Day in 1918 in all synagogues and study halls and expressing their thanks to the government of Britain. (Translation below)

A headline from a 1918 proclamation
A headline from a 1918 proclamation declaring “In Honor of the Liberation of Jerusalem” on the first anniversary of Jerusalem’s deliverance. (Screen grab taken by the author from a vintage newsreel)

In Honor of Liberation Day

From the Ashkenazi City Council [a precursor to today’s ultra-Orthodox Eida Chareidit] In the holy city Jerusalem, may it be rebuilt soon, Amen.

The Council announces to our brethren in the congregations of God’s people to honor Thursday, the 24th day of Kislev [Hanukkah eve], the first anniversary of the capture of Holy Jerusalem by the government of Britain – on this honored day, all synagogues and study halls should thank the Lord for the redemption and salvation and pray after the Torah reading the prayer “Who givest salvation unto the King of Great Britain” [based on Psalms 144: “Who givest salvation unto kings, who rescuest David Thy servant from the hurtful sword.”]

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  1. Lenny Ben-David, The German Officers Who Prevented the Massacre of the Jews of Palestine in World War I (↩︎

  2. Hemda Ben Yehuda, Jerusalem: Its Redemption and Future, The Christian Herald, New York, 1918.↩︎

  3. Joint Distribution Committee archives,↩︎

  4. Stefanie Wichhart, The 1915 Locust Plague in Palestine, f↩︎

  5. Wichhart, Ibid.↩︎

  6. Zachary J. Foster, The 1915 Locust Attack in Syria and Palestine and its Role in the Famine during the First World War, 2014,↩︎

  7. Locust plague photograph, 1915, before. 2↩︎

  8. Locust plague photograph, 1915, after.↩︎

  9. Library of Congress, The Locust Plague of 1915 Photograph Album,↩︎

  10. John Whiting, Library of Congress,↩︎

  11. Alexander Aaronsohn, With the Turks in Palestine, 1916, Cosimo Books.↩︎

  12. Simcha Raz, A Tzaddik in our Time : the Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, Feldheim Publisher, 1976↩︎

  13. Abigail Jacobson, American “Welfare Politics”: American Involvement in Jerusalem During World War I, Project Muse, 2013,↩︎

  14. Dalia Karpel, Discerning Conqueror, Ronal Storrs, Haaretz, November 12, 2010,↩︎

  15. Photograph, Jaffa Refugees on board the USS Tennessee, 1915, U.S. Naval Historical Center,↩︎

  16. Ben Yehuda, Ibid.↩︎

  17. Imperial War Museum, United Kingdom,↩︎

  18. Photos taken from German official photos, State Library of New South Wales, Australia.↩︎

  19. London Zionist Organization, Palestine during the War, Report to the Twelfth Zionist Congress, 1921,↩︎

  20. Ruins of Gaza, 1917, Library of Congress,↩︎

  21. Photograph of Nebi Samuel, “before,” Library of Congress,↩︎

  22. Photograph of Nebi Samuel, “after,” Library of Congress,↩︎

  23. Ben Yehuda, Ibid.↩︎

  24. Dr. Altay Atli, Turkey in the First World War,↩︎

  25. Monash University Library Collections, Australia.↩︎

  26. Photograph of the surrender of Jerusalem, December 9, 1917, Library of Congress↩︎