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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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)
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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Hemda Ben Yehuda, Jerusalem: Its Redemption and Future, The Christian Herald, New York, 1918. http://scans.library.utoronto.ca/pdf/1/26/jerusalemitsrede00benyuoft/jerusalemitsrede00benyuoft.pdf↩︎
Joint Distribution Committee archives, http://images.archives.jdc.org/api/gallery-fallback.php?albumId=76↩︎
Stefanie Wichhart, The 1915 Locust Plague in Palestine, http://www.palestine-studies.org/sites/default/files/jq-articles/JQ%2056-57%20The%201915%20Locust.pd f↩︎
Zachary J. Foster, The 1915 Locust Attack in Syria and Palestine and its Role in the Famine during the First World War, 2014, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00263206.2014.976624?scroll=top&needAccess=true&↩︎
Library of Congress, The Locust Plague of 1915 Photograph Album, https://www.loc.gov/collections/american-colony-in-jerusalem/articles-and-essays/the-locust-plague-of-1915-photograph-album/↩︎
John Whiting, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/americancolony/amcolony-locust.html#obj29↩︎
Alexander Aaronsohn, With the Turks in Palestine, 1916, Cosimo Books. https://books.google.co.il/books?id=HX2kccxeV5UC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false↩︎
Simcha Raz, A Tzaddik in our Time : the Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, Feldheim Publisher, 1976↩︎
Abigail Jacobson, American “Welfare Politics”: American Involvement in Jerusalem During World War I, Project Muse, 2013, https://www.academia.edu/20729366/American_Welfare_Politics_American_Involvement_in_Jerusalem_During_World_War_I↩︎
Dalia Karpel, Discerning Conqueror, Ronal Storrs, Haaretz, November 12, 2010, http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/discerning-conqueror-1.324306↩︎
Photograph, Jaffa Refugees on board the USS Tennessee, 1915, U.S. Naval Historical Center, https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/OnlineLibrary/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-t/acr10-p.htm↩︎
Ben Yehuda, Ibid.↩︎
Imperial War Museum, United Kingdom, http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205330385↩︎
Photos taken from German official photos, State Library of New South Wales, Australia. http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110044350↩︎
London Zionist Organization, Palestine during the War, Report to the Twelfth Zionist Congress, 1921,
Ruins of Gaza, 1917, Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/phpdata/pageturner.php?type=contactminor&cmIMG1=/pnp/ppmsca/13700/13709/00131t.gif&agg=ppmsca&item=13709&caption=130↩︎
Photograph of Nebi Samuel, “before,” Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/phpdata/pageturner.php?type=contactminor&cmIMG1=/pnp/ppmsca/13200/13291/00006t.gif&agg=ppmsca&item=13291&caption=6↩︎
Photograph of Nebi Samuel, “after,” Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/phpdata/pageturner.php?type=contactminor&cmIMG1=/pnp/ppmsca/13200/13291/00005t.gif&agg=ppmsca&item=13291&caption=5↩︎
Ben Yehuda, Ibid.↩︎
Dr. Altay Atli, Turkey in the First World War, http://www.turkeyswar.com/campaigns/palestine.html↩︎
Monash University Library Collections, Australia. http://arrow.monash.edu.au/vital/access/manager/Repository/monash:63467↩︎
Photograph of the surrender of Jerusalem, December 9, 1917, Library of Congress http://memory.loc.gov/phpdata/pageturner.php?type=contactminor&cmIMG1=/pnp/ppmsca/13200/13291/00011t.gif&agg=ppmsca&item=13291&caption=11↩︎