Birth of Zionism

A Renewed Community with the birth of Zionism
In 5591(1830-1), the Egyptian ruler Ibrahim Basha conquered the Land of Israel and ruled it for 9 years.  In 1835, Ibrahim Basha ordered the dismantling of the synagogue on top of the hill and using its stones to build a fort in the city of Maj’dal, which is present day Ashkelon.  The remnants of the Jewish community in Gaza, who lived in Hebron – led by the Kastel family – rushed to the city, and took the decorated doors of the synagogue back to Hebron, where they installed them at the “Avraham Avinu” (Our Father Abraham) synagogue. In pictures of the synagogue dated prior to 1929, the doors are seen at its entrance.
Less than a hundred years later, in 1929, when the Arabs of the Land of Israel rioted against the Jews, the Avraham Avinu synagogue was burned down and completely destroyed.  The magnificent doors disappeared and it is unclear whether they were burned or stolen. In either case, not a trace of them remained. 
Exactly when did the Jews begin returning to Gaza? The answer is unclear. In an article he published in the "Davar" newspaper on the 16 of Kislev 5703, November 25th 1942, Yitzchak Ben Zvi recounts having heard that Jews were already living in Gaza in the years 1870-1872.  Elsewhere, he wrote that the first inhabitants were two western Jews, who had come to acquire the Citrullus Colocynthis plant, a kind of wild watermelon bearing a small, very bitter fruit, suitable for manufacturing medications, which grew in this area.  (We will see how popular trading in Citrullus Colocynthis plants became among the Jews of Gaza).  Yechiel Brill, the editor of the "Halevanon" newspaper – the first Hebrew language newspaper in the Land of Israel – who visited Gaza in 5643 (1883), recalls that the town was renewed in 1882:  “Last year, four families of those who emigrated to the Holy Land from Russia, settled there," Brill reports.   These people had been dealers or pimps in the land of their birth and came to the Holy Land to work the land… Passing through the streets of the city, I walked down a street called ‘Harat al-Yahud’ ("The Jewish Quarter") and recognized the mezuzahs and the marks showing where they had been attached to the doorposts.  I also saw the place where the Jews’ synagogue had been located and where Catholic priests were now building a refuge for themselves.  Among the stones that the builders had found for setting the foundation, I noticed a sort of stone pillar engraved with the words, “The guardian angel who delivers me from all evil will grant me passage to Jerusalem’…”

 The doors of the Avraham avinu Synagogue                   The house of Nissim Al Kayam in Gaza  

In 5645 (1885), Zeev Klonymous Wissotsky, one of the leaders of Hovevei Zion in Russia (and a famous tea merchant whose name adorns tea bags to this day) initiated the formation of urban Jewish settler cores in the Arab cities of Israel.
The pioneer core that went to Gaza was the largest of them all.  It was led by Avraham Chaim Chelouche and Nissim Alkayam, the son of Rabbi Moshe Alkayam, one of the heads of the community in Jaffa.  They were joined by other heads of families, who were barley and Citrullus Colocynthis merchants in Jaffa.  Among them were Eliyahu Erwatz, Moshe Erwatz, Avraham Erwatz, Ezer Erwatz – all British subjects – as well as Rabbi Yosef Yair, Rabbi David Amos, Zelig Rabinowitz, Zvi Shtrumlitz, Kastel, Arbiv, Gueta and Meir Gabbai.  By the end of 5646 (1886), there were more than 30 families in Gaza.
The community in Gaza, which was very religious, had two kosher butchers, a Rabbi, who also taught Talmud Torah, and maintained a cemetery and a ritual bath. 
In March 1917, during the First World War, as the warfront drew closer to Gaza, the Turks cleared the city of its inhabitant; Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. This is how Moshe Smilansky, the writer from the communal rural villages described it in his book “Memories”:  “There were also several Jewish families in Gaza. Even at the beginning of the war, they were dispersed here and there and only three families remained until they were deported.  One of them did not forget the tradition of his fathers:  he could not save his property but he saved three torah scrolls from the chaos…”

 The Samson School in Gaza                                                                                          The Margolin Family                    
After the war, at the beginning of 5680 (1919), Jewish presence in Gaza gradually increased.  With its renewal, the Jewish school was also reopened under the name “Samson" – how very appropriate for a Gazan school.  In 1927, the Jewish community numbered only 50 people.  Economic reasons were what
 caused the diminishing of the Jewish presence in Gaza.  A report in the “Davar” newspaper on April 7th 1927 about Gaza said that “today there are about 50 Jewish souls in Gaza.  Among them four work in the medical profession, two are watchmakers, a tailor, two gardeners and a teacher, a hotelier, a retail merchant who is also a kosher butcher (the son of Nissim Alkayam served as ritual slaughterer for the community), the millstone owner (who you may recall was Eliezer Margolin), a telegraph operator, two government gardeners, etc.  The school was run under the aegis of the Education Council."
The author of the article adds: “In spite of the efforts and willingness of the political operatives to enlarge the Hebrew presence in Gaza, they are not met with great success.  The attraction of Tel-Aviv affects most of the settlers and they are leaving the place.
In Av of 5689, August 1929, the Jews of Gaza were rescued from and Arab pogrom in the city, thanks to the Arab al-Shawa family and brought to Tel-Aviv.  That was the end of the Jewish community in Gaza.  All the attempts in later years to revive a Jewish presence in the city were unsuccessful.  Gaza became a city free of Jews.

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