Wednesday, May 06, 2009
My Gaza Roots
My Gaza Roots
By: Steven Plaut
Date: Wednesday, May 06 2009
January's Operation Cast Lead, launched against Hamas
terrorists in Gaza, was made necessary by the earlier unilateral
withdrawal from Gaza when the entire Jewish community there was forcibly
evicted by the Kadima government of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
That attempt at appeasement has resulted in thousands of rockets fired at
Israeli civilians inside the pre-1967 Israeli Green Line. When Jewish
settlers were evicted, the Israeli government marketed the "deal" to the
country by insisting over and over again that Gaza is not part of the Land
of Israel and is devoid of Jewish roots and heritage.
There's an old joke that has the Lone Ranger asking his sidekick Tonto,
"How can we can escape this charge of attacking Sioux warriors?" Responded
Tonto, "What do you mean we, paleface?"
Whenever I hear someone insisting that we Jews have no roots in Gaza, I am
always tempted to respond similarly: "What do you mean we, paleface?"
My family has roots in Gaza. We were there a century ago.
OK, technically it is my wife's family. I am married to the granddaughter
of Nissim Ohana, the rabbi of Gaza City.
But let's back up a bit here.
In Genesis, Gaza is explicitly listed as part of the Land of Israel
promised to the Jews. It was conquered by the tribe of Judah during the
era of the Judges, though it was later recaptured by the Philistines. It
was captured again by the Jews during the time of the Maccabees, only to
be seized by the Romans, who handed it over to King Herod.
Gaza had a small Jewish community during the era of the Talmud. A
synagogue was erected near the Gaza waterfront in 508 CE. A survey of the
town in 1481 found about 60 Jewish households there, many producing wine.
Later, quite a few followers of Shabbtai Zvi lived there, including the
famous Natan of Gaza. There was a thriving Jewish community in Gaza when
Napoleon arrived in 1799 via Egypt, but a plague followed his troops and
the Jews abandoned the city.
The modern Jewish community of Gaza got its start in 1885. The initiator
of the community was Zeev Wissotzky, scion of the Wissotzky tea company
(founded in 1849 in Moscow and still to this day Israel's largest tea
In 1907 a young rabbi named Nissim Ohana, educated in the Sephardic
yeshivas of Old Jerusalem, arrived in Gaza. He set up a school in Gaza
named Talmud Torah whose language of instruction was exclusively Hebrew,
an unusual and controversial decision at the time.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the initiator of the use of Hebrew as the
language of communication in the pre-state yishuv, was so impressed that
he paid the school a personal visit.
In those days, Muslim-Jewish relations in Gaza were cordial,
even warm. Rabbi Ohana maintained a close relationship with the local
mufti, Sheikh Abdallah al-'Almi. The rabbi was well versed not only in
Judaic sources but also in the Koran and the New Testament, and
occasionally the mufti would consult with him concerning judicial
questions arising in Islamic law.
The mufti was particularly worried at the time about the influence of
Christian missionaries on local Muslims and he asked Rabbi Ohana for help
in countering the missionaries' claims. Later, Rabbi Ohana compiled his
anti-missionary arguments in a book titled Know How to Respond to an
Apikores, still one of the best such volumes.
When World War I broke out, the ruling Ottomans ordered all "foreigners"
to leave their territories. Rabbi Ohana had a French passport (his father
having been born in Algeria) and was forced to leave. Rabbi Ohana served
for a while as the rabbi of Malta, then as rabbi at a small Syrian
synagogue in Manhattan. He went on to head the rabbinical court in Cairo
before moving to Haifa, after Israel became a state, to serve as chief
Sephardic rabbi of Haifa.
The Gaza Jewish community was destroyed by rioting Arabs in 1929, with
surviving Jews fleeing to other towns in what would become Israel. Jews
returned to the area after the Six-Day War, but when Israel adopted the
Oslo "peace process" as national policy, Gaza terrorism exploded and the
Jews in the renewed Gaza communities faced mortal danger. Their actual
eviction, however - the third ethnic cleansing of Gaza Jews in less than a
century - was perpetrated by the government of Ariel Sharon, years after
the collapse of Oslo.
But back to Rabbi Ohana of Gaza. In the early 1980s, one of his
granddaughters met an American who was teaching at the Technion. Convinced
that American men were far too goofy for her to have any romantic interest
in any of them, she agreed to go on a date with him only so that she could
tell him about her available single American girlfriend.
But she never got around to introducing the American to her girlfriend.
And while her opinion about the goofiness of American men is undeniably
correct, she married me anyway in 1985.
One last strange twist: A grandson of the mufti of Gaza is
today a leading Hamas terrorist, and has served as the Hamas
representative in Damascus. Some of Rabbi Ohana's grandchildren in Israel
are in possession of manuscripts written by the mufti. It is their hope
that once Hamas is finally defeated and peace is established, the
manuscripts will be turned over to the descendents of the mufti, Rabbi
Ohana's close friend.