The forgotten pogrom: Tzfat 1834

By Dvar Dea

Dvar Dea is a student in Israel. More of his work can be found on his site. I’m very pleased to be able to publish this. It also appears with additional commentary here.

How many people know there was a pogrom against the Jews of Tzfat in 1834? How many know that it was far worse than the famous massacre of the Jews of Hebron in 1929? It lasted for 33 horrific days.

I suspect few people know the first fact, and even fewer, if any, know the second. I only discovered it after some research.

This pogrom is known in Jewish history as ‘The great plunder of Tzfat’ and it lasted from the 15th of June 1834 to the 17th of July of that year. This pogrom has been forgotten because this whole era of pre-Zionist Palestine (or the Land of Israel prior to the emergence of the Zionist movement), has been pushed aside by more powerful events that happened later, namely the beginning of the Zionist enterprise.

Now it has been rediscovered; mostly by people from the Israeli right. Because for them anything that puts the Arabs and Moslems in a bad light is welcomed. But their motives don’t mean that this event should be forgotten yet again.

It needs to be remembered; first because it happened, and second because it has direct relevance to the current situation between Israel and the Palestinians, especially after the recent bombing in Eilat. Slightly more then 172 years after this pogrom, the forces of hate and bigotry still run high in Palestinian society. Except for one important change: the added factor of denial, of playing the sole victim in this conflict and putting all the blame on the Israeli side. It is a mix of suicide and the obsession with victimhood in which the butcher portrays himself as the victim. The deliberate murder of civilians falls on a continuous line from the past, from a time when words like ‘Zionism’ and ‘the state of Israel’ were unknown, which was nevertheless a time when the killing and massacring of unarmed Jews was practiced in many parts of the Muslim world (including what is now known as Palestine/Israel).

While it is true that there were times and places in the Muslim world where Jews were treated well, the 18th and 19th centuries were not such a time. And one of the places where such good treatment was especially rare was Palestine (another such place that made it to the news recently was Yemen). When faced with Zionist resilience this brutality morphed but never ceased. From old-fashioned pogroms in the 1920’s it turned into gang violence in the 30’s. In 1947 it was part of a massive ethnic cleansing attempt to wipe out the entire Jewish population, but with devastating results to the Palestinian population, and that in spite of the armed support of neighboring Arab states. In the 50’s and 60’s there were the fidayeen raids against Israeli citizens and property, and in the 70’s and 80’s it was the terrorism of planting bombs in public places, attacking Israelis and Jews abroad, and taking civilians as hostages. The 90’s added a new twist, the suicide bombing, now so strongly associated with this conflict. But all these had the same dominant feature that has not changed since the 19th century, and even from earlier times: the deliberate attacks on unarmed civilians.

The forgotten pogrom in Tzfat was a regular pogrom, a dreadful yet familiar experience to Jews in both the Islamic world and in Christian Europe. Like all pogroms it was an act of senseless brutality, where the victims were totally helpless. It had no political agenda or motive behind it. There was no ‘Zionist entity’ whose existence served as an excuse to murder civilians; it was motivated by pure greed. The Palestinian Arabs of the Eastern Galilee took advantage of a regional crisis, the war between Egypt and Turkey, to attack their Jewish neighbors and strip them of everything they had, clothes, property, houses, and the like. In the process people were beaten in the streets, many times to death, synagogues destroyed and holy books desecrated.

An entire community of 2000 souls (English traveler Alexander William Kinglake says 4000) was forced into hiding for 33 days, in caves, ruins, inhospitable mountaintops, and cellars. In that mayhem there were good Arabs who saved lives, like the people of the village of Ein Zeitim and a few individuals, Muslims and Christians from Tzfat itself, but there were also the double-crossers who promised to help for a large sum of money, only to hand the Jews over to the rioting mob outside the hideout. For 33 days the lives of the Jews of Tzfat had practically no value, and any of them who showed his or her face in public was at risk of been beaten to death, sometimes by neighbors or business associates.

Like all cases of mass racial violence, it had inciters and a government unwilling to do anything about them. In this case, according to Kinglake, there was an inciter, a self-proclaimed prophet by the name of Muhammed Damoor who ‘prophesied’ the plunder he agitated for.

Like all other pogroms it demonstrated the helplessness of the Jewish condition prior to the formation of the state of Israel. Without it they had no ability to defend themselves, and no ability to demand equal treatment, so the life of a Jew had no actual value. It’s an inescapable fact that the first Zionist settlers were not immigrants but natives of the land: people like Yoel Moshe Salomon from Jerusalem and Elazar Rokeach of Tzfat and their followers, who saw the answer to their people’s plight outside their walled cities, and who founded Petah Tikvah and Rosh Pina in 1878, beginning what is known as ‘practical Zionism’.

This forgotten tragedy is a historical fact that proves three matters cardinal to the understanding of the conflict:

  • First, that the Palestinian claim that there were good relationships between Jews and Arabs before the first Zionist settlers arrived, is unfounded and false.
  • Second, that the idea that Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians is the cause of the brutal Palestinian violence against unarmed civilians is only partially true at best; and that the other part of the explanation, the forgotten one, is that long existing forces of hate and bigotry in Palestinian society also play a major role.
  • Third and most important, like all pogroms it demonstrates painfully why the Jewish state of Israel is so important to so many Jews. Its existence is a matter of life over death to us, literally. To us it is an act of justice so fundamental only a few Jews will give it up, a few self proclaimed “cool” Jews – ‘cool’ as in “Capitulate – Obey – Obey – Limitlessly” (and to the most brutal butcher of Jews around).

But it also has a fourth function: it points to the direction of the solution. Whether racism is the primary cause of the conflict or only an aggravating factor, the solution is in moving away from it as far as possible, and farther away than that. When Yoel Salomon founded Petah Tikvah (‘Opening of Hope’), and Elazar Rokeach Rosh Pina (‘Cornerstone’), they didn’t just hold onto a piece of land and dignity, but to life, the ability to demand it; to hold on to it; and to grow it – into the State of Israel and the Israeli experience.

And peace is life, wide and all encompassing life. Following the path of some elements in the Israeli right and creating our own Muhammed Damoors will not guarantee our survival; it will only aggravate the conflict beyond our ability to hold on. And that will only guarantee that both sides will lose devastatingly: see what endless wars did to Somalia, the Congo, and until not long ago, Lebanon. Holding on to life, by protecting it and respecting and protecting others’ right to it is the only way to go. Israel and the democratic way are the victory and fruits of the constant investment in life. But life cannot be invested in without respecting it as a high moral value, and respect cannot be partial. To continue the success of Israel the lives of our enemies must equally be respected, no matter how murderous their path is.

This is not lofty idealism; it’s historically proven moral realism. Yes, realism can be moral, and morality can be realistic. Painful compromises between the two are often needed, especially when survival is at stake. But dumping one for the sake of the other is manipulative and deceptive. Is it moralistic to take the anti-Zionist path and submit to the racist ultra-nationalism of the other side and its proven murderous capabilities? Is it realistic to accept the gangster politics of the Israeli far right, so infuriatingly demonstrated by their 3% of Hebron?

No! – Gangster politics is the Gaza Strip today – why would we become that? But submitting to murderers is being an accessory to murder. The fact that we are also the target of that murder doesn’t make it moral. Any steps we take must be carefully constructed and thoughtfully conducted, and always, always within the framework of morality and reality – it had worked so far remarkably well. It is also the only true act of justice we can do for the victims of the Plunder and of other pogroms in our history, to hold on to life, not timidly in an inhospitable hideout, but openly and powerfully in everyday activities as Israelis.

There are only two accounts in English of the Plunder available on the internet: the Kinglake account, and my own translation of the Elazar Rivlin article in Ha’aretz of 1934, which was based on Jewish sources from the time of the Plunder. This translation was finished with the help of Ami Isseroff and Joseph Hocshtein and I thank them for that.

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