The Mountain of Despair

Lior Friedman
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The bloody events of January 11, 1858, marked the beginning of the end of the small community on Har Hatikva (Mount Hope), a few kilometers north of the Jaffa city walls. The violence that night left the writer John Steinbeck's grandfather Friedrich Steinbeck dead, his grandmother's sister and mother raped, their family friend Walter Dickson wounded, and the Dickson and Steinbeck children forever scarred by the horror. All their belongings had been pillaged. Six months later, the last of the houses on the little hill was abandoned, and thus ended the first settlement outside the walls of Jaffa.

The community was established more than 50 years before the famous seashell lottery was held on the shore of the first Hebrew city, and many years before the Jewish neighborhoods were set up outside the walls of Jaffa. Several Christian families from Germany and the United States decided to settle on Mount Hope, what they called the hill where the Shevah Mofet school now stands in South Tel Aviv, near the new central bus station.

They were part of a messianic wave that swept Europe and the United States during the mid-19th century, which brought groups of Christians to Palestine, hoping to hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. They planned to establish farms that would encourage the Jews living here to return to farming and productive labor, in order to pave the way for Jesus' return.

European and American newspapers were hungry for stories about the return of the messiah in the 1840s. Dr. Yaron Perry, of the University of Haifa's Department of Land of Israel Studies, says many journals sent correspondents to the Holy Land, and a great deal of information was sent back to the Christian world.

This wave swept up the German Protestant Grosssteinbeck family. The family landed at Jaffa port in November 1849, including Johann Grosssteinbeck, his brother Wilhelm Friedrich Grosssteinbeck, their sister Maria Katharina and her husband Gustav Thiel, and their children. The group first headed to Jerusalem, and later moved to the village of Artas, near Bethlehem, with a Messianic community led by John Meshullam, a Jew who had converted to Christianity. Two years later, the Grosssteinbecks bought 30 dunams on the hill close to Jaffa, near what is now known as the Ayalon River, then called Wadi Musrara.

In early 1853, they were joined by a group of Americans from Philadelphia, headed by Clorinda Minor. She was one of thousands of followers of the priest William Miller, who had prophesied that the world would end in 1843. When the prophesy did not come true, there was a crisis among his believers and Minor decided to head for Palestine to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity and to teach them productive labor.

She visited in 1849, and looked for a place to settle. Two years later, she returned with her son Charles and a few admirers, and moved to the new community at Mount Hope. She soon had strong ties with the rabbi of Jaffa, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi Marguza.

The messianic dream of the residents of Mount Hope began to take shape. The community members, led by Minor, farmed the lands and employed several dozen Jews from Jaffa. But the farm began to encounter difficulties. Minor was undeterred and published an emotional letter in the American Jewish journal "Occident," asking them to help her small agricultural enterprise.

"Our poor Jewish brethren," she wrote, "It needs much patient love and wisdom to deal truly with them ... They are like children about active business and the more experience we have, the more we are convinced that they need the tender care of 'nursing mothers' and fathers, to elevate them ... but we have not the means."

This emotional letter did not have the desired effect, but help came from an unexpected quarter. In 1855, Moses Montefiore paid his fourth visit to the Holy Land. The British Jewish philanthropist wanted to buy land and set up enterprises for the Jews living here. He bought the Mount Hope group's orchard from its owner, Rabbi Halevi, and the agreement between them ensured Minor would manage what was later known as "the Montefiore orchard." The place is now the site of Tel Aviv's Montefiore neighborhood. Minor died of cancer on November 6, 1855, at age 46, and was buried on the hill.

In 1854, another family arrived at Mount Hope, the Dicksons from Groton, Massachusetts. Walter Dickson had been enchanted by Minor's letters published in American journals, so he came with his wife Sarah, his son Henry and his daughters Almira, Mary and Caroline. In June 1854, Almira Dickson married Johann Steinbeck (the family had shortened its name) and her sister Mary married Friedrich.

The writer Herman Melville, author of "Moby Dick," visited the little community in January 1857, and described a gloomy scene. "[Mr. and Mrs. Saunders] were sent out to found an agricultural school for the Jews," he wrote. "They tried it but miserably failed. The Jews would come, pretend to be touched and all that, get clothing and then-vanished. Mrs. S. said they were very 'deceitful.'"

The harsh climate added to the settlers' woes, as did the attacks by their Arab neighbors. Yaron Perry believes that the violence was a localized matter, and did not have a nationalistic basis. It was due only to envy, he says. The Christian settlers were seen as strangers who had set up a magnificent agricultural farm and this made the Arabs feel inferior, a feeling exacerbated by the settlers' attitude.

What happened on that night in January 1858 was documented at great length in various diplomatic documents, which show above all just how involved the powers were in the Palestine of those days.

A few days after the tragedy, Mary Steinbeck, who lost her husband that night, testified:

"At around ten o'clock the dogs began barking. When my husband went out and opened the gate ... three men told him they were looking for a cow they had lost. ... They again told him to open the gate, and said they would break it down if he did not. ... He came in and said they were going to break down the gate; he began to load the revolver. Presently we heard a crash; ... Frederick and father both went out. Frederick took the gun, for the revolver was not loaded. We soon heard the report of a gun, and Frederick soon after opened the door, and fell. The thieves came to the door of the room where we were at this time; they pried the door open from below; the door opened and five men entered; the foremost had a large, long stick, and he struck father. Father fell backwards."

The attackers began ransacking the little village, causing heavy damage. Several of the men raped Mary Steinbeck and her mother, Sarah Dickson.

Due to diplomatic pressure, five Arab assailants were caught, tried and jailed. But the residents of Mount Hope could no longer bear the trials and tribulations and on June 12, 1858, the Dickson and Steinbeck families left via the Jaffa port for the United States. The Steinbeck family settled in Florida, where their third son, John Ernst, the father of Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, was born. Literary experts say the family tragedies, and especially the rapes, are hinted at in "East of Eden." Steinbeck the author visited the hill in what was then central Tel Aviv in 1966.

When news of the assault reached the Templer community in Germany, they decided to postpone their own move to Palestine by ten years. Eight years after the community on Mount Hope was dismantled, the American Colony, headed by George Adams, was established, but most of the community members left two years later. The Templers came to Palestine in 1868 and settled on the ruins of the American Colony, but in 1871 they built the new community of Sarona, next to the present day Defense Ministry complex in Tel Aviv. The neighborhood of Manshiyeh was established north of the Jaffa walls in the early 1860s, and was settled by Egyptian farmers. In 1887, the neighborhood of Neveh Zedek was built, and 22 years later Tel Aviv was established.