The 1917 Expulsion of Tel Aviv’s Jews, Seen Through Turkish Eyes

A newly discovered document suggests that the Ottomans’ order to evacuate the city during World War I wasn’t an act of anti-Zionism.

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Ahmed Djemal Pasha, center, January 1915.
Ahmed Djemal Pasha, center, January 1915.Credit: Berliner Verlag / DPA

This April marks the 100th anniversary of a trauma suffered by the Jewish community in pre-state Israel: the expulsion from Tel Aviv. The Ottoman authorities ordered the young city’s residents to evacuate in April 1917 as the British army approached from the south. Thousands of residents fled northward and suffered from hunger and disease for over a year until the British took over and the Tel Avivians could return home.

Zionist historians view the expulsion as the peak of the Ottomans’ fight against the Zionist movement – an attempt by the cruel military leader Ahmed Djemal Pasha to liquidate the community, known as the yishuv. A rare document from that period, penned by Djemal Pasha himself, provides a more complex picture.

Israeli researchers Yuval Ben-Bassat of the University of Haifa and Dotan Halevy of Columbia University recently revealed the document in the Israeli journal Katedra and The British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.

Halevy discovered the document, dubbed “the manifest,” in the archive of the Turkish prime minister. The archive includes hundreds of millions of documents from the Ottoman Empire’s six centuries.

The document is an encoded cable that Djemal Pasha sent to Interior Minister Mehmed Talaat Pasha in Istanbul. Its length is exceptional: 17 pages. Such messages were usually just half a line, Ben-Bassat says.

In the document, Djemal Pasha responded to complaints about him regarding management of the war in Ottoman Palestine, and especially everything known about the treatment of civilians. The fact that the document was classified bolsters the assessment that it wasn’t propaganda but simply a genuine internal debate.

The background is the harsh criticism in newspapers in Europe and Germany, Turkey’s wartime ally, of the Turkish army’s treatment of Palestine’s civilians and rumors of a massacre against Tel Aviv’s Jews. Djemal Pasha, who was in charge of the greater Syrian theater of war, was forced to provide explanations.

Interestingly, despite conventional Zionist historiography, there is no difference for Djemal Pasha between Jews and Arabs in all matters regarding expulsion.

“Given the situation, I do not think there is anyone who still believes the decision I made to evacuate these cities was not justified,” Pasha wrote. “I present the basic reasons for the decisions concerning the evacuation. It was decided that it would be carried out with regard to all the people in Jaffa and Gaza, Christians, Jews and Muslims, Ottomans and foreigners without any distinction.”

Part of the document on the Ottoman Empire's evacuation policy during World War I.Credit: Basbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi

Worse in Gaza

According to the Zionist movement, Jaffa’s Arabs weren’t forced to leave their homes, unlike Tel Aviv's Jews. To the Jews in Ottoman Palestine, their expulsion stemmed from anti-Zionist motives.

Still, Gaza’s Arabs apparently had things immeasurably worse than Tel Aviv’s Jews. All Gaza residents were expelled in a quick and less-organized procedure than what the Tel Avivians experienced, and Gaza City was completely destroyed in battle.

To Djemal Pasha, this proved that his actions were justified.

“Jaffa and Gaza and the villages around them have been evacuated out of military considerations, as a protective measure against possible enemy attacks and so [that those who are] not combatants will not find themselves in battle zones,” he wrote. “The enemy’s targeting of Gaza with artillery is now routine.”

The Jewish residents of Rishon Letzion and Petah Tikva were not expelled by the Ottomans.

Djemal Pasha wrote that the civilians permitted to stay worked in agriculture, a step that of course would help maintain food supplies. He also detailed steps to prevent looting.

Page 4 reads: “Everything in the homes [of the evacuees] was placed under the responsibility of government officials. I personally ordered these steps to be taken, [which I consider] among the most important of the government’s orders. In addition, I ordered the implementation of legal measures each time someone witnessed a violation of the orders of the Ministry of War, but so far I have heard nothing [about this] and it seems there is no need to [complain].”

The government did provide evacuees with food. According to Page 6, “They [the evacuees] were not sent to places such as the [northern] coastal towns where there was a food shortage. Those who asked to receive supplies from the government were relocated to Hama. For all of these people I am making utmost efforts to supply food. Among those who were not evacuated, 45 innocent women and children were killed in bombings by enemy planes in Ramle in one night.”

Bad without Djemal Pasha

A letter by Meir Dizengoff, the head of the committee of Tel Aviv exiles, supports the assertion that Djemal Pasha’s forces aided the evacuees to some extent.

After Djemal Pasha was recalled to Istanbul, Dizengoff wrote committee members in February 1918: “The general impression is this: The issue of the emigrants and the migration is an act of the great Minister Djemal Pasha, and he was the only one who considered himself duty-bound to address the question of the emigrants, to provide money and to correct as much as possible what went wrong in the evacuation order. However, now there is no one to turn to.”

“Ironically,” write Ben-Bassat and Halevy, “the disappearance of the individual described in Zionist historiography as the Jews’ fiercest enemy in Palestine during the war aggravated the situation of the evacuees.”

They add, using Djemal Pasha’s name in modern Turkish, “However, when Cemal Pasha left, there was no one to take care of the helpless civilians.” Also, other documents from the period “show that the Ottoman administration prepared a basic logistic infrastructure to provide the evacuees with essential needs as part of the evacuation process.”

According to the researchers, the “Ottoman measures described here do not necessarily mean that there were friendship and good relationships between the Ottoman officers and the evacuees.”

As they put it, “The former were often cruel and violent and treated the local inhabitants of Palestine brutally. They forced the evacuees to do menial labor, moved them from place to place, and often made them leave the localities where they had found shelter.” Moreover, Djemal Pasha, who “orchestrated the evacuation operations, opposed Zionist activity, did everything he could to weaken it, and openly took steps against it.”

“Nevertheless, neither he nor his peers in the upper echelons of the Empire during the war wanted to eliminate the new yishuv or the yishuv in general during the war. The struggle against Zionism in Cemal Pasha’s view had to be waged by political and not military means,” Ben-Bassat and Halevy write.

“For that reason, he freely referred in his telegram to both the Zionist threat and the evacuation without fearing that the latter would be interpreted in relation to the former. Apparently, in his mind, these were two different issues. Hence, his decisions regarding the evacuation of civilians stemmed from practical military considerations rather than political ones.”

Later in the manifest, Djemal Pasha rejected claims that the rights of Christians in the Holy Land had been violated. He guaranteed freedom of worship in the holy places, and responded to charges about executions in the area under his control.

According to Ben-Bassat and Halevy, the narrative of the Tel Aviv expulsion is one of intentional harassment of the Jews.

“Our aim is by no means to rehabilitate the image of Cemal Pasha,” they write. Rather, by studying the evacuation and other events “within the larger framework of Palestine, Greater Syria, and the Empire at large during the war,” the narrative is ripe for a revisit.