How Israel Destroyed Old Tiberias

Sitting on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, old Tiberias is full of winding streets and ancient monuments – most of which are currently in a shockingly derelict state

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The Zuhir al-Umar Mosquein Tiberias, which now looks like a ruin.
The Omari Mosque in Tiberias, built in the 18th century by Zahir al-Umar.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Tiberias was once a small city. Walking the length of the Old City from north to south takes less than a half hour. This week, we took a leisurely stroll from the Zahir al-Umar Fortress to the Greek Orthodox Church on the shore. It’s a short distance, only a few hundred meters, but the sights are astounding.

An illustration of Zahir al-Umar, who was the autonomous Arab ruler of northern Palestine in the mid-18th century.Credit: Ziad Zaydany

Professor Mustafa Abbasi, a historian, pointed out the buildings that have survived in this part of the city. We saw the fortress; the administrative building built by the Ottomons known as the saraya; the building that once housed the Tiberias Hotel; the Franciscan Church; the guard towers on the remnants of the ancient city wall, the dilapidated Omari Mosque built by Zahir al-Umar (whose name is sometimes spelled Daher al-Omar) in the 18th century and the sealed-off Al-Bahr Mosque. We saw the Etz Hahayim Synagogue built by Rabbi Hayyim Abulafia, and drank coffee on the boardwalk. We turned down two offers to sail on the lake in a boat. We bought hats at one of the shops on Hagalil Street. Abbasi chose a khaki-colored cap. Mine had two yellow pineapples on it.

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The bottom line of the tour that we did: The sights are lovely and awful at the same time. Tiberias is a beautiful city that sits on the shore of a beautiful lake, but it also very neglected and unattractive. The remnants of the Old City are large structures built of black basalt, things of real beauty, but only a few remain and some are in terrible condition. The city wall was nearly completely destroyed by the combined damage of earthquakes, severe flooding in 1934, the war of 1948 and events since then. Amazing assets of the city are either, at best, totally neglected or, at worst, deliberately wrecked.

The building that was once the Hotel Tiberias.

All this happened on our watch. Just 74 years ago, Israeli sappers blew up entire historic quarters of the city that were home to both Arabs and Jews. A city rich in historical and cultural heritage was almost totally wiped off the face of the earth.

No new, attractive city center was built in its place. The streets in the center of the Old City all look terrible now. Some are appallingly rundown. Zahir al-Umar's Omari Mosque looks like a ruin being used as a dump in the heart of the city. Many shops on the main streets stand empty. An entire building on Hagalil Street is burned-out and covered with soot. Several buildings appear to be abandoned. In other strets, there are stores and coffee shops that bear the signs of poverty and neglect. The boardwalk named for Yigal Allon has been fixed up a bit, but it still not very inviting. It’s quite disheartening to see a city that is such an important center of tourism for the Galilee area look this way.

Prof. Abbasi, who has extensively researched the history of the Galilee area and teaches at Tel Hai Academic College, recently published a book in Hebrew titled “Tiberias and its Arab Inhabitants during the British Mandate Period, 1918-1948.” The book is a detailed academic historical study, but I found myself reading several chapters with bated breath. The story of Tiberias is presented from a different vantage point, one with which I was not familiar. Abbasi tells the tale of a mixed Arab and Jewish city that could serve as a model of coexistence. He also traces the story of this city’s destruction.

Some 300 years ago, Zahir al-Umar, then the Ottoman ruler of the Galilee, invited Rabbi Hayyim Abulafia, convincing him to travel from Izmir and settle on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. The rabbi finally relented, arriving with 40 adherents in 1740, and the governor assisted him in constructing the Jewish Quarter in the heart of the Old City. The quarter was surrounded by Muslim ones, and the relations between the neighbors, according to Abbasi, were excellent. This tranquil coexistence characterized Tiberias for over 200 years. The Jewish leadership, headed by the Abulafia and Alhadif families, large and prestigious Sephardi families, lived in good relations with the Arab residents, headed by the al-Tabari family, whose members served as qadis and muftis and held much property.

The walls of the Old City in Tiberias.

Thanks to the local leadership, peace was maintained during the 1929 riots that washed over the rest of the country. Twenty years later, the situation was different. Moderating influences had weakened. The Jewish mayor, Zaki Alhadif, was murdered in 1938. In Kiryat Shmuel, near the city, 19 Jews were murdered that year. The moderating forces on each side disappeared. The extremists and the militants dictated the tone.

On April 18th, 1948, after several days of battle between the Haganah underground militia and Arab forces, the British removed the Arabs of Tiberias by bus. Before that, the Old City had been home to 6,000 Jews and 5.000 Arabs. (Today, the city is home to 50,000 people, all Jews.) Tiberias, long sacred to Christians and Jews, received a sanctified status from Muslims, as well. The holiest Muslim compound in the city, almost unmentioned in advertising for the city, according to Abbasi, is a shrine to Sitt Sakina, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. This tomb is known today as the Tomb of Rachel, wife of Rabbi Akiva, and is located at the southern end of town.

Part of the Greek Orthodox monastery in Tiberias.

According to Abbasi’s book, Tiberias had become a symbol of Arab and Jewish coexistence for hundreds of years. The warm relations ended in a grand collapse, at the height of which the Arabs of Tiberias and the Jews of the Old City were forced to leave their homes. The British moved the Arabs to Nazareth and Jordan, and the Old City’s Jews were moved to other neighborhoods. The residents of Tiberias were the first Arab urban community to be removed in its entirety, and reearch shows that this happened partly because Jewish decision-making shifted out of the city, to the Haganah national headquarters.

This is how Abbasi describes this astonishing sequence of events: “Immediately after [the removal], there began a systematic and intentional demolition of the holy Old City, which was razed to the ground. […] Such destruction was common and carried out in hundreds of Arab villages and towns, but it was very surprising in Tiberias, which was considered a sacred Jewish city, and many of its homes were owned by Jews. […] The interesting part about the destruction, in addition to the loss of valuable historical, archeological, and religious riches, was the stubborn struggle by Jews from the Old City to receive compensation. Jews who against all expectations, found themselves sharing the suffering of their Arab neighbors.”

Old Tiberias was destroyed in three stages. First, in April 1948, a few buildings were destroyed in the fighting. In June of that year, the military blew up a few more buildings, and in January 1949 massive demolition of Old City houses began.

Half the properties in the Old City were Jewish-owned, yet the authorities destroyed its ancient area almost completely, showing no regard for its holiness or history of coexistence. According to Abbasi, the demolitions were not random, but part of an overall approach toward Arab villages and towns in order to prevent the return of the Arab residents.

While the government made no formal decision to destroy the city, it provided the military and municipal authorities with the means to do so, and never tried to prevent the destruction. Government institutions displayed contempt toward the Jews of the Old City, who belonged to what was called “the old yishuv.” This contempt was expressed not only in the destruction of their homes, but also the confiscation of the land and the demand that they pay rent for their temporary abodes in empty Arab homes.

Abbasi’s conclusion is that Tiberias, to the decision-makers, was a city with an Eastern landscape or appearance. He says proponents of the destruction repeatedly described it in a similar way: “In its appearance and narrow alleys it was, to them, a manifestation of the old, degenerate, and corrupt. This attitude was common to many in those days, and is particularly vivid in the description by senior Jewish National Fund figure Yosef Weitz. The Arab and Muslim ‘Eastern landscape’ was to them not only a danger to national security, but also an object of repugnance. To them, it symbolized the backwardness of the East, and therefore they didn’t hesitate to destroy it, even at the cost of hurting Jews.”

What we see in today’s today is a direct result of the destruction that took place 74 years ago. There are places in Tiberias that look slated for immediate demolition, and others where perhaps it would have been better to just not build anything. Much of what had been built simply looks bad, and that includes some of the new hotels.

History will connect us

Abbasi is one of the most optimistic people I have ever met. He believes in peace and the brotherhood of nations. He believes in the sanctity of life and a good future. When I suggest that the city was ruined by crooks, he looks at me softly and smiles patiently.

“I believe that history needs to be enlisted for compromises and not wars,” he says. “We enlisted history to exhaust and kill each other. I was born in a home that believed in the brotherhood of nations. My family ran a Sufi order in Safed, and the chief rabbis of Safed were friends of my grandfather and helped him stay in the country. History should connect the two peoples. I don’t omit the difficult points, but the question is how you present them. Tiberias and its people need to make hopeful voices heard. Let us provide hope without giving up describing what happened.”

According to Abbasi, his book is unique in telling the story of the Arabs of Tiberias, who have been absent or presented as component with no weight or impact in other studies. Their absence, he says, is a perversion of history and denies answers to those seeking to delve deeper into the city’s history. In the final chapter of his book, he writes: “The main contribution of this book is that, despite its focus on the British Mandate period, it also discusses the Arab population of Tiberias since the renewal of the city in the early 18th century.”

In a conference held via Zoom to mark the publication of Abbasi’s book a few weeks ago, historian Prof. Aviva Halamish of the Open University said that historically, Tiberias’ situation was different from that of other mixed cities in the country. This was because of a number of factors: a relatively peripheral location, the Sephardic Jewish majority, Jews and Arabs living side by side in the Old City, the fact that most Jewish immigrants who arrived in the city weren’t Zionist, and mostly the fact that Arabic was the dominant language in the city, common to both Jews and Arabs. Nationalism, says Halamish, was more muted, and so relations between Arabs and Jews were closer and more relaxed.

A postcard with a photo of Tiberias taken in 1917. The Hotel Tiberias can be seen in the center.Credit: Unknown author

In 2007, journalist Dalia Karpel created a fascinating documentary film, “The Diaries of Yossef Nachmani.” The film centers on the days of conquest and destruction in Tiberias through the eyes of Nachmani, an alum of Hashomer, the paramilitary self-defense organization active in the 1910s, and the director of the Jewish National Fund office in Tiberias, who worked a great deal with the Arab population.

The film paints a captivating depiction of the change in Nachmani’s beliefs. At first, he was a proponent of dialogue and reconciliation with the Arab population, and supported having it remain in the city. He wrote lines in his diary such as: “We are widening the abyss and arousing hate. The hotheads’ urges must be restrained.” Soon after, in a total turnaround, Nachmani avidly supported the destruction of the Old City to prevent the return of the Arabs. To add to the already bizarre situation, his son, Shimon Nachmani, was one of the explosives technicians who, on military orders, blew up the Old City homes.

No one left to care for the people

“I study on the micro level,” Abbasi says of his research. “From a collection of details I build a macro, and thus produce a different story than generalizations, and an overall model of history. Generalizations are the easy way to write history. I don’t set boundaries in advance. The material sets the boundaries and leads me to the story. The study of Tiberias and its Arab population is an example of a case of micro-historical research of our country.

"The history here [in the city] is written from the bottom up, through the daily life of the urban population in all its components, from the elite to the commoners, who were the overwhelming majority in the city, and in our case mostly Arabs. There were fishermen among them, farmers, builders, workers at the nearby hot springs, water vendors, women who worked in the tourism industry, drivers and coach owners, and even immigrants who came from Syria, stayed in the city and worked odd jobs. Without understanding the social processes and the interactions between them and the local elite, it is hard to understand the city’s history.”

Abbasi says the heroes of the city, who fought tooth and nail to maintain coexistence, were Mayor Alhadif and the Al-Tabari family. Alhadif’s family came to Tiberias in the 18th century along with with Rabbi Abulafia and his disciples. Alhadif served as mayor from 1928 until his murder in 1938. When the supporters of coexistence vanished from the stage, there was no one left to care for the people.

How can Tiberias’ future be better?

“Tiberias can be the jewel of the Galilee. The leaders of the city need to change their thinking and connect with the Arab population in the Galilee. Tiberias flourished when it was better connected to the region, both within the Galilee and beyond the border. It was a city convoys passed through en route to Damascus. Golani Interchange was actually part of Tiberias and served as the most important junction in the country since the dawn of time.

“We should remember that Tiberias depended in the past on connections with Syria and Jordan. Until 1948, five buses left from here to Jordan every day. If there is a ‘warm’ peace with Jordan and peace with Syria, Tiberias will not remain a peripheral city.

“The Night of Bridge” – June 16, 1946, when Israeli paramilitary forces blew up the bridges connecting Mandatory Palestine with the neighboring countries – “was the night economic ties with the East were destroyed. Tiberias is a city at the edge of the East. If you’re not connected to the East, you have no economy. You can’t live in the East and revile everything Eastern.

Prof. Mustafa Abbasi.

“For a historian like me, who knows both sides well, it breaks my heart. I’m connected to the country and the religion. I have deep roots here. But when I see both sides harming each other, I feel bad. It surprises me that it is the intellectuals on both sides who either stay on the sidelines, or join the most extreme statements.

“Once there is a high dose of religiosity and nationalism, it’s lethal. National and religious zeal is destructive. We have turned nationalism into the holiest thing. To me, humanity is the center of the world, and not the nation…

“I am optimistic because humanity is a smart creature. I believe, based on a connection to Sufism, that every human being has a divine spark. You cannot be a Sufi and hate others. The goal is to turn this into a way of life. My grandfather sat with clerics from all denominations in Safed and Jish and respected them. At prayer time, everyone went to pray to their own prophet and came and sat back down, to talk and be happy. I ask today, how did we get to such levels of hate? Our lack of familiarity has turned us into monsters. To stop that, we need dialogue and discourse.”

The remnants of a ruined stone tower in Tiberias.

What is the conclusion of your book about Tiberias?

“The writing of the book lasted for three years, and what kept me strong during that time was that despite the tragic end of Tiberias, it shows the ability of its leaders to live together for 200 years and overcome crises. The local leaders were heroes because they fought against the odds. The extremists may have won eventually, but Tiberias proved that we can live together. Since the Arabs were thrown out of the city, everyone has suffered.”

Requests for the comment of the Tiberias municipal authorities to the above and as to its plans for the Old City received no reply.

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