On October 1, 1917, a company of Turkish soldiers surrounded Zichron Yaakov. The Ottoman government had just discovered the existence of the Nili underground group, which was created to help the British take over Ottoman Palestine. Some of the underground members, including Sarah Aaronsohn, were captured, jailed and tortured, while some others managed to escape. The most famous among those who got away was Yosef Lishansky, one of the founders of the group. The soldiers surrounding Zichron Yaakov were there in attempts to convince the townspeople to give him up.
Numerous historical sources in Hebrew recall the speech made by the Turkish governor. He threatened to do to the Jews what was done to the Armenians (the Armenian genocide was at its zenith at the time.) A telegraph recently uncovered in the Turkish prime ministerial archive reinforces these accounts. Sent by the Turkish interior minister, Nazar Talaat, to the governor of Beirut, who also oversaw Zichron Yaakov, the telegraph read: “In the village of Zamrin (Zichron Yaakov,) in the Haifa district, the Kamikam (governor) told the people that if they do not hand over the spy Lishansky, their fate will be like the Armenians, as I am involved in the deaths of the Armenians.”
Although Turkey has staunchly denied the Armenian genocide during the decades that have passed, the telegram indicates that it was a known secret and a legitimate threat throughout the empire at the time. In the response, which like all telegrams back then was encoded, the interior minister asked the governor to investigate claims that the Nili members were tortured.
“Head of the village in question, Albert, and residents Nisan Rothman, Fishel Aaronsohn, Hans and Fishel’s daughter Sarah, were brutally beaten and tortured,” read the telegram. “The Aaronsohn girl committed suicide after the beating. An investigation must be conducted as soon as possible and results must be sent.|
The telegraph has been published as part of research conducted by Dr. Yuval Ben-Bassat of Haifa University and an article about it will be published in a special World War I centennial issue of Zmanim, a journal published by Tel Aviv and Haifa universities.
Ben-Bassat has spent much of the past decade researching the hundreds of thousands of Ottoman documents in the Turkish prime ministerial archive, which has been largely untouched by historians. “Our history has always been written from either the Zionist or the Arab-Palestinian angle,” says Ben-Bassat. “Only a few historians have looked at the Ottoman angle. We should remember there was an empire here.”
In an earlier study, Ben-Bassat uncovered petitions sent by Arabs in Palestine to the Sultan, dealing mainly with their fears of the Zionist yishuv. His latest study focuses on the telegraphs between Constantinople (today Istanbul) and Palestine during World War I. Among other things, the documents reveal significant disagreements between the Turkish government in Palestine, and the government in the imperial capital.
The leadership in Palestine, led by Ahmed Djemal Pasha, who was governor in Syria, commander of the fleet and one three rulers of the empre in its final years, dealt mostly with preparing to withhold British invasion from the south and combating both real and imaginary spy threats. Constantinople, on the other hand, saw the larger picture, including the empire’s relations with the rest of the world. The empire was rather sensitive to international criticism of human rights violations in Palestine.
For example, one of the most important issues to come up was the question of expelling Jews from Tel Aviv. The expulsion was meant in theory to prevent harm from coming to civilians, but it actually stemmed from fear of a “fifth column” that would assist the British. The expulsion was a humanitarian nightmare for Tel Aviv residents. The central government was worried about their fate and the public relations damage that would ensue. “Please inform us as to where they were sent, how they were housed and what kind of medical care they were provided,” wrote the interior minister to the Jerusalem district commander. In another telegraph, Djemal Pasha writes about “evil rumors circulating in Europe,” regarding the fate of the Jews expelled from Tel Aviv, and asked that the Spanish consul investigate the affair in order to compile a neutral report.
“Differences in opinion and knowledge between Djemal Pasha and the government in Istanbul were very substantial,” says Ben-Bassat. “They approach him again and again to ask if those expelled could be returned; they ask him about the damage done to the empire’s image. On the other hand, it seems that Pasha did not see the big picture.”
The exchange of words sheds light on Djemal Pasha, who was a key figure in Palestine at the time. Both the Zionists and the Arabs remember him as a powerful and cruel leader, who violently put down any anti-Turkish nationalism. In one document, he lists six steps that the empire should take to thwart Zionism. “(The Zionists) are a huge disaster for Palestine. They have built an independent court in Jaffa, and are working to expand their autonomy,” wrote Pasha.
Pasha suggested completely outlawing Jewish immigration, even if the immigrant were to take on Ottoman citizenship. He also recommended preventing the Jewish yishuv from growing, prohibiting foreigners (most likely representatives of Baron Rothschild) from involvement in running the Jewish settlements and forbidding foreign citizens from creating secret organizations. His last suggestion was, in effect, to expel all the Jews from Palestine.
“Among the cursed Zionists, only 30-40 Russian Jews asked to receive Ottoman citizenship. I believe that their request should be rejected and they be expelled. With regards to the rest of the Jews, I believe they should all be sent away. I’m asking for your permission, so as not to act against the decisions of the central government.”