Opinion

Coronavirus Lesson: How Jews and Arabs United to Fight a Plague in Palestine Once Before

A century before coronavirus, tens of thousands of Arabs and Jews died in Palestine’s worst 20th century plague before they recognized the catastrophe as their shared enemy – and cooperated to defeat it

Seraj Assi
Zachary Foster
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Coronavirus could be Palestine’s most catastrophic plague since the devastating 1915 locust swarms - which pushed Jews and Arabs to unprecedented levels of cooperation to survive. Desert locusts swarm in Kenya, January 24, 2020.
Coronavirus could be Palestine’s most catastrophic plague since the devastating 1915 locust swarms - which pushed Jews and Arabs to unprecedented levels of cooperation to surviveCredit: Ben Curtis,AP
Seraj Assi
Zachary Foster

"The present incursion, if not dealt with properly, might be the single most wretched misfortune in this land since man began to write and record history." 

These were not the words of Benjamin Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas addressing the novel coronavirus in March 2020, but belong to the Jewish agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn in March 1915, who foresaw Palestine’s most catastrophic 20th century plague: the monstrous locust swarms of 1915, which culminated in the death of tens of thousands of Jews and Arabs during World War I.

 On March 19, 1915, Ihsan Turjman, an Ottoman soldier stationed in Jerusalem, wrote in his diary: "The locust invasion started seven days ago and covered the sky. Today it took the locust clouds two hours to pass over the city. God protect us from the three plagues: War, locusts, and disease, for they are spreading through the country."

 Other eyewitnesses told of a thick darkness spreading over the country for days. "Fields [were] covered by the locusts as far as the eye could reach," said a cable from the American Counsel General in Jerusalem as late as November 1915. In December, John Whiting, deputy American consul for Jerusalem, published a report in The National Geographic Magazine, titled "Jerusalem’s Locusts Plague." Evoking the Bible, Whiting described the loud noise produced by the flapping of locust wings as resembling "the sound of chariots of horses running into battle." 

The massive yearlong locust plague was truly catastrophic. The winter wheat and barley crops were greatly diminished. The summer crops, the fruits and vegetables, were completely devoured, as was the autumn olive harvest. The land was laid waste and trees stripped bare. In Turjman’s words, "Nothing was spared."

Ahmed Ibrahim, 30, an Ethiopian farmer, fends off desert locusts as they fly in his khat farm on the outskirt of Jijiga in Somali region, Ethiopia, January 12, 2020.
Ahmed Ibrahim, 30, an Ethiopian farmer, fends off desert locusts as they fly in his khat farm on the outskirt of Jijiga in Somali region, Ethiopia, January 12, 2020.Credit: GIULIA PARAVICINI/ REUTERS

Supply lines were cut off from abroad as war raged in Europe, and as the Ottoman government monopolized the railways for military purposes and the British naval blocked the flow of food supplies into the port of Jaffa. The Ottoman army sequestrated crops. Merchants hoarded grain. Foreign capital fled the country. Food prices skyrocketed. There were widespread shortages of essential goods, save perhaps for toilet paper. Widespread impoverishment ensued. Starvation settled in. Diseases raged rampant. Tens of thousands of Jews and Arabs in Palestine perished.

The plague took a heavy toll on Jerusalem. "Jerusalem has not seen worst days," Turjman recounted. "Bread and flour supplies have almost totally dried up. Every day I pass the bakeries on my way to work, and I see a large number of women going home empty-handed. For several days the municipality distributed some kind of black bread to the poor, the likes of which I have never seen. People used to fight over the limited supplies, sometimes waiting in line until midnight. Now, even that bread is no longer available."

The Ottoman state intervened, even if it failed to contain the crisis. Cemal Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Greater Syria during the war, appointed Aaronsohn, the Jewish agronomist who forecasted the catastrophe, as Locust Czar. Central committees were formed in provincial capitals. They collected reports from village mukhtars who were instructed to record any locust outbreaks in their locales.

Pest-control sprayers in the breeding ground of desert locusts near Garowe, in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of Somalia, February 4, 2020.
Pest-control sprayers in the breeding ground of desert locusts near Garowe, in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of Somalia, February 4, 2020.Credit: Ben Curtis,AP

The eradication efforts also demanded mass participation. All of Palestine’s residents were required to collect three kilos of locust eggs that had been deposited in the soil, and bring them to the government authorities. (A fee of one Turkish lira in gold could be paid as an exemption.) Schools shut down and businesses closed as the masses flocked to the fields to collect locust eggs.

Arabs and Jews found in the plague a shared enemy. They organized in towns and villages and mobilized for resistance. As the larvae approached, they gathered in the fields and sank tin-lined boxes in the earth while waving flags to drive the advancing locusts in a dense column toward the traps. In Jerusalem, Christians, Muslims, and Jews gathered for prayer and petition, fasting and repenting. Religious leaders joined together to plead for rain.

The American Colony in Jerusalem established soup kitchens to feed starving residents in Jerusalem. The Pasteur Institute for Health, Medicine, and Biology in Palestine, founded shortly before the war, treated Muslim, Jewish and Christian patients alike. 

Palestinian workers wearing protective gear, get ready to disinfect the walls of the al-Omari mosque against the spread of the coronavirus, Gaza City, March 12, 2020.
Palestinian workers wearing protective gear, get ready to disinfect the walls of the al-Omari mosque against the spread of the coronavirus, Gaza City, March 12, 2020.Credit: AFP

Arabs and Jews in Palestine continued to cooperate on subsequent locust attacks that would hit the country in the interwar period. In 1930, they organized battalions across the country to combat a dreadful locust invasion. As the New York Times reported that year: "Arabs join Jews to repel locusts; Palestine drops differences as 3,000 mobilize for war on insects."

A century after the first locust invasion, a new plague has hit the country again, shutting it off from the rest of the world, upending daily life and confining millions of residents to their homes. As we brace for the coronavirus outbreak, we would do well to take a cue from history. Viruses, much like locusts, do not discriminate between Arabs and Jews. If we are to survive this pandemic, Jews and Arabs need to join forces and work together. 

Nothing brings people together in solidarity like a natural disaster, even when that disaster requires more social distancing than gathering together. Let the new plague be our shared enemy. 

Seraj Assi holds a PhD in Arabic Studies from Georgetown University, and is the author of The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimagining Nomadism in Modern Palestine (Routledge, 2018)

Zachary Foster holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, and hosts Middle East Tonight. Twitter: @_ZachFoster

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