My Jewish family’s roots in Gaza

 King David plays his harp – a floor mosaic from an ancient synagogue in Gaza

Gaza is all over the news headlines – but here’s one story you won’t hear about. Read Steven Plaut’s heartwarming article from the Jewish Press, first published in 2009. (With thanks: Eliyahu)

My family has roots in Gaza. We were there a century ago.

OK, technically it is my wife’s family. I am married to the granddaughter of Nissim Ohana, the rabbi of Gaza City. 

But let’s back up a bit here.

In
Genesis, Gaza is explicitly listed as part of the Land of Israel
promised to the Jews. It was conquered by the tribe of Judah during the
era of the Judges, though it was later recaptured by the Philistines. It
was captured again by the Jews during the time of the Maccabees, only
to be seized by the Romans, who handed it over to King Herod. 

Gaza
had a small Jewish community during the era of the Talmud. A synagogue
was erected near the Gaza waterfront in 508 CE. A survey of the town in
1481 found about 60 Jewish households there, many producing wine. Later,
quite a few followers of Shabbtai Zvi lived there, including the famous
Natan of Gaza.
There was a thriving
Jewish community in Gaza when Napoleon arrived in 1799 via Egypt, but a
plague followed his troops and the Jews abandoned the city. 

The
modern Jewish community of Gaza got its start in 1885. The initiator of
the community was Zeev Wissotzky, scion of the Wissotzky tea company
(founded in 1849 in Moscow and still to this day Israel’s largest tea
producer).

In
1907 a young rabbi named Nissim Ohana, educated in the Sephardic
yeshivas of Old Jerusalem, arrived in Gaza. He set up a school in Gaza
named Talmud Torah whose language of instruction was exclusively Hebrew,
an unusual and controversial decision at the time.

          
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the initiator of the use of Hebrew as the language
of communication in the pre-state yishuv, was so impressed that he paid
the school a personal visit.

          
In those days, Muslim-Jewish relations in Gaza were cordial, even warm.
Rabbi Ohana maintained a close relationship with the local mufti,
Sheikh Abdallah al-’Almi. The rabbi was well versed not only in Judaic
sources but also in the Koran and the New Testament, and occasionally
the mufti would consult with him concerning judicial questions arising
in Islamic law.

The
mufti was particularly worried at the time about the influence of
Christian missionaries on local Muslims and he asked Rabbi Ohana for
help in countering the missionaries’ claims. Later, Rabbi Ohana compiled
his anti-missionary arguments in a book titled Know How to Respond to an Apikores, still one of the best such volumes.

When
World War I broke out, the ruling Ottomans ordered all “foreigners” to
leave their territories. Rabbi Ohana had a French passport (his father
having been born in Algeria) and was forced to leave. Rabbi Ohana served
for a while as the rabbi of Malta, then as rabbi at a small Syrian
synagogue in Manhattan. He went on to head the rabbinical court in Cairo
before moving to Haifa, after Israel became a state, to serve as chief
Sephardic rabbi of Haifa.

The
Gaza Jewish community was destroyed by rioting Arabs in 1929, with
surviving Jews fleeing to other towns in what would become Israel. Jews
returned to the area after the Six-Day War, but when Israel adopted the
Oslo “peace process” as national policy, Gaza terrorism exploded and the
Jews in the renewed Gaza communities faced mortal danger. Their actual
eviction, however – the third ethnic cleansing of Gaza Jews in less than
a century – was perpetrated by the government of Ariel Sharon, years
after the collapse of Oslo.

But
back to Rabbi Ohana of Gaza. In the early 1980s, one of his
granddaughters met an American who was teaching at the Technion.
Convinced that American men were far too goofy for her to have any
romantic interest in any of them, she agreed to go on a date with him
only so that she could tell him about her available single American
girlfriend.

But
she never got around to introducing the American to her girlfriend. And
while her opinion about the goofiness of American men is undeniably
correct, she married me anyway in 1985.

One
last strange twist: A grandson of the mufti of Gaza is today a leading
Hamas terrorist, and has served as the Hamas representative in Damascus.
Some of Rabbi Ohana’s grandchildren in Israel are in possession of
manuscripts written by the mufti. It is their hope that once Hamas is
finally defeated and peace is established, the manuscripts will be
turned over to the descendants of the mufti, Rabbi Ohana’s close friend.
 

Read article in full

The long Jewish history of Gaza

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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