Albert Antebi, forgotten Ottoman Zionist

He is almost forgotten now, but despite his premature death aged 46, Albert Antebi had exceptionally good relations with the Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century. He became an effective intermediary between the Zionists and the Ottoman Turks, obtaining Turkish passports for Palestinian Jews during WWI and the release of Ben-Gurion from jail.  David Ben-Gurion described him as the ‘mirror image of Lawrence of Arabia’. Interestingly,  this article by Mehmet Hasan Bulut in the Turkish newspaper The Daily Sabah shows Turkish sympathy for the Zionist enterprise.

 

Albert Abraham Antebi

Albert Abraham Antebi was born in Damascus in 1873. His family was famous for their rabbis. He studied at the Alliance School and went to Paris with a scholarship he won at the age of 15. He met his wife there and graduated from the Paris Institute of Technology. After graduation, he returned to Palestine.

Antebi, who started his duty at the Alliance schools in Jerusalem as a teacher, later became the administrator of these schools. He wrote columns for the newspaper ha-Herut, published by Sephardic Jews. He became Baron Rothschild’s right-hand man and translator in Palestine. He began buying lands from the Arabs and settled refugee Jews there. Through the Anglo-Palestine Company, which had a branch in Jaffa, he provided loans to Jewish colonies to start and expand their businesses.

He gained the trust of Ottoman administrators, foreign consuls and Zionists because he had good relations with people. But he could not get along with the conservative chief rabbi of Jerusalem. He worked hard for the replacement of the chief rabbi with someone else. When Chaim Nahum became the chief rabbi of the empire after the 1908 Young Turkish Revolution, Antebi’s wish was fulfilled and the chief rabbi of Jerusalem was dismissed like all other conservatives in the country.

In this period, Antebi became close to the people who would be the founders of Israel in the future. Journalist Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda – considered the father of modern Hebrew – was one of them. Antebi was even the one who first introduced Ben-Avi’s wife to him. Israel Shochat and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who founded the Hashomer (The Watchman) organization for armed struggle with the Arabs, were also among his friends. Antebi visited Shochat, Ben-Zvi and David Ben-Gurion while studying law in Istanbul in 1912. Taking advantage of the tolerance shown by the Young Turks to the Zionists, they engaged in political activities together.

With the start of the World War, the Young Turks, who had dethroned Sultan Abdülhamid II by joining hands in 1909, had a falling out with the Zionists. The Ottoman entry into the war on the side of Germany would lead to the deportation of Jews who were Russian citizens in Palestine. To prevent this, the Ottomanization Committee was established. Antebi, Ben-Zvi and Ben-Gurion joined this committee. The members of the Zionist office in Jaffa and the committee immediately started to work to provide Jews of different nationalities with Turkish citizenship. Antebi called for Turkish citizenship in the ha-Herut newspaper. But only 8,000 Jews took Turkish citizenship, some of the rest left Palestine while some were deported by the Young Turks.

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