When General Allenby Saved Sukkot

In the midst of World War I, two old Jews, Chaim Weizmann and General Edmund Allenby teamed up to ensure that the holiday could be celebrated properly...

General Edmund Allenby may not have personally participated in the Sukkot celebrations of 1918, but many Jews had reason to thank him that year (Composite image: Allenby, ca. 1917 and a ca. 1900 paper cutout depicting observance of the Sukkot holiday / Public domain)

Chaim Weizmann waited patiently for the one train that could take him to Cairo that day.

As the departure time approached, so too, did two seemingly ancient men. Weizmann estimated that their combined age must have been 180.

The Zionist leader had come to the Land of Israel as head of the Zionist Commission – a delegation of prominent figures tasked with gauging and laying down initial foundations for a Jewish state following the British government’s Balfour Declaration the previous autumn.

The Zionist Commission arriving in British-controlled Palestine in 1918. From the “Palestine at the End of First World War” photo album, National Library of Israel archives. Click image to enlarge

The First World War was still raging and the Commission, which a few iterations later would become the Jewish Agency, faced a host of problems. The heterogenous group was ripe for internal division, with members from different countries and ideological persuasions. Its role and authority rather vague, the local British military command was all but unsupportive despite official backing from London. Poverty and disease were rampant and the internal politics of the small local Jewish community needed to be addressed, as did the concerns and opposition of the local Arab population, which the Commission sought to engage in productive dialogue.

The Zionist Commission visiting a school in Nes Ziona, 1918. From the “Palestine at the End of First World War” photo album, National Library of Israel archives. Click image to enlarge

All of these issues and many more were on Chaim Weizmann’s mind one day in September 1918 as the elderly men approached him.

In his autobiography, Trial and Error, Weizmann recalled how besides the men’s age, the thing that immediately struck him was that he did not recognize either of them:

“By this time I was under the impression that I had met every man, woman and child in the Jewish community of fifty thousand, most of them several times.”

They looked closely at Weizmann and his luggage.

“But you are not really going away? You can’t go yet. There are still some matters of importance to be settled here.”

The brilliant scientist and statesman knew very well that there were in fact many matters of importance that remained to be settled – some of them for decades to come.

Yet, while poverty, disease and conflict may indeed have troubled the men, those were not the issues about which they had come to talk to Weizmann.

“Do you not know that the Feast of Tabernacles [Sukkot] is almost upon us, and we have no myrtles?,” they asked, referring to one of the “Four Species” required to properly observe the holiday in accordance with Jewish law. 

An old Jewish man holding myrtle branches, ca. 1920 (Photo: François Scholten). This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“Though I was familiar enough with the need for myrtles… it had somehow slipped my mind, and it had not occurred to me to include this particular job among the many chores of the Zionist Commission, operating in the midst of a bloody war,” Weizmann recalled in his memoirs.

Not fazed, he responded, “Surely you can get myrtles from Egypt,” to which the old men looked pained:

“…one must have myrtles of the finest quality. These come from Trieste. In a matter of high religious importance, surely General Allenby will be willing to send instructions to Trieste for the shipment of myrtles.” 

Weizmann explained that the world was at war and that Trieste was located in enemy territory. 

“But this is a purely religious matter,” one of the men responded, “a matter of peace. Myrtles are, indeed, the very symbol of peace…”

As the time for his train’s departure neared, Weizmann, ever the visionary pragmatist, tried persuading the two men that they would simply have to do with inferior Egyptian myrtles. Though seemingly oblivious to the geopolitical realities of a world war, the ancient men in fact did know something about importation restrictions and pointed out to Chaim Weizmann that myrtles could not be brought from Egypt because a quarantine was in place and the British authorities forbade importation of plants from Egypt to Palestine.

Somewhat stumped and soon to miss his train, Weizmann promised the men that he would make every possible effort to secure a myrtle supply in time for Sukkot, yet he had no idea how exactly he might do that.

“I travelled down to Egypt genuinely worried over this question of myrtles and the quarantine; and even more worried by the responsibility for some thousands of people living, like these two old gentlemen, in a world of their own so remote from ours that they seemed as unreal to us as the war did to them. By the time I fell asleep in the train I was no longer sure what was, in fact, real, the war or the Feast of Tabernacles.”

The countless other issues at stake and meetings in Cairo all but drove the myrtle promise from Chaim Weizmann’s mind. Yet then, just before his boat sailed and he took leave of General Allenby, the legendary liberator of Jerusalem (not Trieste) exclaimed:

“By the way, about those myrtles!  You know, it is an important business; it’s all in the Bible; I read it up in the Book of Nehemiah last night. Well, you’ll be glad to hear that we have lifted the quarantine, and a consignment of myrtles will get to Palestine in good time for the Feast of Tabernacles!”

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Meet the Ottoman Kavass Guards, Protectors of the Chief Rabbi

With the rise in status of foreign and non-Muslim dignitaries in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century, the Ottomans assigned special bodyguards to protect diplomatic consuls, Christian patriarchs, as well as the chief rabbis of Jewish communities throughout the empire. The church patriarchs continue to use these bodyguards to this day, but what happened to the kavass guards that were assigned to the Jews? And what does all this have to do with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef?

Bezalel Mevashov (right), Hacham Rafael Azriel, son-in-law of Chief Rabbi Yaakov Meir (center) and the kavass Yaakov Bachar (left), 1939. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

In the summer of 1969, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was appointed Chief Rabbi of the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv. The inaugural procession left the religious council building for a motorcade parade around the city in honor of the new appointee. At the head of the procession, marching in front of the rabbi, the mayor and their attendants, was an unusual figure: an elderly man, dressed in official uniform, carrying a large wooden staff with a silver pommel and wearing a belt holding a curved and decorated sword. Stern-faced, he led the convoy, tapping out a uniform rhythm with the tip of his staff, and only after the new Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv was safely seated in the waiting car did he get into the front seat. Later he could be seen standing to the left of Rabbi Ovadia, acting as his personal assistant. This is one of the last records we have of a Jewish kavass, a relic from another time in the Holy Land.


Bodyguards for Foreigners in the Ottoman Territories

To understand why the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv was accompanied by a bodyguard wielding a staff and a sword, we must look back to the mid-19th century. At the time, the Ottoman Empire was trying to quash the rebellion of Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman army officer who had taken control of a large region encompassing both Egypt and Palestine. In one of the last battles between the empire and the forces controlled by Muhammad Ali, who is considered the founder of modern Egypt, the Ottomans had no choice but to accept help from foreign powers, including the British Empire, alongside the Russians and Austro-Hungarians. Recognizing the weakness of the great Muslim empire, these nations offered their help in exchange for the advancement of their own interests within the Ottoman territories. This led to the “Capitulations” – contracts signed between the Ottoman Empire and the various European powers.

As a result of these contracts, the foreign consuls became sovereign over the citizens of their respective countries living in Muslim territories. This meant the European countries could establish civil systems to serve their own citizens, which ran parallel to those provided by the empire, such as foreign banks, a post office, hospitals and schools. Later, the European countries demanded that the capitulation rights also be applied to non-Muslim populations in the Ottoman Empire, regardless of their origin—including mainly Christians and Jews.

Thus, a situation was created in which, for the first time in the Ottoman Empire, non-Muslims were granted enhanced rights and Christian and Jewish religious leaders were empowered to represent the communities they headed. The office of the Jewish Hakham Bashi, which the Ottoman authorities united at that time with the office of the Rishon LeZion (Chief Rabbi), received a new validity, with subordinate rabbis being appointed to head the various Jewish communities in the empire. In view of the changes and the new rights granted within the capitulation contracts, the Ottoman authorities decided to assign bodyguards to the consuls, foreign diplomats, and various VIPs of one sort or another, as well as to non-Muslim religious leaders.

Bodyguard (kavass) of the Pasha of Jerusalem, colored drawing by Ermete Pierotti. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

These guards, called “kavass” (the meaning in Ottoman Arabic is “archer” or “bowman”), in fact received the status of a soldier or policeman, even though they did not belong to any official body. The role of the kavass was to walk in front of the official or dignitary they were accompanying, to clear the way for them, and if necessary to protect them from harassment, mobs or even attack. European institutions, such as banks, received permission to maintain a kavass that would protect their interests. Since the kavass did not belong to the police or the army, Jews and Christians could also hold this position, thereby circumventing the ban on non-Muslims carrying weapons.

Man wearing the decorative, embroidered kavass “uniform,” Jaffa. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

Staff, Sword and Special Dress

The kavass were colorful characters, whose dress mimicked the style of the dress uniforms worn by the Ottoman military in the mid-19th century. Their uniforms consisted of wide-legged oriental-style pants, a large embroidered coat, a wide sash and “Fez” hat (tarboush), which was common throughout the Ottoman Empire at the time. Most also sported thick mustaches in accordance with the day’s fashion. As mentioned, they wore a belt with a large sword, and always carried a large staff. This staff was usually topped by a pommel made of silver or some other metal, with a steel tip attached to it, in keeping with its function as a weapon. Yet the staff had another purpose besides: the kavass would use the stick to tap the pavement while leading a religious procession or accompanying a dignitary. The taps were meant to signal to the crowd to clear the way. If at first, the kavass’ role was intended to protect foreign office holders within Muslim territory, towards the end of the Ottoman Empire the presence of kawass became a status symbol, and they were often selected to perform important duties due to their visibility and prestige.

Kavass – morning procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Courtesy of photographer Dancho Arnon, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Every Christian patriarch was assigned a kavass, and the custom continued even after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, with the appointing of a kavass for the British High Commissioner. Muslim kavass guards sometimes found themselves in a “conflict of interests”. Journalist Uri Cesari recounted an incident that took place during the 1921 riots, when the Anglo-Palestine Bank was stormed by an angry mob: “The bank had a Muslim guard, a loyal guard, a ‘kavass,’ a figure bequeathed to us in the capitulations.” Later, Cesari described how the kavass promised that he would not let any trespasser through the bank’s doors, but the Jews, unsure with whom the kavass’ loyalty truly lay, chose to flee anyway.

Funeral procession of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yaakov Meir, which proceeded from Jaffa Street to the Mount of Olives, 1939. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

The Ottoman kavass became part of the Rishon LeZion’s honor guard along with many important rabbis. In his memoir of the German Kaiser’s visit to Jerusalem, David Yellin writes: “Two armed men dressed in their official clothes with silver staffs in their hands walk in front of our Chief Rabbi.” In his short story “The Jewish Kavass,” the author Yehoshua Ayzenshtadt (Barzilai) describes how at the beginning of the 20th century a Jewish kavass from Jerusalem was chosen to protect a large sum of money collected by the Jewish community in the Land of Israel: “In the Eastern countries, this person dressed in strange clothing is called ‘kavass.’ These people serve the royal envoys, religious heads and all the dignitaries; anyone who has a ’kavass’ is known to be important.” Ayzenshtadt goes on to describe the kavass’ heroic qualities as well as the amount of fabric needed for his traditional costume, given his large size. In his story, Ayzenshtadt, a European Jew, drew a portrait of the kavass that was clearly influenced by Orientalist tales: a big and strong Jerusalemite, a Jew who speaks Arabic and is familiar with the city as only a native son can be.

The Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yaakov Meir in traditional dress, to his right his bodyguard Bezalel Mabshus wearing the kavass costume, 1936. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

The Kavass Receives an Israeli Identity Card

With the establishment of the State of Israel, the kavass in their original traditional appearance remained only in the area of Jerusalem. Embassies were stationed in Tel Aviv, and the Christian patriarchs are the last to still have a kavass leading their processions. Most have abandoned the full oriental dress and are seen wearing it only on special occasions. Instead of the embroidered pants and coat, most kavass guards accompanying the Christian patriarchs wear blue suits, though the tarboosh remains, a sign of the past. They also still carry the silver-tipped staffs and swords.

Inauguration ceremony of Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, Heichal Shlomo Synagogue, Jerusalem, 1964. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

For the bodyguards of the Christian patriarchs, being a kavass is often a lifelong profession and many have adopted hallmarks of the particular Christian church they belong to. For example, the kavass guards of the Orthodox Patriarchate wear the symbol of the Orthodox Church on their lapel, whereas some of those who serve the Armenian Patriarchate refuse to wear the fez, which, as mentioned, is a distinctly Ottoman symbol, in protest of the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. The kavass guards of the Rishon LeZion, whose position was integrated into the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, continued to serve the rabbis in the early years of the State of Israel. Little by little they became akin to personal assistants of the Chief Rabbi, and wore uniforms somewhat similar to those of the Knesset Guard, with a matching cap in place of the Ottoman headdress.

Inauguration of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, June 17, 1969, Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue. Center: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right: Yosef Shalit, the Chief Rabbi’s assistant, wearing the kavass uniform. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Eventually, they became a mere symbolic relic of a bygone era. In 1968, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim’s kavass made headlines, when the rabbi and his assistant visited the Western Wall plaza and decided to remove a partition that was illegally erected there by the Ministry of Religions. In 1969, a bodyguard accompanied Rabbi Ovadia as he set out on his new path as Chief Rabbi of the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Three years later, when he was elected Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia abolished the position of the rabbi’s kavass guard. This spelled the end of the role of the Jewish kavass, although the Christian counterparts can still be found in the Old City of Jerusalem, accompanying the church patriarchs who have not yet decided to relinquish this symbol of honor and dignity from the past.

A Greek Orthodox Christmas procession in Jerusalem’s Old City, 1991. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

This Was the Actual First Zionist Congress

We are often told that “the Jewish state was founded in Basel", the city where the first Zionist Congress convened. However, 15 years earlier, Jews gathered in the city of Focşani, in Romania, to promote the settlement of the Land of Israel. Israel Gilad, a member of the First Aliyah Association and great grandson of the founders of Rosh Pinna and Zikhron Ya'akov, would like to remind our readers of those who came before Herzl…


Participants in the Hovevei Zion conference in Katowice, 1884, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In 1878, Europe’s great powers convened at the Congress of Berlin to divide up the spoils of Russia and Romania’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War. Romania and Bulgaria afterward declared independence, pledging to grant citizenship to all residents. Leading this effort were British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and French Minister of Justice Adolf Crémieux. Disraeli was a descendant of a Jewish family that had converted to Christianity, and Crémieux was himself a Jew.

Romania did everything it could to thwart this move. It now enforced laws legislated years earlier that discriminated against the country’s Jews and ruined their livelihoods. The laws had not been implemented previously. These actions, which worsened the already harsh reality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, also spurred Jews to support the idea of a ​​return to the Land of Israel, a notion that began to spread among the Jews of the region.

In late 1880, David Gordon, the editor of the Jewish newspaper Hamagid, published an article analyzing the efforts to organize settlement associations for the Land of Israel. His conclusion was that small organizations or individuals would fail in their goal of “establishing a large agricultural settlement for our people in the land of our ancestors.” He believed that a strong central body, similar to French Jewry’s “Alliance” organization, which would oversee the organization and settlement, should be established.

Portrait of David Gordon, editor of Hamagid, the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

The renewed Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel had only two colonies at the time, Gei Oni (later to evolve into Rosh Pinna) and Petah Tikva, which were established in 1878 with the aim of creating an agricultural settlement that would provide a living for its residents. Gei Oni’s residents had to abandon their settlement due to agricultural failure, while the people of Petah Tikva suffered from a very severe bout of malarial fever. By early 1880, the founders of both colonies were forced to return to Safed and Jerusalem where they survived on halukkah funds (charity collected from Jewish communities in Europe and distributed to the Jewish residents living in the Land of Israel).

Gordon’s idea was simple: the basis for organizing would be local associations that would purchase land in Palestine; each colony would appoint a certain number of peasant families (up to 150 households, as per the sultan’s permission) to work it, with the settlers making their living from agriculture. Gordon believed that a large number of colonies would eventually lead to the recognition of the Land of Israel as the homeland and state of the Jewish people.

On March 13, 1881, the Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist group. Among its members was a Jewish woman. Pogroms against Russian Jews ensued and continued for about three years. The pogroms, known among Jews as the “Storms in the South”, motivated groups in Russia to organize for immigration to Palestine. The Jews of Romania, realizing that the events in Russia would soon spread, ramped up membership in Zionist associations as well.


The Focşani Congress, the Beginning of Settlement, “Hibat Zion” and the Zionist Organization

I would claim that the Zionist movement was founded on December 30, 1881 (according to the Julian calendar), in Focşani, in Romania, at the actual “first Zionist congress”, which was attended by 51 delegates from 32 settlement organizations who met in the town’s Jewish school. The conference lasted two days, during which five members were elected to serve as the “Central Committee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria”. Samuel Pineles, a Zionist activist from Romania, was elected committee chair and secretary. Pineles, a wise and skillful organizer, ran the conference with a deft hand, knowing when to act decisively and when to be flexible, depending on the circumstance.

Portrait of Samuel Pineles, the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

The movement founded at the Focşani Congress, which would later be renamed Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) or Hibat Zion (“Love of Zion”), set as its goal: “the solution to the problem of Romanian Jewry by immediate immigration to the Land of Israel, agricultural settlement and independent work on the part of the settlers.” In his Hebrew book The Torch Was Lit in Romania (Ha-Avuka Hudleka Be-Rumanyah), Moshe Schaerf writes that the Focşani Congress “was a new phenomenon in Jewish history.”

And thus the central committee for the first Jewish settlement movement in the Land of Israel came into being. It financed and managed the establishment of two colonies: Zikhron Ya’akov, which it managed fully, and Rosh Pinna to which it only provided assistance.

The committee sent about 120 families (over 600 people) to Ottoman Palestine on four voyages, which brought more than half of the first wave of settlers. The first Zionist pioneer group to arrive was a group from the city of Moineşti, which bought the land at Gei Oni on which they established Rosh Pinna.

Samuel Pineles led the Zionist movement in Romania until his death in 1928, with the exception of about five years during which he turned his attention to personal business matters.

Unfortunately, in the spring of 1883, the Central Committee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria went bankrupt. In late September of that year, the committee transferred the assets of the colony it had founded, Zikhron Ya’akov, to the patronage of Baron Edmund James de Rothschild.

Seal of the city of Focşani, Romania, site of the congress. Photo: Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Kfar Tavor Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

During Sukkot 1882, Baron Rothschild met Rabbi Mohilever, who was accompanied by Rabbi Zadoc Kahn, the Chief Rabbi of French Jewry. The Baron agreed to Rabbi Mohilever’s request to found a settlement in Palestine and later offered an economic safety net for most of the first wave settlements, which had fallen into bankruptcy. The Baron’s philanthropy prevented the settlements’ collapse which, had it indeed happened, could have led to a great crisis of faith regarding the Zionist goal.

In November 1884, the Katowice Conference convened and officially established the “Hibat Zion” movement and with it, the movement’s leadership passed from Romanian to Russian Jewry.

We must admit that as a movement, Hibat Zion was a failure in terms of its ability to motivate pioneers and settle them in the Land of Israel. The movement operated in “bursts” that were primarily reactions to pogroms and institutionalized antisemitism. When Theodor Herzl appeared on the scene, the movement’s leadership in Eastern Europe was happy to pass the baton of the entire Zionist movement to him.

In August 1897, the “First Zionist Congress” convened in Basel—but as stated at the outset, I reject this official title. If one begins the counting at the Focşani Congress, the Basel congress in 1897 was the seventh gathering.

Herzl was an exceptionally talented journalist, and the revered leader of the Zionist movement who even financed its activity from his own pocket. He founded the World Zionist Organization at the Basel Congress and built an impressive administrative apparatus compared to those that preceded it. Nevertheless, the Zionist Organization’s practical achievements in its early years were minor at best.  In the first few years, membership in the movement dwindled, political Zionism could boast few accomplishments, and the organization’s settlement activity in the Land of Israel was negligible until about 1910.

Participants in the “Hovevei Zion” conference in Odessa, 1890, Bitmuna, the Lancet Collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Zionist Organization’s settlement activity followed Herzl’s “no charter, no aliyah,” concept, and therefore in those first years settlement amounted to nothing. The first settlement established under the auspices of the Zionist Organization was Degania in 1909. Only in the late 1930s did the Zionist Organization become the main settlement movement and even then it only established kibbutzim and moshavim (communal and cooperative agricultural settlements).


The Collapse and Rescue of Settlement in the Land of Israel

Baron Rothschild’s agreement to sponsor settlement in the Land of Israel and save it from collapse should not be forgotten. The founding fathers of Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine however paid the price by losing their independence and becoming day laborers for the Baron. I believe that the time has come for us to acknowledge our indebtedness to those early pioneers and give them their due.

David Ben-Gurion recognized Baron Edmund de Rothschild as the only one entitled to a place of honor in the Zionist story for doing more for the settlement of the Land of Israel than any other person or body. By this, Ben-Gurion minimized the actions and hard work of the organizations and pioneers active from 1882 to 1897, that preceded Herzl’s World Zionist Organization.

All this started a hundred and twenty-five years ago when the Congress in Basel was called the “First Zionist Congress” even though its full name was “The First World Zionist Congress.” The Congress in Basel was in fact the seventh of its kind. To this day, most Jews are unfamiliar with the first congresses of the Central Comittee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria. I have published my findings here in the hope that historians will one day correct this historical oversight in the common Zionist narrative.



Further Reading (in Hebrew):

ישראל קלויזנר, “חיבת ציון ברומניה”, הספרייה הציונית על-ידי הנהלת ההסתדרות הציונית, ירושלים תשי”ח

משה שרף, “האבוקה הודלקה ברומניה”, הספרייה הציונית, ירושלים תשמ”ו

גצל קרסל, אבי הישוב : הברון אדמונד דה רוטשילד ופעלו: דברי פתיחה – דוד בן גוריון, מגן, חיפה 1954

Invited by Zionists: Egyptian Teachers in Mandatory Palestine

In 1926, more than 100 Egyptian teachers and officials visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and elsewhere. What did they think of Jewish education and how did the local Arab population receive them?

A touring car on the Ramallah-Jerusalem Road, mid-1920s. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“Long live King Fuad! Long live Palestine!”

The cries rang out in the spring air of Tel Aviv, as the Chief Rabbi and Zionist dignitaries looked on. The gathering concluded with both the Egyptian national anthem and “Hatikva”.

It marked the beginning of a whirlwind 1926 Zionistic tour of British Mandate Palestine, on which more than 100 Egyptian educators and officials visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and elsewhere.

The group had been personally invited by Chaim Weizmann, the legendary scientist and leader of the Zionist movement who would become the State of Israel’s first president. Just a few weeks earlier, Weizmann had joined a delegation of Jewish teachers visiting Egypt under the auspices of the Zionist Executive, with the support of the Egyptian Consul in Palestine and the Egyptian government, which had interceded to issue entrance visas for the group of about 80. The visitors from the Land of Israel had been warmly welcomed by local Jewish organizations, as well as Egyptian officials, provided with accommodations, celebratory banquets, kosher food, discounted rail fares and programming during their stay – including visits to schools, museums and even Al Azhar University, the prestigious center for Islamic learning founded in the 10th century.

Jewish tourists in Egypt, 1920s. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The following month, it was the Zionists’ turn to host their Egyptian counterparts.

The first stop after the welcoming ceremony? The Herzliya Gymnasium, the very first Hebrew high school. The delegation visited educational institutions across the land, from kindergartens to the Bezalel art academy, agricultural schools and, of course, the newly established Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Interest and motivation to meet and host the group was high:

“Jewish councils and other bodies came forward eagerly with offers to entertain the visitors from Egypt, whose programme was crowded with concerts and receptions, the most significant of which was a banquet in their honor given by the Department of Education of the Palestine Zionist Executive before their return home.”

In a speech he gave shortly after the visit, Weizmann recalled the message he had conveyed to the Egyptians:

“Our way, as I told the Egyptian teachers, is the way of peace. It is narrow, difficult and unpaved. There is no false heroism on it and no false pathos, but it rests, so I believe, on the historic tradition of the Jewish people.

When the nations of the world understand that this is our goal, they will approve it and facilitate our work. Should there, however, be a doubt in the public opinion of the world as to whether we go along this way, they will not believe in our work.”

Though the Egyptian group toured Jaffa, Jericho and other majority Arab areas, the reception they received from their Palestinian Arab brethren seems to have been a bit colder than that received from their official hosts.

In fact, to a large extent, they were boycotted and treated as traitors for having responded favorably to the Zionist invitation.

In Acre, for example, Toufic Mejdaliani, the editor of a local humorous publication, criticized Zionism and “reproached the teachers with having neglected the Arabs.” The Egyptian visitors told Mejdaliani “that they were not interested in politics and that the purpose of their visit was a scientific one.”

In a message to the editor of the Jerusalem-based Arab newspaper Mir’at Al-Sharq, the teachers stated:

“We fail to understand the reason for which you boycott us and attack us in your papers. The matter is simple. The Jewish teachers visited us and we welcomed them as required by hospitality. They invited us to visit them and we accepted the invitation, believing that science has neither religion, nor fatherland. If the Jews are your enemies, they are not ours… In boycotting us, you have done more harm to yourselves than to us… Why did you not profit by the valuable opportunity of acquainting us with your cause? Do you think all the world regards the Zionist question as you do?”

According to the teachers, though, the reception by fellow Arabs was not just counterintuitive, but also hurtful:

“You have wounded us deeply by your campaign against us. We shall never forget that in certain towns they would not give us water. We never expected an Arab country to act in this way.”

It was important for the teachers to stress that they had covered their own travel expenses (as opposed to accepting gifts from the Zionists), and would have loved to meet with more Palestinian Arabs if only they would have been welcomed and invited. Nonetheless, despite the hurt and disrespect they experienced during their visit, the Egyptians’ message ultimately took a dramatic and conciliatory change of course:

“… we forgive you because we regard your attitude as dictated by patriotism. The Jews wished to separate us from our brothers… They wished us to emphasize the ability of Zionism, but they were disappointed.”

The delegation’s official report and some accounts of the visit published back in Egypt, however, seem to tell a bit of a different story.

One teacher was particularly taken by the Jewish kindergartens, admiring the teachers’ “good will and patience”, the tidiness of the classrooms, and “specially charmed by the music lessons.”

He concluded that the older schoolchildren were “symbols of love for study,” was struck by the fact that the very recently revived Hebrew language already had terms for modern concepts, “while teachers in Egyptian high schools… complain of the limited terminology of the Arabic vocabulary…”

The official Egyptian Ministry of Education report of the visit, which came out a few months later, noted numerous features of the Hebrew educational system worthy of praise, including the academic and mental rigor, the tidiness of the classrooms, the attention paid to diction, and the importance placed on physical fitness.

Students in Petach Tikva’s Pica School, 1926. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archives of Petach Tikva, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The revival of Hebrew was also seen as something to admire, as was the fact that the educational system was extremely economical – providing high quality education at a most reasonable cost.

Summing up the trip in an interview to the Zionist newspaper The Palestine Bulletin, the Egyptian undersecretary for education, who headed the delegation, declared:

“We came here as colleagues of the Hebrew educational workers. We appreciate education at so high a standard that we think that nations should spend every penny on education… While it is early yet to speak of exchange of professors and students, we should do everything to strengthen cultural bounds between both countries in all other possible ways.”

Before the educators even returned home, Chaim Weizmann and other Zionist leaders were already visiting Emir Abdullah at his palace in Amman. There, over lunch, they discussed the Jewish teachers’ visit to Egypt, and the Egyptian teachers’ visit to Mandatory Palestine, emphasizing the importance of such connections, and even suggesting that the newly established Hebrew University of Jerusalem and its collection of Arabic texts (now part of the National Library of Israel), should be utilized by scholars from across the Arab world.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.