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.
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.
More articles by Steve Plaut