Tuesday, September 06, 2011

How a Baghdad 'Jewish Bedouin' won Petach Tikva

Daud Abu Yusuf, a sketch made by 'Jewish guard' Yehuda Rab in 1944. ('The First Furrow’)

From Dvar Dea blog, the fascinating tale of Daud Abu Yusuf, the Baghdad-born 'Jewish Bedouin' who taught Zionist pioneers in late 19th century Palestine how to deal with marauding Arab tribes. His tactics of 'diplomacy, not rifles' influenced the founding principles of Jewish self-defence.

Daud Abu Yusuf did not plan to be in the land of Israel in the winter of 1879. As a devout Jew he undoubtedly wanted to. Maybe he even made a few plans. But if he did they never materialized.

In 1879, year 5,639 of the Jewish calendar, a thief stole his precious white mare somewhere in Arabia. And Daud chased him all the way to Damascus. Since Jerusalem is nearby, he decided to make a pilgrimage. On his way back, at the village of Faga, East of Petach Tikvah, he heard of Jews trying to make a living as farmers. Curious, he went to have a look. But all he saw there were a bunch of Europeans. Disappointed he immediately left.

For Yehuda Rab, who welcomed him there, this was also confusing. He saw a strange-looking Bedouin coming from the East on a tall white mare, the kind Yehuda never saw before. According to the local customs he greeted him and invited him for a cup of coffee. But instead of accepting, the rider grunted and left, after replying in a few words in an Arabian dialect uncommon to this region. Returning from the fields the next morning Yehuda was surprised to see the stranger coming from the same direction. His surprise grew several times over when the stranger announced “ Ana Israili,” followed by, “Shma Israel Adonay Eloheinu Adonay Echad.

No one expected to meet a Jewish Bedouin. But there he was, a Hebrew-speaking Bedouin with Talit and Tefilin among his few belongings. Yehuda’s immediate thoughts were of the Jews of Khaybar. They were a mysterious tribe of Jewish nomads from the Arabian Peninsula. At the time a source of many legends and rumors, but of no actual encounters. As they introduced each other Daud dismissed that possibility. His name was Da-vid, but the Arabs called him Daud Abu Yusuf, after his 20-year old son, who was then with his mother in Baghdad. He came from a group of Jewish families in Baghdad that spend the greater part of each year among the Bedouins in the desert, trading with them in wool. Only he went even farther, and made the desert his home.

In that conversation Daud also dismissed the possibility that the Jews of Khaybar existed. He recalled that he was hired once as a guide by a British expedition that wanted to find this tribe. They went across the Arabian Peninsula as far as Yemen, where they met Yemenite Jews. But saw no evidence of the Jews of Khaybar.

Hearing of their problems and difficulties he immediately offered his experience, his first advice, no rifles. That night he took Yehuda outside to set a campfire. Yehuda thought this would immediately attract hostile fire. Daud was counting on that. They waited on their horses some distance away in the dark. And when someone began shooting at their campfire they did nothing. The shooters revealed their location by firing and when they reloaded, Daud and Yehuda charged at them from behind, scaring the living daylights out of them. Simple and effective, Daud’s plan gave Yehuda his first night of sleep in a long time. After that night Daud decided not to return to his wife and son in Baghdad but instead to spend a year teaching the people of Petach Tikvah everything he knew. Especially to Yehuda Rab who carried the brunt of guarding.

His main tool was diplomacy. Gain the respect of the surrounding villagers and Bedouin tribes, through firmness and hospitality. Stand your ground but always give your adversary the highest respect. By winning every confrontation on one hand - and they were numerous - and honoring his neighbors with hospitality, Daud’s fame spread throughout the land. And many Arabs regarded him as a sheikh. He knew that smart diplomacy can avoid confrontations and war, therefore he honored the Arab custom of hospitality by accepting all their invitations and inviting their leaders to Petach Tikvah, where they were treated as kings. Once he refused to take part in a contest of skills in order not to humiliate their host, the head of the powerful Abu Kishek tribe.

When it comes to surviving an actual confrontation Daud’s philosophy had just two rules. Rules that required a cool head at all times.

“Always be quicker than your foe, but no matter what you do, don’t ever kill unless this is an extremely severe danger. – This is not a fantasiya!” “There is no point,” he reasoned, “to start an endless blood feud.” Fantasiya were local festivities where weapons were fired into the air just for the fun of it. For experienced men like Daud Abu Yusuf war is something they engage in out of necessity and not for the fun of it. He knew and taught that a battle avoided is a battle won.

This first rule is a wisdom that echoed across the history of Jewish self-defense in the land of Israel. Mendel Portugali, 1888 – 1917, one of the founders of “Hashomer,” the predecessor of the “Haganah” instructed, “ You do not seek an encounter with a thief, you chase him off, and only when you have no choice do you shoot. After all, he is "out to steal a sack of almonds, not to murder you, so don’t murder him, drive him off. Don’t sleep at night. If you hear footsteps, fire into the distance. If you feel that he is not far from you, and you can fire without fear that he may attack you, fire into the distance. Only if your life is in danger – fire.”

And from later years, Yigal Alon (1918 – 1980) recalled an incident with thieves in his family fields, when he was only 13 years old. In that incident he saw his father confront the thieves and chases them away, without killing them, even though he had the opportunity to do so. His father’s explanation echoed the wisdom of Daud Abu Yusuf and the empathy of Mendel Portugali: “A shot can end up in death. The death of an Arab opens a blood feud that can last for decades. We live here with them and any conflict that can be resolved with hands and sticks has to end without the use of a weapon. Use it only when there is a real danger to your life.” Yigal Alon became a leading figure in the establishment of the state of Israel and its armed forces. He, and others like him, raised generations of soldiers, commanders and military leaders.

Daud Abu Yusuf's second rule is best described as “Always prefer the night over the company of a campfire.” Knowing your surroundings in the dark without the use of a light source is the skill of the commando, the tracker, and the native fighter - a skill a bunch of foreign intruders are not supposed to have. Israeli historians may dispute the idea that Daud Abu Yusuf gave the Israeli side the skills of army trackers – ‘Gashashim’ in Hebrew. But the fact of the matter is that Jews with this skill were present in land of Israel from the very beginning of pioneering Zionism and Daud Abu Yusuf was there to teach.

Daud spent only one year in the company of the people of Petach Tikvah, from the Passover of 1879 to the Passover of 1880. There is only one source about that year, his friend and student, Yehuda Rab. From him we have a few clues about his life before he came to Petach Tikvah.

Forty years of age, short and not so good-looking, his face carried the scares of an illness that struck him some years before, probably Chicken Pox. His most recognized feature was the rababa, a single string musical instrument common among the Bedouins. With it he sang Bedouin songs from the desert’s heartland and Jewish prayers. He also liked to play the oud, a well-known guitar-like Arab musical instrument.

True to his teachings, he carried no firearms. He had a lance in his right arm and a frightening Damascus sword in a sheath on his left thigh. When asked why this seemingly risky choice, he explained that a rifle has no honor. “Even a woman can kill with it the greatest of heroes”. Was he a chauvinist? Or was this a better explanation to give to the kind of world he lived in? His one-year stay in Petach Tikvah suggests the later. Once a massive confrontation between the men of Petach Tikvah and the men of a nearby village was about to take place. Seeing this face-off, the women of Petach Tikvah took the initiative, rushed to the field and lay down between the two sides. Daud was as surprised as the rest of the men, from both sides. But there is no indication he was bothered by this “unwomanly” behavior. Along with everybody else he was glad the fight was aborted.

Daud gave a year of his life to Zionism, but his life was his wife and son in Baghdad. This we know since he never stopped talking about them, especially his wife. On the eve of his departure he met Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, a senior rabbinic personality from Jerusalem. He was the only leading rabbi to support the Petach Tikvah initiative, and that against strong and sometimes near violent opposition from the rabbinic establishment in Jerusalem. Recognizing Daud’s importance, Schlesinger offered him a special permit to marry a second wife from the land of Israel, should his wife in Baghdad demand his return. Politely and firmly Daud refused. It is quite possible that Daud had a woman for a boss.

Read post in full


Anonymous said...

what a wonderful story: that Jewish Gandi was a great personality.
We need people like that not only on our side but mostly on our foes' side.
However things today are no longer what they were and i am very much afraid that "edbah el yehud" (slaughter the Jews) is more popular than the contrary.
suzy vidal

Juniper in the Desert said...

This is fine when arabs/mozlems have honour but now they do not: they use their children as shields in war and kill women for the slightest reason. They have invaded my capital, London and told me I am not allowed to walk in certain places. I have been attacked by them just walking to a local shop. The fount of this evil is the ex Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al Husseini, Hitler and the Mozlem Brotherhood, who came after this period.

Dvar Dea said...

He was no Ghandi I can assure you. I wish I could bring all of what Ehud Ben Ezer had published about him. Be certain that there are plenty of fistfights and wrestling there. He was no Ghandi, he was also not a warmonger and a careless hotheaded person. He was the opposite of both and that what made him a great person indeed.

Sammish said...

This is a great story of a unique personality. In the article, the mysterious nature of this person Daud Ibn Yusuf seems to suggest that he was instrumental in the survival of the early zionist settlement of Petach Tikva, as if to say that he was the sole person who led them to survive and overcome security problems at the times. Although I do not doubt his role in this endeavor due to his valuable skills of desert survival and knowledge of the nomadic bedouin culture, the mystery of this person is not completely a mystery. He was a Bedouin Jew afterall. Bedouins are not sedentary people. They are on the move constantly, sort of Gypsies of the desert. I think the reason for his disapperance into the thin air is narrowly tied with the culture he shared with the Bedouins. In those times when nation states were not even an idea let alone a reality, he and his flocks could have easily spent years wondering the Sinai and Arabian and Syrian deserts, and who knows may be the Negev and Hijaz. As for his connection with the mighty IDF, I cannot tell... the fiction and myth are probably at play...

He can be thought as a pre-modern Elijah. He came in time to lend a hand to a struggling early settlement and find it necessary to move on and find new areas to discover. No wonder there were no trace of him in Baghdad and anywhere else. Deserts are known to overwhelm humans, their artifacts and their memories. He is a Jew who happens to be a nomad Bedouin. If there is (or was)a jewish presence in the Highlands of Ethiopia and in the far corners of Kazakhstan and India, surely a Bedouin Jewish presence may seem more likely as Jewish presence among the Marsh Arabs of Maadan which are tied to the ancient Summarian civilization.

Dvar Dea said...

Sammish, he was instrumental in Petakh Tikavah’s survival, he was not the sole person responsible for it. As a matter a fact the place was abandoned shortly after he left due to lack of economic viability and malaria. The story of Israel is not just about wars. And all first and second aliya communities were one step before disaster.

An eye opener said...

1886 Petach Tikwa, first Arab attack in (modern) Palestine