On May 22, 1934, when the massacre of the Jewish community in Hebron in 1929 was still fresh in memory, the Hebrew daily newspaper Haaretz reminded its readers that pogroms took place in the land of Israel before 1920. The author, Eliezer Rivlin, chose as an example the event known as “The Great Looting of Safed,” which took place 100 years earlier. It began at June 15, 1834. The day was 8 Sivan on the Hebrew calendar. Translating this story was not simple, because of the biblical Hebrew of the author and the brutalities described. A choice had to be made between maintaining the style of the original and keeping the English understandable. I believe I was able to do so, but the English will appear odd, just as the Hebrew will be to a present-day Israeli.
The Great Plunder of Safed/ Eliezer Rivlin, Jerusalem
What has been said repeatedly in journals and books-- that until 1920 there were no pogroms against the Jews of the land of Israel -- is a mistake. For there have been such as these decades and centuries ago, even before the English conquered the land. The Jews have called it “looting” or “plunder” (in Arabic “nahib”).
In the chronicles of the Jewish community, the “plunder” and the earthquake of 1837 are the most shocking events.
The earthquake and the plunder were always a matter of conversation for the old men and women of the land of Israel, and they told it many times to their children and grandchildren.
The plunder erupted in Safed along with the revolt of the Arabs of the land of Israel against Muhammad Ali, the governor of Egypt, who took the land from the Turks and the government of Kushta (Istanbul) in 1834. He imposed mandatory military duty on all Muslim inhabitants of the land of Israel. This was something that they were fiercely against.
The first to call for a revolt were the people of Nablus, by the command of their minister Kassam Lakhama. They were joined by fellahin from the nearby villages, and rose upon Jerusalem to conquer it and take it out of the hands of the governor of Egypt.
On 22 Iyyar, (May 31), the rebels occupied Jerusalem and took control of the city. The fear among the Jews was great, for, according to Arab tradition, plunder is allowed during rebellion. And those breaking in already began looting and plundering. But to their rescue came the head of the rebels, who declared in the streets of Jerusalem that, “the Arabs, the Jews and the Christians are brothers and the one who touches any of them shall be put to death.“ This severe command was helpful in saving the lives and properties of the Jews and Christians in the Jerusalem. And after a week, on 28 Iyyar (June 3), came Ibrahim Pasha, the general of Muhammad Ali, to Jerusalem, and a large force with him, and the rebels fled the city.
Very bad was the fate of Safed, which had the largest Hebrew community in the land. All other communities in the land, including the one in Jerusalem, were its subordinates. (There were about 2,000 Jews then in Safed.)
The governor of the city of Safed aided the rebels, and the Jews of Safed bore the brunt of the guilt of Muhammad Ali and his government. The Jews became the target for rebels from within the city of Safed and from the surrounding villages and towns.
The rebellion in Safed was declared on 8 of Sivan (June 15, 1834). From all the nearby towns and villages Arabs and Bedouins came to the city drunk from revolt and began delivering havoc on the Jews. With large and small shields, lances and rifles, the first thing they did was to attack the Jews. They stripped the clothing from men and women, tore pillows and featherbeds, and spread the feathers around, tore Bible books, raped a man and a woman, destroyed houses and synagogues, and murdered many people from Israel.
“Gentiles came to the domain of the Lord, in the little holiness of our temples and synagogues, and defiled the chamber of our holiness and threw all our cherished books of the Torah to the ground. They tortured righteous women upon them, and all holiness of our homes, phylacteries (tefilin) and doorpost (mezuzah) looted and plundered and thrown. And they took from the Bible books to make straps for their horses and shoes for their feet… they destroyed our homes, beating the Jews blows of death and loss. And many of them became blind and invalids, and from among them, several souls died strange deaths.”
Many of the Jews fled immediately to the near and the faraway fields and mountains, outside the city, many among them naked and barefoot. Others ran to the synagogues to die a holy death there. “In the house of learning (beit midrash) of the Pharisees many gathered with their Rabbi, Rabbi Israel, author of Pe’at Shulhan –- and among them many were already wounded and injured – and they where blowing in the shofar.” And many found cover in neighbors’ yards, with Arab acquaintances and in basements.
The eruption of the rebellion came suddenly and caused much panic. Home dwellers fled in many directions, the husband ran to the field outside the city, the infant stayed lying in the cradle, and the mother in her hideout -– and the cries of the miserable -– oi father! Oi my son – tore the heavens.
At the head of the community of Safed stood then the Rabbis: the gaon (wise man) Rabbi Israel of Shklov, author of “Takalin Haditin” and “Pe’at Shulhan, student of the Vilna Gaon (Ha’gaon Rabbi Eliyahu), head of the school of Pharisees, the gaon Rabbi Margalit of Skalit, and the gaon Avraham Ba’ar from Ovruch, heads of the Hassidic schools. These three eyes of the community stood at the head of the defense and rescue of the Jews of Safed, even in time of peril, and every one of them helped his community and surroundings with great devotion.
Rabbi Gershon Margalit used the school money to bribe the qadi of Safed (chief of the religious judges) and they gathered at the qadi’s court, the rabbi and about a thousand of his parishioners.
Rabbi Avraham Ba’ar from Ovruch and with him several hundreds of his people fled immediately to the top of one of the mountains and entered a large ruin with iron gates and two wells.
Rabbi Israel of Shklov entered first with hundreds of his men from the Pharisees to the house of learning (Beit Hamidrash) of the Pharisees and blew the shofarot (ram's horns) and cried to the Lord. But the rioters came in after them to the synagogue, and beat them and robbed them. Rabbi Israel they wanted to kill, because they knew he had money from the school of the Pharisees. They said he hid it in the ground at his home. He cried and begged for his life and paid them seven reds of gold.
Then Rabbi Israel and his people fled outside the city into the vineyard field by the ancient cemetery, except the old and the frail that could not run. They remained in the synagogue and in the city streets were thrown to the ground, trampled down by the rebel rioters.
In one cave at the cemetery Rabbi Nathan Neta, son of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Shklov and others of the Ashkenazi Jews had found refuge. But even there they were not left alone, because the rioters came after them, searching specifically for Rabbi Israel of Shklov, determined to kill him for the school money he had. They caught Rabbi Nathan Neta in the cave and they gouged out his eye. The Jews were forced to leave the vineyard and run to the great ruin on the mountain where Rabbi Avraham Ba’ar and six hundred of his people were already inside. And the ruin could not contain all the refugees, and there too they were afraid for the life of Rabbi Israel, whom the rioters chased in order to kill. Three of the Pharisees -- Rabbi Moshe Khishis, and his son in law Rabbi Shmuel Shalom of Pinsk, and Rabbi Reuben Cohen –- went to the village of Ein Zeitim, and pleaded there with the heads of the village for a large sum of money, and they were permitted to bring Rabbi Israel and some of the Pharisees, and they were there in Ein Zeitim until the order in the city had been restored.
The rebellion continued for thirty-three days, and all that time the Jews were persecuted inside and outside the city, and they were not allowed to come out of their hideouts. The exceptions were those individuals, who by acquaintances and friendship, or by giving large amounts of money, found refuge for themselves and their family members in the homes of Ishmaelites (Arabs) and in the homes of Christians. The refugees who were outside the city, and in the fields under the open sky, suffered greatly from the great cold in the mountains of Safed, and the harsh dew in this part of the country. And their hearts dropped from fear at the sound of the rebels' cries and debauchery.
And the many that hid at first with Rabbi Gershon at the qadi court had no rest either, for “their number was large” in the eyes of the qadi, and after a few days he chased out from his court the greater part of them, and they were forced to flee to the fields and mountains outside the city.
Holy and heroic Jews, heroes of strength and courage of heart, gave their lives for the sanctity of the Lord and the duty of the city and community and did not leave the city nor ask for hideouts, and the outlaw murdering bandits trampled them down. Among them many famous righteous rabbis, “the Rabbi Ha’magid from the holy congregation of Satanov, and the rabbi from Piotrkow,” had the strength to hold against the bandits and to be remembered in the list of the author of “Korot Ha’Etim” (‘The history of the times’ or the ‘Chronicles’): “ The rabbi Mo’har Ya’acov Hirsh from Mohilov, and with him a Sephardi scholar, who prepared self-defense, closed the opening to their yard and piled a large number of stones on the roofs of their homes to throw at all those coming closer to their yard. This made their assailants angry and they opened fire at them. The Sephardi scholar died instantly and rabbi Ya’acov Hirsh was severely wounded. Later the attackers entered the yard looted and plundered”.
Beseechers and public activists were found, who gave their lives helping their brothers who were in great distress. And they pleaded in every way they could to ease the misery and to end the situation. They fed the hungry, returned babies to the bosoms of their mothers, buried the dead, dressed the wounded, bribed the Gentiles, and pleaded by way of messengers and letters to the consuls and authorities in Acre and Beirut. They even gathered and hid the remnants of the books and phylacteries and doorposts, which the savages desecrated.
Rabbi Lieb Cohen and Rabbi Shalom Hayat and Rabbi Mendel of Kamnitz went from street to street, from hideout to hideout, and returned little children to the bosoms of their mothers, buried the dead, and rescued those who were robbed by the rebels. These three excel in courage of spirit, and in their specialty in understanding the ways and manners of the Arabs. They were close to the Arabs and used gifts, prayer and war. According to the testimony of Rabbi Mendel of Kamnitz, “Rabbi Lieb Cohen wrestled with the bandits that attacked him, and yet did not stop from looking after the hiding persecuted Jews and rescue them.” And Rabbi Shalom Hayat was the acquaintance of many Muslims, whose clothes he used to tailor. “…and once, in the days of mayhem, when Rabbi Shalom and Rabbi Mendel walked together, a soldier caught them and put his sword on the neck of Rabbi Shalom in order to kill him, but Rabbi Shalom did not panic and with pleasant talk and pleading told the bandit, 'remember our old love, when I tailored your clothes, but know that I do not fear from my death, because my kind sir, I am old, but please let me die on my bed.”
After the initial days of panic passed, a rescuer and a savior came to the Jews of Safed. This was Rabbi Israel of Shklov, who, from his hideout at Ein Zeitim, with sums of money and gaining the heart of the sheik of the village, was able to get into his service fellahin who went to the city and mounted on their donkeys the sick and wounded that lay out in the streets. And with the fellahin coming into the city, came in also Jews dressed as fellahin and they took out money that they hid before leaving the city.
In each day that passes the rebels who conquered the city were afraid that the army of Ibrahim Pasha will come, take vengeance on them and put an end to their misdeeds. They were also concerned about attacks from savage Bedouins and other villagers from nearby who demanded from them a share in the loot they took from the Jews. And this fear did not give them the strength to unleash all their fury on the Jews. And in one of the days of riots the rebels gathered to a public meeting and there were found among them some who wanted to benefit the Jews, and they sent messengers to the markets and streets declaring “taman,” meaning the riots are over. And the Jews were about to return to the town, but very quickly they had found out that it was not the opinion of the majority of the rebels. And they attacked the Jews again on the road, forcing them to return to their hideouts and lie in the vineyard and in the ruins.
There were also many deceivers among the Ishmaelites, from among those who made their living from the Jews, and among them a known slave who promised to take the Jews from the vineyard and the ruins to the qadi’s court in exchange for a large sum of money, and he led them under his protection to the edge of the city. There he told his brothers to attack them and rip their clothes off.
During the thirty-three days of the riots the Jewish community was dwindled and ruined. Many were beaten to death and fell in the open streets, many were severely wounded, their eyes blinded, men and women were tortured. Thirteen synagogues the Jews had in Safed, and in them five hundred books of the Torah, and all were destroyed then, the precious books of Rabbi Isaac Abuhab were lost, the synagogue of the Ha’ari Ha’kadosh (The holy lion, Rabbi Isaac Lurya), and the book of the Torah at the synagogue of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Meron. The homes of the Jews were emptied, and many were destroyed down to their foundations, because the bandits searched them for treasures of gold and silver. Many houses were burned. The printing press of Rabbi Israel Beck, which was in those days the only printing press in the entire land of Israel, with all its publication, the five books of the Pentateuch, and other books were destroyed and burned, and Rabbi Israel Beck was bitten many times, and he was sick in his legs for the rest of his life. Most of the Jews were left without a robe to cover their skin.
With great efforts Rabbi Israel of Shklov sent from his hideout letters to the consuls of foreign states in Beirut and informed them of the details of the troubles that befell the Jews, many of whom were the subjects of foreign states. The consuls encouraged Ibrahim Pasha to come to Safed, repress the rebellion and save the Jews from eradication. Ibrahim Pasha sent the emir of the Druze, Emir Bashir, from the Lebanon to the Galilee, and on 10 Tamuz (July 17) the emir came to the gates of Safed with a large force and repressed the revolt. Most of the rebels fled, and their leaders were caught and put to death in the open streets. And the Jews of Safed had a relief; they returned to their homes and gathered their few remaining belongings. The consuls tried to raise sums of money as compensation for their subjects and made lists of the damages, but the victims received only seven percent of the value of the damage.
In the month of Tevet (January 1,) 1837 there came upon Safed the great quake, and in Tamuz 1838 came a second plunder, and these three blows destroyed the Jewish community in Safed. But not many days later and the Jews renewed the settlement of Safed with hope, that “God shall build the Galilee.”
Epilogue: brief historical notes.
According to the English traveler Alexander William Kinglake, the plunder had begun by a local Islamic clergyman named Muhamad Damoor, who incited the Moslems to attack the Jews. In sermons that he preached at the market of Safed, he gave a date for the attack and called upon them to take the treasures of the Jews, since they were thought to be very rich. Source: History of Safed/ Nathan Schur, Dvir & Am Oved publishing, Israel 1983. - Hebrew.
This tragedy is a forgotten historical event, and even in Israel few know about it. Those who do know about it mistakenly attribute it to the Druse. The attack on the Jewish community of Safed by a contingent of Druse mercenaries was in 1838, and it was a part of a quarrel they had with Ibrahim Pasha. They too thought the Jews had hidden treasures, and were encouraged to do so by local Moslems, who afterwards forced the Jews to give them a written oath that they had protected them.
This second plunder had nearly ended the existence of the community even though it was shorter, lasted only three days, and with no fatalities. After two deadly blows, the first plunder of 1834 and the earthquake of 1837, it was simply one blow too many. Thanks to the effort of the famed Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, the community recovered. Source – Nathan Schur, p. 192 – 193.