"Beleaguered but Beloved, Gaza"

Commentary by ISFSP Executive Director, Shelomo Alfassa

Sephardic Image Magazine September 2004 Edition

The history of Gaza goes back to remotest antiquity and is mentioned 18 times in the Torá. Gaza is where Samson toppled the Philistines, arch-enemies of the Jews. Like Judea and Samaria, Gaza had its Jews expelled, and has been occupied by numerous foreign civilizations. The Israelites who had been in Gaza before the time of Samson (Judges, 16:1), were still in possession of it in the time of Solomon (Kings I:4:1). After the Babylonian captivity (the first Diaspora and one we have not recovered from), the Persians had occupied Gaza, which at the time a large coastal trading city. It was there along the coast in Gaza where the shekels Nehemiah spoke of in the Tanakh were minted. In 332 BCE the Persian empire collapsed, and Judea became a Greek province. When Alexander the Macedonian went from Tyre to Egypt, he savagely took Gaza putting to death all the men and selling the women and children as slaves. He left a garrison of soldiers in Gaza, but eventually the city repopulated and thrived.

Even though the Greeks had been occupying Gaza, Jewish hopes of regaining the land were always there, just as they were with other cities in Erets Israel. When Gaza and most of Erets Israel was occupied by the Syrian Hellenists who had set in motion the destruction of Judaism, it was Jonathan Maccabee the Kohen Gadol (high priest) and Jewish warrior who ordered Gaza to open its gates. When the Greeks refused, Jonathan and his army of Jewish soldiers destroyed the suburbs around Gaza by burning them down, and by 143 BCE the city was open to him. From Gaza to Damascus Jonathan had fought to liberate Jewish cities of idolatry. Unfortunately, it was short lived, it did not take long for Hellenism to resurface and once again spread down to Gaza.

In 96 BCE the pro-Hellenist Jewish king and Kohen Gadol, Alexander Jannaeus, razed Gaza, which then became an empty city. Alexander was a man who committed horrendous atrocities upon his own people. In 88 BCE the Pharisees and other Torá patriots were so outraged by the violent and blasphemous behavior of Jannaeus, that they asked the Greek king of Syria to help destroy him. When the Hellenists came and defeated Jannaeus, some of the Jewish rebels who had originally invited them changed their minds, and fought on Jannaeus' side, driving the Greeks back to Syria. However, Jannaeus resumed power, and subsequently crucified 800 of the religious Jews who criticized his ways. After a brief recovery only four decades later, Gaza, as well as all of Judea, was once more wrested from the Jews, this time by the Romans.

The city was rebuilt and fortified in 57 BCE, and in 30 BCE it was given by Augustus to King Herod, however it was completely destroyed, during the same period as the siege of Masada. It was 66 CE and the large Jewish population of Gaza revolted against the Romans, fiercely fighting them with intention of liberating the city. Though their efforts were noble and a true Kiddush Hashem, they were no match for the large Romans legions who soon instituted pagan gods and placed the Jews into slavery. The destruction of Gaza was thus complete at the beginning of the last "Jewish war." After the division of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine administrations dominated the holy land from 313 till 636 CE. In the Talmudic period, residence there was permitted to Jews, though its inhabitants were mostly pagan. Gaza, like most of Erets Israel, became home to others over subsequent centuries.

Gaza was part of the Jewish homeland long before Islam arrived and took root. As evidence of the highest order, archeologists have documented remains of a Roman-period synagogue in Gaza which are found inscribed on a column located today in the major mosque of Gaza. There is a Hebrew-Greek inscription complete with Jewish motifs that mention Hananiah, the son of Jacob. The inscription has been dated to the second or third centuries, this of course is long before Muhammed lived. Modern Gaza City is home to a seventh-century synagogue, demonstrating Jews remained in Gaza at least until Islam arrived. Muslim domination took place from 636 and lasted till the Christian Crusader period. It was 1095 when this latter group arrived, bearing swords on order of the Pope. After the Crusades, the Egyptian Mameluks (Muslim slave-soldiers used by the Caliphs who on more than one occasion seized power for themselves) occupied Erets Israel and Gaza as conquers from 1291 till 1516. Occupation continued with the Ottoman Turks from 16th to the 20th century. The Jews of Gaza fled when Napoleon's army marched through in 1799, but they later returned. The Jewish community in Gaza was destroyed during the British bombardment and occupation in 1917, but later it rebuilt itself.

Throughout this long history there had always been some Jews existent in Gaza. Italian sojourning Rav Obadiah of Bartenura mentions a man named Moses of Prague serving as rabbi of Gaza in 1488, he had come from Jerusalem to lead the community. Gaza became home to the great Damascus poet and kabbalist Rav Israel ben Moses Najara who wrote the well known Shabbat tune, "Ya Ribbon Olam V'almaya." He had lived and died there in the middle of the 16th century, as did Rav Abraham Azulai the kabbalistic author and commentator originally from Fez. Like many Jews in 1619 who were suffering under a plague in Erets Israel, Azulai relocated to the shelter of Gaza. Rav Eliezer Yitshak Arha became the Chief Rabbi of Gaza during this period, and as late as 1839 the Ottoman census of Jerusalem demonstrated Jews were still being born there. As much as any other city, whether it be Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberius or Safed, Gaza, is a part of the holy land of Israel; it is part of the divine land which was decreed to the Jewish people.

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