Another Tack: First peacenik, forgotten founder

Is a penchant for useless information nature or nurture? Whenever I speculate about a likely inborn inclination, I recall how my mother always made sure I learned the origin of every street name in any address at which we lived. So when my parents bought an apartment on Tel Aviv’s leafy Rehov Yosef-Eliahu (near the Mann Auditorium), I was sure to become the only kid around who could expound on who Yosef-Eliahu was.

For me he quickly became not only the most familiar of Tel Aviv’s founders, but the one with whom I had somehow developed an almost personal affinity, despite the fact that he was born in 1870 and died in 1934. Posthumously, he became part of my childhood.

Thus, as Tel Aviv marks its centenary, what can be more natural than to recall my own favorite founder? Yosef-Eliahu Chelouche was the second son of Aharon Chelouche, one of 19th-century Jaffa’s foremost Jewish community leaders. Aharon was a baby when his family sailed from its native Algiers to Eretz Yisrael in 1839. Two of Aharon’s brothers perished on the perilous journey – Yosef and Eliahu. They were commemorated in their nephew’s name.

YOSEF-ELIAHU’S ENTREPRENEURIAL spirit couldn’t have found a better outlet than the Zionist revival. A manufacturer and builder, he constructed more than half of Ahuzat Bayit’s earliest homes – 32 in all. His most famous project was Gymnasia Herzliya – Tel Aviv’s first school and its first public edifice.

His own home stood on the corner of Rehov Herzl and Sderot Rothschild. Across the boulevard and three houses up the block was future mayor Meir Dizengoff’s dwelling, where 39 years later Israel would be declared independent.

The boulevard itself wasn’t a preplanned aesthetic feature. The 12 acres purchased in 1909 for Ahuzat Bayit were a desolate windswept wasteland. In his memoirs, Yosef-Eliahu would recall it as “a sea of sand, a barren desert with powdery yellow mountains and hills, where jackals howled.”
The pyramidal mounds with their unstable, continuously shifting slipfaces were pronounced unsuitable for construction. To level off the area, teams of pioneers used wheelbarrows to move tons of sand from the highest points and deposit them in the gullies below. The deepest ditch was cut across Ahuzat Bayit exactly where Sderot Rothschild would stretch. Filled with so much soft sand, it was judged unsafe to support structures. Instead it was covered with topsoil and lined with trees.

BUT THE MOST frightening description of the dunes from which Tel Aviv would rise appears in Yosef-Eliahu’s 1931 autobiography. In 1880, 10-year-old Yosef-Eliahu was lured out of Jaffa’s winding alleyways by his father’s Arab acquaintance and marched through the undulating shadeless wilderness beyond. It was a horrendous, almost impassable and seemingly interminable tract, without landmarks or signs of habitation. The kidnapped boy’s feet kept sinking in the sand; he was thirsty, beaten and terrified. At night, however, salvation came to Yosef-Eliahu as a silhouetted figure on a donkey approached. It was Yisrael Simhon, guard of the Montefiore orange grove, near where the Azrieli Center currently dominates Tel Aviv’s skyline.

To his last day, despite decades of distinguished public service, Yosef-Eliahu was known as the “abducted child.” The barren expanse through which he was forcibly dragged now lies beneath bustling downtown east-central Tel Aviv, intersected by the country’s busiest traffic arteries.

HIS EARLY TRAUMA notwithstanding, Yosef-Eliahu tirelessly campaigned for coexistence. He was perhaps the first peacenik. In 1913, to counter already rife judeophobia and incendiary agitation in the Arab press, Yosef-Eliahu, along with other Arabic-speaking Tel Avivians, founded Hamagen (the shield), an organization dedicated to persuading Arabs that they and Jews share economic and cultural interests and can only improve each other’s lot.

Yosef-Eliahu published an Arabic-language daily in Jaffa, Saut el-Othmania(Voice of the Ottomans), and cultivated close contacts with leading local Arabs in the hope of stemming already-rampant hate mongering.

The unprovoked five-day Jaffa-generated Arab riots of 1921, in which 49 Jews were massacred and more than 150 wounded, effectively brought down the curtain on Jaffa’s Jewish community and boosted adjacent Tel Aviv as a separate, independent, viable, modern and thriving alternative entity. The carnage should have disheartened Yosef-Eliahu, but he wouldn’t abandon his peace-quest.

It seemed mission-impossible after Yom Kippur 1928, when notorious Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini raised a shrill cry over a flimsy cloth partition positioned to segregate male and female worshipers at the Western Wall. The British lost no time in tearing down the offensive screen. Jewish opinion of all political shades was outraged.

On October 6, 1928, Yosef-Eliahu published an article entitled “To the Arabs,” his last-ditch plea for sanity. “You crudely disrupted and battered congregants who came to pour out their souls to their Father in Heaven at the place and date holiest to them,” he wrote. “Then you declared holy war against your victims, charging they assailed your holy shrines… You prepare for outright bloodbath and jihad against the infidel desecrators. What desecration?… How can such absurdity be allowed to foment religious hostilities between Jews and Muslims? My good brothers, you are manipulated by wily politicians… How can anyone begrudge Jews the pitiable remnant that is their Western Wall, the sole relic of the brokenhearted?”

But the mufti’s disciples didn’t heed Yosef-Eliahu. Their premeditated harassment grew increasingly violent, till trumped-up tales of Jewish takeover attempts at the Temple Mount sent Arabs rioting countrywide on August 23, 1929. The slaughter lasted an entire week.
The rampages began in Jerusalem, but the most notorious carnage took place in Hebron, where 67 men, women and children were hideously hacked to death in a homicidal frenzy. Hebron’s centuries-old Jewish community was dispossessed. Smaller Jewish enclaves in Gaza, Jenin, Tulkarm and Nablus were likewise dislodged.

THIS IS SIGNIFICANT to us now. The visceral enmity Yosef-Eliahu sought to defuse long predated Jewish independence or the Six Day War. It predated all Arab narratives about having been victimized by so-called Israeli occupation. Yosef-Eliahu didn’t live to see Israeli sovereignty, but he did witness preexisting bloodcurdling libel.

Yosef-Eliahu didn’t survive long enough to realize just how monstrously his outstretched hand was rebuffed. He died before the 1936-39 mufti-led and Nazi-financed uprising, as well as the mufti’s Hitler-endorsed residence in World War II Berlin – where he avidly collaborated in perpetrating the Holocaust.

Knowing what Yosef-Eliahu couldn’t imagine in his darkest nightmares, we can put his failed peace overtures into perspective and realize the futility of well-intentioned naivete.

Yosef-Eliahu described vicious incitement that inflamed passions when Jews clung to a mere strip of empty desert, reclaimed it and called it Tel Aviv. The world prefers to ignore the sources of hate and portray the Zionist accomplishment – embodied by the metropolis that Tel Aviv became after a century of blood, sweat and tears – as the root of regional evil.

The forgotten legacy of the forgotten founder is anything but irrelevant useless information.

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1 thought on “Another Tack: First peacenik, forgotten founder

  1. Sarah, this is an excellent article. Was it translated into Hebrew for a mass Israeli audience? It deserves to be.

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