Lie of the land / 2005

By Ofra Yeshua-Lyth

First published in Haaretz, August 25, 2005

“Parsahat Hayyai” (“Reminiscences of My Life”) by Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche, Babel Books, 381 pages, 98 NIS 

A hundred and twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1880, a shocking incident took place in Jaffa. A 10-year old Jewish boy from a wealthy and well-connected family was kidnapped in broad daylight on one of Jaffa’s most ustling streets. An Arab who did business with the boy’s father, Aharon Chelouche, lured him away from the city center on false pretenses. When they reached the deserted back roads east of Jaffa, the kidnapper turned violent. He made the boy strip off his handsome silk coat, remove his shoes and socks, and lie beside him on the ground in this desolate, unpeopled place, wearing only an undershirt to shield him from the burning hot sun.

Fifty years later, when the boy, Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche, who had been miraculously rescued by the watchman of the Montefiore groves (not far from today’s Azrieli Mall), grew up to become one of the most influential and espected figures in the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, he wrote a fascinating memoir, aptly called “Reminiscences of My Life.”
Today, people on both sides of the classic Zionist debate could use the book as a propaganda tool.

Was Palestine in the late 19th century an “empty desert” and a barren expanse of sand dunes where those who did not know the ways of the land could have no hope for salvation, as implied by the dramatic kidnapping story? Or was it a lie to call Palestine “virgin soil” and an “uninhabited, desolate land,” as the adult Yosef Eliyahu points out so assionately in his autobiography? This successful businessman, whose descendants portray as “a Jew, a Hebrew, an Arab, a Zionist, a Palestinian and a citizen of Tel Aviv and Jaffa,” could not conceal his outrage at the “cold indifference, alienation and disdain” with which the Zionists treated the non-Jewish natives.

Desert, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. For Chelouche, who was 61 years old when his book came out in 1931, there was no contradiction between large stretches of Palestine being barren and empty and the existence of a local populace. These natives were an inseparable part of the workforce and infrastructure that paved the way for Zionist settlement. The same is true for the life and work of Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche, which is largely inseparable from the story of the urban Jewish community-in-the-making, in which he played such a central role.

Chelouche’s father, Aharon, was a Jaffa tycoon, born in Oran, Algeria, who came to Palestine with his parents in 1840, predating the publication of Herzl’s book “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”) by more than 50 years. He was a goldsmith by training, but amassed his fortune in ways that in some respects call to mind George Soros in the 20th century. His understanding of the value of coins and precious metals enabled him to take advantage of the price
differentials and clinch deals that turned him into a rich man overnight. After establishing a local banking empire, he began purchasing large tracts of land that became the basis for the Jewish neighborhoods of Jaffa, from which Tel Aviv eventually sprang.

Aharon’s second son, Yosef Eliyahu, born in 1870, joined him in his business endeavors. Together, they built up an economic power base that was enormous by Ottoman Palestine standards. In effect, before World War I, the Turkish administration was completely dependent on them for financing. But the Chelouches made use of their ties with this corrupt and declining regime to better the conditions of the growing Jewish community and strengthen the Zionist leaders, who were all frequent visitors to their home.

As Yosef Eliyahu tells it, he was the only one of the Chelouches who had any inclination for public life. His book,
written with modesty and a fine command of language, conjures up a figure larger than life, a tireless entrepreneur, pious man and pillar of Jewish communal life. His account of dozens of historical events in which he was personally involved could become a basis for a sweeping period drama.

His father sent him to a prestigious Jewish boarding school in Beirut for children from wealthy families. The days in this school were divided equally between classes in Hebrew, Arabic and French culture and language. Yossef Eliyahu was pulled out of school against his will at 17 and married off in an arranged match to a girl of 15.He obediently shifted gears, devoting himself to raising a family and making money. All his life he was very attached to his wife, Frhecha nee Moyal, the mother of his seven children (six boys and a girl), and apparently couldn’t live without her. Three months after her death, he died, too, at the age of 64.

Armed with vision and creativity, plus the solid backing of the family fortune, Yosef Eliyahu’s entry into the world of
business could not have been better timed. There was hardly a business opportunity during this period of upswing in economic growth that he did not grab, and enjoy success. The mind boggles at the multitude of enterprises he put his hand to: import of construction materials, manufacture of work tools for foreign buyers, glue production, anufacture of suitcases, design and marketing of jewelry, production of floor-tiles, lumber sales, architecture, building engineering, and of course, real-estate and contracting.

The girls school in Neve Zedek, the Herzliya Gymnasium, the homes and infrastructure of the Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood, the Latrun-Gaza road this is just a partial listing of the projects in which Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche was involved, some in partnership with Zionist developers and others with Christian and Muslim partners. The Chelouche family basically took over the operation of the Ottoman railway, and even assumed responsibility for distributing rations to the population during the great food shortage in 1917.

When the building of Tel Aviv began in earnest, Yosef Eliyahu decided that the country needed a silicate brick factory. Unable to obtain the know-how locally, he had no qualms about traveling to Egypt at the age of 43,when he was already a respected and wealthy man masquerading as a manual laborer. He found a job at a local factory, worked his way up the ladder and stole all the manufacturing secrets. Back in Palestine, the leaders of the Jewish community opened a silicate factory without consulting him, causing him profound grief.

This was not the only time he found himself at loggerheads with the Zionist establishment. The people of the Palestine Land Development Company Arthur Ruppin, Yehoshua Hankin, and others, demanded that private entrepreneurs keep their hands off real estate and let organized public agencies do the work. Chelouche claimed that the know-how of native residents and their familiarity with the issues allowed them to work out better agreements with the local effendis.

Reading this book one has moments that feel as if one is on a walking tour of the “city that never sleeps.” Dizengoff and Sheinkin, Bezalel Jaffe, Bograshov and Ruppin are not street names but people who sit on committees, come up with ideas and put them into practice. The same is true for Hassan Bek, the wild Turkish governor who forced the inhabitants of Jaffa to build a mosque named after him, or Jamal Pasha, the governor who evicted populations during the First World War, turning “transfer” into an act approached ever since with unbearable lightness.

Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche may have replaced the traditional tarbush and galabiya of his father, the family patriarch, with West European-style tailored suits, but his command of Arabic language and culture turned him into a member of the inner sanctum and a person of influence in the court of every pasha, commandant or kaymakam. He was an integral part of the socioeconomic elite Christian, Jewish and Muslim of Jaffa and Jerusalem.*

Running through the book like a thread are anecdotes that lovingly describe the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Yosef Eliyahu clearly enjoys telling us about Muslims who showered their Jewish neighbors with kindness in times of distress. During the Turkish expulsions, the Chelouche tribe was warmly received in Qalqilyah and the nearby village of Kafr Jamal so much so that when the family asked for permission to slaughter animals in accordance with Jewish law, the villagers decided that kosher was preferable to halal and became willing consumers of glatt kosher meat. Alongside high praise for the fair business practices among the Arab merchants, Chelouche can be bitingly critical of respected, God-fearing members of the Jewish community, some of whom he caught cheating or exploiting the distress of fellow Jews by price gouging.

The last pages of the book are devoted to a frank, hard hitting “j’accuse.” Chelouche takes organized Zionism to task for its patronizing attitude toward the natives and their language and culture. Then, much like today, Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche’s views as a member of the veteran Sephardic establishment, were scoffed at by mainstream Zionism. But he stands up to the Zionists with all the indignation he can muster. Tel Aviv may have been a wilderness once, “a barren desert of mountains and hills where the jackals roamed,” but there was no reason why exploiting a rare settlement opportunity that was beneficial to new immigrants had to harm the non-Jewish natives. “The bitter truth is that our leaders and many of the builders of the Yishuv who came here from the Diaspora gave no thought whatsoever to the supreme importance of maintaining good neighborly relations,” he wrote.

Against the backdrop of the anti-Muslim hysteria in vogue nowadays in the West, it is interesting that the major foes of Jewish settlement in its infancy, according to Chelouche, were the Christian Arab effendis, concerned about being pushed off their pedestal as the socioeconomic elite. “The Muslim Arabs, in particular the enlightened ones, had made some overtures in the past, and did make an effort to establish warmer ties.”

Babel Books and its editor, Or Alexandrovich, one of the many scions of the prodigious Chelouche clan, deserve thanks for republishing this appealing and important book (now in its third edition). The current edition includes a valuable index and brief footnotes that explain some of the old terminology and provide illuminating historical background.

In these tumultuous days, as Jews engage in battle over the question of “where Jews are permitted to live,” it is worth remembering that the real question, repressed for over a hundred years, is how the Jews should treat their non-Jewish neighbors, and why they have consistently failed to live an ameliorated life,” as Chelouche put it, alongside of them.

Ofra Yeshua-Lyth’s book “Eretz, Brit: How Political Zionism
was Defeated by the Jewish Religion” was published by Nimrod.

© Copyright 2005 Haaretz. All rights reserved

* In this part the editor cut out a paragraph that goes as follows:

His solidarity with the local people is based first and foremost on class. Just like tha first Zionists Chelouch shows no sentiment to the simple Phalach’s, who were demanded to vacate villages as the lands were sold by the Ephendi’s. A true son of his period and his position he proudly reports tricks that were employed to dispossess the Arab owners of plots in the first days of Tel Aviv – for example, the establishing of cowsheds and stables near residential plots coveted by the municipality, to encourage fast sales of the real estate.

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