Acre Has Been Settled by Jews Alternately Since the 3rd Century BCE / DR.Rivka Spak Lissak
THE OTTOMAN PERIOD (1516 – 1918)
At the beginning of the Ottoman period Acre was a small and poor town. The Ottomans did not continue its reconstruction. Acre’s Jewish community was small, its members engaged in trade. At the middle of the 16th century they served as middlemen between the Galilean Jews and Europe, trading with Syria and Jerusalem. In his book, The Land of Israel and Its Settlement, Yitzhak ben Zvi brings the story of the Jewish merchant, Yeshayah HaCohen, who was harassed by the governor of Acre until he was forced to leave the city.
Acre changed hands several times: From 1595 to 1634 (or, according to Nathan Shor’s The History of Acre, from 1586 to 1635), Acre was ruled by the Druze Fahr Ed-Din, who renewed the commercial activity and ties with Europe. In his time, Acre’s population began to increase, reaching 2000 Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Although he built the Sanan Pasha mosque, he did not renew the city’s reconstruction, and in his time the Acre Plane was a marsh.
The Ottomans conquered Acre from Fahr Ed-Din, but held it only for about 100 years.
In 1750 (or 1740, according to Shor), the Bedouin Sheik Dahar El Omar took Acre from the Ottomans and turned it into the capital of his Galilean kingdom. He fortified the city, rebuilt it (including two mosques and inns), and renewed the maritime trade through its harbour. The Jewish community increased and grew prosperous during his time. El Omar invited Jews from Safed and abroad to settle in Acre. Rabbi Abraham Hai Ismael Sanguiniti wrote to his father in 1741 that more than 100 Jewish families were living in Acre. In another letter he mentions Jewish scholars from Poland who leased houses in Acre in 1742. The increase in Jewish population in Acre was part of the expansion of Jewish population in the Galilee, encouraged by Dahar Al Omar.
Acre’s Jewish community was strengthened by the arrival of Rabbi Hayim Attar, his family, and his 30 students in 1741. Rabbi Attar meant to establish a Yeshivah in Jerusalem, but due to the security situation, he decided to build a temporary Yeshivah, Knesset Israel, in Acre. In 1742 he moved to Pequi’in, and from there to Jerusalem. Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzato (the Ramhal), is family and students, arrived in Acre in 1743. Rabbi Luzzato died in the epidemic that broke out in acre in 1747 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Kfar Yassif, which had a Jewish community at that time.
Al Omar confiscated the old Ahab synagogue in 1752, offering the Jewish community a building or block in exchange, north of the old synagogue. The Jews built the new synagogue in the old city of Acre in 1758 or 1760. Its plan was similar to the synagogue in Padua, where the Ramhal was born. The synagogue was later renamed Ohel Hayim, after Hayim Farhi (see below).
Dahar Al Omar built the Al Moualek mosque in 1758 on the site of the Ahab synagogue (a less accepted version holds that the mosque was built in 1748 by Sheikh Suheil). A turret was added in 1818, during the time of Abdallah Pasha.
There is a confusion among different sources regarding the identity of the synagogue over which the Al Moualek mosque was built -- some say it was the synagogue named after the Ramhal. Examining the sources one concludes that the Ramhal synagogue was built on the block offered by El Omar, while the mosque was built on an older synagogue, possibly from the 10th or 11th centuries, called the Ahab synagogue. The synagogue under the mosque could not be the Ramhal synagogue, as the Ramban gave a talk in Acre’s synagogue in 1268, while the Ramhal synagogue was built only in 1758/60. The mosque is called Jamaa al Moualek, meaning “the hanging”, hinting that it was built over (“hanging over”) the synagogue. The description of the Ahab synagogue and its 12 windows, which are clearly seen in a photograph of the mosque, corroborate this assumption.
Rabbi Symcha of Zalazsic visited Acre in 1764, reporting a decline in the economic conditions in the city and the decrease in the number of Jewish families to 36. They were jewellers and silk-thread spinners.
At Al Omar’s invitation, Arabs from neighbouring villages, Catholics from Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Damascus, and Greek-Orthodox Christians from Cypress began settling in Acre, and Arabs from Syria and Lebanon began settling in the Galilee.
After the Ottomans resumed their rule in 1775, Acre became their government center in northern Israel and Syria. Ahmed Al Jazzar, who was appointed Acre’s governor, built a mosque named after himself which still stands today. He also built a wall around the city, continued its reconstruction, and built the El Pasha Turkish baths, the Al Umdan inn, and an aquaduct to lead water to Acre from the Cabri springs. Al Jazzar also deported the French who had established a colony in Acre.
Al Jazzar appointed Hayim Farhi (a member of a rich Jewish family that was influential in Damascus) as his advisor. Farhi moved to Acre, along with other Jewish merchants’ families. Following Farhi’s recommendation, the Sultan reduced the amounts Jews had to pay for the Jeziye tax. Farhi also protected the Jews against the local governors’ extortion, and while Farhi was in charge, Jews served as clerks in the governor’s court.
During the time of Al Jazzar, the Christian community in Acre built a Greek-Catholic church, the Church of St. Andreas, on the ruins of the Church of St Anne.
In 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the city in his attempt to conquer it. Hearing about Farhi’s status, Napoleon sent messengers to him to convince Farhi and the Jews of Acre to assist him. It is assumed that Napoleon’s idea to declare the establishment of the State of Judea was meant to convince Farhi, but Farhi remained loyal to Al Jazzar, who appointed him on behalf of the Sultan as Acre’s defender. Napoleon’s soldiers managed at some stage to break open the city’s wall, only to discover that a second wall had been built inside it. Napoleon decided to withdraw his forces not only because of the disease that broke out among them, or the intervention of the British fleet, but also because of Farhi’s successful defence of the city. Despite Farhi’s loyalty, the Sultan, during one of his outbursts of anger, ordered to gouge Farhi’s eye and cut off the tip of his nose (Yitzhak ben Zvi, The Land of Israel and Its Settlement). El Jazar died in 1804, and Farhi continued to serve his son, Suliman (1804-1815). Under Suliman, some 10,000 people lived in Acre, but the economic conditions deteriorated. A traveller who visited Acre in 1812 reported that the Farhi family in Damascus and Acre was in effect governing the city. When Suliman died, his successor Abdallah Pasha decided to get rid of Farhi. Farhi was arrested and charged with treason, was strangled to death and his body thrown to the sea. His family escaped, and his relatives in Damascus tried to avenge his death, but failed. Acre’s Jews were persecuted while Abdallah governed Acre.
Ibrahim Pasha, son of Muhammad Ali (Egypt’s ruler), laid siege to Acre and conquered it in 1831/2, holding it until 1840. The shelling during the siege caused wide-spread destruction in Acre, and although the Egyptians refortified the city, its economy did not recover, and Acre lost its status. The Ottomans restored their rule in Acre in 1840, after the Egyptians were removed with the help of a European fleet.
Acre was neglected under Ottoman rule, causing many families to leave. In the middle of the 19th century only about 15,000 people, mostly Arabs with a Jewish and Christian minorities, were living in Acre. Montefiore’s census counted 181 Jews (most of them born in Acre) in the city in 1849. In 1852 there were 5,000 people living in Acre, 793 of them Christians and Jews. According to Frankel, 120 Jews were living in Acre in 1856.
During the 19th century, Acre’s Jews made their living in trade, peddling throughout the Galilee, and crafts, including 3 Jewish fishermen families. Regardless of their financial situation, Acre’s Jews ensured their children were educated, hiring Abraham Shar’abi as their teacher. A Jewish man from Jerusalem visited Acre in 1876 and wrote about the Jews living there. A document from 1871 reports 150 Jews in Acre, most of them fishermen and a few merchants. According to the Schuhmacher census of 1886, there were 9800 people living in Acre, 140 of them Jewish. The founder of the Baha’i faith settled in Acre in 1868. He was jailed by the Ottomans until his release in the late 1870s, and lived on an estate outside Acre’s walls until his death in 1892.
During the first World War, Acre’s economy was hurt when maritime trade ceased.
(1918-1948)THE BRITISH MANDATE PERIOD (1918-1948)
The British conquered Acre on September 23, 1918 and made it their northern regional administrative centre. It was later replaced by Haifa as the main port and lost some of its importance.
At the beginning of the Mandate period, in 1922, Acre had about 6500 residents, 4883 of them Muslim, 1344 Christian, 115 Baha’i, and 78 Jewish. The British Mandate government reconstructed Acre and its economic situation improved. The 1931 Mandate census counted 7897 people in Acre, 237 of them Jewish. In 1946 Acre’s population numbered around 13,000.
The Jewish community in Acre grew significantly in the 1920s as a result of the immigration of Jewish fishermen from Thessaloniki (Greece) and the Black Sea surrounds, as well as the “gravel group” ( gravel was used for buildings). The father of Israel’s first president Isaac Weitzmann settled in Acre with his family. Jewish entrepreneurial ventures included factories that manufactured floor tiles, matches, and beer. A Jewish-Arabic partnership established a printing press.
During the pogrom of 1929, the Arabs demolished the ancient synagogue in Acre’s old city. They were led by Sheikh Ass’ad Shukairy (a relative of the moderate Nashashibi family, whose son was murdered by the Housseini family who held extremist views regarding the British and the Jews).
During the Arab revolt in 1936-1939, Acre’s Arabic residents were very active against the British and the Jewish settlements in the Western Galilee. This caused the Jews to leave Acre. Acre’s fort was converted into a jail, where members of the Jewish underground were held during their struggle against the British, among them Zeev Jabotinski, Shlomo ben Yossef, and Dov Grunner. Grunner and ben Yossef were executed there. Other Jewish inmates were freed by members of the Irgun who broke into the jail on May 4, 1947.
Before the War of Independence broke out, Acre’s Arabs attacked neighbouring Jewish settlements and Jewish transportation. On March 18, 1948, Arabs from Acre murdered Jewish employees of the electricity company who were repairing the damaged lines near the city.
THE STATE OF ISRAEL
According to the 1947 UN resolution, Acre was meant to be part of the Arabic state that was to be established by partitioning the Land of Israel. It was conquered on May 18, 1948, during Operation Ben Ami, and most of its Arabic residents fled by sea to Lebanon. According to a Palestinian web site there were 14,280 Arabs living in Acre at the time. The Israeli report states that 3000 remained behind, while Arabic data counts 5000 to 6000. Contrary to Jewish sources, according to Arabic sources, Acre’s Arabs did not participate in the fighting following the UN resolution.
At the end of the war, about 2000 Jews, mostly holocaust survivors, were settled in the deserted old city. They moved to newly built neighbourhoods in the 1960s. During the following years more Jews settled in Acre and Arabs from neighbouring villages began moving into Acre, and in the 1980s Acre’s population numbered about 7000.
Hayim Farhi’s house has been renovated and is open to the public.
Acre continues to deal with the tensions that simmer under the surface