Israel marks 100th anniversary of Allenby’s liberation of Jerusalem

Relatives of  the  British commanders were at David’s Citadel on Monday to commemorate December 11, 1917, the date when General Allenby arrived at Jaffa Gate and declared that Jerusalem had been liberated after 400 years of Ottoman rule.

By Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

Throughout the history of Jerusalem there have been great historic moments. One of the most dramatic and legendary events was  General Edmund Allenby leading his forces to liberate the ancient biblical city from the Ottoman Empire during World War I. On the afternoon of December 11, 1917,  Allenby entered the Old City by foot, walking from Jaffa Gate to the Tower of David Citadel. There he claimed the keys to the city for the British Empire.

Jews celebrated the British arrival, calling it a “Chanukah Miracle,” while Christians termed the event “A Christmas Present.”  Some 400 years of Ottoman Muslim rule had come to an end and the brief 40-year period of the British Mandate in Palestine had begun.

To mark the moment, the Tower of David Museum on Monday staged a reenactment of Allenby’s walk. Relatives of the commanding British generals Allenby and Major General John Shea attended the event. On the steps of the Tower of David, Mayor Nir Barkat welcomed Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe; Sara Viscountess Allenby; and the great-grandson of General Shea, Mr. John Benson.

Speaking from the same steps where Allenby had stood, outside David’s Citadel, Barkat told an international audience of approximately 1,000: “Allenby was a great military man as well as a distinguished thinker who understood the city of Jerusalem and its role in the world and that the city has unique properties as a uniting force for the entire world open and open to all peoples.”

In his proclamation, read to the city’s residents, General Allenby recognized the importance and uniqueness of Jerusalem and called upon the city’s residents to continue living their lives as usual and to enjoy freedom of worship, religion, and tradition under the patronage of the new government.

Representatives of different communities in the Old City were on hand on Monday to hear the same proclamation General Allenby had made when declaring the liberation of the city. The words were read aloud in English, French, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Greek and Italian. This was the first time in modern history that the Hebrew language received international recognition.

The English version reads: “Lest any of you should be alarmed by reason of your experiences at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person should pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption… Therefore do I make known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest of customary place of prayer, of whatsoever form of the three religions, will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faiths they are sacred.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was out of the country, but his message was read out to the audience: “Today we recognize the commander who led the British army to the Land of Israel and to the gates of Jerusalem. We honor the fallen among the English, Australian and New Zealand soldiers as well as the Jewish soldiers who fought in the Jewish Brigade. They were part of an historic mission. We remember them and will appreciate their contribution forever.”

Jews constituted a majority in Jerusalem

Author Lenny Ben-David is currently writing a book on the period, titled World War I in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs. The book contains chapters on General Allenby and the battles for Beersheba, Jerusalem and Damascus. It also includes stories about American ships that saved Jews, and spies in the Holy Land including prominent Zionists. Ben-David told World Israel News (WIN), “This year marks the centenary of a fierce World War I battle that not only saved Jerusalem from physical destruction, but rescued its entire Jewish population from squalor, starvation, plague, exile and death. In the scope of Jewish history, the liberation of Jerusalem in December 1917 ranks with the salvation holidays of Chanukah and Purim.”

Ben-David said, “Jews, who already then constituted a majority in modern Jerusalem, were especially hard hit as Jewish men were rounded up and sent to the front lines. Across Palestine, the Turks ruled with cruelty. All suffered, but especially Jews and Armenian Christians. Since Russia was part of the alliance against Germany and the Ottoman empire, Jews of Russian origin were viewed as a potential fifth column.”

The late Ḥemdah Ben Yehuda, a journalist and the wife of pioneering Hebrew scholar Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, the driving force behind the revival of the Hebrew language in the modern era, had provided an eyewitness account of the period, writing, “The [Turkish] military commander Hassan Bey knew no limits to . . . wickedness. The [Turks] began by a systematic persecution of the Jews. They arrested the Hebrews; cross-questioned them; accused them of concealing arms, of evading military service, of belonging to secret societies, and of working in opposition to the government. After being cast into prison, they were spit upon, beaten, deprived of their watches and money, fined heavily, and then released!”

After capturing Beersheba in October 1917, the British forces, supplemented by fighters from Australia and New Zealand, turned toward Jerusalem.  The Turks were coming under increasing pressure from the British expeditionary force led by Allenby. Having repulsed the attempted Ottoman invasion of Egypt, Allenby was moving northward to Gaza and posing a threat to the Turkish grip on Jerusalem.

By 1917, Jewish residents nearly eradicated

According to Ben-David, “10,000 Jews left Jerusalem in one week. The streets were filled with the exiles who had no carriages and carried their baggage on their own backs. Most of the houses were closed because the inhabitants were dead, or deported, exiled, or in prison. The streets were deserted.  By summer 1917, the city of Jerusalem and its Jewish residents were nearly eradicated. Some 2,700 orphans wandered the streets. The weakened population fell victim to cholera, tuberculosis and typhoid.”

After capturing Beersheba in October, the British forces, supplemented by fighters from Australia and New Zealand, turned toward Jerusalem. The prominent hilltop of Nebi Samuel, just three miles north of Jerusalem, was the scene of a November battle between three British and three Turkish divisions.

The commander of the Turkish and German armies in Palestine, not only refused to send reinforcements, but ordered the retreat of Turkish soldiers so that Jerusalem would not be destroyed. From her own vantage point, here is how Ḥemdah Ben-Yehuda saw it:

“The English were making a movement whose object was to encircle Jerusalem. The Turks and Germans commanded that the city should be defended and they sent for reinforcements from Damascus. . . . When the reinforcements failed to arrive, the Turks perceived that they would be obliged to evacuate. In great haste, they arrested everyone whom they caught on the streets. . . For the last time on leaving, the hated Turkish soldiers had entered the houses to rob and to spoil, and to carry off everything they could lay hands on.  The women, weeping, prepared the oil for the sacred lights, and even the men wept, saying that this would be the last time they should keep the feast in Jerusalem! They strained their ears to hear the horses’ hoofs and the tread of the [Turkish] soldiers coming to arrest them and drive them forth. The women pressed their children to their breasts crying: ‘They are coming to take us!’

“Then, suddenly, other women came rushing from outside down into the depths, crying: “Hosanna! Hosanna! The English! The English have arrived!” Weeping and shouting for joy, Jews and Christians, trembling and stumbling over one another, emerged and rushed forth from the caverns and holes and underground passages. Pious Jews uttered thanksgivings to the Lord God of Hosts who had wrought deliverance in this great historic day, in the very hour of the beginning of Hanukkah, the Feast of the Miracle of Lights.”

According to historic accounts, there was sporadic fighting in the first days of December, but by December 9 the mayor of Jerusalem formally surrendered, and two days later General Allenby entered the Holy City by foot.

Allenby knew he arrived in Jerusalem on Chanukah

Ben-David told WIN, “Allenby knew that he arrived on the eve of Chanukah. He wrote in his diary that he arrived in Jerusalem 2,600 years after Judah Maccabee. It’s amazing that he understood the role he was playing in emancipating and liberating the Jews of Jerusalem at that time, who were living under terrible conditions. Local Jewish residents heard the battles around them and thought this would be their last Chanukah in Jerusalem and they would soon be dispersed. They heard soldiers outside their homes and thought it was Turkish forces coming to arrest them. Instead it was British soldiers coming to rescue them. It was the ultimate Chanukah miracle.”

An official British military report on the Jerusalem victory likened the 1917 liberation of Jerusalem to the defeat and ouster of the Seleucid Greeks by the Maccabees and the story of Chanukah. Some attribute that report to General Allenby himself. The report states,  “On this same day, 2,082 years before, another race of conquerors, equally detested, were looking their last on the city which they could not hold, and inasmuch as the liberation of Jerusalem in 1917 will probably ameliorate the lot of the Jews more than that of any other community in Palestine, it was fitting that the flight of the Turks should have coincided with the national festival of the Hanukkah, which commemorates the recapture of the Temple from the heathen Seleucids by Judas Maccabæus in 165 B.C.”

Ben-David laments that British rule did not remain positive toward Jewish interests in Israel. “Tragically, such British concern for the Jewish people did not last. Two decades later, in the mid-1930s, the British Mandate government shut the gates of Palestine to European Jews desperate to escape Nazi Germany. But by 1948, with the establishment of Israel, and by 1967, with the victories in the Six Day War, the Jewish People were firmly on the path of national redemption.”