Aliyot to Palestine

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Yosef and Soshana-Reizel Benderly
 Zafed, Palestine
cir 1930

Yosef and Soshana-Reizel Benderly
and their Children
(Mina Benderly standing on left)
 Zafed, Palestine

The Bashan family is deeply rooted in the founding of modern-day Israel. Their ancestors might be considered 19th Century equivalents of the 17th Century "Mayflower" pioneers of America. Similarly, they fled persecution and hardship in their European homeland to establish their new home in an almost empty territory, in what they considered to be the biblical Promised Land, which became the modern state of Israel over a century later.

The Bashan family originated from two completely distinct groups of East European Jews arriving from the republics of Moldavia and Rumania, and for different reasons. One group was ultra-orthodox, seeking physical, economic, and spiritual refuge. The other was a Zionist group, looking forward to re-establishing a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land, which was then a remote Ottoman Palestine colony. This was a common, romantic dream in 19th Century Europe for many minority ethnic groups.


The first group came in 1833 from the Bessarabian town of Bendery on the Dnesr River (population then approx. 10,000 with 3000 Jews), about 100 km northwest of the Ukrainian city of Odessa on the Black Sea. Bessarabia was a Rumanian Principality in the region of today's Moldavia, bordering the Ukraine. Until 1812, the Principality was part of the Ottoman Empire, and was then conquered by the Russian Czar Alexander I.

In 1825, the new Russian Czar, Nicholas I, introduced discriminatory decrees against Jewish citizens of the Russian Empire. The local economy soon declined and anti-Semitism increased as a result. The local Russian populace followed suit and large-scale destruction of Jewish communities (pogroms) ensued. Even worst, the new Czar issued an imperial decree obligating Jewish youth to join his army for 25 years. For the Jews of Bendery, these persecutions led to a movement to leave.

 Encouraged by their spiritual leader, Rabbi Avraham-Dov Mavritz, about 300 immigrated to the Holy Land in 1833. They chose the Holy Land rather than the "New World," as other Jews did, because they saw the Holy Land as a land of opportunity, since many of them were merchants, young adults with families, and relatively wealthy. Their main occupation in Bendery was textile manufacturing and banking. Palestine was relatively close to Rumania, and religious history provided a strong rationale.

The immigrants immediately dispersed among four ancient cities of Palestine--Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, but mostly to the northern town of Zafed, where the ancestors of the Bashan family settled. Four brothers of the Bendery family reached Zafed (David, Yosef, Avrahm, and Dov) and one sister (Haya-Golda) and their families. They chose Zafed for practical reasons. Zafed had 5000 Jewish inhabitants whose ancestors had lived there for centuries (the second largest Jewish population after Jerusalem) and many inhabitants were Hasidic, as was the case for many from Bendery. From an economic point of view, Zafed (a minor town today) was a major road junction and commercially active regional city. They assumed that they would be able to resume the commercial activities of their homeland and stay economically independent.

As such, they would not have to live on scarce donations from Jewish European communities, as was common at that time. And worse, the donation system was controlled by a corrupt religious administration.

However, establishing their settlement in Zafed was hard, starting with a very heavy snow upon arrival in 1833. This brought misery to the unprepared families, and this was followed by a black plague epidemic a year later. In 1835, as a consequence of the weak Ottoman government in the remote colony, Arab farmers from the Golan Heights robbed the city. In 1837, a major earthquake destroyed two-thirds of the city, killing half the Jewish population. In 1838, the Druz population (a Muslim sect) from Lebanon rebelled against the Ottoman Empire, and in the process also sacked the commercial town.

Despite the hardships of their first years, the family got along well with the local population, Jews and Arabs, and many members of the family prospered. They were known as the "Benderly" family, a name reminiscent of their city of origin, as was common in Turkish traditions.

After the hardships of the early years, in 1850 there was major relief. The central Ottoman administration wished to improved economic activity in the colony and re-organized itself. Consequently, many minorities, Jews included, had less restrictions. In Zafed, it meant that the Jewish and Christian minorities had the same civil rights as the local Arab population. For example, they were allowed to travel long distances. The family, basically merchants, took advantage of the “new economy” and improved itself. Because they immigrated from Bendery, that was until relatively recent times under Ottoman rule, they were recognized by the Ottoman government as Ottoman citizens. As a result, they obtained a license to be merchants and to move freely between Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, to Egypt and Sudan, an event that created large business opportunities for merchants.

The most prominent brother was David, who started to be a large-scale importer and exporter for the entire Middle East. Apparently, he was considered a very reliable man among his business associates and the government civil servant administration of the empire and his name reached the supreme ruler of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan Abd-el Hamid II in Koshta (Istanbul of today). As a sign of respect for his significant economic activities and his reliability to the empire, the Sultan granted him a very special permit; to print money notes on official Turkish paper for his business because of lack of commercial banks in many commercial areas where the family worked. Finally, the Sultan gave him the rarest and coveted permit of all—to check and certify the scales of all merchants in the area. For this post, the Sultan gave him the seal of the empire and the official title “Honorific Sultan.” David, in return, added to the name of Sultana to his daughter Sara’s name and his descendents added Sultan to the family name of Benderly. This is founding of the Benderly “dynasty.”

Meanwhile, David enlarged his commercial enterprises in any place possible. In addition to textiles, he bought and sold anything that had a market. As business was good and regionally far-reaching, he enrolled his family for support because family ties guaranteed loyalty to the headquarters in Zafed. Members of the family left Zafed and settled in Zidon, Acre, Haifa, Port Said, Cairo, and Khartoum in Sudan. Dozens of mule, camel, and donkey caravans, led by Arabs and Jews criss-crossed the Middle East, yet the base of operations was Zafed. The caravans’ operations were run by his son Mordechai who, as a consequence, was almost never at home. One cousin, Shimon Benderly, operated a huge warehouse in Port Said in Egypt and a private pier in the port. He also opened a cigarette factory (Simon-Arch) and his youngest son, Bernard, opened a business in Cairo for import and export of watches and jewelry (Bernard Benderly Corporation). The multiple businesses of David were well run for 30 years until his death in 1882. Despite his success and fame, he paid attention that his immediate family, including his sons, continued to live in Zafed.

After his death, his son Shlomo inherited the business empire. Unfortunately, the Ottoman Empire started to disintegrate at that time. International trade among countries in the Middle East, within the Empire’s own borders, was more and more difficult. Consequently, the commercial sphere of the family significantly shrunk and concentrated in the area between Gaza in the south to Beirut and Damascus in the north. Also, the diversity of the trade goods shrunk and they concentrated on salt, food, and grains.

Since 1900, the economic status of the family continued to decline, but was not severely damaged. Grain commerce was still possible and important, and they were the only provider of salt (major food supplement of that time) in northern Palestine. In 1914 and WWI, all males of Turkish citizenship like the Benderlys were drafted into the Turkish army. Most Jews in Palestine realized that nothing good could come from joining the Turkish Army that was on the losing side, pushed by the British Army. Some wealthy citizens like part of the Bendely family smuggled themselves abroad, mainly to Brazil but also to Australia, Argentina, the USA, Germany, France, and Italy. During WWI, the Benderly family members who stayed in Palestine encountered severe poverty as regional and international commerce was now past history and two typhoid epidemics decimated the general population to about a third of the size present before the war.  next


        Text written by Dr. Yoav Bashan of the Bashan Foundation .




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