In a recent article in Segula Magazine about Jews living in Beit Shean (Beisan) before the Independence War, the subject of Jews living in mainly Arab towns pre-state was examined. I looked at statistics of the Jewish population of my home town, Beer Sheva, and found that the statistics were similar: a largely Arab city (population in 1931 almost 3,000) with a very small Jewish population (11) and assumed that the story would be the same. While certain elements of Beer Sheva’s story mirror the situation in Beit Shean, many elements are different.
Firstly, Beer Sheva is a modern town, unlike Beit Shean. The first modern settlement was started in 1900 with the establishment of the town by the Ottomans. The Ottomans wanted to both control and serve the Bedouin community while establishing a military base against the British in Egypt. Interestingly, almost immediately Jews arrived to the town. Among the first residents, arriving in 1901, were 2 Jews who founded a flour mill right on the main street. Unlike Beit Shean’s Jewish population which consisted of mainly Arabic-speaking Sephardim, these two Jews, Yaacov Gordon and Meir Shnaiderovitch, were Ashkenazim. Prior to coming to Beer Sheva, they had worked in the winery in Rishon LeTzion and been fired. Beer Sheva provided them with a second chance to see what they could build up in this Arab Bedouin town.
The Ethics of the Fathers, 3:21, states, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah,” and this adage was true for the Jewish community of Beer Sheva. The flour mill, pictured, was the focal point of the community, housing at one point a well, a synagogue, a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) and a chicken coop. Bedouin preferred going to the Jewish mill instead of one of the other Arab-owned mills in the town because the Jews set a fixed price for the flour and had superior equipment to grind the flour finer.
Prayers in the community were said in the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Edot HaMizrach styles depending on who was leading and who was attending, as the population was varied.
By 1923, the Jewish community had grown to around 30 people. The population included not only a miller and a butcher, but a teacher, storekeeper, doctor, tailor, shoemaker and even a police man, with their spouses and children. Many of the Jews were related or became related. Each person made a niche, raised and educated families, and created a small Jewish community in the Land of their Forefathers. They were not your typical Zionists and were largely ignored by the large Zionist organizations, receiving almost no help or support.
The Jewish community, and the flour mill, came to an abrupt end with the Arab revolt of 1929. The Jewish population of Beer Sheva fled, and the mill was sold to a local Arab. The Jews did not stay away for long though, as the 1931 census records indicate that there were 11 Jews living in Beer Sheva, rebuilding Jewish life there. The Arab riots of 1936-1939 ended the Jewish community in Beer Sheva and only a few individuals returned afterwards, leaving no signs of Jewish communal life.
There is a legend that during Israel’s Independence War, the remaining Jewish population of Beer Sheva got into a van and fled the city. There were fewer than a dozen individuals. It’s hard to believe today when looking out over the modern city with over 200,000 Jewish residents, that the Jewish life in the modern city started with such a small population. Like its pre-state community, Jews from all over the world make up a patchwork. And like for Gordon and Shnaiderovitch, Beer Sheva offers a second chance and a different kind of Zionism – a unique chance to make something new as envisioned by Ben Gurion.