Moshe Zuri and the Jewish Community of Acre

1404665176 (1) - Edited

Moshe’s great granddaughters next to a street sign in a street named after him in Acre – May 2014

1404665176 - Edited

Moshe Darwish Zuri

By Gideon

An Internet search showed that in one of Ben Zvi’s  writings there was a mention of my wife’s great grandfather, Moshe Darwish Zuri. (Ben Zvi – Israel’s 2nd president and a researcher of the Sephardic Jewish diaspora).

In the summer of 2011 we traveled from Florida to Jerusalem to visit the Ben Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities from the East. My wife wanted to know more about her mother’s family history and hoped to find information there. We planned the visit for a long time and I hoped that she wouldn’t be disappointed. The only information we had was that Moshe Tzuri knew Ben Zvi personally, and that there was a street in Acre named after him. We hoped that this was good enough information to begin a search. Neither one of us had any idea of what we were about to discover.

We held our breath as we stood next to the librarian  as she search the institute’s database. After few minutes, in a typical calm librarian voice, she said; “I found it. Go to isle …” A researcher in the library overheard our conversation and came to assist us. He was excited to personally meet a relative of Moshe Tzuri. He spent the next two hours going over documents with my wife. As it turned out, there was quite a lot of information about him. We ended up with books and periodicals containing articles. His full name was Moshe Darwish Tzuri. The title Darwish (holy man) was given to him by his community out of respect.

Acre (Akko in Hebrew), one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the world, is a city in the Western Galilee region of northern Israel at the northern extremity of Haifa Bay. Historically, it was a strategic coastal link to the Levant. In crusader times it was known as St. John d’Acre after the Knights Hospitaller of St John order who had their headquarters there. Acre is the holiest city of the Bahá’í Faith. The Ottomans captured the city in 1517, after which it fell into almost total decay. Towards the end of the 18th-century Acre was revived under the rule of Dhaher al-Omar, the Arab ruler of the Galilee, who made the city capital of his autonomous sheikhdom. Dhaher rebuilt Acre’s fortifications, using materials from the city’s medieval ruins. In 1799 Napoleon sieged the city for two months, but eventually was defeated by the Turks, aided by the British. Abdullah Pasha ruled Acre until 1831, when the Egyptian leader Ibrahim Pasha captured the city and destroyed its buildings. During the Oriental Crisis of 1840 it was bombarded on November 4th 1840 by the allied British, Austrian and French squadrons, and in the following year it was restored to Turkish rule. The British captured the city on 23 September 1918 during World War I. Acre was captured by Israel on May 17, 1948.

In the year 1780, at the age of 13, a young boy by the name of Nissim Tzuri came to Acre with his mother from the city of Dubrovnik in the Balkans. They were decedents Jews that were expelled from Spain. His grandson, Moshe Tzuri was born in Acre either in 1840 or 1853 (depends on the source). It was just after the Ottomans had recaptured the city from Egypt.  His family made a living as upholsters and by crushing cotton.  At that time Acre was a small town, still suffering from the previous attacks on the city. It lost its place to Haifa as the primary port in the region. The Ottomans saw Acre more as an important military post than a civilian city and did not invest in its recovery. The Jewish community in the city was weakened due to years of oppression by the Egyptian ruler Abdullah Pasha. In 1839 there were 54 Jewish households numbering 250 people. All of them except for 2 Ashkenazi were Sephardic Jews. In 1860 there were 46 Jewish households in Acre, and toward the end of the 19th century the number of Jewish people in Acre was as low as 100 people at times. The Acre Jewish community involvement in the growing Zionist activity in the area was limited. On the eve of the First World War, the Jewish community in Acre numbered 11 households and was on the brink of extinction. During this difficult period, Moshe Darwish Tzuri became the leader of the Jewish community of Acre, a position which he held for about 40 years. He helped his community to survive the difficult time during the Ottoman rule and led his community to prosperity during the British rule.

Moshe Darwish Tzuri was a honest, humble, religious man who understood public relations. He was busy leading his community and represented it in front of the authorities and other Jewish communities. He dedicated a lot of his time trying to preserve the Jewish cemetery and the community’s olive grove in a nearby Arab village, named Kfar Yasif. He helped the poor and the weak. He also helped other Jewish communities in need. His style was “Say little and do a lot and open your doors to guests and visitors”. He was highly respected by the authorities and by his people and maintained good relationships with his Arab neighbors. The Jewish community in Acre lived peacefully during his time as their leader.

Moshe Darwish Tzuri used his good relationships with the Turkish governor who was stationed in Acre to improve the life of his community and other Jewish communities in the area. This helped Jews who were in trouble with the authorities on many occasions; one time he traveled to Istanbul to save a Jew who was sentenced to death by hanging. He paid off the authorities and got the prisoner released.  When the Jewish community of Tiberias, a community larger than the Acre community, was in trouble with the authorities, Moshe Darwish Tzuri was asked to intervene on Tiberias’ behalf, a testament to his ability to negotiate and of his status.

He maintained good relationship with the Christians and Muslims communities in the city and was trusted by the authorities. By giving his word that he’ll return the Jewish prisoners to Jail after the holiday, Jewish prisoners were released to his custody to be guests in his house for Passover and to participate in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers in Acre’s synagogue.  Jewish travelers who got in trouble while in the area stayed in his house. He was the address for every Jewish person in need.

Moshe Darwish Tzuri was busy with community affairs, yet, he continued to work as upholster.  He was present in all Jewish weddings and also served as a rabbi, sealing the marriage certificate with the official seal. In addition to that he was also responsible for the synagogue affairs.  He was trusted by his people beyond doubt and for that reason served as a private bank, or as a safe place for other people to deposit their money, knowing that they’ll get it back when desired.Moshe Darwish Tzuri died in Haifa in 1936. His great grandson, Haim Tzuri, continues the tradition. He is currently the mayor of Kiryat Motzkin, a city between Acre and Haifa.

In 1921 his son Avraham Haim Tzuri replaced him as the leader of the Jewish community in Acre. He was also very respected by the community and by the authorities. He was also an upholster. Avraham Haim Tzuri continued many of the traditions that his father started including getting British approval for releasing Jewish prisoners to his custody during the holidays and certifying marriages. During his time the Jewish community in Acre grew significantly; an influx of Ashkenazi immigrants came to the city and became the majority. Avraham Haim Tzuri oversaw their integration in the community. Like his father before him, he led the Jewish community in Acre for 40 years.

The Jewish community in Acre maintained good relationships with their Arab neighbors and when the riots of 1929 erupted, the Arabs of Acre protected the Jews and their properties form the Arab mob that came over from Haifa. When the mob reached the houses of the Jewish people, members of the Hidaa family including Hag Ahmed El Hidaa, who announced that he won’t let anyone hurt his Jewish neighbors, defended them. He said that it was his duty to protect his neighbors and that the mob will have to kill him and his family to get to the Jews. Another neighbor, Mahmud El Habashi also protected the Tzuri family. Few Jews were attacked by knifes but no one was killed. The British Police gathered all the Jews and kept them in the Jail courtyard for two weeks until the riots were over. When the Jews returned home they found their property in the same condition that they left it; their Arab neighbors guarded their houses when they were away. The British evacuated anyone who wanted to leave. Most Jews left Acre, fearing another wave of attacks on them. They were brought to the Technion’s courtyard where they received support from the local Jewish community. Many Jews remained in Acre during the 1929 riots and many returned to the city when it was over. Avraham Haim Tzuri was one of the returning Jews. He continued to live there until the 1936-1939 riots when he was pressured to leave the city by Arab extremists. The riots of 1936-1939 were harder on the Jews and most of them left Acre for good. They settled in Kiryat Motzkin. Very few Jews were living in Acre when Israel’s independence war erupted in 1948.

Rivka Tzuri, the wife of Avraham Haim Tzuri, was from Tiberias. She had 13 children, which two of them died at childhood. Rivka and Haim had 80 grandchildren. Rivka  lived to see her great grandchildren and their children (including my wife). She received an award from David Ben Gurion, Israel’s 1st prime minister, for being a Jewish mother of such large family. She was very respected by her family who used to visit her in her house frequently. She died on January 7, 1983 at the age of 95 in Acre.

The Acre Jewish community buried their dead in Kafr yasif, an Arab village with a small Jewish presence at the time. Kfar Yasif is located 10 kilometers east of Acre; a distance which Acre’s Jews made mostly by foot. They buried their dead in Kfar Yasif because Acre was considered only partly in Eretz Israel while Kfar Yasif was considered to be entirely in Eretz Israel. After the riots of 1929 it was too dangerous for Jews to travel to Kafar yasif and they began burying their death on Napoleon Hill in Acre.

***

The original article was published in October 2013. The picture at the top left was taken during a family to Acre in June 2014. Shortly after the picture was taken we stopped at a gas station. It was just a coincidence that we stopped at the same gas station that was owned by the Tzuri family and was passed down from father to son for generations. Since it is a different branch of the family, I never met the gas station owner and he wouldn’t recognize me if he saw me. After sel-filling the gas tank. I had difficulties paying with my credit card. I suspected that the problem was that the American credit card wasn’t recognized at the pump. I went inside the gas station’s store to pay for it. The clerk (not a relative) told me that the meter did not record any charge and that the balance is zero.

I insisted to pay, the clerk walked with me to the pump. The meter showed zero charge. The clerk speculated that the car rental company was somehow automatically charged  for it. She advised me to reimburse the rental company when I return the car. Few days later when I returned the car, I asked about the gas charge and was told that there was no such charge. This was the first and only time in my life when I was not charged for gas at a gas station. I have only one explanation for that, as strength as it sounds, somehow Moshe Tzuri’s hand was involved; either to thank us for visiting him, or because we are family, or because I published the article about him… It remains a mystery. If I didn’t believe in life after death, now I’m not so sure. 

Sources:

1. Moshe Darwish Zuri, the Leader of the Jewish community of Acre at the end of the Ottoman Period and the beginning  of the British rule – Article (Hebrew) by Nacham Ilan, Katedra periodical #87

2. Acre the Walls city – a book (Hebrew) by Yehoshua  Luria

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