Jaffa, the Jews, and CMJ: A Six-Part Popular History of CMJ and Its Work in a Historic Port City
CMJ is 213 years old this year. Our society first established itself in Jerusalem in 1833. By 1844, we began work in the port city of Jaffa. All of this took place when the piece of land then known as Palestina was just a backward province of the once-great Ottoman Empire that came to its end in 1918.
A visitor to our Beit Immanuel guest house today would see that it is old by modern standards. The building itself and many surrounding it are a blend of Middle Eastern and Victorian styles; however, some of the buildings look curiously American. A Messianic Gentile group from Maine built some Cape Cod style wooden homes in the 1860s. When their project failed, they sold it to an immigrant Pietist German group that called themselves Templars. They in turn sold it to Baron Plato von Ustinov in 1878. CMJ purchased the building during the British Mandate period following WWI in 1926.
CMJ’s history at Beit Immanuel, and before 1926 in Jaffa, will occupy later installments in this series about the history of CMJ’s work in Jaffa. Interesting as that story is, it must wait for a later episode, because the history of Jaffa is not just old and modern, but ancient Middle Eastern. It is a story of changing empires that produced the population who lives there today.
Probably first settled in approximately 1800 B.C.E, Jaffa enters recorded history as an Egyptian settlement and later provincial capital. The city is built on a ridge along a peninsula that extends out from the Mediterranean shore. Rock projections rising above the sea’s surface in a natural harbor protect Jaffa from southern and western storms. Ships in these ancient times were small enough to enter the harbor and anchor near shore. For centuries, Jaffa’s harbor was the main natural harbor stretching up the coast to Lebanon. It served as shelter when winter made navigation of the Mediterranean Sea impossible each year, and persisted as a harbor into the 19th Century until larger commercial vessels were too large to enter it.
As the timeline in the sidebar illustrates, during its 33 centuries of existence, Jaffa has witnessed the rise and fall of the empires of human history: Egyptians, Canaanites, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, three different Muslim powers, French, Turks, English, and finally a Jewish led democracy. Today’s population probably represents the genetic lines of all these groups, but the dominant ethnicities are Arab, Jewish, Ethiopian, gypsy, and a smattering of other African refugees. Although a tiny minority, many European and North American people have gone in and out of Jaffa’s recent history as well.
|14th C. BCE||Egyptian|
|12th - 9th C. BCE||Canaanite|
|8th C. BCE||Assyrian|
|4th C. BCE||Macedonian then Ptolemaic Kingdom|
|3rd C. BCE||Seleucid Empire|
|1st C. BCE||Roman Empire|
|636-1099 CE||Muslim Caliph|
|1126 CE||Knights of St. John|
|1187 CE||Muslim (Saladin)|
|1196 CE||Muslim Victory|
|1268 CE||Arab Muslim Reconquest|
|1517-1918 CE||Ottoman Empire|
|1839 CE||Ashkenazi Settlements|
|1845 CE||CMJ's Work Begins|
|1859 CE||CMJ's Work Closes|
|1860 CE||American Colony|
German Colony & Knights Templar Buy Beit Immanuel Property
|1878 CE||Baron Plato von Ustinov Purchases Beit Immanuel|
|1880 CE||CMJ Re-opens and Purchases Mission House|
|1905 CE||Tel Aviv Founded|
|1918 CE||British Mandate|
|1926 CE||CMJ Purchases Beit Immanuel Property|
|1948 CE||State of Israel Founded|
Jaffa’s history is littered with triumphs, defeats, and occasional tragedies. (At one point, Marc Antony made a gift of it to Cleopatra.) Real people, heroes, and villains both famous and obscure have come and gone. But, of course, for people of faith all of those distinctions of history and social position are of secondary importance. Scripture makes clear that in God’s economy people are more important than empires and social distinctions because he created them. It seems to be the hardest lesson for humanity to learn.
But it was with that biblical view of the importance of people in God’s created order that just a decade after CMJ began its work in Jerusalem, it expanded this work to Jaffa. Recommended by Bishop Michael Solomon Alexander in 1842, the work began two years after his death in 1846.
The city was only semi-modern. The Western world dwelt amid the abundance of the Industrial Revolution. Palestina remained mired mostly in centuries past. Jaffa, with a small population of 5,000 souls, connected to this modern world through trade and a trickle of outsiders. So it was that CMJ Headquarters in London approved the request from Jerusalem to make a start at ministry in Jaffa. The initial investment was modest by CMJ standards of that time. It was enough to open a book depository (essentially a bookstore) that sold (and lent) copies of the scriptures, as well as other religious literature printed in all of the languages present in the “city.”
In addition, the entire territory suffered from governmental neglect. The Ottoman Empire was already teetering towards its final defeat in WWI. It hadn’t the resources to maintain economically unproductive places like Palestina. Therefore, the local population died young and suffered from a wide range of diseases and “fevers.” For that reason, CMJ assigned Dr. Anton Kiel, a local Jewish believer, to Jaffa. He opened practice for the citizens of Jaffa, especially the poor.
This initial vision for Jaffa would have to wait for its ultimate fulfillment in succeeding decades. CMJ’s work there ceased in 1859 and was not to be revived until the 1880s, but that is a story for next time.