Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Locusts of 1915 --
A Plague of Biblical Proportions Hit Palestine

The American Colony photographers
 took hundreds of pictures of the
 locust plague and the insects'
metamorphosis from larvae to adult
World War I brought widespread devastation to the Middle East as German and Turkish armies fought British, Australian and New Zealand troops in battlefields from the Suez Canal in the south to Damascus in the north. 

The war meant a cut-off of aid and relief to the Jews of Palestine from Jewish philanthropists in Europe and the United States. 

As many as 10,000 Jews were expelled from Jaffa-Tel Aviv in April 1917, and many perished from disease and hunger.

But the famine that struck the residents of Palestine was also caused by a massive plague of locusts that swarmed into Eretz Yisrael in March 1915 and lasted until October.  Accounts of the locusts and the subsequent starvation and pestilence recalled the plagues of Bible.

A New York Times account from April 1915 described deaths from starvation.  By November 1915, the Times detailed a cable from the American Counsel General in Jerusalem in which he described "fields covered by the locusts as far as the eye could reach."  The diplomat reported on efforts made by the Turkish leader of Palestine to combat the locusts.  A Jewish agronomist, "Dr. Aaron Aaronsohn, who is well known to the Department of Agriculture at Washington, was appointed High Commissioner" to the "Central Commission to Fight the Locusts." 
A tree before the locusts arrived

The same tree after the locusts

[Aaronsohn would go on to establish the anti-Turkish NILI spy ring in 1917.  His sister Sarah was captured by the Turks for her involvement in the spy ring, and after torture, she committed suicide.]

The American Colony in Jerusalem established soup kitchens to feed starving residents in Jerusalem.  The colony's photographers documented more than 200 pictures of the locusts' devastation, efforts to combat them and the locusts' life cycle.  An album of color (hand tinted) photographs is stored in the Library of Congress collection.

"Locusts stealing in like
thieves through
the window"

The Times reported, "Few crops or orchards escaped devastation.  This was especially true on the Plain of Sharon, where the Jewish and German colonies, with their beautiful orange gardens, vineyards, and orchards, suffered most severely... In the lowlands there was a complete destruction of crops such as garden vegetables, melons, apricots and grapes ... upon whose supply the Jerusalem markets depend... few vegetables or fruits [were] to be had in the markets."
Team waving flags tries to push a swarm of locusts into a
trap dug into the ground.  The Turkish governor demanded
that every man deliver 20 kilo (44 pounds) of locusts

"In Jerusalem and Hebron," the report continued, "the heaviest loss from the onslaught of the locusts has been in connection with the olive groves and vineyards.  Olive oil is a staple of food among the peasants and poorer classes....The grape, too, is a similar staple among all classes."
Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem,
 before the locusts

Garden of  Gethsemane, Jerusalem, after the locusts

"When the larvae appeared near Jerusalem," the Times related, residents were mobilized "for immediate organized resistance....Tin-lined boxes were sunk in the earth in the direction in which the locusts were advancing." Men, women and children were given flags and "the flaggers would drive the locusts together in a dense column toward the trap..."

Both the forces of war and nature combined to take a terrible toll on the residents of Palestine during World War I.


  1. Actually, Aaron Aaronson and his two sisters, Sarah and Rebecca, and the rest of NILI, utilized Aaron’s position as a world-renown agronomist as a cover to run their spying operation. Along with Avshalom Feinberg and Joseph Lishansky, and others, the Aaronsons traversed the country, supposedly gathering information on locust infestation.

    1. Aaronsohn was a world reknowed scientist long before he established the spy ring. He was invited to America as a guest of the US govt in 1909, to Canada in 1912 as a gust of the Canadian govt, AUTHORED a USDA govt bulletin on importation of various species of vegetation in 1910 and wrote numerous other articles published in the most prestigious scientific articles. The research station at Atlit was created six years before the spy ring operations began in 1915 and Aaronsohn's scientific discoveries began even earlier.
      David Fairchild, the head of the USDA plant and seedling operation, and an eminent botanist of his own eulogized Aaronsohn in the Journal of Heredity. The accolades were about Aaronsohn's science and his passion for science not his spying.

      If Aaaronsohn took advantage of his role to help Jews in need, this did not detract from his scientific functions. And by the time of the locust situation, Aaronsohn had already explored most of the country - at least once.

      Wm Bullit, Solicitor General of the US from 1912-1913 (and then US Ambassador to Paris and Moscow) said of Aaronsohn he was "the greatest man he had ever met." The sentitment was echoed by Justices Frankfurter and Brandeis and Judge Julian Mack among others. They were impressed with Aaronsohn's science - not his spying.

      Barbara BB