If, when strolling through Jaffa, Israel, you suddenly find yourself in a neighborhood with 19th Century wooden houses reminiscent of 19th Century New England, you will have stumbled upon a footnote in history. An American Protestant sect from Maine decided to move in the mid-1860s to Jaffa. They brought all they would need, including disassembled houses that were reassembled in Jaffa. Palestine at that time was a harsh place with little in terms of infrastructure or amenities.
The Americans found the environment hostile, disease rampant and the local Ottoman authorities unwelcoming and unhelpful. By 1868 they decided to pull up and return to Maine. They sold their properties to a new German Protestant sect named the Templars.
The Templars were a messianic offshoot of the German Lutheran Church. They believed that setting off for “Zion” (Palestine) and establishing their own towns and farms would hasten the Second Coming.. Between 1869 and 1908 several thousand Templars made the move and established seven colonies – some in cities and others as agricultural farm communities. The one in Jerusalem is among the most famous and continues to sport the name “German Colony”.
The Templars’ initial millennial fervor helped them to deal with and overcome the hardships that had driven the Americans away. They worked hard to build infrastructure and introduce modern farming techniques. Their Haifa colony was the first to implement urban planning. They built major roads to connect their settlements. Their Tel Aviv Sarona colony was the first to market Jaffa oranges to the world at large.
The Templars were in some ways a forerunner of the Zionist movement and definitely provided a development model which inspired later waves of Jewish immigrants between 1890 and 1918. The German Templars worked well with the Jews and the local Arabs and made valuable investments which served all of Palestine.
The Templars remained German nationals and patriotic to Imperial Germany. The Kaiser’s visit in 1898 was a major event for them. This was not a problem for the Ottomans who had a good alliance with Germany. Then the First World War came. Britain conquered Palestine in 1918 and controlled it as a League of Nations Mandate territory. The Templars were enemy aliens. They were able to re-establish their normal lives by the early1920s and prospered. They owned much land - particularly around what was becoming the new city of Tel Aviv - that became more valuable with the influx of Jews.
The Templars’ wish to continue to be loyal German citizens met a second geopolitical problem in 1933 when the Nazis took control of the German Government. The younger Templars became enamoured of the Nazi movement and established local branches of the Nazi party and related organizations such as Hitler Jugend. The older Templars seemed to fear that the Nazis ran against their basic beliefs, that Hitler was trying to usurp the role of Jesus. Over 200 draft-age Templars responded to a Nazi Wermacht call-up in mid-1939 and left for Germany. When the Second World War broke out, the Templars were again considered enemy aliens and confined. About 400 were repatriated to Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1943 in exchange for Jews in ghettos and camps. By the end of the war, most of the Templars were gone and there was no reason for the British authorities to allow them back, nor later the Israelis after the War of Independence in 1948. The last Templars left by 1949.
Driven by religious impulse, the German Templars tried to make Zion a better place. The first generation set an example of how to develop the land and the cities. Zionist pioneers learned much from the Templars which helped Jews put down roots and not run away. This relationship existed for a relatively brief interval before the forces of geopolitics and hatred broke down the cooperative ties.
The President of the IJC
22 May 2019