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The Islamic Conquest's Plunder of Palestine

In the seventh century Southern Arabia, evolved the formation of the successful pattern that was to be perpetuated in the propagation of the Arabian Muslim creed. Those Jews who escaped withtheir lives became perhaps the first Arabian refugees. They were the beginning link in the long chain of Jews to be plundered by "immigrant" Muslims of the "Arab" world, who would exact their reward as their new faith permitted, even prescribed them to do.

It is likely that among the Jewish refugees fleeing from Arabia were numbers of Jews whose "Palestinian" -- or Judean -- ancestors had fled from the Romans. Now they returned to seventh-century Palestine, joining their Jewish brethren who had never left. Ironically, the Jewish refugees' return coincided with the introduction of the Arab conquerors from the desert; the very invaders who had forced themselves in and the Jews out of their homes in Arabia would now plunder Judah-Palestina in the identical pattern.

And the Jews who inhabited many towns of "Palestine" uninterruptedly would one day in the twentieth century be forced out as the Arabian Jews had been -- by slaughter or expropriation and terrorizing. The towns would then,  in the later twentieth century, be touted as "purely Arab Palestinian areas since time immemorial," just as the Arabian Peninsula had come to be perceived as "purely Arab," when in fact the holy Arab Muslim city of Medina had been originally settled by Jews.

After the seventh-century invasion of Medina-the beginning of the Arab conquest in Arabia -- where we have seen the settled Jews conquered by the "Arabians," Caliph Omar was ruling over the vanquished tribes when he received word from his general that Arabian invaders had conquered Alexandria:

"I have captured a city from the description of which I shall refrain. Suffice it to say that I have seized therein 4,000 villas with 4,000 baths, 40,000 poll-tax paying Jews and four hundred places of entertainment for the royalty."[50]
The Arabs who invaded Judah-cum-Palestine followed that precedent. Upon the invasion of Palestine, the "Arabians of the desert" found a Palestinian Jewish community of major proportion. Shortly after the Arab conquest, the Jews would again assert their nationalistic goals, rising in part from the infliction of the new dhimma restrictions and humiliations that were to become the fate of all non-Muslims.
Omar II was the religious zealot who instituted many of the restrictions
... These restrictions were, no doubt, responsible for the rising of the pseudo-Messiah Syrene, . . . a Syrian Jew, [who had] promised to ... regain possession of the Holy Land for Jewish people."[11]
Those Jews who had remained in Roman "Palestine," together with the Jewish communities who quickly returned after the Roman conquest, had succeeded in "mould[ing] Judaism in a new stamp."[52] Although the revered Temple had been destroyed, the synagogue remained to "soften the blow" and Jewish leaders who had escaped from the siege of Jerusalem were permitted by Roman leaders to return, and to teach the form of Judaism that was to preserve and perpetuate the "aggressive Jewish nationalism" that finally achieved political reclaiming of the land nearly twenty centuries later.

Ironically, it was thus those very Roman leaders who had conquered the Jewish State and destroyed the Jewish Temple who helped unwittingly to initiate the means by which the Jewish National Liberation movement would remain intact. Had the Romans permitted the Jews to retain their sovereignty, the Jews might have been relegated to archaic history as had the Hittites, the Philistines, and other long-extinct peoples of the region. Although the tenacious Jewish history before the Romans would indicate otherwise, one might ponder the Jews' fate if the Jewish people and their way of worship had been a matter of indifference rather than the traditional object of resentment and suspicion born of imitation.

In the centuries between the Roman dismantling of the Jewish sovereign state and the Arab invasion, the Jews' population had "remained as ... before the loss of independence, primarily peasants and landowners." The Jewish population -- between five and seven million in A.D. 70, according to Josephus[53] -- still numbered around three million, despite large numbers of Jews who were deported or had fled just before the Jewish revolt and defeat of Bat Kochba. According to Roman figures, nearly 600,000 Jews alone fell during that revolt, but the Jews managed to remain on the land and to accomplish significant achievements afterward.[54]

The centers of Jewish life occasionally shifted in importance -- after the revolt of Bar Kochba the nucleus of the Jewish community moved to Galilee for a time.[55] But the Romans, because they recognized the Jewish hereditary Patriarchate as "the supreme . . . authority" for the total Jewish community in the empire, inadvertently provided the Jews with a political-religious center that had the practical effect of replacing -- though never pre-empting -- the grievously lost Temple.[56] The result was that the Jewish identity with the Jewish nation remained steadfast.

As the British Royal Commission would report in 1937, almost 2,000 years afterward,

Always . . . since the fall of the Jewish state some Jews have been living in Palestine .... Fresh immigrants arrived from time to time ... [and] settled mainly in Galilee, in numerous villages spreading northwards to the Lebanon and in the towns of Safad and Tiberias. [57]
According to reports of the various periods of history, some of the Jewish enclaves managed to remain in their original places for thousands of years. The Jews were numerous in Judah-cum-Palestine and the Christians proportionately few in the third and fourth centuries." And for a rare and brief moment there was peace. The historian de Haas wrote that
The East breathed more freely, and enjoyed even a spell of real peace during the reign of Alexander Severus (222-235).... His predilections brought him the nickname of Archisynagogus, or rabbi. He flirted with the Jews, and his mother, Julia Mammae, protected the great church father, Origen. This catholicity was even exhibited in the imperial palace, where pictures of Orpheus, Jesus, and Abraham, hung side by side."
But Professor Lewis reminds that
In Palestine, the Jews, still an important element, if no longer the majority of the population, had suffered even more grievously than the heretical Christians from Byzantine repression, and had little love for their masters."[60]
The "bullying orthodoxy" of the growing Byzantium diminished the Jews' political, civil, and even religious rights in the fifth century. The Reverend Parkes reports that, by the time the Persians invaded in A.D. 611, the Jews had been persecuted long enough so that the "Persians received substantial help from the Jews of Galilee" -- an estimated 20,000 to 26,000 Jewish soldiers. The Persians' occupation ended after fifteen years.[61]

On the eve of the introduction of the Arabian to Palestine, the Christians briefly reoccupied Palestine in A.D. 629. Because the Jews had cooperated with the Persians, "the clergy of Jerusalem thought only of revenge," and inspired a "bloody massacre ... of Jews."[62]

Neither Christian nor Jew realized that within a few years the Arabian invasion would bring Byzantine rule to an end, and many of those inhabitants who had once converted to Byzantine now would adopt the tongue, religion, and, briefly, the rule of the Arabs.

When we look back over the history of the early Caliphates -- and we must do, so, since the present hopes and pretensions of the Arabs, and the popular belief, their coming Renaissance rest equally on ancient history -- we find the period of genuine Arab Empire extraordinarily short. Arabs governed Arabs, through Arabs on an imperial scale for much less than a century. It is just the Omayyad Caliphate -- the Damascus period and no more.
Thsu was the comparatively recent Arab propaganda claim of Palestine as an "Arab" country for "millennia" disproved by the historian David George Hogarth in 1877.[63] Hogarth was described by eminent Arab writers as "one of the greatest authorities of his time on Arabian history."[64]

The Reverend James Parkes has agreed that

The period during which the empire was ruled from Damascus and can be called "Arab" empire, lasted less than a century and even in that short time it had gun to decline."
Noting that decline, the prominent Arab historian Philip Hitti also explained how "Arab" invaders were "diluted" by converts:
Through their intermarriages with the conquering stock they served to dilute the Arabian blood and ultimately to make that element inconspicuous amidst the mixture of varied racial strains.[66]

... the invaders from the desert brought with them no tradition of learning, no heritage of culture, to the lands they conquered.[67]

The "Arab" rule as such had been precluded before A.D. 750. According to Hitti,
Shortly before the middle of the eighth century a caliph ascended to the Umayyad throne who had been born of a slave mother .... His two successors, the last in the dynasty, were also sons of slave women .... That the reigning family could no longer boast pure Arab blood was symptomatic of a loosening of moral standards throughout society."
Hitti pointed out the destructive element of tribal warfare that contributed heavily to the ravages of Palestine.
The position of the Omayyad dynasty, weakened by this decadence, was further undermined by the increasingly sharp division of North Arabian as against South Arabian tribes. This racial tendency to separatism, apparent even in pre-Islamic days, now became complete and was the cause of boundless dispute. [69]
The findings of even those historians most vaunted by the Arab world have been specific in their contradiction of Arab claims to historical right of sovereignty in the land of "Palestine." The Arabs never created their own name for the land they now claim as their own. Neither was there ever an independent country of Palestine, nor a "Palestinian" rule. The word "Palestine" was given to the land of Judea by the Romans when Roman conquerors unsuccessfully attempted to purge the land of the "nationalistic," obstinate Jews.

"The brevity of purely Arab Empire was determined less by the force of non-Arab elements than by the inability of Arabs themselves to develop any system of imperial administration more adequate than the Patriarchal," Hogarth determined.[70]

"The short ... Meccan period was all conquest and raiding accompanied by no more organization of territories overrun than would secure their payment of, tribute."[71]

"The long Baghdad period" was, according to Hogarth, "not... government of Arabs by Arabs."

If the Abbassids were Meccan, their ministers, great and often small, were Iranians or Turanians, and their trust was in mercenaries, at first Persian, then Turk, Circassian, Kurd -- any race but the Arabian.[72]
Hogarth found that the same "formula" applied to Egypt and North Africa where the ruled people as well as their governors were "non-Arab."

"What we now call 'Arab civilization' was Arabian neither in its origins and fundamental structure nor in its principal ethnic aspects," according to Philip Hitti.

Throughout the whole period of the caliphate, the Syrians, the Persians, the Egyptians and others, as Moslem converts or as Christians and Jews, were the foremost bearers of the torch of enlightenment and learning, just as the subjugated Greeks were in their relation to victorious Romans. The Arab Islamic civilization was at bottom the Hellenized Aramaic and the Iranian civilizations as developed under the aegis of the caliphate and expressed through the medium of the Arab tongue." [73]
The "Arab identity" is in fact largely a linguistic commonality. Hitti defines "Arabs" as "a term which in our usage would comprise all Arabic-speaking peoples,
including the Arabians, that is, the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula." [74]

According to Hogarth, even the "extraordinarily short" Arab rule was mechanical and not innovative.

The Omayyads alike in Syria and Spain seemed to have carried on with the machinery they found, insisting only after a time on expression in Arabic.[75]
To speak historically of original inhabitants of Judah-cum-Palestine as "Arab" peoples, then, is categorically inaccurate. Not only was there no country of "Palestine," never a "Palestinian" Arab rule, there was only an "extraordinarily short" period of time -- a matter of decades -- when any Arabs ruled Arabs on that land.
The first Arabian use of the word Arab occurs in the ancient southern Arabian inscriptions.... dating from the late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries. In these, Arab means Bedouin, often raider, and is applied to the nomadic as distinct from the sedentary population.... For Muhammad and his contemporaries the Arabs were the Bedouin of the desert, and in the Qur'an the term is used exlusively in this sense and never of the townsfolk of Mecca, Medina and other Cities." [76]
Islam was the "national religion and war-cry" and the new empire was "their booty" as the conquering Arabians -- or Arabs -- briefly invaded and ruled over "a vast variety of peoples differing in race, language and religion, among whom [the Arabs] formed a ... minority," according to Professor Bernard Lewis. [77]
The use of the adjective Arab to describe the various facets of this civilization has often been challenged on the grounds that the contribution to "Arab medicine,"  "Arab philosophy," etc. of those who were of Arab descent was relatively small. Even the use of the word Muslim is criticized, since so many of the architects of this culture were Christians and Jews .... [78]
The Prophet Muhammad, Arabian creator of Islam, had quickly determined to gain followers, plunder must be bountiful.
So little was the first wave of the Arab conquest an exclusive product of religious fanaticism, offering the conquered Islam or the sword, that many of the bedouin bands who formed the armies of Islam were in all probability still pagans when they took part in the first great surge out of the [Arabian] peninsula.[79]
Because the "Arabian Moslems" subscribed widely to the Koranic invocation "Make war ... upon such of those to whom the Book has been given until they pay tribute offered on the back of their hands, in a state of humiliation" (9:29), Hitti concluded that
Not fanaticism but economic necessity drove the Bedouin hordes ... beyond the confines of their and abode to the fair lands of the north.... Far from being entirely the result of deliberate and cool calculation, the campaigns seem to have started as raids to provide new outlets for the warring spirit of the tribes now forbidden to engage in fratricidal combats, the objective in most cases being booty and not the gaining of a permanent foothold." [80]
The Arabs ruled Arabs for only some decades, not millennia, and only under the Omayyads, who were the lone dynasty of "Arab" stock. The victory of Abassids was Islamic, not Arab, and "it was Islam and not Arab blood which formed the basis of unity."[81] Within a hundred or so years, the "successive usurpers" of power were almost entirely "of Turkish origin."[82]

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters, 1984
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Portions Copyright © 1984 Joan Peters, Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz
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