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Continuous Jewish Presence in the "Holy Land"

The Jewish presence in "the Holy Land" -- at times tenuous -- persisted throughout its bloody history. In fact, the Jewish claim -- whether Arab-born or European-born Jew -- to the land now called Palestine does not depend on a two-thousand-year-old promise. Buried beneath the propaganda -- which has it that Jews "returned" to the Holy Land after two thousand years of separation, where they found crowds of "indigenous Palestinian Arabs" -- is the bald fact that the Jews are indigenous people on that land who never left, but who have continuously stayed on their "Holy Land." Not only were there the little-known Oriental Jewish communities in adjacent Arab lands, but there had been an unceasing strain of "Oriental" or "Palestinian" Jews in "Palestine" for millennia.1

The Reverend James Parkes, an authority on Jewish/non-Jewish relations inthe Middle East, assessed the Zionists' "real title deeds" in 1949.2

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Zionists should look back to the heroic period of the Maccabees and Bar-Cochba, but their real title deeds were written by the less dramatic but equally heroic endurance of those who had maintained the Jewish presence in The Land all through the centuries, and in spite of every discouragement. This page of Jewish history found no place in the constant flood of Zionist propaganda.... The omission allowed the anti-Zionists, whether Jewish, Arab, or European, to paint an entirely false picture of the wickedness of Jewry trying to re-establish a two thousand-year-old claim to the country, indifferent to everything that had happened in the intervening period. It allowed a picture of The Land as a territory which had once been "Jewish," but which for many centuries had been "Arab." In point of fact any picture of a total change of population is false....
It was only "politically" that the Jews lost their land, as Parkes reminded us. They never abandoned it physically, nor did they renounce their claim to their nation -- the only continuous claim that exists. The Jews never submitted to assimilation into the various victorious populations even after successive conquerors had devastated the Jewish organizational structure. But, more important, despite becoming "much enfeebled in numbers and deprived both of political and social leaders and of skilled craftsmen,"3 the Jews, in addition to their spiritual roots, managed to remain in varying numbers physically at all times on the land.

Thus, despite "physical violence against Jews and pagans" by the post-Roman Christians, more than forty Jewish communities survived and could be traced in the sixth century -- "twelve towns on the coast, in the Negev, and east of the Jordan [land ihat was part of the Palestine Mandate, called Transjordan in 1922, and declared the "Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan" only thirty-odd years ago] and thirty-one villages in Galilee and in the Jordan Valley."4

In A.D. 438 the Jews from Galilee optimistically declared, "the end of the exile of our people" when the Empress Eudocia allowed the Jews to pray again at their holy temple site.5 Recent archaeological discoveries determine that in A.D. 614 the Jews fought along with the Persian invaders of Palestine, "overwhelmed the Byzantine garrison in Jerusalem," and controlled that city for five years.6 By the time the Arabs conquered the land two decades later, the Jews "had suffered three centuries of Christian intolerance, and monkish violence had been spasmodic during at least half of that period."7 And the Jews hopefully welcomed the Arab conquerors.

The Muslim Arabs who entered seventh-century Jerusalem found a strong Jewish identity. At that time, "we have evidence that Jews lived in all parts of the country and on both sides of the Jordan, and that they dwelt in both the towns and the villages, practicing both agriculture and various handicrafts"* A number of Jews lived in Lydda and Ramle-which have been identified by modem propaganda and even by more serious documents as historically "purely Arab" towns. "Large and important communities" of Jews lived "in such places as Ascalon, Caesarea and above all Gaza, which the Jews ... had made a kind of capital [when] ... they were excluded from Jerusalem.'"8

Jericho was home to many Jews9 -- the seventh-century Jewish refugees from Khaibar in Arabia among them. Khaibar had been a thriving Jewish community to the north of Mecca and Medina. After the Jews had "defended their forts and mansions with signal heroism," the Prophet Muhammad had "visited upon his beaten enemy inhuman atrocities," and "by the mass massacre of... men, women and children," the Prophet of Islam exterminated "completely" two Arabian Jewish tribes.10

The consequences of the war were catastrophic. For centuries the Jews of Khaibar had led a life of freedom, peace, labor and trade; now they had to bow under the yoke of slavery and degradation. They had prided themselves on the purity of their family life; now their women and daughters were distributed among and carried away by the conquerors.11
An Arab "notable" from Medina, who visited the site of hostilities afterward, was quoted by a ninth-century Arab historian:
Before the Moslem occupation, whenever there was a famine in the land, people would go to Khaibar.... The Jews always had fruit, and their springs yielded a plentiful supply of water. After the conquest of Khaibar, the Jews were said to design evil schemes against the Moslems. But hunger pressed us to go to their fields.... We found the landscape completely changed. We met none of the rich Khaibar landowners, but only destitute farmers everywhere ... When we moved on to Kuteiba we felt much relieved....12
The Jewish survivors from the area surrounding Khaibar were expelled from "the Arabian Peninsula" when the extent of the Muslim conquest was sufficient to add enough Arab farmers and replace the detested Jews. [See Chapter 8] Based on the Prophet Muhammad's theory, Caliph Omar implemented the decree "Let not two religions co-exist within the Arabian Peninsula."13

The Arab theologians' 1968 conference, 1,300 years later, continued to justify the Khaibar extermination of its Jews. One participant explained: ... Omar ... got experience that the Jews were the callers and instigators of the sedition at any time and everywhere. He purified Arabia from them. Most of them dwelt at Khaibar and its neighborhood. That was because he was informed that the Prophet said while he was dying: "Never do two religions exist in Arabia." [Sheikh Abd Allah Al Meshad]14

Another Arab participant at that conference emphazised,

All people want to get rid of the Jews by hook or by crook.... People are not prejudiced against them but the Jewish evil and the various wicked aspects ... are quite clear....

When Bani Qoraiza were punished, an end was put to the Jews of Madina. Those Jews had been the strongest, the richest and the most pernicious and harmful ones. They had been deeply rooted in the society and they had had a high rank and an important status....

Some orientalists ignore the various reasons why the Jews of Khaibar and others were punished.... These orientalists alleged that the invasion of Khaibar was launched because the Prophet wished to reward the Muslims of Hodaibeya and comfort them.... but we have mentioned the most evident reasons of the punishment befalling the Jews. The question of the booty is casual and always subsidiary for waging the wars of the Prophet. It is mentioned in the Verses of the Quran about Jihad [holy war] as a secondary reason for striving against the Unbelievers. [Muhammad Azzah Darwaza]15

The seventh-century Jewish refugees from Khaibar's environs joined the indigenous Jewish population in "Transjordan, especially in Dera'a." In fact, Arabian Jewish exiles settled "as far as the hills of Hebron," but had they not "intermarried" with the established Jewish communities and connected somehow to the "Diaspora centers, they [the Jewish settlements] could hardly have survived as Jewish communities for hundreds of years." A settled Jewish community was present then in the northern Transjordanian city of Hamadan, "or Amatus" -"a city famed for its palms"-in the area that one day would be part of the League of Nations' [See Chapter 12] Mandated "Jewish National Home" in Palestine.16

The Christian Crusaders of the eleventh century were merciless but unsuccessful in their efforts to remove any vestige of Jewish tradition. In 1165, Benjamin of Tudela, the renowned Spanish traveler, found that the "Academy of Jerusalem" had been established at Damascus. Although the Crusaders had almost "wiped out" the Jewish communities of Jerusalem, Acre, Caesarea and Haifa, some Jews remained, and whole "village communities of Galilee survived."

Acre became the seat of a Jewish academy in the thirteenth century. And while "many may have merged themselves into the local population, Christian or Muslim," the Jews "stayed, to share and suffer from the disorder" of the aftermath of the Crusaders' "feudalism,"17 resisting conversion. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, "there was a constant trickle of Jewish immigrants into the country ... some from other Islamic territories and especially North Africa."18

Jews from Gaza, Ramle, and Safed were considered the "ideal guides" in the Holy Land in the fourteenth century, as Jacques of Verona, a visiting Christian monk, attested. After the Christian had "noted the long established Jewish community at the foot of Mount Zion, in Jerusalem," he wrote,

A pilgrim who wished to visit ancient forts and towns in the Holy Land would have been unable to locate these, without a good guide who knew the Land well, or without one of the Jews who lived there. The Jews were able to recount the history of these places since this knowledge had been handed down from their forefathers and wise men.

So when I journeyed overseas I often requested and managed to obtain an excellent guide among the Jews who lived there.19

In 1438 a rabbi from Italy became the spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Jerusalem,20 and fifty years afterward, another Italian scholar, Obadiah de Bertinoro, founded the Jerusalem rabbinical school that dealt authoritatively "in rabbinic matters among the Jewish communities of the Islamic world."21

The Jews, meanwhile, were plentiful enough so that in 1486 "a distinguished pilgrim" to the Holy Land, the Dean of Mainz Cathedral, Bernhard von Breidenbach, advised that both Hebron's and Jerusalem's Jews "will treat you in full fidelity -- more so than anyone else in those countries of the unbelievers."22

The "Ishmaelite," or Islamic-bom, Jewish immigration to the Holy Land was prominent, and became intensified after the Spanish Inquisition. The Holy Land's throbbing, spirited Jewish life continued, even in Hebron, where "the prosperous Jewish community ... had been plundered, many Jews killed and the survivors forced to flee" in 1518, three years after Ottoman rule began. By 1540, Hebron's Jewry had recovered and reconstructed its Jewish Quarter, while the first Jewish printing press outside Europe was instituted in Safed in 1563.23

Under Turkish rule the Jews in Jerusalem and in Gaza maintained "cultural and spiritual unity," and Sultan Suleiman I allowed many Jews "to return to the Holy Land." In 1561, "Suleiman gave Tiberias, one of the four Jewish holy cities, to a former 'secret' Jew from Portugal, Don Joseph Nasi, who rebuilt the city and the villages around it." Nasi's efforts attracted Jewish settlement from many areas of the Mediterranean.24 And those "Ishmaelite" Jewish communities that did not or could not make the pilgrimage were nonetheless spiritually attached to their brothers in the Holy Land.

1. See Palestine Royal Commission Report (London, 1937), pp. 2-5, 7, 9, particularly p. 11, para. 23.

2. James Parkes, Whose Land?, A History of the Peoples of Palestine (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 266.

3. Ibid., pp. 31, 26.

4. Samuel Katz, Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine (New York, 1973), p. 88.

5. Avraham Yaari, 1grot Eretz Yisrael (Tel Aviv, 1943), p. 46; see F. Nau, "Sur la synagogue de Rabbat Moab (422), et un mouvement sioniste favorisk par l'imperatrice Eudocie (438), d'apres la vie de Barsauma le Syrien," Journal Asiatique, LIX (1927), pp. 189-192.

6. A. MaIamat, H. Tadmor, M. Stern, S. Safrai, Toledot Am Yisrael Bi'mei Kedem (Tel Aviv, 1969), p. 348, cited by Katz, Battleground, p. 88.

7. Parkes, Whose LandZ p. 72.

8. Ibid.; also see S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, 3 vols. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1971), vol. 2, p. 61 the main synagogue [in Ramle] was the Palestinian."

9. Al-Waqidy, ninth-century Arab historian, recorded a Jewish-settled area in Jericho in the seventh century and "there are other references to Jewish communal life in Jericho as late as the ninth century." Cited by Itzhak Ben-Zvi, The Exiled and the Redeemed (Philadelphia, 1961), p. 146.

10. Ben-Zvi, The Exiled, pp. 144-145. The Nadhir and Kainuka Arabian-Jewish tribes' "battles for their survival ... is found in Dr. Israel Ben-Zeev's remarkable book, Jews in Arabia, " Ben-Zvi states.

11. Israel Ben Zeev, Jews in Arabia, cited by Ben-Zvi, The Exiled, p. 145. 

12. Ben-Zvi, The Exiled, p. 145. Ben-Zvi cites Arabian historian Al-Waqidy, as reported in Ben-Zeev, Jews in Arabia.

13. Ibid., p. 146. Ben-Zvi states that some Jews who could "produce letters of protection and treaties signed by or on behalf of the Prophet" were permitted to remain. "...there is reason to believe that these surviving Jewish communities were maintained intact until the twelfth century."

14. Quoted from SheikhAbd Allah Al Meshad, "Jews' Attitudes Towards Islam and Muslims in the First Islamic Era," in D.F. Green, ed., Arab Theologians on Jews and Israel (Geneva, 197 1), p. 22. Darwaza, "The Attitude of the Jews Towards

15. Quoted from Muhammad Azzah nto Him]-at the Islam, Muslims and the Prophet of Islam-P.B.U.H. [Peace Be Unto Him] - at the time of His Honourable Prophethood," in ibid., pp. 29-30.

16. Ben-Zvi, The Exiled, pp. 146-147 the existence of which we have records."

17. Parkes, Whose Land?, pp. 97-99.

18. Ibid., p. 110.

19. Martin Gilbert, Exile and Return, The Strugglefor a Jewish Homeland (Philadelphia and New York, 1978), p. 17. "In 1322 Jewish geographer from Florence, Ashtory Ha-Parhi, had settled in the Jezreel Valley where he wrote a book on the topography of Palestine....

20. Ibid., pp. 17-19. Elijah of Ferrara.

21. Parkes, Whose Land?, p. I 11.

22. Gilbert, Exile, p. 17.

23. Ibid., p. 21.

24. Ibid. For a more detailed account, see Joachim Prinz, The Secret Jews (New York, 1973), p. 147ff

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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