Continuous Jewish Presence in the Holy Land
The Jews were never a people without a homeland.
Having been robbed of their land, Jews never ceased to give expression
to their anguish at their deprivation and to pray for and demand its return.
Throughout the nearly two millennia of dispersion, Palestine remained the
focus of the national culture. Every single day in all those seventy generations,
devout Jews gave voice to their attachment to Zion.
The consciousness of the Jew that Palestine
was his country was not a theoretical exercise or an article of theology
or a sophisticated political outlook. It was in a sense all of these --
and it was a pervasive and inextricable element in the very warp and woof
of his daily life. Jewish prayers, Jewish literature, are saturated with
the love and the longing for and the sense of belonging to Palestine. Except
for religion and the love between the sexes, there is no theme so pervasive
in the literature of any other nation, no theme has yielded so much thought
and feeling and expression, as the relationship of the Jew to Palestine
in Jewish literature and philosophy. And in his home on family occasions,
in his daily customs on weekdays and Shabbat, when he said grace over meals,
when he got married, when he built his house, when he said words of comfort
to mourners, the context was always his exile, his hope and belief in the
return to Zion, and the reconstruction of his homeland. So intense was
this sense of affinity that, if in the vicissitudes of exile he could not
envisage that restoration during his, lifetime, it was a matter of faith
that with the coming of the Messiah and the Resurrection he would be brought
back to the land after his death.
Over the centuries, through the pressures
of Persecution -- of social and economic discrimination, of periodic death
and destruction -- the area of exile widened. Hounded and oppressed, the
Jews moved from country to country. They carried Eretz Israel with them
wherever they went. Jewish festivals remained tuned to the circumstances
and conditions of the Jewish homeland. Whether they remained in warm Italy
or Spain, whether they found homes in cold Eastern Europe, whether they
found their way to North America or came to live in the southern hemisphere
where the seasons are reversed, the Jews celebrated the Palestinian spring
and its autumn and winter. They prayed for dew in May and for rain in October.
On Passover they ceremonially celebrated the liberation from Egyptian bondage,
the original national establishment in the Promised Land-and they conjured
up the vision of a new liberation.
Never in the periods of greatest persecution
did the Jews as a people renounce that faith. Never in the periods of greatest
peril to their very existence physically, and the seeming impossibility
of their ever regaining the land of Israel, did they seek a substitute
for the homeland. Time after time throughout the centuries, there arose
bold spirits who believed, or claimed, they had a plan, or a divine vision,
for the restoration of the Jewish people to Palestine. Time after time
a wave of hope surged through the ghettos of Europe at the news of some
new would-be Messiah. The Jews' hopes were dashed and the dream faded,
but never for a day did they relinquish their bond with their country.
There were Jews who fell by the wayside.
Given a choice under torture, or during periods of civic equality and material
prosperity, they forsook their religion or turned their backs on their
historic country. But the people, the land -- as it was called for all
those centuries: simply Ha’aretz, the Land -- remained the one and
only homeland, unchanging and irreplaceable. If ever a right has been maintained
by unrelenting insistence on the claim, it was the Jewish right to Palestine.
Widely unknown, its significance certainly
long ungrasped, is the no less awesome fact that throughout the eighteen
centuries between the fall of the Second Jewish Commonwealth and the beginnings
of the Third, in our time, the tenacity of Jewish attachment to the land
of Israel found continuous expression in the country itself. It was long
believed -- and still is -- even in some presumably knowledgeable quarters,
that throughout those centuries there were no Jews in Palestine. The popular
conception has been that all the Jews who survived the Destruction of 70
C.E. went into exile and that their descendants began coming back only
1,800 years later. This is not a fact.1 One
of the most astonishing elements in the history of the Jewish people --
and of Palestine -- is the continuity, in the face of the circumstances,
of Jewish life in the country.
It is a continuity that waxed and waned,
that moved in kaleidoscopic shifts, in response to the pressures of the
foreign imperial rulers who in bewildering succession imposed themselves
on the country. It is a pattern of stubborn refusal, in the face of oppression,
banishment, and slaughter, to let go of an often tenuous hold in the country,
a determined digging in sustained by a faith in the ultimate full restoration,
of which every Jew living in the homeland saw himself as caretaker and
This people that was "not here" -- the
Jewish community in Palestine, its history continuous and purposeful --
in fact played a unique role in Jewish history. Too often lacking detail
and depth, the story of the Jewish presence in Palestine, threaded together
from a colourful variety of sources and references, pagan and Christian,
Jewish and Moslem, spread over the whole period between the second and
the nineteenth centuries, is a fascinating and compelling counterpoint
to the, dominating theme of the longing-in-exile.
Only when they had crushed the revolt led
by Simon Bar Kochba in 135 C.E. -- over sixty years after the destruction
of the Second Temple -- did the Romans make a determined effort to stamp
out Jewish identity in the Jewish homeland. They initiated the long process
of laying the country waste. It was then that Jerusalem, "plowed over"
at the order of Hadrian, was renamed Aelia Capitolina, and the country,
denied of the name Judea, was renamed Syria Palestina. In the revolt itself
-- the fiercest and longest revolt faced by the Roman Empire -- 580,000
Jewish soldiers perished in battle, and an untold number of civilians died
of starvation and pestilence; 985 villages were destroyed.2
Yet even after this further disaster, Jewish
life remained active and productive. Banished from Jerusalem, it now centred
on Galilee. Refugees returned; Jews who had been sold into slavery were
redeemed. In the centuries after Bar Kochba and Hadrian, some of the most
significant creations of the Jewish spirit were produced in Palestine.
It was then that the Mishnah was completed and the Jerusalem Talmud was
compiled, and the bulk of the community farmed the land.
The Roman Empire adopted Christianity in
the fourth century; henceforth its policy in Palestine was governed by
a new purpose: to prevent the birth of any glimmer of renewed hope of Jewish
independence. It was after all, basic to Christian theology that loss of
national independence was an act of God designed to punish the Jewish people
for their rejection of Christ. The work of the Almighty had to be helped
along. Some emperors were more lenient than others, but the minimal criteria
of oppression and restriction were nearly always maintained.
Nevertheless, even the meagre surviving
sources Name forty-three Jewish communities in Palestine in the sixth century:
twelve towns on the coast, in the Negev, and east of the Jordan, and thirty-one
villages in Galilee and in the Jordan valley.
The Jews' thoughts at every opportunity
turned to the hope of national restoration. In the year 351, they launched
yet another revolt, provoking heavy retribution When, in 438, the Empress
Eudocia removed the ban on Jews' praying at the Temple site, the heads
of the Community in Galilee issued a call "to the great and mighty people
of the Jews" which began: "Know that the end of the exile of our people
In the belief of restoration to come, the
Jews made an alliance with the Persians who invaded Palestine in 614, fought
at their side, overwhelmed the Byzantine garrison in Jerusalem, and for
three years governed the city.4 But the Persians
made their peace with the Emperor Heraclius. Christian rule was re-established,
and those Jews who survived the consequent slaughter were once more banished
from the city. A new chapter of vengeful Byzantine persecution was enacted,
but as it happened, it was short-lived. A new force was on the march. In
632, the Moslem Arab invaders came and conquered. By the year 640, Palestine
had become a part of the emerging Moslem empire.
The 450-year Moslem rule in Palestine was
first under the Omayyads (predominantly Arab), who governed tolerantly
from Damascus; then under the Abbasid dynasty (predominantly Turkish),
in growing anarchy, from Baghdad; and finally, in alternating tolerance
and persecution, under the Fatimids from Cairo. The Moslem Arabs took from
the Jews the lands to which they had clung for twenty generations after
the fall of the Jewish state. The Crusaders, who came after them and ruled
Palestine or parts of it for the better part of two centuries, massacred
the Jews in the cities. Yet, under the Moslems openly, under the Crusaders
more circumspectly, the Jewish community of Palestine, in circumstances
it is impossible to understand or to analyse, held on by the skin of its
teeth, somehow survived, and worked, and fought. Along with the Arabs and
the Turks, the Jews were among the most vigorous defenders of Jerusalem
against the Crusaders. When the city fell, the Crusaders gathered the Jews
in a synagogue and burned them. The Jews almost single-handedly defended
Haifa against the Crusaders, holding out in the besieged town for a whole
month (June-July 1099). At this time, a full thousand years after the fall
of the Jewish state, there were Jewish communities all over the country.
Fifty of them are known to us; they include Jerusalem, Tiberias, Ramleh,
Ashkelon, Caesarea, and Gaza.
During more than six centuries of Moslem
and Crusader rule, periods of tolerance or preoccupied indifference flickered
fitfully between periods of concentrated persecution. Jews, driven from
the villages, fled to the towns. Surviving massacre in the inland towns,
they made their way to the coast. When the coastal towns were destroyed,
they succeeded somehow in returning inland. Throughout those centuries,
war was almost continuous, whether between Cross and Crescent or among
the Moslems themselves. The Jewish community, now heavily reduced, maintained
itself in stiff-necked endurance.
Moslem and Christian records report that
they pursued a variety of occupations. The Arab geographer Abu Abdallah
Mohammed -- known as Mukadassi -- writing in the tenth century, describes
the Jews as the assayers of coins, the dyers, the tanners, and the bankers
in the community. In his time, a period of Fatimid tolerance, many Jewish
officials were serving the regime. While they were not allowed to hold
land in the Crusader period, the Jews controlled much of the commerce of
the coastal towns during times of quiescence. Most of them were artisans:
glassblowers in Sidon, furriers and dyers in Jerusalem.
In the midst of all their vicissitudes
and in the face of all change, Hebrew scholarship and literary creation
went on flourishing. It was in this period that the Hebrew grammarians
at Tiberias evolved their Hebrew vowel-pointing system, giving form to
the modem study of the language; and a large volume of piyutim and midrashim
had their origin in Palestine in those days.
After the Crusaders, there came a period
of wild disturbance as first the Kharezmians -- an Asian tribe appearing
fleetingly on the stage of history -- and then the Mongol hordes, invaded
Palestine. They sowed new ruin and destruction throughout the country.
Its cities were laid waste, its lands were burned, its trees were uprooted,
the younger part of its population was destroyed.
Yet the dust of the Mongol hordes, defeated
by the Mamluks, had hardly settled when the Jerusalem community, which
had been all but exterminated, was re-established. This was the work of
the famous, scholar Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides, the "RaMbaN'). From
the day in 1267 when RaMbaN settled in the city, there was a coherent Jewish
community in the Old City of Jerusalem until it was driven out, temporarily
as it proved, by the British-led Arab Legion from Transjordan nearly seven
hundred years later.
For two and a half centuries (1260-1516),
Palestine was part of the Empire of the Mamluks, Moslems of Turkish-Tartar
origin who ruled first from Turkey, then from Egypt. War and uprisings,
bloodshed and destruction, flowed in almost incessant waves across their
domain. Though Palestine was not always involved in the strife, it was
frequently enough implicated to hasten the process of physical destruction.
Jews (and Christians) suffered persecution and humiliation. Yet toward
the end of the rule of the Mamluks, at the close of the fifteenth century,
Christian and Jewish visitors and pilgrims noted the presence of substantial
Jewish communities. Even the meagre records that survived report nearly
thirty Jewish urban and rural communities at, the opening of the sixteenth
By now nearly fifteen hundred years had
passed since the destruction of the Jewish state. Jewish life in Palestine
had survived Byzantine ruthlessness, had endured the discriminations, persecutions,
and massacres of the variegated Moslem sects-Arab Omayyads, Abbasids, and
Fatimids, the Turkish Seljuks, and the Mamluks. Jewish life had by some
historic sleight of hand outlived the Crusaders, its mortal enemy. It had
survived Mongol barbarism.
More than an expression of self-preservation,
Jewish life had a purpose and a mission. It was the trustee and the advance
guard of restoration. At the close of the fifteenth century, the pilgrim
Arnold Van Harff reported that he had found many Jews in Jerusalem and
that they spoke Hebrew. They told another traveller, Felix Fabri, that
they hoped soon to resettle the Holy Land.5
During the same period, Martin Kahatnik
(who did not like Jews), visiting Jerusalem during his pilgrimage, exclaimed:
The heathens oppress them at their pleasure.
They know that the Jews think and say that this is the Holy Land that was
promised to them. Those of them who live here are regarded as holy by the
other Jews, for in spite of all the tribulations and the agonies they suffer
at the hands of the heathen, they refuse to leave the place.6
At the height of their splendour, in the first
generations after their conquest of Palestine in 1516, the Ottoman Turks
were tolerant and showed a friendly face to the Jews. During the sixteenth
century, there developed a new effervescence in the life of the Jews in
the country. Thirty communities, urban and rural, are recorded at the opening
of the Ottoman era. They include Haifa, Sh’chem, Hebron, Ramleh, Jaffa,
Gaza, Jerusalem, and many in the north. Their centre was Safed; its community
grew quickly. It became the largest in Palestine and assumed the recognised
spiritual leadership of the whole Jewish world. The luster of the cultural
"golden age" that now, developed shone over the whole country and has inspired
Jewish spiritual life to the present day. It was there and then that a
phenomenal group of mystic philosophers evolved the mysteries of the Cabala.
It was at that time and in the inspiration of the place that Joseph Caro
compiled the Shulhan Aruch, the formidable codification of Jewish observance,
which largely guides orthodox custom to this day. Poets and writers flourished.
Safed achieved a fusion of scholarship and piety with trade, commerce,
and agriculture. In the town, the Jews developed a number of branches of
trade, especially in grain, spices, and cloth. They specialised once again
in the dyeing trade. Lying halfway between Damascus and Sidon on the Mediterranean
coast, Safed gained special importance in the commercial relations in the
area. The 8,000 or 10,000 Jews in Safed in 1555 grew to 20,000 or 30,000
by the end of the century.7
In the neighbouring Galilean countryside,
a number of Jewish villages -- from Turkish sources we know of ten of them
-- continued to occupy themselves with the production of wheat and barley
and cotton, vegetables and olives, vines and fruit, pulse and sesame.8
The recurrent references in the sketchy
records that have survived suggest that in some of those Galilean villages
-- such as Kfar Alma, Ein Zeitim., Biria, Pekiin, Kfar Hanania, Kfar Kana,
Kfar Yassif -- the Jews, against all logic and in defiance of the pressures
and exactions and confiscations of generation after generation of foreign
conquerors, had succeeded in clinging to the land for fifteen centuries.9
Now for several decades of benevolent Ottoman rule, the Jewish communities
flourished in village and town.
The history of the second half of the sixteenth
century illustrates the dynamism of the Palestinian Jews their prosperity,
their progressiveness, and their subjugation. In 1577, a Hebrew printing
press was established in Safed. The first press in Palestine, it was also
the first in Asia. In 1576, and again in 1577, the Sultan Murad III, the
first anti-Jewish Ottoman ruler, ordered the deportation of 1,000 wealthy
Jews from Safed, though they had not broken any laws or transgressed in
any way. They were needed by Murad to strengthen the economy of another
of the Sultan's provinces -- Cyprus. It is not known whether they were
in fact deported or reprieved.10
The honeymoon period between the Ottoman
Empire and the Jews lasted only as long as the empire flourished. With
the beginning and development of its long decline in the seventeenth century,
oppression and anarchy made growing inroads into the country, and Jewish
life began to follow a confused pattern of persecutions, prohibitions,
and ephemeral prosperity. Prosperity grew rarer, persecutions and oppressions
became the norm. The Ottomans, to whom Palestine was merely a source of
revenue, began to exploit the Jews' fierce attachment to Palestine. They
were consequently made to pay a heavy price for living there. They were
taxed beyond measure and were subjected to a system of arbitrary fines.
Early in the seventeenth century, two Christian travellers, Johann van
Egmont and John Hayman, could say of the Jews in Safed: "Life here is the
poorest and most miserable that one can imagine." The Turks so oppressed
them, they wrote, that "they pay for the very air they breathe."11
Again and again during the three centuries
of Turkish Decline, the Jews so lived and bore themselves that even hostile
Christian travellers were moved to express their astonishment at their
pertinacity--despite suffering, humiliation, and violence-in clinging to,
The Jews of Jerusalem, wrote the Jesuit
Father Michael Naud in 1674, were agreed about one thing: "paying heavily
to the Turk for their right to stay here. -- They prefer being prisoners
in Jerusalem to enjoying the freedom they could acquire elsewhere... The
love of the Jews for the Holy Land, which they lost through their betrayal
[of Christ], is unbelievable. Many of them come from Europe to find a little
comfort, though the yoke is heavy."12
And not in Jerusalem alone. Even as anarchy
spread over the land, marauding raids by Bedouins from the desert increased,
and the roads became further infested with bandits, and while the Sultan's
men, when they appeared at all, came only to collect both the heavy taxes
directed against all and the special taxes exacted from the Jews, Jewish
communities still held on all over the country. During the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, travellers reported them in Hebron (where, in
addition to the regular exactions, threats of deportation, arrests, violence,
and bloodshed, the Jews suffered the gruesome tribulations of a blood libel
in 1775); Gaza, Ramleh, Sh'chem, Safed (where the community had lost its
pre-eminence and its prosperity); Acre, Sidon, Tyre, Haifa, Irsuf, Caesarea,
and El Arish; And Jews continued to live and till the soil in Galilean
But as the country itself declined and
the bare essentials of life became inaccessible, the Jewish community also
contracted. By the end of the eighteenth century, historians' estimates
put their number at between 10,000 and 15,000. Their national role, however,
was never blurred. When the Jews in Palestine had no economic basis, the
Jews abroad regarded it as their minimum national duty to insure their
physical maintenance, and a steady stream of emissaries brought back funds
from the Diaspora. In the long run, this had a degrading effect on those
Jews who came to depend on these contributions for all their needs. But
the significance of the motive and spirit of the aid is not lessened: the
Jews in Palestine were regarded as the guardians of the Jewish heritage.
Nor can one ignore the endurance and pertinacity of the recipients, in
the face of oppression and humiliation and the threat of physical violence,
in their role of "guardians of the walls."
However determined the Jews in Palestine
might have been, however deep their attachment to the land, and however
strong their sense of mission in living in it, the historic circumstances
should surely have ground them out of physical existence long before the
onset of modem times.
Merely to recall the succession of conquerors
who passed through the country and who oppressed or slaughtered Jews, deliberately
or only incidentally to their struggle for power or survival, raises the
question of how any Jews survived at all, let alone in coherent communities.
Pagan Romans, Byzantine Christians, the various Moslem imperial dynasties
(especially during the Seljuk Turkish interlude, before the Crusaders),
the Crusaders themselves, the Kharezmians and the Mongols, the Ottoman
Turks-all these passed over the body of the Jewish community. How then
did a Jewish community survive at all? How did it survive as an arm of
the Jewish people, consciously vigilant for the day of national restoration?
The answer to these questions reflects
another aspect of the phenomenal affinity of the Jewish people to the Land
of Israel. In spite of bans and prohibitions, in spite of the most improbable
and unpromising circumstances, there was never a period throughout centuries
of exile without Jewish immigration to Palestine. Aliyah ("going up") was
a deliberate expression and demonstration of the national affinity to the
land. A constant inflow gave life and often vigour to the Palestinian community.
By present-day standards, the numbers were not great. By the standards
of those ages, and in the circumstances of the times, the significance
and weight of that stream of aliyah -- almost always an individual undertaking
-- matches the achievements of the modem Zionist movement.
Modern Zionism did indeed start the count
of the waves of immigration after 1882, but only the frame and the capacity
for organisation were new: The living movement to the land had never ceased.
The surviving records are meagre. There
was much movement during the days of the Moslem conquest. Tenth century
appeals for aliyah by the Karaite leaders In Jerusalem have survived. There
were periods when immigration was forbidden absolutely; no Jew could "legally"
or safely enter Palestine while the Crusaders ruled. Yet precisely in that
period, Yehuda Halevi, the greatest Hebrew poet of the exile, issued a
call to the Jews to emigrate, and many generations drew active inspiration
from his teaching. (He himself died soon after his arrival in Jerusalem
in 1141, crushed, according to legend, by a Crusader's horse.) A group
of immigrants who came from Provence in France in the middle of the twelfth
century must have been scholars of great repute, for they are believed
to have been responsible for changing the Eretz Israel tradition of observing
the New Year on only one day; ever since their time, the observance has
lasted two days. There are slight allusive records of other groups who
came after them. Among the immigrants who began arriving when the Crusaders'
grip on Palestine had been broken by Saladin was an organised group of
three hundred rabbis who came from France and England in 1210 to strengthen
especially the Jewish communities of Jerusalem, Acre, and Ramleh. Their
work proved vain. A generation later came the destruction by the Mongol
invaders. Yet no sooner had they passed than a new immigrant, Moses Nachmanides,
came to Jerusalem, finding only two Jews, a dyer and his son; but he and
the disciples who answered his call re-established the community.
Though Yehuda Halevi and Nachmanides were
the most famous medieval preachers of aliyah, they were not the only ones.
From the twelfth century onward, the surviving writings of a long series
of Jewish travellers described their experiences in Palestine. Some them
remained to settle; all propagated the national duty and means of individual
redemption of the "going up" to live in the homeland.
The concentrated scientific horror of the
Holocaust in twentieth-century Europe has perhaps weakened the memory of
the experience of the people to whom, year after year, generation after
generation, Europe was purgatory. Those, after all, were the Middle Ages;
those were the centuries when the Jews of Europe were subjected to the
whole range of persecution, from mass degradation to death after torture.
For a Jew who could not and would not hide his identity to make his way
from his own familiar city or village to another, from the country whose
language he knew through countries foreign to him, meant to expose himself
almost certainly to suspicion, insult, and humiliation, probably to robbery
and violence, possibly to murder. All travel was hazardous. For a Jew in
the thirteenth, fourteenth, or fifteenth century (and even later) to set
out on the odyssey from Western Europe to Palestine was a heroic undertaking,
which often ended in disaster. To the vast mass of Jews sunk in misery,
whose joy it was to turn their faces eastward three times daily and pray
for the return to Zion, that return in their lifetime was a dream of heaven.
There were periods, moreover, when the
Popes ordered their adherents to prevent Jewish travel to Palestine. For
most of the fifteenth century, the Italian maritime states denied Jews
the use of ships for getting to Palestine, thus forcing them to abandon
their project or to make the whole journey by a roundabout land route,
adding to the initial complications of their travel the dangers of movement
through Germany, Poland, and southern Russia, or through the inhospitable
Balkans and a Black Sea crossing before reaching the comparative safety
of Turkey. In 1433, shortly after the ban was imposed, there came a vigorous
call by Yitzhak Tsarefati, urging the Jews to come by way of then tolerant
Turkey. Immigration of the bolder spirits continued. Often the journey
took years, while immigrant worked at the intermediate stopping places
to raise the expenses for the next leg of his journey or, as sometimes
happened, while he invited the local rich Jews to finance his journey and
to share vicariously in the mitzvah of his aliyah.
Siebald Rieter and Johann Tucker, Christian
pilgrims visiting Jerusalem in 1479, wrote down the route and stopping
places of a Jew newly arrived as an immigrant from Germany. He had set
out from Nuremberg and travelled to Posen (about 300 miles). Then Posen
[Poznan] to Lublin 250 miles Lublin to Lemberg [Lvov] 120 miles Lemberg
to Khotin 150 miles Khotin to Akerman 150 miles Akerman to Samsun 6 days
Samsun to Tokat 6-7 days Tokat to Aleppo 15 days Aleppo to Damascus 7 days
Damascus to Jerusalem 6 days
Ottoman Sultans had encouraged Jewish immigration
into their dominions. With their conquest of Palestine, its gates too were
opened. Though conditions in Europe made it possible for only a very few
Jews to "get up and go," a stream of immigrants flowed to Palestine at
once. Many who came were refugees from the Inquisition. They comprised
a great variety of occupations; they were scholars and artisans and merchants.
They filled all the existing Jewish centres. That flow of Jews from abroad
injected a new pulse into Jewish life in Palestine in the sixteenth century.
As the Ottoman regime deteriorated, the
conditions of life in Palestine grew harsher, but waves of immigration
continued. In the middle of the seventeenth century, there passed through
the Jewish people an electric current of self-identification and intensified
affinity with its homeland. For the first time in Eastern Europe, which
had given shelter to their ancestors fleeing from persecution in the West,
rebelling Cossacks in 1648 and 1649 subjected the Jews to massacre as fierce
as any in Jewish history. Impoverished and helpless, the survivors fled
to the nearest refuge -- now once more in Western Europe. Again the bolder
spirits among them made their way to Palestine.
That same generation was electrified once
more by the advent of Shabbetai Zevi, the self-appointed Messiah whose
imposture and whose following among the Jews in both the East and the West
was made possible only by the unchanged aspirations of the Jews for restoration.
The dream of being somehow wafted to the land of Israel under the banner
of the Messiah evaporated, but again there were determined men who somehow
found the means and made their way to Palestine, by sea or by stages, overland
through Turkey and Syria.
The degeneration of the central Ottoman
regime, the anarchy in the local administration, the degradations and exactions,
plagues and pestilence, and the min of the country, continued in the eighteenth
and well into the nineteenth century. The masses of Jews in Europe were
living in greater poverty than ever. Yet immigrants, now also in groups,
continued to come. Surviving letters tell about the adventures of groups
who came from Italy, Morocco, and Turkey. Other letters report on the steady
stream of Hasidim, disciples of the Baal Shem-Tov, from Galicia and Lithuania,
proceeding during the whole of the second half of the eighteenth century.
It is clear that by now the state of the
country was exacting a higher toll in lives than could be replaced by immigrants.
But the immigrants who came shut their eyes to the physical ruin and squalor,
accepted with love every hardship and tribulation and danger. Thus, in
1810, the disciples of the Vilna Goan who had just emigrated, wrote:
Truly, how marvellous it is to five in
the good country. Truly, how wonderful it is to love our country. -- Even
in her ruin there is none to compare with her, even in her desolation she
is unequalled, in her silence there is none like her. Good are her ashes
and her stones.13
These immigrants of 1810 were yet to suffer
unimagined trials. Earthquake, pestilence, and murderous onslaught by marauding
brigands were part of the record of their lives. But they were one of the
last links in the long chain bridging the gap between the exile of their
people and its independence. They or their children lived to see the beginnings
of the modern restoration of the country. Some of them lived to meet one
of the pioneers of restoration, Sir Moses Montefiore, the Jewish philanthropist
from Britain who, through the greater part of the nineteenth century, conceived
and pursued a variety of practical plans to resettle the Jews in their
homeland. With him began the gray dawn of reconstruction. Some of the children
of those immigrants lived to share in the enterprise and purpose and daring
that in 1869 moved a group of seven Jews in Jerusalem to emerge from the
Old City and set up the first housing project outside its walls. Each of
them built a house among the rocks and the jackals in the wilderness that
ultimately came to be called Nahlat Shiva (Estate of the Seven). Today
it is the heart of downtown Jerusalem, bounded by the Jaffa Road, between
Zion Square and the Bank of Israel.
In 1878, another group made its way across
the mountains of Judea to set up the first modern Jewish agricultural settlement
at Petah Tikva, which thus became the "mother of the settlements." Eight
years earlier, the first modern agricultural school in Palestine had been
opened at Mikveh Yisrael near Jaffa. As we see it now -- and they in 1810
would not have been surprised, for this was their faith and this was their
purpose -- the long vigil was coming to an end.
Parkes, the Christian scholar who has done much to explode the myth, writes:
"[The Jews'] real title deeds were written by the ... heroic endurance
of those who had maintained a Jewish presence in the Land through the centuries,
and in spite of every discouragement." Whose Land? A History of the Peoples
of Palestine (London, 1970), p. 266.
2. Dio Cassius,
History of the Romans, Theodor Monunsen, Provinces of the Roman Empire.
Both quoted in Jacob De Haas, History of Palestine, the Last Two Thousand
Years (New York, 1934). p. 52.
Yaari, Igrot Eretz Yisrael (Tel Aviv, 1943), p. 46.
4. A. Malmat,
H. Tadmor, M. Stem, S. Safrai, Toledot Am Yisrael Bi'mei Kedem (Tel Aviv,
1969), p. 348. Recent archaeological finds in Jerusalem suggest that the
period was five years.
5. The Pilgrimage
of Arnold van Harff (London, 1946), p. 217; The Wanderings of Felix Fabri
(London, 1807), p. 130.
V. Prasek, Martin Kabatnik (Prague). Quoted in Michael Ish-Shalom, Masaei
Notzrim Beeretz Yisrael (Tel Aviv, 1965), p. 265.
7. H. H.
Ben-Sasson, Toledot Hayehudim Bi'mei Habeinayim (Tel Aviv, 1969), pp. 239-240.
Lewis, Notes and Documents from the Turkish Archives (Jerusalem, 1952),
Ben-Zwi, She’ar Yashuv (Jerusalem, 1966), p. 10.
(London, 1759), quoted by Ish-Shalom, p. 388.
12. R. P.
Michael Naud, Voyage Nouveau de la Terre-Sainte (Paris, 1702), pp. 58,
Yaari, p. 330.
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