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638-1918 - Palestine under the Caliphs

Palestine never lost all of her Jews. Throughout every period of history there had been some Jews in Palestine. As a geographic unit, Palestine extended from the Mediterranean on the west to the Arabian Desert on the east and from the lower Litani River in the north to the Gaza Valley in the south. It was named after the Philistines, who occupied the southern coastal region in the twelfth century BC The name Philistia was used in the second century AD to designate Syria Palestina, which formed the southern third of the Roman province of Syria.

Emperor Constantine (ca. 280-337) shifted his capital from Rome to Constantinople in 330 and made Christianity the official religion. With Constantine's conversion to Christianity, a new era of prosperity came to Palestine, which attracted a flood of pilgrims from all over the empire. Upon partition of the Roman Empire in 395, Palestine passed under eastern control. The scholarly Jewish communities in Galilee continued with varying fortunes under Byzantine rule and dominant Christian influence until the Arab-Muslim conquest of A.D. 638. The period included, however, strong Jewish support of the briefly successful Persian invasion of 610-14.

The Arab caliph, Umar, designated Jerusalem as the third holiest place in Islam, second only to Mecca and Medina. Under the Umayyads, based in Damascus, the Dome of the Rock, the Mosque of Omar, was erected in 684-691 on the site of the Temple of Solomon, which was also the alleged nocturnal resting place of the Prophet Muhammad on his journey to heaven. It is the earliest Muslim monument still extant. Close to the shrine, to the south, the Al Aqsa Mosque was built.

The Umayyad caliph, Umar II (717-720), imposed humiliating restrictions on his non-Muslim subjects that led many to convert to Islam. These conversions, in addition to a steady tribal flow from the desert, changed the religious character of the inhabitants of Palestine from Christian to Muslim. Under the Abbasids the process of Islamization gained added momentum as a result of further restrictions imposed on non-Muslims by Harun ar Rashid (786-809) and more particularly by Al Mutawakkil (847-61).

The Abbasids were followed by the Fatimids who faced frequent attacks from Qarmatians, Seljuks, and Byzantines, and periodic beduin opposition. Palestine was reduced to a battlefield. The population of Palestine was compounded of many peoples, Christian, Moslem, and Jewish. In the eleventh century a group of Jews from Germany came to find refuge in Palestine under liberal Moslem rule, and for a while Jerusalem became once more famous as a seat of Jewish learning.

In 1071 the Seljuks captured Jerusalem. The Fatimids recaptured the city in 1098, only to deliver it a year later to a new enemy, the Crusaders of Western Europe. In 1100 the Crusaders established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which remained until the famous Muslim general Salah ad Din (Saladin) defeated them at the decisive Battle of Hattin in 1187. The Crusaders were not completely evicted from Palestine, however, until 1291 when they were driven out of Acre.

With the end of the twelfth century, the Moslems under the Saracen Saladin overthrew Christian rule, and after a century of struggle Palestine again prospered. It was a comparatively happy time for the Jews. As early as 1267 the famous Spanish Jewish scholar Nahmanides re-established a Jewish community in Palestine. He introduced the study of the Kabbalah. Later followed a migration of Jews from the Rhine. Under Egyptian Moslem rule in the fourteenth century, the Jews found shelter and freedom when church-ridden Europe persecuted them. The country flourished. Jewish pilgrims and immigrants abounded.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a "dark age" for Palestine as a result of Mamluk misrule and the spread of several epidemics. The Mamluks were slave-soldiers who established a dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria, which included Palestine, from 1250 to 1516.

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain, in 1492, resulted in a large Jewish migration to Palestine, where Sultan Bejazet welcomed the immigrants. Many settled in Jerusalem and Safed, the latter becoming a famous center of Kabbalistic study.

In 1516 the Ottoman Turks, led by Sultan Selim I, routed the Mamluks, and Palestine began four centuries under Ottoman domination. This rather improved the political status of the Jews. Joseph Nassi, a wealthy and cultured Spanish exile, was confidential adviser to the Sultan Suleiman, who made him Duke of Naxos. For a time a revival of Jewish colonization seemed possible. However, later, Turkish rule degenerated; it became incompetent and corrupt; and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Jews sank into a slough of poverty and dependency. The whole land degenerated economically. Those Jews who were artisans could find little work, and the majority, meagrely supported by charity from abroad, devoted their time to study.

Under the Ottomans, Palestine continued to be linked administratively to Damascus until 1830, when it was placed under Sidon, then under Acre, then once again under Damascus. In 1887-88 the local governmental units of the Ottoman Empire were finally settled, and Palestine was divided into the administrative divisions (sing., mutasarrifiyah) of Nabulus and Acre, both of which were linked with the vilayet (largest Ottoman administrative division, similar to a province) of Beirut and the autonomous mutasarrifiyah of Jerusalem, which dealt directly with Constantinople.

For the first three centuries of Ottoman rule, Palestine was relatively insulated from outside influences. At the end of the eighteenth century, Napoleon's abortive attempt to establish a Middle East empire led to increased Western involvement in Palestine. The trend toward Western influence accelerated during the nine years (1831-40) that the Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali and his son Ibrahim ruled Palestine. The Ottomans returned to power in 1840 with the help of the British, Austrians, and Russians. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, Palestine, despite the growth of Christian missionary schools and the establishment of European consulates, remained a mainly rural, poor but self-sufficient, introverted society. Demographically its population was overwhelmingly Arab, mainly Muslim, but with an important Christian merchant and professional class residing in the cities. The Jewish population of Palestine before 1880 consisted of fewer than 25,000 people, two-thirds of whom lived in Jerusalem where they made up half the population (and from 1890 on more than half the population). These were Orthodox Jews, many of whom had immigrated to Palestine simply to be buried in the Holy Land, and who had no real political interest in establishing a Jewish entity. They were supported by alms given by world Jewry.

The nineteenth century saw a revival of interest in Palestine on the part of Christians as well as Jews. Missionaries came from the West; pilgrims from Russia flocked every Eastertide to the Holy Land. The Greek and Latin churches established headquarters in Jerusalem. The quarrels among Christian sects became so scandalous that the Sultan was forced to install a Turkish guard to keep the peace in the church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The West European Jews became actively interested in the helpless situation of the Palestinian Jews, and in the course of the nineteenth century established schools, workrooms, hospitals and other institutions.

In Palestine, just before the Great War, the estimated population was 700,000, of whom the great majority were Arabic-speaking Moslems. Of this population the Jews numbered about one-seventh, that is, between 100,000 and 125,000 souls. During the previous century, there had been no marked increase in the general population, but the Jews increased to their present number from about 3,000, in 1800.

The Jewish population of Palestine may roughly be divided in half, the one-half representing what is known as the Old Settlement or Old Yishub, and the other the New Settlement or New Yishub. . The Old Settlement consists of those Jews, settled chiefly in the "holy" cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias, who went to Palestine for religious reasons, often in old age to die in the Holy Land.

The immigration of the 19th century was chiefly Ashkenazic that is, of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern or Central Europe using the Polish ritual. The bulk of the earlier population was Sephardic that is, consisting of Oriental Jews using the Portuguese ritual, in large part descendants from the Spanish and Portuguese exiles, who still speak the Judeo-Spanish jargon called Ladino. The Ashkenazic Jews formed about 85 percent of the Jewish population.

Each little national group had its own synagogue and minhag, its own language and customs, its own jealousies and grievances. Some of the lands that are represented by their Jews in Palestine are Russia, Poland, and all the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Galicia, Bukovina, Transylvania, Hungary, Rumania, Germany, Holland, the United States, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli in North Africa, Arabia, Persia, Bokhara, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Transcaucasian Doghestan, and Georgia (The Gurdji or Grusinians). In the Old Yishub, the distinctions remain perpetuated.

The New Yishub new and young in its spirit by no means consisted of newcomers only. The Russian Jews, whose own Government did not protect them, were looked after by the representatives of the British government. In about 1880 the Arabian Jews from Yemen began to suffer acute persecution, and instinctively fled to Palestine, their ancestral home. After 1880, European anti-Semitism and the Russian pogroms were a driving force, both physical and spiritual, toward Jewish renationalization in Palestine.

The increase in population was in large measure due to the impetus given by nationalization and agricultural resettlement in Palestine, which culminated in the Zionist movement.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2015 20:03:50 ZULU