April 16, 2024
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April 16, 2024
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Preparing Our Students to Respond  to the Anti-Israel Propaganda on Campus

Part V

Did the Jews of the Yishuv Live in Harmony With Their Neighbors Until the Zionist “Invasion”?

The Palestinian Arabs claim that Zionism is the root cause for the failure of the Arabs and Jews to find a solution to their mutual conflict. In a speech to the UN General Assembly on November 13, 1974, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, declared the enmity against the Jews originated after they began immigrating to Palestine in 1881. “Before the first large wave of immigrants started arriving,” he asserted, “every segment of the population enjoyed the religious tolerance characteristic of our civilization.”

Arafat alleged that Arabs “were engaged in farming and building, spreading culture throughout the land for thousands of years, setting an example in the practice of freedom of worship, acting as faithful guardians of the holy places of all religions.”

He treasured the “beautiful memories and vivid images of the religious brotherhood that was the hallmark of our Holy City before it succumbed to catastrophe. Our people continued to pursue this enlightened policy until the establishment of the state of Israel and their dispersion.”

Arafat’s idyllic description of life before the Zionist “invasion” is significant because his account has become part of the Arab narrative. Having been indoctrinated from childhood to the notion that Jews stole their land and threaten the sanctity of their holy sites, one can understand how young Palestinian Arabs easily become hostile to a perceived alien occupying force that has thrust itself into the midst of the Islamic world.

Is Arafat’s Description Correct?

To what extent is Arafat’s portrayal of life before 1881 accurate? The answer is unequivocal—it is a total fabrication.

Historian Moshe Ma’oz points out that in the Muslim-Ottoman state, Jews lived in an insecure environment. Viewed as inferior citizens due to the Muslim belief in Islam’s religious superiority, Jews were regarded as “state protégés” (dhimmis) who were “inferior before the law of the state and its institutions.” They could not testify in Muslim courts, bear arms, build synagogues higher than mosques, and were forced to pay a special poll tax (jizya) for protection and as a sign of their subservient status.

While paying the jizya, the dhimmi was subjected to a very demeaning process designed to belittle and humiliate the individual, explains historian Bernard Lewis.

Historian Arie Morgenstern notes that in 1834 when Arab farm workers revolted against the regime of Muhammad Ali, Jews were attacked in the major cities. In Safed, they stole Jewish property, destroyed homes and defiled synagogues. Some Jewish women were raped, beaten and murdered.

Morgenstern quotes a report by Rabbi Shmuel Heller of Safed, who assessed the tragedy that ensued:

“For forty days, day after day, from the Sunday following Shavuot, all of the people of our holy city, men, women and children have been like refuse upon the field. Hungry, thirsty, naked, barefoot, wandering to and fro in fear and confusion like lambs led to the slaughter…They [the Arab marauders] removed all the Torah scrolls and thrust them contemptuously to ground, and they ravished the daughters of Israel—woe to the ears that hear it—and the great study house they burned to its foundations…And the entire city was destroyed and laid ruin, they did not leave a single wall whole; they dug and sought treasures, and the city stood ruined and desolate, without a single person.”

This adds credence to the Ma’oz quote from the Jewish traveler, Benjamin II, who after visiting Palestine in 1847, wrote: “They do not have any protection…their property is not at their disposal and they dare not complain about an injury for fear of the Arab’s revenge. Their lives are precarious and subject to daily danger of death.”

Rather than demand complete political equality, as the Christians insisted for their community, Ma’oz said the Jews were content with the economic opportunities and religious privileges they were accorded, recognizing that political parity would never be granted to them. In public, Jews refrained from expressing their limited rights, which would offend Muslims, including opening wine shops in the markets, riding horses in public places or wearing green clothes.

Whenever the government announced a decree, the Jews promptly obeyed, even when the order cost them financially—having to pay a compulsory fee (bedel) exempting them from serving in the military, or freeing Muslim slaves.

James Finn, British Consul in Jerusalem from 1846 to 1863, wrote in his diary, “Stirring Times,” that local Muslims required Jews to pay taxes to pray at their holy sites. For the privilege of praying at the Western Wall, Jews had to provide a yearly payment to the Effendi, whose house was next to the Wall; the villagers of Siloam were paid a stipend to prevent the vandalizing the graves on the slopes of the Mount of Olives; the Ta’amra Arabs were bribed so they would not damage Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem; and Sheikh Abu Gosh received money each year for “not molesting” travelers on the road to Jaffa, even though he received a significant sum yearly from the Turkish government as “warden of the road.”

Spreading Culture Throughout the Land for Thousands of Years

In response to the Arab riots in 1936, the British established the Palestine Royal Commission headed by Lord Peel, to suggest modifications to the British Mandate. The Commission found that the Jews had created an oasis of cultural and literary activity and scientific achievement in comparison to the Palestinian Arabs.

“With every year that passes,” the Commission concluded, “the contrast between this intensely democratic and highly organized modern community and the old-fashioned Arab world around it grows sharper, and in nothing, perhaps, more markedly than on its cultural side. The literary output of the National Home is out of all proportion to its size. The Hebrew Press has expanded to four daily and 10 weekly papers. Two periodicals are exclusively concerned with literature and one with dramatic art. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the culture of the National Home is its love of music. It was while we were in Palestine, as it happened, that Signor Toscanini conducted the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, composed of some 70 Palestinian Jews, in six concerts…. On each occasion every seat was occupied, and it is noteworthy that one concert was reserved for some 3,000 workpeople at very low rates and that another 3,000 attended the Orchestra’s final rehearsal. All in all, the cultural achievement of this little community of 400,000 people is one of the most remarkable features of the National Home.

“There is Arab literature, of course, and Arab music,” the Commission added, but the culture of Arab Palestine is the monopoly
of the intelligentsia and, born as it is of Asia, it has little kinship with that of the National Home.

“Nowhere, indeed, is the gulf between the races more obvious. Anyone who attended the Toscanini Concerts at Jerusalem might have imagined, if he closed his eyes, that he was in Paris, London, or New York. Yet, almost within earshot was the Old City, the Haram-esh-Sharif, and the headquarters of the Arab Higher Committee. It is the same with science.

The Daniel Sieff Research Institute at Rehovot [later named the Weizmann Institute for Science] is equipped with the most delicate modern instruments; the experiments conducted there are watched by chemists all over the world: yet from its windows can be seen the hills inhabited by a backward peasantry who regard it only as the demonstration of a power they hate and fear and who would like, no doubt, when their blood is up, to destroy it.”

By Alex Grobman, PhD

 Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, has written extensively in books and articles on the Palestinian Arab conflict. He is a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), and a member of the Advisory Board of The Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He has trained students how to respond to Arab propaganda on American campuses. One student, who worked with him for three years, became president of  Harvard Students for Israel.


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