From the sources by Eliezer Segal: On Native Soil

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNEws) – According to the stereotypical version of Jewish history as taught in many Hebrew schools and sermons, the Jewish population in the land of Israel came to its end around the year 70 C.E. when the Romans suppressed the “great rebellion,” destroyed the Jerusalem temple and exiled the populace from its ancestral territory. That narrative sometimes gets modified a bit by pushing the date ahead two generations to the Bar-Kokhba revolt in 132-135, after which the holy land was effectively emptied of its Jewish inhabitants until modern times.

There are many problems with this storyline. For one thing, the Romans did not have a policy of expelling vanquished populations. True, many Jews were captured as slaves to be sold in Rome, and much of the land in Judea was confiscated, precipitating a significant northward migration to the Galilee. Nevertheless, this supposed Jewish wilderness somehow managed to produce a rich variety of religious literatures, and archeologists continue to unearth remains of synagogues, ritual baths and other indicators of vigorous Jewish life during the Roman and Byzantine eras.

A more extensive decline in the Jewish population was occasioned in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when Crusader armies perpetrated massacres and expulsions of Jews in Jerusalem and elsewhere. This situation demonstrates that there were still sizable pockets of indigenous Jews who suffered as victims of slaughter and enslavement.

After the victory of the Muslims, the sultan Saladin invited the Jews to return to Jerusalem, Ashkelon and other localities, and the Jewish presence became more stable.

Linguistic research has noted that the local Arabic dialects contain many words, including agricultural terminology, that are not found in other branches of the language, but are attested in ancient Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic. This suggests that a significant proportion of the Palestinian Arab population were descended from Jewish peasants who converted to the dominant culture and its religion.

However, because that community has left us scant documentation about its activities during the medieval era, a rough picture must be pieced together from later times, from the fifteenth century, when the local Jews encountered outsiders, including pilgrims and immigrants from Europe – and especially refugees from Spain and Portugal who arrived in considerable numbers fleeing the Inquisition.

In a detailed description of life in the holy land published by French priest Eugène Roger in 1664, the author contrasted the Jews who were native to the “Orient” with their coreligionists who immigrated from Spain, Germany and Italy. He explained that the former group traces its ancestry to families “who have been preserved from all antiquity.” They often feel hostility towards the new arrivals who have no substantial roots in the local society, but came only to fulfil religious obligations, to die and be buried in the promised land.

In one of his responsa, the fifteenth-century Austrian authority Rabbi Israel Isserlein dealt with a person who wanted to renege on a vow to move to Jerusalem on account of the reports he heard about their inhospitable attitudes – apparently referring to those Jewish natives. The natives were especially disdainful of refugees from Spain, regarding whom they raised doubts that perhaps they should be classified as half-Christians. After all, before escaping from Iberia, they had observed all the practices of good Catholics, including baptism, confession and communion; while transgressing the sabbath, dietary rules and other prohibitions of the Torah. Yet from Roger’s perspective as an outside observer, there were no substantial divergences between the natives and the immigrants in matters of religious practice or belief.

In his description of their economic activities, he seems to be projecting the stereotypical categories of European society. He insists that no Jews are directly involved in farming or possess real property, but that most earn their livelihoods as moneylenders or second-hand clothes dealers. A few are physicians or tax farmers, and not one of them owns a house or estate.

It was not until the indigenous Jews had to be distinguished from other Jewish communities that they began to be designated by a special name. Under the Ottoman empire they were usually called “Musta‘rabin,” those who act like Arabs, since they adopted the Arabic language and lifestyles. Roger noted that they spoke Arabic among themselves, even though they employed a Spanish dialect to communicate with the Sephardic immigrants. Some referred to them as “Moriscos.” They constituted the “elders” who represented the Jewish community before the government.

Rabbi Obadiah Bertinoro, who immigrated from Italy to Jerusalem in the late fifteenth century, had to grapple with the poverty caused by inequitable distribution of the tax burden under “the elders, the inhabitants of the land,” apparently referring to the same indigenous oligarchy. On the other hand, he praised them for their simple faith that was (unlike that of their coreligionists from Spain and North Africa) uncorrupted by the heresy of rationalist philosophy.

By the early sixteenth century, as the indigenous leadership was outnumbered by the wave of Sephardic immigrants, Israel of Perugia assured his readers that there was really no truth to the reports of animosity between the Musta‘rabin and other Jews: “Behold I declare to you that great love prevails among them all, whether Sephardim or Musta‘rabin. There is no outcry in the streets.”

The persistence of an indigenous Jewish sector in Israel was of especial interest to Isaac ben-Zvi, the scholar who became Israel’s second president. He was persuaded that the Jewish peasants of Peki’in in the Galilee, the only remnant of the Musta‘rabin to survive into the twentieth century in their original localities, were descended in an unbroken chain from the ancient Judeans. Subsequent archeological discoveries of stones from the Roman and Byzantine eras, decorated with ancient inscriptions and imagery from the Jerusalem Temple, confirm the truth of their tradition.

The same obstinacy that appeared as a snobbish lack of hospitality toward later pilgrims and immigrants was a quality that enabled the Musta‘rabin to cling tenaciously to their ancestral soil, and thereby reinforce the Jewish title to the land of Israel.

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