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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Jewish relations with Muslims in Palestine in the 1850s

I just found an intriguing book called "Stirring Times: Or, Records from Jerusalem Consular Chronicles of 1853 to 1856" written by the British consul to Jerusalem at the time. While there are many travelogues from that time period, all of those are necessarily dependent on information from guides and others. This book, however, is really source material on how things were at that time.

The author, James Finn, devoted a chapter on the Jews of Jerusalem and other towns, and it is fascinating in its detail and uncovering facts that are little known today. This post will focus on what Finn has to say about Jewish/Muslim relations at the time.

It is hardly the harmonious pre-Zionist existence that Muslims will have you believe.
In times gone by these native Jews had their full share of suffering from the general tyrannical conduct of the Moslems, and, having no resources for maintenance in the Holy Land, they were sustained, though barely, by contributions from synagogues all over the world. This mode of supply being understood by the Moslems, they were subjected to exactions and plunder on its account from generation to generation (individuals among them, however, holding occasionally lucrative offices for a tune). This oppression proved one of the causes which have entailed on the community a frightful incubus of debt, the payment of interest on which is a heavy charge upon the income derived from abroad.

...In the same year I was again obliged to interfere on behalf of the Jews. Solomon Aglai, a Jew, was on his way to Jaffa by night, accompanied by a Moslem muleteer, and both were robbed and murdered on the highway ; both were Turkish subjects, and a considerable stir was made in the matter. A report from some malicious quarter reached the Pasha that the Chief Rabbi had instigated the crime for reasons of his own ; in consequence the Jewish official dragoman was seized and imprisoned for some hours till further particulars should come to light. This caused a great panic among the Jews, who implored my help, and considerable excitement among the Moslems. Having satisfied myself that it must be a false accusation, and aware that it was dangerous to let the idea gain ground that the Jews had had a Moslem murdered, I applied to His Excellency, representing my instructions from home. The charge against the Chief Rabbi was then dropped, and no more was heard of it. The excitement subsided as quickly as it had arisen.

...Notwithstanding these glimpses of honorary distinction the Jews are humiliated by the payment, through the Chief Rabbi, of pensions to Moslem local exactors, for instance the sum of 300£. a year to the Effendi whose house adjoins the ' wailing place,' or fragment of the western wall of the Temple enclosure, for permission to pray there; 100£. a year to the villagers of Siloam for not disturbing the graves on the slope of the Mount of Olives ; 50£ a year to the Ta'amra Arabs for not injuring the Sepulchre of Rachel near Bethlehem, and about 10£ a year to Sheikh Abu Gosh for not molesting their people on the high road to Jaffa, although he was highly paid by the Turkish Government as Warden of that road. All these are mere exactions made upon their excessive timidity, which it is disgraceful to the Turkish Government to allow to be practised. The figures are copied from their humble appeals occasionally made to the synagogues in Europe. Other minor impositions were laid upon them which they were afraid to discontinue to pay, such as, to one man (Moslem) for superintending the slaughtering of cattle by themselves for food, to see that it is performed by the Sephardi Eabbi who has purchased his license to do it. Periodical presents likewise of sugar, etc., to the principal Moslems at their festivals.

Besides the Jewish British subjects and proteges already described, there were some of both these classes in Hebron and in the other Holy cities ; there were also in Hebron a few Tuscans and Dutch subjects, who had by permission of their own Consular authorities in Beyroot placed themselves under British protection. Thus the British Consulate was always kept busy in transacting the business brought before it by the Jews ; not only by the Jews in Jerusalem, but by those from Safed, Tiberias, Caifa, Nablus, and Hebron. It was distressing to behold the timidity which long ages of oppression had engendered. Many times a poor Jew would come for redress against a native, and when he had substantiated his case, and it had been brought by the Consulate before the Turkish authorities, he would, in mere terror of future possible vengeance, withdraw from the prosecution, and even deny that any harm had been done him ; or if that was too manifest, declare that he could not identify the criminal, or that the witnesses could not be produced. Still, even then, the bare fact that some notice had been taken had a deterrent effect upon criminals who had hitherto regarded the defenceless Jews as their special prey.

The Hebron Jews were more exposed than even those in Jerusalem to rough usage from the natives, and they had suffered greatly from the tyrannies of the brutal ' Abderrahhman el 'Amer.

Those living in Safed, in Galilee, however, were of a different stamp, and much better able to hold their own. There was, on one occasion, an affair in that town of some rioters breaking for plunder into the houses of some Jews who were British proteges, and we had caused five of the offenders to be imprisoned. They were soon, however, allowed by the Governor to be at liberty again, and my protege's went down at once to demand justice from the Pasha in Acre, at the same time writing to acquaint me with the circumstances. This was not the only occasion in which I had to observe the manly spirit of the Jews in that mountain town, compared with all others of their nation throughout Palestine. Yet, whenever their independence was shown in an unjust cause, as sometimes happened, their behaviour had to be treated accordingly. The Galileans of Josephus's wars were a hardy and a stubborn people.
Not that things were better between Jews and Christians in Palestine, as we shall see.