So much of a controversial nature has been going on this week – a knife-edge General Election in Australia, the continuing fallout from Brexit that’s sent the Conservative Party leadership into turmoil, Jeremy Corbyn’s despicable comparison of Israel with Islamic State and an antisemitic allegation regarding a Jewish MP by a Corbynista activist – that I feel like a political junkie who has overdosed on it all. Accordingly, for this week’s post I’ve turned once more to the historical archives.
The Rev. William Jowett was an English clergymen who, under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society, authored Christian Researches in Syria and the Holy land, in 1823 & 1824, published in Boston, Mass., in 1826 together with an appendix consisting of the journal of another English missionary, Joseph Greaves, who was based in Tunis.
Jowett was a typical conversionist of his time – he wrote that “The Jews have been suffering now these eighteen hundred years a special punishment on account of their rejection and murder” of “the only Messiah” and sentiments of that nature – but leaving aside his “ulterior motive” in visiting their eastern venues his narrative has points of interest.
“…. From Aleppo to Jerusalem, Jews are to be found in all the principal cities: in Mount Lebanon there are but few….
[At Tiberias] we judged the population might be one thousand souls: but considering that a large portion is peopled by Jews, who crowd together in a very little space, possibly the number may be greater. We remarked two Minarets. As we approached the gate of the city, we were met by two Polish Jews …
We rode at once, as we had been recommended to do, by Seignior Rafaele Picciotto, an aged Jewish gentleman, who formerly held the office of Austrian consul at Aleppo; and, being succeeded by his son, has retired hither to pass the remainder of his days peacefully, on ground considered by the Jews as holy. We had every reason to be grateful to him for his civil attentions to us. We were entertained with a clean upper room, and entertained hospitably at his table.
Toward evening, we witnessed the scene of his whole household performing prayers. About thirty persons came at this hour into the court, and united in repeating the service, in conducting which, Rabbi Samuel, who has married his [Picciotto’s] step-daughter, was the chief leader. It was very affecting, at one part, to view them turning their faces toward Jerusalem – bowing, and lifting up their voices in fervent petitions. It reminded us of Daniel’s supplications when in Babylon, who had his windows open toward Jerusalem, and kneeled upon his knees three times a day and prayed: (Daniel vi. 10.) After sunset the table was prepared, and we sat down to a plentiful supper, at which it gratified us to see the females joining the circle – a sight banished from Turkish and Christian houses in this country, but not from Jewish. These were the consul’s wife and step-daughter.
The consul himself professes to know very little of his countrymen in this place. His son-in-law, however, is more communicative. The Mohammedans in this place are more numerous, he says, than the Jews, but when it comes to the question of actual numbers, you will rarely find two men agreeing in their account. Rabbi Samuel stated the Sephartim [sic], or Spanish Jews, at seventy or eighty houses; but another said that the Sephartim were ninety houses, and the Ashkenasim [sic] ninety-six. Rabbi Samuel says that there are no Jews of the sect of the Perushim, but that all are Hassidim.
…. The baths of Tiberias, so much celebrated by many authors, are just a mile south of the town, and about fifty feet from the margin of the lake. On the way thither we passed the Jewish burying ground…. On every side, small ruins of walls, columns and foundations indicate the former extent of Tiberias. …. [J]ewish literature flourished in this spot, and some of the most learned Hebrew commentators on Sacred Scripture formed a kind of university in this city.”
He found that the following quotation from French Huguenot divine Jacques Basnage’s History of the Jews (1708; French original, 1706) presented a rosy contrast to their treatment at Sfat (Safed):
“Safet [sic] is the most peopled, and the most celebrated [Holy Land city] celebrated among them. There they enjoy many advantages. For, first, this city, situated in the tribe of Naphtali, at a distance of nine miles from Bethsaida, upon a mountain with a triple ridge or summit, is extremely difficult of access. It is thus protected from the incursions of the roving Arabs, who pillage and desolate whatever cities they can enter. Second, I know not whether it be that the Turks are unwilling, by ill-treating the Jews, to occasion the depopulation of the town, or whether it is the mildness of the Ottomans that attracts the Jews thither; certain it is that they are more numerous at Safet, and that they are more kindly treated here, than in all the rest of the Ottoman Empire…. A third of the inhabitants are Turks; the other two-thirds are Jews.”
Jowett visited in November 1823:
“[In the Jewish quarter of Safet] …. After much delay, and many enquiries, we reached the house of Rabbi Israel, one of the Perushim [‘separate ones’; followers of the Vilna Gaon], and chief of that sect in this place. He himself was gone to Jerusalem: but his wife and son, and Baruch the Shemas [shammas] … welcomed us, and gave us the best room in their house; it was, however, very wretched and cold.In December 1823 he visited Jerusalem. On Friday, 5 December,
In the evening some of the Jews called upon us. One of them complained, most bitterly, of the treatment which he had received at the last festival of Succoth: he had brought it, indeed, on himself, having gone to some excess in wine; a Mohammedan laid to his charge the crime of blaspheming against the Mohammedan religion; and, without further witness or investigation, the governor ordered him for punishment, when he suffered … five hundred stripes of the bastinado…. They all [the Safed Jews] complain of the severity to which they are liable from the ruling powers.
The number of Jewish families at this place, they stated at four hundred: of which the Ashkenasim [sic] and Sephartim [sic] are in about equal numbers; that is, two hundred families of each. Since the war in Turkey, few venture to come from Poland, so that the Hebrew population is rather on the decrease. They said there were sixteen synagogues in the place … this … I suspect to be exaggerated…. In the room which we occupied we counted five hundred books, all Hebrew; the library of Rabbi Samuel.
….. Of [the synagogues] we counted five. Of the Hassidim, one synagogue … and one Maddras, College: for, with this title do they dignify a room which will scarcely contain twenty persons … but, certainly, a few appeared here to be in the very act of poring over Talmudical books. For the Perushim there is one place, which is used both as a synagogue and Maddrass; and one other place, which has at least some pretensions to its title of Maddrass, as it contains a thousand Hebrew volumes. Lastly, one synagogue of the Sephardim: this was by far the best and largest of the places which we saw….
From the view which we had of the town when on the castle, we judged, that if there are in the Jewish quarter the number of families which they state, namely, four hundred, there would be about one thousand Mohammedan houses: for, as they occupy distinct quarters, it is easy to compare their superficial area; the Jews, however, state them at fifteen hundred families. The population of Safet might be stated, in round numbers, at seven thousand souls. We observed four Minarets.”
“A little before noon, we called on Rabbi Mendel, a Jewish rabbi, of some consideration on account of his talmudical learning …. He had at his side a volume of the Talmud, and he is greatly in repute for his skill in these works…. In addition to a certain wild abstracted gaze, which nature and talmudical studies have given to the countenance of Rabbi Mendel, he was further suffering from terror, the impression of which was not yet effaced from his mind; he having been, about a week before, forcibly seized in the night, and carried off to prison by order of the new governor.
The pretext alleged was that his street door had been left open in the night: for this he was compelled to pay a heavy fine of three purses; about £37 sterling. The officer who apprehended him burst with violence into his inner chamber – waked him – spurned all his protestations of his having European protection – he having an Austrian firman [decree]; and, forthwith, took him, his disciple Rabbi Isaac, and two others to the prison, from which, after twenty-four hours’ confinement and the payment of the fine, they were set at liberty.
He was proposing to go for relief to the consul at Acre: from the Austrian consul at Tiberias he expected nothing, as that gentleman, himself a Jew, probably finds it as much as he can do to secure protection for his own declining old age. Rabbi Mendel preferred going in person to writing, for if it were known in Jerusalem that he had written, it would subject him to fresh insults or exactions. How truly is this threat accomplished – Thy life shall hang in douby before thee, and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life! (Deut. Xxviii, 66).
The money was, clearly, the sole motive for this proceeding – a new governor, in this devoted city, generally making his advances, by rapid steps, first to the Jews, next to the Greeks and Armenians, and finally to the Latins. Nor have these any appeal: their only relief is, by cunning and intrigue, to throw the burden as much as possible upon the shoulders of their neighbors; or to plead their inability to meet the demands of the governor, who always begins by bidding high. The parties from whom the demand is made being either put in prison or otherwise annoyed, part of their policy is to endure as long as nature can bear the unjust affliction; thus proving, by their willingness to suffer, their inability to pay.
The other party of the Jews, the Sephartim [sic], being much more numerous, were soon obliged to pay a much larger sum. Four of their principal men were, during these days, thrown into prison; from which they were not released till the bargain was adjusted. Some, whom we inquired after, had secreted themselves in their neighbors’ houses.
Rabbi Isaac conducted us to see an interesting spot, to which the Jews frequently resort on the afternoon of Friday. It is on the outer wall of the mosque of Omar. Within the area which surrounds the mosque, none may enter, under pain of death, unless he becomes a Mohammedan; but, at a particular part of the outside of the surrounding buildings, the Jews have the permission, for which they pay money, to assemble every Friday, to pray. There were only eight when we were there, but at a later hour, probably, there would be more. On other occasions they are numerous: but the measures of the new governor have thrown them into consternation, so that they are not so forward to show themselves.
I observed, as we passed through the Jew quarter – and upon many faces, in most parts of Jerusalem – a timid expression of countenance … with a curiosity that desires to know everything concerning a stranger, there is, at the same time, a slinking away from the curiosity of others. We stood awhile with the worshippers at this spot… To worship here must be the summit of their desires: it seems to be somewhat in the spirit of David’s vow, In thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple.”
In October 1824 Joseph Greaves, in Tunis, was informed that the total population of that place numbered about 120,000.
“Of this number there may be 30,000 Jews. The native or Tunisine Jews are distinguished from the Mohammedans by their dress, not being allowed to wear the red scull [sic]-cap under the turban: it must be black, or dark blue: they are sometimes very ill-treated, but are not liable to greater exactions than the Moors. The European Jews wear hats, and speak chiefly Spanish or Italian: their number does not exceed 2000 at the most: they have considerable connections in Leghorn. The native Jews speak the Arabic of the country, but their books are in Hebrew. There is not much cordiality between the two classes; rather, I am informed, division and animosity. A few of the Tunisian Jews by purchase, and others through interest, enjoy the privilege of wearing the European dress."
There, he learned of “justice” as meted out the dhimmis:
“Wednesday, Dec. 1 : “A shocking instance of cruelty occurred yesterday, which will give an idea of judicial proceedings in Barbary. The two victims of it were a young Jew and a Moorish woman. It was stated that they had been taken in adultery; but all the circumstances were so improbable as to leave no doubt on the minds of most persons of the innocence of the parties. The crime was affirmed to have been committed about four days ago, and the individuals were immediately taken to prison. The young man was carried before the Bey yesterday morning; and some witnesses came forward, and gave evidence of the fact: the poor Jew, seeing that his death was determined on, as the last resource [resort] repeated the Mohammedan profession of faith, by which he became a Turk: he was told, however, that it was too late, as he had been induced to take the step through fear.
This measure failing, he boldly asserted his innocence, telling the Bey that he [the latter] was his superior now, but that before God they should be equal, and that he should then ask an account of his blood: the Bey shook his clothes, and said that it would lie at the door of the witnesses. From the palace he was immediately conducted to the place of execution, and cut down. I was told his sufferings were not protracted; one of the executioners having almost immediately struck off his head. His mangled body was afterward dragged about the town by the infuriated mob, and treated with every possible indignity. He has left a wife and two young children, who, by the seizure and confiscation of the little property that he possessed, now depend for subsistence on the small allowance which they may receive from the general poor-fund of the Jews. The Moorish woman was a very bad and troublesome character: she was punished, according to the Mohammedan custom, by being put into a sack and drowned.
I much regret having been absent during this transaction, for I cannot help thinking that a little exertion might have procured for the unfortunate individual at least a regular trial according to Mohammedan law. By that law, so many qualifications in a witness are required that the lives of the parties would probably have been saved: at all events time would have been gained, which might have led to the development of many circumstances. It was generally thought that revenge for legal proceedings to which the Jew had had recourse against a Moor for the recovery of a debt was at the bottom of the whole affair. In consequence of a somewhat similar case, which happened about a year and a half ago, I was told it was made an article in the last treaty with the British Government that a Christian shall not be put to death within less than forty-eight hours from the time of conviction, and that the trial shall be conducted in the presence of the consul of his nation. But the Jews, unhappily, have no nation – no Consul.
Thursday, Dec. 2, 1824. Mordecai Naggiar [scholar Mordecai Ibn al-Najjar, Greaves’s Jewish contact and interpreter in Tunis] informed me that the Mohammedans have an idea that they acquire merit in heaven by taking the life of a Jew; and that, to succeed in this, they would sacrifice the lives of ten women. These observations were made with particular reference to the late occurrence; and, no doubt, under the influence of passionate indignation; yet they probably describe, not too strongly, the fanaticism which prevails among the Mussulman populace.
…. Monday, Dec. 6 …. I was determined to call on the poor Jewess whose husband was put to death a few days ago; and also to endeavour to interest some of the consuls in her favour: but my Arabic master [i.e. teacher], himself a Jew, told me that it would be better not to do so, as it might excite a suspicion that the Jews were seeking the protection of a Christian nation, and be worse both for the family and the Jews in general.”
We have lots of ideas, but we need more resources to be even more effective. Please donate today to help get the message out and to help defend Israel.