Jews in the Holy Land Before Zionism


You may wish to read my introduction first.


From "Diaspora Configuration and Jewish Occupation Patterns at the Beginning of the Middle Ages: Pilgrimages to the Holy Land"

Links with Erez Yisrael were never severed. Jews who dwelt under Moslem rule would go there to pray and then return home. As we shall see below, the Karaites in the tenth century yearned deeply to settle in Jerusalem. Jews in more distant places also maintained ties with the homeland.

p. 395


From "Social and Cultural Life Until the End of the Eleventh Century: The Karaites in Jerusalem"

In the tenth century, Jerusalem became the focal point of these sectarian tendencies. Karaite thinkers of ascetic, individualistic and rationalistic orientations gathered there from all the Islamic countries, united as Avelei Zion ('Mourners of Zion') or Shoshanim ('Roses'), as their admirers called them. In the Holy City they lived in austerity, mourning the destruction of the Temple and praying for its Restoration - preoccupations they held to be the core of their religious experience. From Jerusalem they disseminated their sharp polemics against the Rabbanites, the Talmud and the gaonic leadership.

p. 449


From "Status and Economic Structure, 1096-1348: Journeys to the Holy Land"

The movement of Jews towards the Holy Land increased in the thirteenth century, particularly from the Western lands. As early as 1141, R. Judah Halevi (see pages 531-2) had left Spain for Erez Yisrael. This move was an expression of his conviction concerning the sanctity and centrality of the land for the Jewish people - a doctrine that was to influence many subsequent generations. In 1211, 300 rabbis proceeded to Erez Yisrael from England and France, and additional groups followed. In 1267, R. Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides [see page 532]) went to the Holy Land. Jews used to take an oath together and establish partnerships with the aim of settling and making a living together there. This was not a mass movement; however, considering the distances and difficulties involved, it represented a considerable and sustained group effort, whose spiritual impact was felt well beyond its own dimensions.

p. 466


From "The Collapse of Old Settlements and the Establishment of New Ones: Pilgrimages to and Settlement in Erez Yisrael"

The persecution in Spain led to a marked revival of emigration to Erez Yisrael. The emigrants and pilgrims included Marranos who wished openly to atone for their conversion [to Christianity] by living in the Holy Land. Italian Jewry maintained close ties with Erez Yisrael and followed developments there with constant concern...

Towards the end of the century, even closer ties were established by a number of outstanding people who left Italy for Erez Yisrael and described the situation they encountered there. The banker and merchant R. Meshullam of Volterra described the various congregations and communities he came across in 1481. In Gaza there were about fifty Jewish 'craftsmen, some of them notable and worthy men. And they had a handsome little synagogue and vineyards and fields and houses.' Among the Jews of Gaza, he found two whom he described as Sephardim even before the expulsion from Spain. In Hebron he discovered only 'about twenty Jewish householders.' In Jerusalem there were about 250 families...

R. Obadiah of Bertinoro, who arrived in the Holy Land in 1488, was far more interested in the social situation. His letter from Jerusalem provides an extensive account of the Karaites and Samaritans living there and in Egypt. He records finding 'about seventy Rabbanite householders at present in Gaza... where there is now an Ashkenazi rabbi called Rabbi Solomon of Prague.' In Hebron he found 'about twenty householders, all of them Rabbanite, about half of whom come from the Marranos who had recently arrived...'

These descriptions of Erez Yisrael at the time of its resettlement by immigrants from Spain and of Jerusalem in its decline should be borne in mind when the development of the Jewish community there in the sixteenth century is considered (see pages 633-9).

pp. 571-3


From "Settlement and Economic Activity in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: Settlement in Erez Yisrael"

Jews had left Spain for Erez Yisrael throughout the century between 1391 and the expulsion (see page 572). In the course of the sixteenth century the Jewish community of Erez Yisrael was enlarged not only by those who had left Spain to preserve their Judaism, but also by New Christians from Portugal and Spain who were drawn there in order to return to Judaism and to do penance for their defection at the holy places. This group increased, particularly after Erez Yisrael became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516. The constant flow was not only a factor of the settlement of the area, but also a force that helped shape the consciousness of communities deriving from desscendants of Spanish exiles in the Orient. The kabbalist R. Hayyim Vital noted in his Sefer Hahezyonot ('Book of Visions'), written at the end of the sixteenth or beginning of the seventeenth century, various facts indicating the effect of this phenomenon on the thinking of the Sephardim in Syria and Erez Yisrael (see below, pages 693-4).

Those Jews who arrived with the early stream of settlers, including craftsmen and traders, continued to engage in their previous occupations.... However the letter bearing these sad tidings is chiefly concerned with the statement that it is possible to live a normal economic life in the cities of the Holy Land. The writer calls on people to join them: 'Whoever wishes to come, let him come, for here they can spend their entire life supporting themselves by their handicrafts...'

After the political changes of 1516-17, the Jewish community of Erez Yisrael benefited from the country's inclusion within the Ottoman Empire and its links with the commercial centres, with the Jewish community in Egypt to the south-west and, even more so, with that of Syria to the north. In this new situation the community of Safed, which had had no significance earlier, became a major national and cultural centre (see page 661). The exiles chose it for settlement because of several circumstances. It was the Jewish centre closest to Syria and the route by which Jews arrived from other provinces in the north-western part of the Ottoman Empire on their way to the land of their fathers. Safed was not sacred to any other faith. Neither Islam nor Christianity had any claims there. From the Jewish point of view, Safed lay close to the numerous graves of tannaim buried in Galilee... All these factors gave Safed an aura of Jewish sanctity. Its successful economic relations with Syria to the north and the local rural hinterland enabled this community to establish a broad economic and social base...

This was not the situation in Safed, where living conditions were, on the whole, normal and well-established. Yet, even there, alms played an important function, particularly for the scholars who dedicated themselves to the study of Torah. The city grew rapidly both in population and sources of livelihood. In 1522 more than 300 householders are spoken of in Safed - a population equalling that of Jewish Jerusalem. By the middle of the sixteenth century travellers already report the presence of 8-10,000 Jews in Safed, most of them Sephardim. By the early seventeenth century there were some 20,000 Jews in the city, and according to certain authorities the number even reached 30,000.

pp. 633-5 (pp. 661-6 contain details of life in Safed)


From "The Growth of the Jewish Centre in Palestine Before the British Occupation: The Continuity of Jewish Settlement in Palestine"

After the great flowering of the Jewish centre in Palestine in the sixteenth century (see Part V), the community underwent a steep decline in the seventeenth century. The unstable security situation, natural catastrophies, the small number of immigrants and the abandonment of the towns transformed Palestine into a remote and desolate corner of the Ottoman Empire, with a weak and poverty-stricken Jewish population. In the eighteenth century there was a slight recovery. At the beginning of the century, R. Yehudan Hehasid ('the Pious') immigrated together with more than 1,000 of his followers, but the group rapidly disintegrated after the death of its leader - partly as a result of the opposition aroused by the presence of many Sabbateans among the immigrants. The Committee of Notables and Officials of the Land of Israel in Constantinople was meanwhile endeavouring to consolidate the Jewish community in Jerusalem. In 1740 R. Hayyim Abulafia, rabbi of Izmir, renewed Jewish settlement in Tiberias and its environs, under the patronage of Daher el Omar, Governor of Galilee. In 1742 R. Hayyim ben Atar of Morocco organized a group of immigrants from his country and from Italy, and the majority of them settled the same year in Jerusalem. The great majority of the Yishuv (Jewish community) was composed of Sephardim and immigrants from the Arab countries with only a few Ashkenazim... Settlement in Palestine received renewed impetus with the immigration of Hasidim from Lithuania, headed by R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk in 1777... In the years 1808-10, some disciples of the Gaon of Vilna, the perushim, immigrated and settled in Safed. In 1816 a number of them moved to Jerusalem and laid the foundations of Ashkenazi settlement there.

Despite these waves of immigration and the consolidation of the Yishuv and the 'four holy lands' (Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron), as well as for a time in the Acre and elsewhere in Galilee, the Jewish community in Palestine in the beginning of the nineteenth century numbered only some several thousand souls, who suffered from the weakness of the Ottoman regime and from various natural catastrophes such as plagues, earthquakes and drought

pp. 915-6

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