The Last 1000 Years

  • 12 minute read
  • • by Sharon Koifman
  • • August 4, 2022

Jewish History – The last 1000 years

Super Punchline: we were there for the last millennia. Even after many of us have been expelled to the Diaspora, we always have inhabited the land. Those in Exile were always eager to return, but actual colonizers during the centuries have denied our right to build a nation in our ancestral homeland.

In the 11th century, the Gaonim of Palestine were one of the two core worldwide Jewish leaderships. In the 12th century, the term aliyah (Jews returning to their homeland) was introduced and promoted.

In the 13th Century, the second most important rabbi of modern time, Nachmanides, lived in Palestine and built the most important synagogue of that era.

16th Century Safed brought a full kabbalistic renaissance  as we know it today (Yes, the one practiced by Madonna, sort of). The Shulchan Aruch,  the book that defines all Jewish customs and rituals, was written during the period. All this against continuous oppression and deportations. This, my friend, it’s not ancient history.

Longer explanation

Ok, So this is the second part of our History. Discussing more recent activities in Israel for the last thousand years. While there is a minority group of conspiracy theorists that try to completely disconnect Jews from the Ancient history of Judah and Israel, most people accept that the modern Jews of today are at least somewhat associated with this Kosher-loving Commandment following, pork-hating, Egypt escaping, dudes from the Torah. What often happens in the discussion is the dismissal. They say that just because we had an ancient connection to Israel 3,000 years ago, that would not mean that we are indigenous or even have rights to the land today. I mean, I don’t understand how an indigenous status of a population that has been a majority cumulatively of about 1300 years, expires like a membership card. Still, these days, this conflict does bring the most creative haters. So often, I find myself with the need to clarify that there was always an active Jewish community in Palestine, and many members of the Diaspora have attempted to return many times before the modern Zionists movement. Unfortunately, during the 2000 years since the Romans took over and renamed the region Palestine, the Colonizers, whether the Byzantines, Crusaders or Caliphates, made our life extremely dangerous and uncomfortable, and every time we were building an active community, it was demolished.

That’s why I’m doubling down on the last 1000 millennium, offering some historical context showing that we have been an active community, not just 3000 years ago at 1,000 BC but also 300 years ago at 1,700 CE. We are not some Ancient Biblical population. We were always there. And, by the way, we were a majority population up to the 4th century CE. That’s 1600 years ago, not 3000 years.

11th Century

Punchline: Caliph Al-Hakim tried to oppress us and infighting between Gaonic Academies led us to the last century of the Gaonim Leadership and Academy in Palestine.

Main Personality: Aaron HaKohen ben Meïr (rabbi and Prince of the Sanhedrin; put a fight with the Babylonian Gaonate over the Hebrew Calendar)

It was the last century of the Gaonim, religious leaders who decided the Jewish Religious Law for certain regions (in the case of the Palestinian Geonin, they ruled over the land of Israel, Lebanon and Egypt). The Gaonim were the Jewish legislators for all the Jewish world, and the second most important of them were in Palestine, an authority which would never be repeated again. During the rule of Caliph Al-Hakim (founder of the Druze religion and leader of the Fatimid dynasty), persecutions started against the Jews (especially in Egypt) and Christians at the beginning of the century. Eventually, the ruler forgot the Jews and Christians and turned against his coreligionists. The last Gaon of Palestine was forced to move to Tyre, Lebanon, in 1071, and authority was later transferred to Fostat in Egypt. The Gaonic Academy ceased to exist before the First Crusade, where the century ends

12th Century

Punchline: The Jews struggle against the Crusaders’ oppression. But still, more than 6200 Jewish houses were documented across the  country. 

Main Personality: Yehudah HaLevi (He did not live on the land but pushed immigration to Israel. This is 700 years before Zionism)

After the First Crusade, now everything sucks. The region is ruled by crusaders who oppress both Jews and Muslims. Yehudah HaLevi writes the Cuzarí and preaches immigration to the region of Palestine. The term Aliyah appears, referring to climbing the mountain until arriving in Jerusalem. The emergence of Benjamin de Tudela, a renowned explorer who journeyed from Spain to India and Persia, then to Egypt, where he met Maimonides. Jerusalem is almost devoid of Jews, with only four Jewish families but many Jewish travelers. Benjamin of Tudela counted 200 Jewish houses in Alma, 200 houses in Tiberias, 2000 houses in Tyre, 800 houses in Acre, 800 houses in Caesarea, 1200 in Ramlah, and 1000 in Ashkelon. Communities in Jaffa and Ramla were dispersed afterward by Christians, but there is peace for Jews in Galilee, relatively intact.

13th Century

Punchline: The moment we got a friendly occupier, the Jewish community returned to their land and, with the help of the second most famous rabbi of the Middle Ages, founded one of the greatest synagogues of its time.

Main Personality: Nachmanides (one of the most influential rabbis of its time and a key figure for the Jews re-establish the community in the homeland)

Main Work: Iggeret haRamban (a collection of letters which Nachmanides passed to his son)

Saladin defeated the Crusaders, the Jews were now able to return to Jerusalem. Three hundred rabbis from France and England arrived in Israel. Much of Jerusalem is destroyed by orders from Al-Mu’azzam Isa to remove Crusader buildings throughout the Levant. Nachmanides came to Jerusalem and founded one the greatest synagogue of its time. They built a Talmudic Academy in Acre. Ban on entering the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Jews can only pray inside the cave for a fee, a custom followed until the foundation of the State of Israel. Meir of Rothenburg, a rabbi trying to make aliyah, is imprisoned after trying to migrate to Palestine from the Mamluks.

14th Century

Punchline: Mamluks raised their taxes on Jews to prevent community growth, yet the Jewish community managed it due through immigration.

Main Personality: Isaac HaKohen Ben Moses (physician, geographer, and traveller)

Main Work: Ishtori Haparchi (a book of geography and landscape describing the land of Israel)

Mamluks conquer Palestine and destroy coastal cities and commercial centers in fear of future crusaders. Bad decision; it hurts the economy badly. Now we have heavier Dhimmi (non-Muslim status in Muslim conquered areas) laws. More fees and taxes. More humiliation and oppression for Jews and Christians. Maybe without immigration, perhaps the Jewish community would disappear. Pilgrim Jews could, however, go to Jerusalem, which had a large community. Ishtori Haparchi has made a large collection of geographic land data to identify Biblical and Talmudic sites. Migrations of Kabbalists and Spaniards to Safed begin.

15th Century

Punchline: The Mamluks started to strangle immigration attempts, and local Arabs refused us the right of repairing the Nachmanides Synagogue.  

Main Personality: Bartenura (Italian Talmudist and Mishnah commentator who settled in Jerusalem)

Ashkenazim Jews tried to acquire places and buildings on Mount Zion just above the Tomb of David. Franciscans do not allow it and ask the Pope to prohibit boat captains from carrying Jews to Palestine. A group of Sicilian Jewish immigrants tried to travel to Palestine, but Mamluk authorities falsely accused the group of smuggling gold. Twenty-four of them were released after the community paid a large bail, after nine months of incarceration, on the condition the prisoners relinquished all their possessions. Isaac ben Meir Latif counted 150 Jewish families in Jerusalem. The Nachmanides synagogue, founded in honor of the great rabbi, collapsed after heavy rain. Only after a year were the Jews allowed to repair the ruins of the synagogue. Muslim vandals who did not accept the verdict tore down the synagogue completely, claiming that the synagogue was not legally built. The Vandals were punished, and the Jews gathered the documentary evidence they needed, but the synagogue took 50 years to rebuild. Fewer and fewer Jewish families were left in the region. At the of the Century, Sefaradim Jews were expelled by Spain and Portugal due to the Alhambra Decree and King Manuel I’s decree, and some of those refugees settled in Eretz Israel.

16th Century

Punchline: Mamluks and Ottomans accuse the Jews of collaborating with their enemies, and they destroy both Safed and Tiberias. Yet, Safed is rebuilt, and it thrives, producing a new Kabbalistic school of thought.

Main Personality: Isaac Luria (the founder of the Lurianic Kabbalistic school.)

Main Work: Shulchan Aruch (The most authoritative Code of Jewish Law of all time, written by Yossef Caro, a student of Isaac Luria),

Cabalat Shabat (A ritual of celebrating the night after Shabbat, realized by all of the Jews worldwide).

Beginning of Turkish-Ottoman rule. In the final year of the war (1517) between Mamluks and Ottomans, two pogroms were started by both sides. In Safed, the Mamluks accused the Jews of collaborating with the Turkish invaders; in Hebron, the Turkish accused the Jews of collaborating with the Mamluks. Yet, a few years later, Safed thrives. Palestine became part of the Syrian Province for four centuries. Jacob Berab tried to recreate the Sanhedrin, but the Ottomans and the chief rabbi of Jerusalem did not allow it. Production of a new Kabbalistic school of thought produced by Isaac Luria (the Arizal) based on the Zohar, which influences Kabbalah worldwide and forever. Production of a universalized Jewish Law Code, Shulchan Aruch, by a disciple of Isaac Luria, called Yossef Caro. The code is still important to this day for both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, especially for Orthodoxy. Production of liturgical poems and hymns, like Lechah Dodi. A new ritual for celebrating Shabbat was developed and realized for virtually every Jewish synagogue at night after Shabbat. Safed becomes the spiritual center of Jewish life with commercial prosperity and Hebrew typographic press. We had 30,000 Jews in the land by the end of the century. Joseph Nasi buys Tiberias and seven other surrounding villages to create a Jewish city-state for Jewish refugees and Marranos. Unfortunately, the city did not prosper economically. An expulsion order deported 1000 wealthy families to Cyprus; the order was rescinded once the Ottomans realized the amount of rent these Jewish families provided. Radbaz moved to Jerusalem but decided to stay in Safed, so as not to pay the very high fees imposed on Jews by the authorities.

17th Century

Punchline: Due a turmoil between Ottomans and Druzes, ⅔ of Jewish community in Safed leaves/was pushed out and Tiberias is abandoned. Turkish authorities started to demand bribes to let Jews immigrate to Jerusalem.

Main Personality: Nathan of Gaza (the Prophet and spokesperson of the false Messiah, Shabtai Tzvi himself)

Construction of the Yochanan Ben Zakai Synagogue in Jerusalem by the Sephardic. Massacre of Jews in Ukraine leads to yet another migration to Israel. Around 1660, due to turmoil between the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV and the Druze community, the towns around Safed and Tiberias were destroyed. In Safed, we had a population of 15,000 Jews before the conflict and after between 4,000 and 5,000 Jews. But Tiberias was abandoned. Shabbatai Tzvi (a false messiah) goes to Jerusalem for a visit, and Nathan of Gaza decides to declare his support for his Messiahship (or whatever we can call this). Nobody wants anything to do with this mess, and they threaten his followers with ex-communication. Reduction of Jewish population due to harassment from the government, guild owners, Bedouins, and bandits. European Jews migrated to Palestine and went to Jerusalem, but Turkish authorities wanted financial guarantees from Jerusalemites in exchange for permission. But countless of these Ashkenazim residents needed financial help from the diaspora, and the influx of more Ashkenazim immigrants created a crisis. Many suspected they were Sabateans and looked at them with hostility. The newcomers built a synagogue, incurring more debt. Unable to pay them back, the Arabs destroyed the synagogue with fire and the Ottoman authorities held the local Ashkenazi community responsible, driving them all out of Jerusalem.

18th Century

Punchline: Ottoman authorities limited the number of Jews allowed to live in Jerusalem, so the Jewish immigrants decided to settle in other cities.

Main Personality: Chaim Abulafia (he renewed the settlement in Tiberias)

The Jewish community has been recovering, especially in Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias, Hebron and Gaza. Rabbi Chaim Abulafia renewed the Jewish settlement in Tiberias. A group of Moroccan and Italian Jews settled in Jerusalem. But the majority of Jews in Palestine were Sephardim or Mizrahim, with very few Ashkenazim. So the Ottoman authorities limited the number of Jews allowed to live in Jerusalem. An earthquake destroyed Safed and Tiberias, killing 2000 people, with 190 Jewish casualties. A group of Lithuanian Chassidim went to settle in Tiberias and Peki’in. More Jews began to inhabit Galilee, and the Ashkenazim presence increased outside Safed, where they had hitherto been concentrated. A group of approximately 6500 Jews lived in Palestine. During the siege of Acre, Napoleon issued a proclamation to the Jews of Asia and Africa to conquer Jerusalem, but no one really sided with him.

19th Century

Punchline: Arab peasants massacre the Jews, yet the first Zionist settlements arrive, and they live well with the Arab peasants but not so well with the Arab elites.

Main Personality: Haim Farkhi (Jewish counselor of Ottoman Galilee administration, who fought Napoleon himself and was betrayed by his own foster son)

Disciples of the Vilna Gaon, an important Ashkenazi Rabbi of Eastern Europe, decided to live in Israel and later, his two pupils with their own disciples, went to Jerusalem and Safed. Haim Farkhi, adviser to the rulers of Galilee and financial vizier, was assassinated by his adopted son, Abdullah Pasha. After the murder, his brothers in Damascus formed an army and organized a siege in Acre to exact revenge. Abdullah Pasha forced the Jews of Acre and Safed to pay all the taxes from which they had been exempt. Farkhi’s brothers (with support from the Grand Mufti of Constantinople/Istanbul) conquered Galilee, defeated Abdullah’s armies, and appointed new rulers to the conquered regions. Upon arriving in Acre, they surrounded the city for 14 months. The older Farkhi brother was poisoned by emissaries from Abdullah, and the surviving brothers despaired and fled. During the Peasants’ Revolt under Muhammad Ali’s occupation, Jews were targeted in the sacking of Safed in 1834 and the Hebron Massacre of 1834. Safed suffered another blow in 1838, when the Druze conquered the Egyptian garrison in Safed, promoting a new massacre. The first Zionist settlements are created. Finally, 35,000 Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and Sephardim from Turkey, Bulgaria, and North Africa immigrated to Palestine. Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarters became overcrowded, and landlords rented other places for exorbitant prices. The Rothschild Family bought a set of apartments, but it wasn’t enough. Urban planning was done, expanding Jerusalem from its borders beyond the Old City. More than 35,000 Jews arrived in Palestine, established 28 settlements, and bought many acres of land. The Hebrew language was revived.

20th Century

Punchline: After a British-induced struggle between Jews and Arabs, the Jewish people are able to found the State of Israel, despite the Arab neighborhood’s constant attacks.

Main Personality: David Ben-Gurion?

Main Work: The Declaration of the State of Israel?

Another wave of 35,000 Jews arrives in Palestine, straight from the Russian Empire and Yemen. The city of Tel Aviv was founded. The Jewish community of Palestine is sabotaged by the Ottomans, seen as national enemies, for having immigrated from countries now at war with the Empire and for having as their objective their own nation. They deported entire Jewish communities from Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Many deportees died of hunger and disease. British Mandate was founded. The British play with Jews and Arabs, making promises to them and running away when things heat up. Countless waves of migration from Europe are taking place, leading to tensions with the Arabs. Uprisings and massacres became commonplace. The UN partition plan leads to a civil war and then to the War of Independence and the so-called Nakba. Jews struggle to survive and deport Arabs. They expelled the armies of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Numerous wars with neighbors take place. Despite this, Israel prospers economically. Attempts at peace and two-state solutions are proposed to the deported Arab Palestinians, but they are all rejected.

Also check this sheet. It’s an overview of Palestine demographics from the 1st Century until the British Mandate.

Even under massive persecution and population control from the Powers That Be over the centuries, the Jewish population never left Palestine entirely and when they did, it was due to machinations from governors who never wanted the Jewish people to be there. A raise of the taxes, false accusations, or even pogroms were realized to persecute the indigenous people of the land, either Crusaders, Caliphates or Empires.

Yet even when the Jews got kicked out, they always tried to come back. The Holy Land was a place that thrived, produced culture and literature no matter how much opposition we had. The only reason why most of the Jews went to Diaspore was due to a tactic of survival. They can’t kill you all if you are not gathered all in the same spot. Zionism might have been the most successful attempt to come back, most certainly not the first.

Hopefully this seals the argument of who is truly the indigenous nation of Palestine.

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