Reader Post: Palestine – The Last 2000 Years


L. King is a frequent commentator on the Arab Israeli conflict and an avid reader, collector  and reviewer of books on the region.

Book Review: History of Palestine: The Last 2000 Years
Jacob de Haas, MacMillan and Company, 1934

While much has been written about Israel and Zionism in the 20th and now 21st century, neither Zionists nor anti-Zionists seem to have much of a clue as to the real history of the Land of Israel prior to this point in time. Recently I read a superb account written by Jacob de Haas in 1934, spanning from Roman times to what was then the present day. A thorough reading of de Haas complete obliterates the myth of uninterrupted Arab pastoralism where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in peace and harmony. Instead what is portrayed is a region of constant turmoil, punctuated with near extinction events with a constant churn of invasion, migration, lawlessness, predatory raiders and natural disaster.

The following is an excerpt of my review on Amazon, covering the 16th-19th centuries:

The Ottoman rise in Palestine begins in 1516. Selim I, fresh from his bloody conquest of Persia, took on the Mamluks first in Syria, then proceeded to Gaza, then headed west where the final battle took place in Khan Yunis, giving him effective control of Palestine. However, having conquered the territory, other than some initial curiousity over Jerusalem, he showed little interest other than the extraction of taxes. And other than the building program of his son, Suleiman the Magnificent, neither did his successors. Both Selim and Suleiman had cordial relations with the Jews, and Suleiman welcomed large numbers of Jewish refugees from Spain throughout his empire, especially Tiberias and Safed, however the friendly relationship with the court did not translate well with the locals, nor were Christians included – they were barred from settling in Nazareth and restricted in Jerusalem. The Jews fared more poorly under the short reign of Murad II (1574-94) who ordered their execution as he did not like their ostentatious clothing – through special pleading he agreed that they should be marked by wearing small turbans. The lack of protection from above led to persecutions in Damascus, Safed and Jerusalem.

The 18th century was marked by the exploits of two local warlords. Zaher ed `Omar of Tiberias, son of a Bedouin chief, began as a brigand, and through alliances with other Bedouin tribes, wound up controlling most of northern Palestine as far as Sidon, except for Jerusalem, and he allied with Ali Bey, who fomented a revolution against the Porte in Cairo. He was succeeded by el Djezzar (ltterally “the Butcher”) known for ear cropping, nose splitting, eye gouging and executions as judge, jury and executioner. A native of Bosnia or Albania he rose under Ali Bey to the position of governor of Beirut. Switching to the Turkish side he took part in the final attack on Zaher and was rewarded with the governorship of Sidon which included Acre, where he proceeded to murder all of Zaher’s relatives. By 1783 he had control of a region from “Dog River” (Nahr al-Kalb) north of Beirut to Caesaria, and as far east t as the Jordan and the Anti-Lebanon in the north. Jaffa OTOH was part of the Sanjak of Gaza, and belonged as a tax farm to the Sultan’s mother-in-law. However el Djezzar’s quarrels with French traders at Acre provided an excuse for Napoleon’s attempt at invasion. Zaher continued to rule until his death in 1803/4 and he was succeeded by his Jewish treasurer Hayim Farchi, who was said to be a benign ruler, until he was murdered in 1820 by Abdallah, son of the Pasha of Tripoli, whom he had taken in 5 years before as an administrative apprentice being groomed for higher office.

The final era that de Haas covers features a European Rediscovery of the Holy Land and the Return of the Jews. The British reversal of Napoleon’s thrust into Egypt and the Levant demonstrated the weakness of Ottoman control of its provinces. Mehmet Ali, an Albanian, having distinguished himself in campaigns against the French and the Mamluks, rose quickly to become Viceroy of Egypt. In 1827, using as a pretext the migration of 6000 Egyptian fellaheen to Acre (and the loss of their taxes to Egypt), Ali sent his son Ibrahim launched an attack against Abdallah, and, armed with a demand against the Sultan for his independent rule of Egypt, continued step by step to take Jaffa, Jerusalem, Homs, Beirut, Damascus and Aleppo and Koniah,

Mehmet and Ibrahim’s rule was both firm and and outwardly fair. He brought the widespread problem of Bedouin brigands who had terrorized the countryside under control, invested in agricultural development, particularly in the planting of cotton and mulberries for the silk trade, and abolished the unequal treatment of Christians under the law, nullifying the dress code and giving equal weight to their testimony in court. OTOH he raised taxes and “aided” his subjects to pay them by loaning them money at 22%, and ordered conscription as a community levy, which led to an unsuccessful uprising in 1834. He also opened up the Levant to foreign consuls, giving Europeans a foothold in the Holy Land for the first time since the Crusades.

Mehmet’s ambitions proved to be his undoing. The Sultan, Mahmoud II, enlists the help of the major European powers, Russia, Austria, Prussia, England and France (though France drops out in 1840) and Ibrahim, like Napoleon before him, is driven back to Egypt by British forces. Regrettably, both the English and the Egyptians employ a scorched earth policy, leaving much of Palestine in ruins.

Mahmoud’s successor, Abdul Mejid, becomes Sultan in 1839, and, after Mehmet’s defeat, chooses to continue his reforms. The 1841 Tanzimat declaration theoretically granted equality and security of life and property to Muslims, Christians and Jews, though Muslims resented the loss of status and the actual implementation was imperceptibly slow. Additional reforms, at least on paper, was the 1859 Mejelle or civil code and the 1856 land reforms allowing non-Muslims for the first time to purchase property. More significant, esp in Jerusalem, was the effect of the capitulations, which gave Europeans the ability to take minorities under their protection, both from the courts and from taxes. Another characteristic of the age was the introduction of Protestant missionaries who, forbidden from converting Muslims, attempted to convert Jews and eastern Christians to Protestantism.

With the exception of Midhat Pasha, most of the Ottoman administration had little interest in the development Palestine other than in the collection of taxes. Except for some roads built by conscripted labour in the 90s, most improvements were created by foreigners. As of 1909 Beersheba was a mere trading post, and in 1910 Jews began a new city next to Jaffa called Tel Aviv (de Haas translates this as mundanely as “Springdale”), after the name given in Herzl’s book, “Altneuland” in Hebrew.

While several books talk about the history of Jerusalem specifically, I’ve yet to find anything comparable to de Haas, who’s own biography is quite interesting though I’ve only been able to pick up snatches here and there.   An orthodox Jew, he was secretary to the 1st Zionist Congress, worked as an aid to Herzl,  migrated to the US in 1902, assumed the leadership of the Federation of American Zionists and was instrumental in transferring the Zionist office infrastructure from Germany to a neutral country (America) just days before to the outbreak of WW I.   As an editor he was associated with the London based Jewish World, then later the Boston Jewish advocate and was one of the forces behind the 1934 Encyclopaedia of Jewish Knowledge.

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