The term “ethnogenesis” refers to the foundation and development of an ethnic group. For the Jewish people — and more broadly, our ancestors, the ancient Israelites — our ethnogenesis dates back 3000 years, around the time of the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, when we evolved from a loose confederation of semi-nomadic Hebrew tribes to an actual nation (in this context, a “nation” is not a modern nation-state, but rather, a collective identity with common language, history, ethnicity, culture, territory, and/or society. It’s a term that’s more “political” in nature than “ethnic group,” as nations see themselves as having a common political destiny). The first extra-Biblical reference to “Israel” is 3200 years old and is found in the Merneptah Stele.
Jews became a people in the Land of Israel. This is an indisputable historical fact, extensively backed by archeology, historical record, linguistics, genetic studies, and more. Though most of us were forcibly exiled, there has been a continuous 3000-year Jewish presence in the land.
Jews did not leave our homeland by choice. Instead, we were subject to a number of expulsions by foreign empires, including the Babylonian Exile (587 BCE) and the Roman expulsion following the Jewish Revolts against the Roman Empire (66 CE-135 CE). The formation of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, and other Jewish sub-ethnic groups happened because of our forced displacement(s).
That said, there was an Indigenous Jewish minority that never left our homeland.
THE JEWS WHO FLED TO THE GALILEE
The Jewish-Roman Wars (66 CE-135 CE) — also known as the Jewish Revolts — decimated the Jewish community of the Land of Israel. By the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132 CE-135 CE), Roman Emperor Hadrian massacred the Jewish community in an act of genocide. In total, some 1.4 million Jews were killed or died in the subsequent famine. Another 100,000 were enslaved and taken elsewhere in the Roman Empire.
The Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the midst of the First Jewish Revolt, in 70 CE. After the destruction of the Temple, 24 Kohen (priestly) families fled to the Galilee, where they established villages. A number of Jewish sages, including Rabbi Yehoshua ben Haninah and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai were among those who lived in the mountains of the Galilee.
By the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh century, these Indigenous Jewish communities still existed in the Galilee, in villages such as Peki’in. The Jews remaining in the Land of Israel came to be known as Musta’arabim (or “Musta’aravim” in Hebrew), meaning “those who live among the Arabs.”
Over the centuries, the Arab majority slowly dispossessed Jews from more and more territory. In the 1930s, during the Arab Revolt, the Jews were evacuated from Peki’in, marking the first time in thousands of years that the village had no Jews. In the 1940s, the Jewish Agency sold Jewish land in Peki’in to the Arabs. Today, only one elderly Jew — Margalit Zinati — remains in Peki’in.
LIFE UNDER BYZANTINE RULE
In the third century, the Roman Empire, which then ruled the Land of Israel, split into the Western and Eastern Roman Empires. The Eastern Roman Empire is also known as the Byzantine Empire, which ruled the Land of Israel between 324-636.
The Jewish-Roman Wars had decimated the Jewish population of the Land of Israel, ultimately culminating in over a million deaths from genocide and famine and/or Jews sold into slavery. Around 43 Jewish communities remained in the region, particularly in the Galilee, where 31 communities still existed. Jews were still banned from entering Jerusalem, except briefly between 361-363, when the tolerant Emperor Julian abolished the special taxes forced onto Jews and even started to restore the Temple, though ultimately his initiative was unsuccessful due to his death and an earthquake.
The Byzantines humiliated Jews in any way that they could and severely restricted freedom, which resulted in the loss of social and cultural life. Jews were regularly persecuted, which led to a sharp decline of the population. In 533, Jewish treasures were sacked and taken to Rome. At one point, after promising to restore Jewish rights, Emperor Heraclius (610-641) went back on his word and ended up massacring the Jewish population, prompting many to flee to Egypt.
It was during this period that Hillel II completed the Hebrew calendar. The Jerusalem Talmud, also known as the Land of Israel Talmud or the Palestinian Talmud, was completed in the year 450. As Jews were removed from their positions in civic life, they started engaging in commerce and the profession of dyeing.
Despite hardship, the fledgling community attempted to revolt against their Byzantine rulers a number of times, most notably, in 614-617, when they elicited the help from Persian Jews to overthrow the Byzantines in Jerusalem and briefly succeeded.
LIFE UNDER EARLY ARAB RULE
The Arab Empire (also known as “Caliphate”) conquered the region of the Levant (modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and parts of Turkey) in the seventh century. By the time of the Arab Conquest, the Indigenous populations of the Land of Israel — that is, Jews and Samaritans — still indisputably formed the majority of the demographic if the two populations were combined.
Following Muhammad’s death in 632, the Arab Islamic empires conquered lands exponentially quickly. As a result of this rapid colonization, the Muslim authorities were faced with the “problem” of how to handle the conquered Indigenous peoples that resisted conversion to Islam.
This “problem” was solved with a treaty known as the Pact of Umar. This so-called treaty allowed select religious and cultural minorities (known as “People of the Book”) to practice their beliefs so long as they paid the “jizya” tax and abided by a set of restrictive, second-class citizenship laws. In the Land of Israel, particularly, these laws provided an economic advantage; because most of the population at the time consisted of Jews and Christians this taxation generated an enormous flow of income for the growing empire.
Shortly following the Arab conquest of Palestine, Caliph Uthman (644-656) enacted a number of Arabization policies, displacing Jews to less fertile areas while also promoting the settlement of Arabian tribes in Palestine. Initially the Arabian tribes settled outside of the cities, which were predominantly Jewish and Christian. However, heavy taxation prompted many to leave the cities, making room for Arab Muslims to settle in their stead.
Up until the eighth century, viticulture (i.e. wine-making) had been Palestine’s predominant agricultural product. Viticulture largely sustained the Jewish population; however, because wine is banned in Islam, Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1021) ordered most vineyards destroyed.
LIFE UNDER OTTOMAN RULE
The Ottomans conquered the Land of Israel in the early 16th century. In 1517, in the midst of the Ottoman-Mamluk War, the Jewish communities of the cities of Hebron and Safed were attacked, tortured, killed, raped, and their homes and businesses were looted and pillaged.
Under early Ottoman rule, the Land of Israel was assigned to the Ottoman province of Syria, just as it had been under Arab rule. After 1872, Jerusalem and its surrounding towns (Bethlehem, Hebron, Jaffa, Gaza, and Beersheba) gained special administrative status, known as the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem.
Under Ottoman rule, Jews remained dhimmis, or second-class citizens, subject to the special jizya tax. The Ottomans did not abolish the dhimmi status until 1839. The ruler of Jerusalem between 1621-1626 was known to torture the city’s Jews. In 1834, the Jewish communities of Hebron and Safed were attacked once again, including raping, torturing, murdering, and pillaging. In 1881, to counter the growing influence of the Zionist movement, the Ottomans banned Jewish land purchases; this ban extended to all Jews, including Jews who already resided in Palestine.
In addition to the Sephardic and Musta’aravi communities, there were a number of Ashkenazi migrations to the Land of Israel in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, Ashkenazi Jews were heavily discriminated against; after failing to pay their debts in 1720, Arab creditors broke into an Ashkenazi synagogue and set it on fire. They were then banned from entering Jerusalem, a ban that remained in effect for decades. To avoid discrimination, Ashkenazim started to dress like Sephardim.
CONTINUOUS "NATIONHOOD" WITH DIASPORA JEWS
The Indigenous Jewish population of the Land of Israel never considered the Jews of the Diaspora — whether they resided in Europe or in neighboring Middle Eastern countries — members of a “different” nation. They considered them members of the Nation of Israel who had been exiled. For thousands of years they continued praying for the “Ingathering of the Exiles,” or “Kibbutz Galuyot” in Hebrew, a concept in Jewish eschatology originating from the Torah.
In the early seventh century, the Jews of the Land of Israel elicited the help of Persian Jews in an attempt to retain their sovereignty over Jerusalem.
After the Arab conquest of the Land of Israel in the seventh century, the Jews in Israel maintained close relationships with the Jews in Egypt. The Cairo Geniza, a collection of 400,000 Jewish manuscripts and transcripts spanning the 10th-13th centuries, which was discovered in 1896, revealed letters between the Jews of Jerusalem and the Jews of Cairo, in which the Jews of Jerusalem begged their Egyptian counterparts for financial assistance, as the Arab taxation in Palestine (known as “jizya”) was especially crippling.
After the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions (1492 and 1497, respectively), thousands of Sephardic Jews migrated back to the Land of Israel and quickly fully integrated with the pre-existing Jewish community, whose practices and traditions merged with Sephardic practices. It was only in rural areas, particularly in Peki’in, that the pre-existing community maintained its distinct identity.
For thousands of years — since the early rabbinical period (first century) — the Jews of the Diaspora engaged in a practice known as “Halukka,” in which they donated charity to the Jews who remained behind in the Land of Israel. At times, such as during the famine of 1441, the Jews in Palestine traveled abroad to ask Diaspora Jews for donations. Diaspora Jews considered Halukka a way to fulfill the commandment to “live in Israel” from afar, and saw the Jews of Palestine as the “torch bearers” of the Nation of Israel.
By 1929, following the Hebron massacre, virtually all Jews in Palestine — including Musta’aravim— under the cause of Zionism. Most even joined the Haganah or Irgun.
Before the Arabization of the Land of Israel, beginning in the seventh century, Aramaic was the Jewish community’s lingua franca. However, as with Jews elsewhere in the world, Hebrew remained the liturgical language. The Jews of the Land of Israel also used Hebrew in non-religious literature, and there is a rich collection of Medieval Jewish Hebrew poetry that emerged out of Palestine. After the arrival of Sephardi Jews in the 16th century, Ladino became the Jewish community’s common tongue, though Ashkenazi Jews later brought Yiddish with them as well. In 1863, the first Hebrew newspaper in the world, Ha-Levanon, was printed in Jerusalem.
The Jewish community of the Land of Israel was highly religious and dedicated to the study of the Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah. As explained earlier, both the Hebrew calendar (359) and the Land of Israel Talmud (450) were completed in the Land of Israel. When the Sephardim intermarried with the Musta’aravim, both traditions merged together, with the Sephardi rite having a more “dominant” share. The last time the Musta’aravi rite was used in the 1930s, in Aleppo.
Prior to the Arab conquest, viticulture sustained the Jewish population. During the Ottoman period, the Jewish community largely subsisted off donations from Jews in the Diaspora, though the export of etrogs, one of the Four Species, was also a source of income. The Musta’aravi Jews of the Galilee remained rural farmers well into the 20th century when the last of their communities were destroyed by Arab violence.
Due to centuries of colonial land abuse and mismanagement, food was scarce during the Ottoman period. Milk was given exclusively to pregnant women and meat was a luxury food, reserved for Shabbat and other festivals. It was traditional to bake bread in the home. The community made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and other important spiritual sites during the holidays. In Jerusalem, women dressed in white sheets from head to feet, but they did not cover their faces.
THE ZINATI FAMILY
After the destruction of the Second Temple, three Kohen families fled to Peki’in. Among those families were the direct ancestors of the Zinati family.
By the 20th century, the Jews of Peki’in were largely impoverished and isolated from the rest of the Jewish community, until 1922, when a young Zionist activist and historian named Yitzhak Ben Zvi formed a relationship with them. Ben Zvi later became the second president of Israel.
By the time of the Arab Revolt (1936-1939), only 50 Jewish families remained in Peki’in. The Zinati patriarch was rounded up by Arab gangs and taken to the town square. They said that he was a waste of a bullet and prepared a bonfire with kerosene to burn him alive. Only one Muslim neighbor spoke up and saved him. Eventually the Zinatis, along with all the other families in Peki’in, were evacuated to safety.
None of the other families ever returned. The Zinatis, however, decided to come back with their two children, one of them being Margalit Zinati, born in 1931. They were briefly evacuated again during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, but then returned once again. After the brother married and their parents passed away, Margalit remained the last Jew in Peki’in and decided she would never leave.
She takes care of the ancient synagogue, where she watched over ancient artifacts that date back to the times of the Temple. She speaks both Hebrew and Arabic and is a very proud Israeli.