immigration to Palestine during the late Ottoman and British periods

 

BACKGROUND

There is a harmful narrative — which unfortunately has basically been accepted as fact among left-wing spaces — that the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict fits a simple binary of the “settler Jews (or Zionists) vs Indigenous Palestinians.” This narrative is not only revisionist, but also a blatant erasure of well-documented Jewish, Southwest Asian (that is, Middle Eastern), and Islamic history.

To be abundantly clear: human rights are for everyone, regardless of whether a person is Indigenous to a land or not. The purpose of this post is not to dismiss or invalidate Palestinian identity, culture, and/or history, nor am I saying that Palestinians do not have a right to sovereignty. Instead, I am sharing this post to dispel the above harmful, increasingly popular narrative.

Unfortunately I have to keep the comments closed in this post because there is no way that they will remain respectful of all the parties involved.

 

JEWS

The Jewish People are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the region today known as Israel-Palestine, with a history dating back over 4000 years. Throughout history, a series of foreign empires conquered the Land of Israel and expelled (i.e. ethnically cleansed) the Indigenous Jewish population. Among these empires were the Babylonian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Arab Islamic Caliphates, the Crusaders (“the Kingdom of Jerusalem”), the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. Despite previous attempts of ethnic cleansing, Indigenous Jews remained the majority in Israel-Palestine until the fourth century.

Jewish spirituality, culture, and identity is inextricable from the Land of Israel. In fact, the original meaning of the word diaspora is “the dispersion of Jewish people beyond Israel.” We pray facing Jerusalem. The Hebrew calendar follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. Many of the 613 mitzvot can only be performed in the Land of Israel. The desire to return to our ancestral homeland has been a tenet of our culture and faith for 2000 years; in fact, the word Zionism (the movement for Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel) comes from an event known as “the Return to Zion,” which took place in 538 BCE.

Today’s Jews are the direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. Archeology, historical record, and culture all prove this. Today, DNA studies indisputably prove it as well. Jews are not only genetically related to each other, but we are more genetically related to other Levantine populations (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine) than to our host diaspora populations. That is to say, an Ashkenazi Jew from Poland will be drastically more genetically related to a Palestinian than to a non-Jewish Pole. For more on this, I recommend my post JEWS & INDIGENEITY: A CONVERSATION WITH NATIVE JEWS.

 

ARABS & PALESTINIANS

Arabs are an ethnolinguistic and socioethnic group originating in the Arabian Peninsula. With the Islamic conquests beginning in the seventh century, Arabs spread to other regions of Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and North Africa. Not all people who identify as Arab today literally originated in the Arabian Peninsula; instead, many are people whose ancestors were Arabised through conquest and today speak Arabic and whose culture is Arab culture.

Arabs first arrived to Palestine with the Islamic conquest in the seventh century. Palestinians are an ethnonational group descended from the various peoples who at one point or another inhabited Palestine; today, Palestinians are linguistically and culturally Arab, though of course there are aspects of Palestinian culture that are strictly Palestinian. Prior to Israel’s independence in 1948, the term “Palestinian” referred to anyone that lived in Palestine, including recently arrived Jewish immigrants and refugees.

Though many Palestinian families have deep roots in Israel-Palestine (an example being the Aboulafia family, whose ancestors were Sephardic Jews), other prominent families can trace their ancestry directly to the Arabian Peninsula. Some of these families include the Tamimi family, the Barghouti family, and the al-Husayni family (as in the infamous Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husayni).

Many Palestinian families, however, arrived to Palestine much more recently.

 

 

ASHKENAZI IMMIGRANTS

Ashkenazi Jews — that is, the diasporic Jewish population whose ancestors coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire at the end of the first millennium, migrated to Central Europe, and then migrated eastward to escape persecution — made numerous pre-19th century historical attempts to return to the Land of Israel. Most of these attempts were catastrophically unsuccessful due to antisemitic violence and harsh conditions.

Between 1881-1903, some 25,000-35,000 Jews — most of them Ashkenazim escaping massacres in Eastern Europe — immigrated to Ottoman Palestine. Only around 15,000 stayed, due to the harsh conditions. Notably, in June of 1882, the Ottoman Empire prohibited Jews from immigrating anywhere in the Ottoman Empire. A month later, the law was revised, and Jews were permitted to immigrate anywhere in the Ottoman Empire except for Palestine. In 1893, the Ottomans prohibited all Jews — Palestinian or not — from purchasing land in Palestine. As such, much of this immigration was done illegally. No such restrictions existed for Arabs.

 

Between 1904-1914, some 35,000 Jews fled violence (again, mostly in Eastern Europe) and sought refuge in Ottoman Palestine. About 90% of these immigrants left soon thereafter, due to harsh economic conditions and disease. Between 1919-1923, another 40,000 Jews arrived to Palestine (now under the British) from Europe. Another 70,000 Ashkenazi immigrants arrived in the 1920s, but 23,000 ended up leaving.

Prior to the Holocaust, another massive influx of Jewish immigrants — between 225,000-300,000 — arrived from Europe. This angered the Arab leadership in Palestine, which resulted in incitement and in anti-Jewish massacres (see my post A HISTORY OF POGROMS IN PALESTINE). In response to the pogroms, the British passed the 1939 White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 people over a period of five years (remember, this is in the lead up to the Holocaust). All other immigration would be subject to the approval of the Arab Higher Committee. Jews could not purchase any land save for 5% of the Palestine Mandate territory. However, the Arab Higher Committee rejected the paper on the basis that Jewish immigration wasn’t limited enough (see my post THE ZIONISTS & THE BRITISH: WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED).

The Jewish Agency for Palestine issued a statement, accusing the British of denying Jews their rights in “the darkest hour of Jewish history.”

 

SEPHARDI & MIZRAHI IMMIGRANTS

Historically, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews have made multiple attempts to return to the Land of Israel. Most notably, of course, is the Return to Zion in 538 BCE, when Jews who’d been exiled to the Babylonian Empire returned to the Land of Israel.

Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497, respectively, many Sephardi Jews fled to Palestine, soon becoming the Jewish majority and establishing some of the oldest continuous Jewish communities there.

Jewish immigration during the 19th and early 20th centuries was not limited to Jews coming from Europe. Between 1881-1904, 10% of all Yemenite Jews immigrated to Palestine. Most settled in Jerusalem and Jaffa.

Between 1880-1914, 8% of all Bukharian Jews from Uzbekistan fled to Jerusalem, escaping brutal persecution.

In the 1920s, another 10,000 Mizrahi Jews immigrated to (now British) Palestine, coming primarily from Yemen and Iraq.

 

ARAB IMMIGRATION (19TH CENTURY)

As of 1850, between 200,000-300,000 people lived in Palestine. By 1900, just 50 years later, the population of Palestine had doubled (or tripled, depending on the statistics) to around 600,000. Just around 25,000-35,000 new Jewish immigrants arrived during this period, and it’s estimated that only 15,000 stayed, due to harsh conditions. In other words, in addition to natural population growth, Arab immigration to Palestine from elsewhere was a significant factor in the drastic population increase. This is in stark contrast to the population of Palestine in the 18th and early 19th centuries, which showed virtually no growth.

Most immigrants to Palestine during this period were Egyptian Arabs. This wave of immigration started in 1829, after thousands of peasants fled harsh labor laws imposed by the Egyptian ruler, Mehmmet Ali Pasha. Travellers during this period wrote that Bedouin tribes accompanied the peasants as well. In 1831, Egypt invaded Palestine. Over 6000 Egyptian peasants crossed into Palestine during the invasion; various Bedouin tribes also arrived with the Egyptian army. Others fled to Palestine as a result of blood feuds between different clans. Many Egyptian soldiers and administrators also chose to stay in Palestine.

By the late 19th century, the city of Jaffa had Egyptian neighborhoods all over town.

The British invasion of Egypt in 1882 prompted many Egyptians to flee to Palestine. A news report from the time stated: “Many of the people come here from Egypt to wait until the danger passes.” Very few actually returned to Egypt.

Today, the third most common last name in Palestine is “El Masry” (or al-Masry), meaning, quite literally, “the Egyptian.”

 

ARAB IMMIGRATION (20TH CENTURY)

Between 60,000-100,000 Arabs immigrated to Palestine between the two world wars. There are numerous reasons for this migration, most notably, new economic opportunities. It was also during this interwar period that a cohesive Palestinian national identity emerged.

In the early 20th century, many Egyptian peasants came to Palestine to build railroads. In March of 1926, a railroad from Egypt to Palestine was completed, which prompted many young people to leave by train to seek employment in Palestine.

In the 1920s and especially in the 1930s, the coastal plain between Gaza and Jaffa, as well as the area between Gedara and Ness Ziona, Ramle, and Lod became densely populated with Egyptian immigrants.

During World War II, when Jewish immigration was essentially squashed, the British brought Syrian and Lebanese laborers to Palestine. Civilians also employed foreign contractors, many of whom came to Palestine without the legal paperwork. Around 2046 foreign contractors were employed in Jewish farms and kibbutzim, of which 14.5-38.3% were Egyptians and Sudanese. Government records from this period state that there were some 14,000 Egyptian and Lebanese laborers. The population increase along the southern coastal plain during this period was almost completely due to Arab immigration.

In the area of Israel now known as “the Triangle,” over 35% of the population consisted of immigrants from Egypt. 10-15% of the Israeli Palestinian population today lives in that region.

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