let's talk about the term "Palestinian Jews"
BRIEF HISTORIC OVERVIEW
The Jewish People are an ethnoreligious group, nation, and tribe originating in the Land of Israel (or what is now Israel-Palestine). Though most Jews were forcibly displaced from our homeland by invading foreign empires (e.g. the Babylonian Empire, Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Arab Islamic empires, European Crusaders) at various points throughout history, there has been a continuous Indigenous Jewish presence in the Land of Israel for the past 4000 years.
Up until the fourth century, the majority of the population in Israel-Palestine was Jewish. However, as a result of forced displacement (i.e. ethnic cleansing), colonizer environmental destruction, forced conversions, antisemitic massacres, disease, and oppressive laws, the Indigenous Jewish population shrunk over the centuries. In this regard, the situation for Jews in Israel-Palestine is very similar to that of other Indigenous groups across the globe.
To reiterate: there has been a continuous Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Today, anti-Zionists commonly revise the history of this population and tokenize and weaponize our existence for their own political purposes, which I will discuss in the next slides.
THE OLD YISHUV
The term “Old Yishuv” refers to the Jewish community that existed in the southern Syrian province (i.e. Palestine) prior to the arrival of the modern political Zionists in the late 19th century. The community was divided into three groups:
(1) Musta’aravim, or the Jews whose ancestors were never displaced from the Land of Israel. Musta’aravim were mostly poor rural farmers. By the time the Ottomans conquered Palestine in the 16th century, only about 10,000 Musta’aravi Jews survived in the region. With the arrival of Sephardi Jews in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition (see next point), most Musta’aravi Jews intermarried with Sepharadim, so their distinct culture merged with Sephardi culture, so much so that Ladino, the Sephardi language (a mix of Old Spanish and Hebrew), became the lingua franca among the Jews of Palestine. The longest-surviving Musta’aravi community was that of Peki’in; however, in the 1930s, they had to evacuate their historic village due to Arab violence. Peki’in still has the oldest synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the world, dating back to the Second Temple and Mishnaic periods.
(2) following the expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497, respectively, many fled to Palestine, primarily to the cities of Jerusalem, Safed (Tzfat), Tiberias, and Hebron. This revived the fledgling Jewish community in the region.
(3) small groups of Ashkenazi Jews also returned to Palestine and thus came to form a part of the Old Yishuv, beginning in the 1700s.
ANTISEMITISM & OPPRESSION
Antisemitism against the Indigenous Jewish community of Palestine was not a case of isolated incidents, but rather, deeply systemic. Jews were disenfranchised in a multitude of ways: socially, economically, politically, legally, and more.
Jews formed the majority of the population until the fourth century, when the Byzantines enacted a series of increasingly repressive laws. For example, Jews were prohibited from entering Jerusalem, holding political office, and building new places of worship. They were massacred periodically, most notably, under Emperor Heraclius, whose persecution of Jews prompted many to flee to Egypt or to the mountains.
With the Arab conquest of the Levant in the 7th century, Jews became “dhimmis,” or second-class citizens. Jews were subject to extra taxes (which kept the community in deep poverty), prohibited from building new synagogues, forced to dress differently, and barred from employing Muslims, among many, many other repressive and humiliating laws. Jewish witnesses were not admissible in court, meaning that Jews were left with no legal recourses. In 1012, “The Mad Caliph” Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah forced all Jews to either convert to Islam or flee, which once again decimated the Jewish population.
While the Ottomans abolished the dhimmi system in the mid-19th century, the damage had already been done, leaving the Indigenous Jewish community impoverished and disenfranchised, so much so that the Old Yishuv relied on financial aid from Jews abroad to survive. The Ottomans continued enacting oppressive property laws targeting Jews in the late 19th century.
For hundreds of years, Jews were also the victims of frequent pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) at the hands of their Arab neighbors.
JEWS & PALESTINIAN IDENTITY
Before delving into how Jews self-identified in Palestine, it’s important to understand three things:
(1) a cohesive, national Jewish identity has existed for 3000+ years, since the period of the Kingdom of Israel. In other words, we have considered ourselves a “nation” for thousands of years. (2) in 132-135 CE, the Indigenous Jewish population in the Land of Israel (then known as Judea) revolted against the rule of the Roman Empire. The revolt ended in absolute disaster, with 600,000-one million Jews killed or enslaved; likely as punishment for the revolt, the Romans changed the name of the land to Syria-Palestina. Thus, for Jews, “Palestine” was long considered a colonial/imperial term. (3) the map that encompasses “historic Palestine” did not always look the same. In fact, during the Arab caliphate period, what is now Palestine was considered a part of Syria. During the Ottoman period, Palestine was periodically divided into different “provinces,” including the “provinces” of Beirut, Aleppo, and Jerusalem. During the British period, Jordan was a part of the British Mandate. As such, a cohesive Palestinian national identity independent of a greater Arab national identity is a rather recent historic development.
The vast majority of historians date the emergence of a cohesive Palestinian national identity to the interwar period between the two world wars, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the rapidly souring relations between Palestinian Arabs and Jews. However, some historians date the emergence of a cohesive Palestinian national identity to the 1834 Syrian Peasant’s Revolt. It’s worth noting, however, that Jews were brutally massacred during said revolt; that is, from the very beginnings of Palestinian nationalism, Palestinian Arabs did *not* consider Jews to be a part of the Palestinian nation, despite the fact that these Jews had lived there for hundreds, if not thousands of years, long before the Arab conquest of the region.
So how *did* “Palestinian Jews” actually identify?
Well, as Jews, of course, but also as “the People of Israel,” as we have for thousands of years. Notably, both the Jews of Palestine and the Jews of the diaspora considered the Jews of Palestine the “torch bearers” of the Nation of Israel. In other words, while most Jews had been forcibly displaced, those that hadn’t carried the torch on for the rest of the Jewish community. They also referred to the land as Eretz Israel, or the Land of Israel.
The leaders of the Old Yishuv long objected to the term “Palestinian Jew.” For instance, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Palestine from 1921-1939 Yaakov Meir, born in Jerusalem in 1856, refused to identify as a “Palestinian Jew.” So did the next Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, born in Jerusalem in 1880.
Finally, the Old Yishuv also identified as the Indigenous population of Palestine. Interestingly, however, they not only considered themselves Indigenous, but *all* Jews as well, regardless of their diasporic experience. In fact, an Old Yishuv leader, Eliahu Eliachar, criticized the 1939 British White Paper at the United Nations in 1947 and stated: “As the Indigenous population of Palestine, we demand the restitution of our rights…and the opening of the gates to all Jews in need of a home, whether from East or West…To impose upon Palestine a permanent Jewish minority is to add insult to injury.”
During the period of the British Mandate, the term “Palestinian Jew” referred to any Jew living in Mandatory Palestine, regardless of how long they had or had not resided there. Many important Palestinian institutions, newspapers, etc. were actually established by Zionists, such as The Palestine Post, now known as The Jerusalem Post. In Europe, Jews (living in Europe) were often called “Palestinians.”
VIEWS ON ZIONISM
Despite the tensions between the Old and New Yishuvim, the leaders of the Old Yishuv supported the idea of a sovereign, independent Jewish nation from the outset. For instance, Yaakov Meir spoke fluent Hebrew and encouraged the construction of new Jewish Quarters in Jerusalem. He also eagerly supported the re-establishment of an independent Jewish Israeli nation.
Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel also supported Zionism, stating: “We all desire that the in gathering of the exiles should take place from all areas where they have been scattered; and that our holy language will be upon our lips and upon the lips of our children, in building the Land and its flowering through the hands and work of Israel; and we will all strive to see the flag of freedom and redemption waving in glory and strength upon the walls of Jerusalem.”
At the 1921 Cairo Conference, the Jewish National Council of Palestine, which represented the interests of the “Palestinian” Jews, thanked the British for supporting "the rebuilding of the Jewish National Home" and asked that in doing so, Jews did not deprive Arabs “of their legitimate rights.” They also applauded the new Zionist immigrants for their accomplishments in the last 40 years (cultivating the land, etc).
However, what truly united the Old and New Yishuvim under the Zionist cause was the 1929 Hebron Massacre, when Arabs indiscriminately murdered 67 members of the largely apolitical, ancient Hebron Jewish community. The Jews of Hebron had previously declined Zionist paramilitary protection because they had incorrectly believed that as apolitical “Palestinian” Jews, Arab nationalists wouldn’t target them. The Hebron Massacre was the final nail on the coffin for Arab-Old Yishuv relations, and after this, many members of the Old Yishuv joined the Zionist Haganah or Irgun.
WEAPONIZATION & TOKENIZATION
In recent years, anti-Zionists accused of antisemitism will claim that they can’t possibly be anti-Zionist because they support the rights of Palestinian Jews (meaning not just people with one Palestinian and one Jewish parent, but the Indigenous Jews that had resided in Palestine prior to the arrival of the modern political Zionists in the late 19th century). I find this revisionist and infuriating, considering that 100-200 years ago, Palestinian Arabs certainly did not treat Jews like fellow Palestinians.
What’s even more infuriating is the imposition of the term “Palestinian Jews.” People — including Palestinians — have the right to identify as they wish, and communally the Old Yishuv did not and do not identify as Palestinian.
There was quite a bit of cultural tension — and even conflict — between the Old and New Yishuvim. The major source of this tension was that most of these new arrivals were secular and socialist, while the ancient community was deeply religious and apolitical. The source of the tension was *not* that the Old Yishuv opposed Jewish sovereignty or that they saw themselves as members of the Palestinian nation; they very much saw themselves as members of the Nation of Israel and always had. In fact, the Old Yishuv was deeply involved in some aspects of Zionism, such as the revival of the Hebrew language.
It’s also true that many modern political Zionists arriving from Europe held Orientalist views. But the tension between the Yishuvim was vastly overshadowed by the horrendous way that the Palestinian Arab leadership and Palestinian Arab nationalists treated the Old Yishuv. To revise history — to now make the claim that Palestinian Arabs and the Old Yishuv were united in the fight against the Zionists — is an outrageous level of gaslighting.
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