the Arab colonization of the Levant


Colonialism is the practice of a country or empire imposing control and power over other peoples or territories through the establishment of colonies. Colonizers impose their religion (e.g. Christianity or Islam), language (e.g. Spanish, English, and Portuguese in the Americas, Arabic in Southwest Asia and North Africa), economic systems, and more on the colonized population.

Imperialism is the practice of a country or empire extending power and control through conquest, usually by military force.

Though related, colonialism and imperialism are not always interchangeable.

Language is an easy way to spot colonization and imperialism. When a language spans entire countries and even continents, it’s a telltale sign that colonization and/or imperialism have taken place.

Jews and Samaritans are the only surviving cultures that can trace their direct ancestry AND culture to the ancient Hebrews and Israelites, which emerged from Indigenous Canaanite tribes over 3000 years ago. In fact, Hebrew — including Samaritan Hebrew — is the only surviving Canaanite language that exists to this day. For more on this, I recommend my posts THE JEWISH PEOPLE ARE A TRIBE, WHO ARE THE SAMARITANS?, and HEBREW.



The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues defines Indigenous Peoples as the following: (1) self-identification as Indigenous Peoples; (2) historical continuity with pre-colonial and pre-settler societies; (3) strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources; (4) distinct social, economic, or political systems; (5) distinct language, culture, and beliefs; (6) non-dominant groups of society; (7) resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

I could write an entire study on each of those points, but obviously there is no room here with Instagram’s space constraints. So I will add a few examples for each point:

(1) it wasn’t until the 1970s that the term “Indigenous” was used widely to describe peoples outside of the Americas (e.g. the Sámi in the Nordic countries or the Yupiks in Siberia, for example), and even so, Jews have self-identified as “the Indigenous population of Palestine” in the United Nations since the UN was established in the mid-1940s. Notably this self-identification, applying to ALL Jews, was accepted by the Jews who’d lived in the Land of Israel continuously since ancient times.

(2) Jewish culture, national and tribal identity, and spiritual beliefs predate the foreign conquests of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and British by hundreds and thousands of years. Jewish national identity predates Palestinian nationalism by nearly 3000 years.

(3) The Torah, which is the “origin story” of the Jewish People (think Greek mythology) commands all Jews to live in the Land of Israel. Beyond that commandment, many of the 613 “mitzvot” (“commandments”) in the Torah can only be fulfilled while in the Land of Israel. To this day, Jews in the Diaspora pray facing Jerusalem. The Hebrew calendar follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. Spiritual agricultural practices, such as the tradition of Shmita, apply exclusively to the Land of Israel. Judaism doesn’t just place importance on the Land of Israel; it reveres it.

(4) Jewish political and social structures long predate foreign conquest. Most notably, for the past 3000 years, Kohanim — the inherited priestly class (not to be confused with rabbis) — have carried special duties and privileges within the community.

(5) Hebrew, Jewish culture, and Jewish spiritual practices predate foreign conquest by at least 300 years and the Arab conquest of the Land of Israel by over 1600 years.

(6) Jews form 0.2 percent of the world population and 1.6 percent of the population of Southwest Asia (the Middle East). Israel is the only Jewish-majority country in the world. For some 2000 years, Jews in Israel-Palestine were subjected to minority status due to colonialism, imperialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, second-class citizenship, and more.

(7) Jewishness is inherited; it’s passed down from generation to generation. A person born a Jew can never stop being a Jew, regardless of whether they believe in Judaism or not. By contrast, Christianity and Islam, for example, are about believing in the religions of Christianity and Islam, respectively.

For a more in-depth look into Jewish Indigeneity, I recommend my post JEWS & INDIGENEITY: A CONVERSATION WITH NATIVE JEWS and my highlights INDIGENEITY 1, 2, and 3.



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, some 1,600+ years after the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel. Prior to the Arab conquest, the Land of Israel (renamed Palestine by the Romans around the year 136) had been occupied by the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Sassanid Empire (i.e. Persians), the Greeks and Macedonians, the Roman Empire, and the Byzantine Empire.

The first city in Palestine to surrender to the Arab army was the ancient Israelite city of Beit She’an, followed by Tiberias. One by one, the cities fell to the Arab army. In November 636, the Arab army conquered Jerusalem, though a siege continued for four months, until the Byzantines finally capitulated in 637. Beginning in 688, the Arabs constructed the Dome of the Rock and later the al-Aqsa Mosque atop the ruins of the destroyed sacred Jewish Temple. It was customary for conquering armies — including the Arab armies — to build religious monuments on top of the ruins of the sacred sites of those they conquered.

Through their conquests, the Arabs established (literal) colonies in various regions, including the Levant. According to Indigenous eyewitness accounts (e.g. Jews and Samaritans in the Levant, Copts in Egypt, Zoroastrians in Mesopotamia), the rapid conquest and colonization of these regions was devastating to the local territories and populations. Early Arab Caliphate leaders encouraged Arabian tribes to emigrate from Arabia and settle in the newly-established colonies for economic purposes (such as to utilize — in other words, exploit — the natural resources). By the ninth century, as a result of forced conversions, coercion, proselytization, and Arab migration, Islam became the majority religion in Palestine, and Arabic had replaced the previously-used languages as the lingua Franca. Also in the 9th century, the Arabs renamed Jerusalem “Al-Quds,” replacing the ancient Hebrew name for the city.



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.

Jews were forbidden from building new synagogues. Synagogues could not be taller than mosques and the homes of Jews could not be taller than the homes of Muslims. Jews could not raise their voices during Muslim prayer times. Jewish children could not be taught the Quran. Jewish funerals had to be quiet and Jews could not be buried near Muslims. Jews had to show deference to Muslims; for example, if a Muslim wished to sit where a Jew was sitting, the Jewish person had to give up their seat. Muslims were prohibited from converting to Judaism. Jews had to dress differently than Muslims. Jews had to wear identifying yellow belts or turbans and had to cut off their sidelocks. Jews could not ride the same animals as Muslims and could not use a saddle. Jews were forbidden from taking Muslim titles. Jews could not own weapons. Jews had to host Muslim passerbys for 3 days. Jews could not govern, lead, or employ Muslims. Jews could not buy a Muslim prisoner or slaves who had been allotted to Muslims. Jews could not engrave Arabic inscriptions on signet seals. Jewish witnesses were not admissible in court. Jews were subject to a “jizya” tax. Jews could not join the military or work for the government. When harmed by a Muslim, Jews had to purchase Muslim witnesses, which left Jews with virtually no legal recourse. Jews could not marry a Muslim woman. Jews could not criticize Islam or the Quran on penalty of death.



While dhimmi laws affected Jews in all Muslim-controlled territories, the Arab conquest of Palestine (then known as Bilad al-Shaam) drastically changed the demographics of the region now known as Israel-Palestine.

In particular, the Hakim Edict, constructed by “the mad Caliph” Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1021) coerced Jews into either converting to Islam or exile from Israel-Palestine in 1012 in an act of ethnic cleansing.

Prior to this expulsion, Al-Hakim’s implementation of dhimmi laws was particularly oppressive. In addition to other differentiating garments, Jews were forced to wear heavy wooden calf necklaces. In public baths, Jews had to replace the calf with a bell. Alcohol was strictly forbidden, which proved difficult for both Christians and Jews, who used wine for their religious rites. Synagogues and churches were destroyed. Many Jews unwillingly converted to Islam but continued practicing Judaism in secret.

In order to free themselves from this second-class status, minorities under the rule of the Arab Empire had to convert to Islam or fight alongside Muslims in battle. As such, many were also coerced to convert to live a better quality of life.



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.

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. For more on this, see my post LET’S TALK ABOUT THE TERM “PALESTINIAN JEWS.”

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 — independent of the colonizer (i.e. Arab) 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. Even so, Palestinian nationalists — including the Arab Higher Committee during the British Mandate and the Palestine Liberation Organization Charter — have continued to emphasize the “Arab” nature of Palestinian identity. The first use of the term “Palestinian” in Arabic to refer to the region’s Arab inhabitants dates back to 1898. 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.



Many prominent Palestinian families can directly trace their lineage to clans in the Arabian peninsula (e.g. the Al-Husseini family). Others have ancestry from elsewhere in the Arab world; for example, the third most common Palestinian surname is El Masry, which translates to “the Egyptian.” Others, such as the Aboulafia family in Jaffa, have Jewish ancestry. Many Palestinians in Nablus (historic pre-colonization name: Shechem) have Samaritan ancestry. For more on this, I recommend my posts IMMIGRATION TO PALESTINE DURING THE LATE OTTOMAN & BRITISH PERIOD and WHO ARE THE SAMARITANS?

Pan-Arabism homogenizes an enormous region of the world, which results in the automatic racial and cultural erasure of a plethora of Indigenous peoples (e.g. Kurds, Imazighen, Yazidis, Assyrians, Copts, Jews, etc.). While people who identify as Arab in the Levant might have (for example) Jewish ancestry, they’ve long assimilated into Arab culture and identity. 

@mahrinah, a Sephardic Jewish and Tewa educator, explains that decolonization is not merely about “kicking out the colonizer,” but rather, “the act of stripping off the layers of influence of outside forces within one’s culture, as that culture has been subjected to colonization.” In other words, if you “kick out the colonizer” but keep their culture as the default, normative culture (e.g. Spanish culture in Latin America or Arab culture outside of the Arabian peninsula), you are not really decolonizing. That said, decolonization or not, that does not preclude anyone from being entitled to human rights.

For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon

Back to blog