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Emet m'Tsiyon

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A Franciscan Monk on Persecution of Jews in Jerusalem, circa 1500

The usual Arab and pro-Arab propaganda line has held for many years that before Zionism, the Arabs always treated the Jews living among them kindly and well. Since 9/11 especially, this lie has operated as another one of those big lies that so pollutes public discussion of Islamist intentions, as well as discussion of the Arab war against Israel. Indeed, the Arabs and their British and other Western sympathizers were using this lie already during the period of British control of the Land of Israel.

Many books and articles, as well as several previous posts on this blog have shown the falsehood of the claim. However, Israel's enemies will continue to use it when they feel it necessary and when they think that they can still get away with it. The French author Chateaubriand, the Greek monk NeoPhytos, the American writer John Lloyd Stephens, plus Karl Marx --that Karl Marx!!-- have all shown the falsehood of this big lie as concerns the 19th century, and have been quoted in earlier posts on this blog. Other 19th century writers will follow. For a change of pace, let's go back to 1500, before the Ottoman Empire in the Land of Israel, to the time of Mamluk supremacy.

Francesco Suriano [born 1450] was a Venetian sailor and later a Franciscan monk who lived in the Land of Israel and spoke enough Arabic and Greek to get along with other parts of the population. The Franciscan order was appointed by the Pope in 1332, approx., to oversee the affairs of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land. This was after the Crusaders had been driven out of the country by the Mamluks in 1291 and the Western church was no longer represented in the Holy Land, Terra Sancta. Intervention by the king of Naples and Sicily with the Mamluks enabled the Catholic Church to return to the country in the form of the Church's Franciscan representatives.

Suriano lived in Israel for about 25 years off and on, and for six years was the Custos or Guardian of Mt Zion for the order, which meant director of the order's various monasteries and convents in the country, manager and protector of the Church's activities and interests in the Christian holy places, caretaker of Catholic pilgrims who came to the country, and of the religious requirements of Western businessmen living in the Orient under the Mamluks. The Franciscan order held this preeminent role until, at least, the mid-19th century when the Church sent a Latin patriarch to Jerusalem for the first time since the Crusades.

Suriano was the Custos for 5 or 6 years in toto at two separate periods (1493-1496 & 1513-1515). He was in an excellent position to observe and know what was going on through his contacts with the local population, especially the Christians and clergy of other Churches, and with the ruling authorities. Here is his description of the status of the Jews in Jerusalem and of how they were treated by the local Muslims:

[p 101]
"Chapter XXXVIII
How the Jews Are Maltreated by All the Infidels and Moslems

Brother [Suriano himself]. I wish you to know how these dogs of Jews are trampled upon, beaten and ill-treated, as they deserve, by every infidel nation, and this is the just decree of God. They live in this country in such subjection that words cannot describe it. And it is a most extraordinary thing that there in Jerusalem, where they committed the sin for which [p 102] they are dispersed throughout the world, they are by God more punished and afflicted than in any other part of the world. And over a long time I have witnessed that. . . No infidel would touch with his hand a Jew lest he be contaminated but when they wish to beat them, they take off their shoes with which they strike them on the mustaches; the greatest wrong and insult to a man is to call him a Jew. And it is a right notable thing that the Moslems do not accept a Jew into their creed unless he first become a Christian. . . And if they were not subsidised by the Jews of Christendom, the Jews who live in Judea would die like dogs of hunger." [Francesco Suriano, Treatise on the Holy Land (Jerusalem: Franciscan Press, 1949); in original: Trattato di Terra Santa e dell'Oriente].

Note that Suriano, like NeoPhytos more than 300 years later, describes the Jews as being at the bottom of the social totem pole in Jerusalem, the absolute underdogs. He particularly stresses the abuse of the Jews by the Arab-Muslims, neglecting to tell us how the Christians, whether locals or foreigners, treated them. Suriano goes so far as to say that Jews are more oppressed in Jerusalem than anywhere else in the world. Note that he uses the word "infidel" as a synonym for Muslim, just as the Muslims called Jews and Christians kufar [sing. form is kaffir], literally meaning unbelievers or infidels.
The picture of the oppression and persecution of the Jews is not only graphic and repulsive; it is horrendous.
He says that the Muslims would not accept Jewish converts unless they first converted to Christianity. Curiously, a similar attitude was reported in the 1980s on the part of Sunni Muslims in Syria in regard to the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shi`ite Islam [see Jean-Pierre Peroncel-Hugoz, Une Croix sur le Liban (Paris 1985)]. These Sunni Syrians so disdained the Alawites that they insisted that an Alawi had to convert to Christianity before they could let him convert to Sunni Islam.
Finally, note that he describes the Jews in Jerusalem as poor, unable to support themselves without subsidies from fellow Jews abroad. Suriano does not mention that one of the reasons for this was the jizya payments that were extorted from the Jews every year. Indeed, the jizya was imposed by Muslim law on non-Muslims, dhimmis, throughout the Muslim domain, the Dar al-Islam. Making this payment was especially difficult in Jerusalem at that time, since the jizya was paid by the Jewish community as an unchanging fixed sum collectively each year without regard to the size of the community, which might fluctuate, and in particular without regard to the number of breadwinners or adult men in the community. When the community could not or could barely raise the funds to pay the jizya by taxing its members, some members might leave because they could not afford to pay their share. This made things more difficult for those remaining. And this in turn may have driven more Jews to leave the city, thus creating a vicious circle. Things seem to have improved in this regard in the early Ottoman period.
For a scholarly view of the Jews in Jerusalem in the late Mamluk period, when Suriano visited and lived there, see Avraham David in "The Mamluk Period" in Israel: People, Land, State (Avigdor Shinan, ed.: Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben Zvi, 2005).

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We will resume our account of the Jewish majority in Jerusalem in the second half of the 19th century. Karl Marx's report on this matter is given in an earlier post on this blog. Reports by Santine, a Frenchman, al-Qasatli, an Arab, and others, will appear soon.

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