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Emet m'Tsiyon

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Gedaliah of Semyatich Gives an Account of the Land of Israel [circa 1716] -- Part One

Gedaliah of Semyatich [Siemiatycze] came to settle in Jerusalem in 1700 from Semyatich [Siemiatycze] in Poland, east-northeast of Warsaw in the Bialystok region. He came as part of a group led by Rabbi Judah Hasid. Their purpose "was to hasten the redemption by ethical conduct, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-mortification" [Encyc. Judaica, vol. 7]. He wrote a book published in Berlin in Hebrew in 1716, Sha'alu Shlom Yerushalayim [Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem]. Here he described his group's experiences, "the oppression of the authorities who extorted a great sum of money from them in the form of taxes and bribes; and the methods of collecting the poll tax. He also depicts Jerusalem life in general . . . the holy places, and especially the prayers at the Western Wall" [EJ]. Gedaliah's brother, Moses, was accepted as a teacher "in the yeshivah founded by Abraham Rovigo in Jerusalem" [EJ]. Gedaliah traveled abroad in order to raise funds to support Jews in Jerusalem.

In the current debates or discourse over the history of the Land of Israel, over the experiences of the Jews in the Land, and over Zionism, Gedaliah's book is an important testimony of the history of his times, which in fact fits in with what we know from other sources, in particular how the Jews were exploited by the Muslim government and the local Muslim notables. Gedaliah's testimony is important since it vitiates the politically tendentious arguments made by French "historian" Henry Laurens and by Columbia University English teacher, Edward Said, to be discussed below after Gedaliah's account.

Jews and Christians in Jerusalem (1700)
We Jews were obliged to give a large sum of money to the Muslim authorities in Jerusalem in order to be allowed to build a new synagogue. Although the old synagogue was small and we only wanted to enlarge it very slightly, it was forbidden under Islamic law to modify the least part. . . In addition to the expenses of bribes destined to win the favor of the Muslims, each male was obliged to pay an annual poll tax of two pieces of gold to the sultan. The rich man was not obliged to give more, but the poor man could not give less. Every year, generally during the festival of Passover, an official from Constantinople would arrive in Jerusalem. He who did not have the means to pay the tax was thrown into prison and the Jewish community was obliged to redeem him. The official remained in Jerusalem for about two months and consequently, during that period the poor people would hide wherever they could, but if they were ever caught, they would be redeemed by community funds. The official sent his soldiers throughout the streets to control [check] the papers of the passersby, for a certificate was provided to those who had already paid the tax. If anyone was found without his certificate, he had to present himself before the official with the required sum, otherwise he was imprisoned until such time as he could be redeemed. . .
The Christians are also obliged to pay the poll tax. . . The Muslims, however, are not permitted to exact payment of the tax on the Sabbath or Holy Days, and consequently we could walk the streets unmolested on those days. However, during the week, the paupers dared not show themselves outside. Likewise, the soldiers are not allowed to carry out their controls [checks] to collect the tax from door to door, and all the less so in prayer houses. But in their wickedness, the soldiers would go to the synagogues, waiting by the doors, requesting the certificate of payment from the congregants who emerged. . . No Jew or Christian is allowed to ride a horse, but a donkey is permitted, for [in the eyes of Muslims] Christians and Jews are inferior beings. . .
[quoted from Bat Yeor, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1996), pp 377-378]

How kind!! No extortion of "taxes" on Sabbaths or Holy Days!!

Now why is Gedaliah's account significant in regard to the writings of Henry Laurens and Eddy Said? They both select Napoleon's invasion of Egypt [1798] as a turning point in the Middle East. Indeed, it was. But not for everything. Laurens insinuates that Jews throughout the world were not interested in the Land of Israel before Napoleon came to Egypt and issued his famous Zionist proclamation to the Jews to restore a Jewish state in Zion. This is of course a lie for many reasons. And there is much documentation to refute it, including Gedaliah's story of Jews who came from Poland to Jerusalem in 1700, ninety-nine years before Napoleon marched into the Land of Israel in 1799, after having taken Egypt in 1798.

Then Eddy Said plays another trick with Napoleon's expedition to Egypt. He cites several writers, including Chateaubriand and Edward Lane, who came to the Middle East in the early 19th century after Napoleon's invasion, and wrote unflattering pictures of Arab-Muslim society. Said tries to explain these accounts as having been somehow impossible to write before the time that Napoleon came to Egypt. In other words, he says that these accounts were products of Napoleon's imperialism, that is, of imperialism tout court.In fact, Chateaubriand and Lane's accounts fit in with accounts written before Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. Consider Carsten Niebuhr's account of the oppression of dhimmis in Egypt written in the second half of the 18th century [His trip to the Levant was from 1761-1767]. Gedaliah's report too, written close to one hundred years before Napoleon came to Israel, fits in with Niebuhr and Lane's pictures of the oppression of dhimmis in Egypt, which Napoleon did not end. His report also refutes Laurens' insinuation that Jews were not interested in coming to live in the Land of Israel before Napoleon.
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Coming: Part Two of Gedaliah's account, Poems of Zion, other updatings on old subjects.

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