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Emet m'Tsiyon

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Jews in Jerusalem in Mid-Century [circa 1850], a British View - Part One

The British consul assigned to Jerusalem in 1845, James Finn, was sympathetic to the plight of the local Jews, as well as to the local Arabic-speaking Christians, dhimmis like the Jews. Finn and his wife Elizabeth both wrote accounts of Jerusalem while they were living there [1845-1862] which are invaluable for information on the everyday life of the Holy City in those years.

At that time Britain policy was to protect the local Jews against the tyranny of the Ottoman central government and the local Muslim leadership, unlike today when British policy is fanatically anti-Israel and Judeophobic. The UK founded a hospital in Jerusalem in 1838 which had hardly disguised missionary motivations. The consulate came a year later, the first consul being named Young. British and French influence was strengthened in the Ottoman Empire generally and in Jerusalem in particular after the Crimean War, which France and Britain had fought in order to protect the Ottoman Empire from Russia. The Sultan issued a decree in 1856 [the Hatti Humayun] to increase the rights of dhimmis and relieve them of some of the burdens of the dhimma. However, the Muslim population of the Empire generally resented these alleviations of dhimmitude, which indeed reduced their own prerogatives to exploit, harass, humiliate, and oppress the dhimmis, as members of the superior class of Muslims under Muslim law, previously supreme in the Sultan's empire. Indeed, the status of the Christians in various parts of the Empire became more precarious in the wake of the 1856 decree, due to the often increased and intense Muslim resentment. Curiously, some of the Christians, particularly of the Greek Orthodox Church, with the greater freedom that they now had, increased their hostile acts against Jews. Attacking the Muslims in any way was obviously out of bounds for them, and they would never dare to do that.

Finn was a witness to the stirring events of those times. Here Finn writes about the status and sufferings of the Jews. His accounts accord in basic terms with those of Cesar Famin, Chateaubriand, the Greek monk NeoPhytos, the American writer John Lloyd Stephens, etc:

In times gone by these naive Jews had their full share of suffering from the general tyrannical conduct of the Moslems and, having no resources for maintenance in the Holy Land, they were sustained, though barely, by contributions from synagogues all over the world. This mode of supply being understood by the Moslems, they were subjected to exactions and plunder on its account from generation to generation (individuals among them, however, holding occasionally lucrative offices for a time). This oppression proved one of the causes which have entailed on the community a frightful incubus of debts [to Muslim moneylenders], the payment of interest on which is a heavy charge upon the income derived from abroad.
In Jerusalem their synagogues are four, and all collected under one roof, so that they may pass from each into the others, and they are but meanly furnished [I:103]
Until the English Consulate was established in Jerusalem [1839], there was, of course, no other jurisprudence in the country than that of the old-fashioned corruption and self-will of the Mohammedans, and for many ages but a very few (often none) of the European Jews ventured to make an abode in Palestine [the Land of Israel]. . .

The Egyptian Government [1831-1840], with its rigor and rough-handed justice, afforded much relief to all non-Moslem inhabitants of Jerusalem; and the institution of consulates in the Holy City proved a further blessing to non-Turkish subjects of all religions, but especially to the poor oppressed Israelites [I:105-106]

In 1847 it seemed probably that the Christian pilgrims, instigated by the Greek ecclesiastics, were about to reproduce the horrors enacted at Rhodes and Damascus in 1840 [against the Jews-BY].
A Greek pilgrim boy, in a retired street, had thrown a stone at a poor little Jewish boy, and, strange to say, the latter had the courage to retaliate by throwing one in return, which unfortunately hit its mark, and a bleeding ankle was the consequence. It being the season of the year when Jerusalem is always thronged with pilgrims (March), a tumult soon arose, and the direst vengeance was denounced against all Jews indiscriminately, for having stabbed (as they said) an innocent Christian child, with a knife, in order to get his blood, for mixing in their Passover biscuits [= matsot]. The police came up and both parties were taken down to the Seraglio for judgement; there the case was at once discharged as too trivial for notice.

These excerpts from Finn's account are taken from Bat Ye'or's book The Dhimmi. Notes by her are marked BY.
Note that the four synagogues in one building can now be visited in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. They are now usually called the Four Sefardi Synagogues. There was also an Ashkenazic synagogue in his time which Finn does not mention. This synagogue, Menahem Tsiyon, was built in 1837. It became a wing of what was later called the Hurva synagogue, a splendid structure before being destroyed by the Arab Legion in 1948 during the battle for the Jewish Quarter.

Regrettably, Finn used the name "Palestine" for the country. This was NOT a name used by the Muslims in any form for the country. That means that neither was the form Filastin in use. Filastin had been the official Arab name before the Crusades for only the southern part of the country, which the Romans/Byzantines had called Palaestina Prima, one of the three divisions of "Palaestina." Filastin was in use only before the Crusades, but not used by Mamluk or Ottoman rulers afterwards. The Ottoman Empire did not have a territorial division of any name that followed --even roughly-- the boundaries of what later became the Palestine Mandate in 1920, when the San Remo Conference created the territory of Palestine at the same time as it juridically erected the geographically congruent Jewish National Home. The Arabs/Muslims considered the country to be an indistinct part of Bilad ash-Sham [Syria or Greater Syria]. Nevertheless, the name Palestine was part of the Western historical memory and used by Westerners, along with other names such as Holy Land, Judea, etc. The Roman Empire officially called the Land of Israel "Judea" until suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 CE, when they changed that name to "Syria Palaestina" as a punishment for the Jews.
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Coming: more from James Finn on Jews in Jerusalem, poems of Zion, etc.


  • I can't keep up daily. I cheat myself. If you publish these works as books or even as manusripts on the Internet I will sit and read front to back and until I digest what you have. I like your work, and I wish you had the audience you deserve. Others will agree when they get a chance to see it.

    By Blogger Dag, at 9:59 AM  

  • thanks a lot, Dag

    By Blogger Eliyahu m'Tsiyon, at 12:46 AM  

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