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by Elliott A. Green


Palestine is a Western name. Arabs and Muslims one hundred years ago did not commonly use it. Nor did they see the country to which the name is applied as a separate country. For them, it was an indistinct part of a larger geographic entity, Bilad ash-Sham (usually translated as Syria or Greater Syria). The Ottoman Empire never used the name officially to apply to any administrative division of its territory. Nor did the Ottoman Empire have a territorial division of any name that corresponded in its boundaries -- even roughly -- to those of the political entity named Palestine set up by the international community in 1920 at San Remo which was designated to embody the Jewish National Home.

Yet, Avi Shlaim, who teaches at a British institution of higher learning, and is more widely known as an Israeli "new" historian, recently wrote in a very thick book:

"At the end of the nineteenth century, Palestine was a province of the Ottoman Empire." (1)

This is a gross error. Yet, rather than explain how a university scholar could write a falsehood about something so elementary and basic, it is more important to point out that elementary mistakes and falsehoods such as this, as well as omissions of basic facts (which also create a false understanding), are symptomatic of our times. A number of other falsehoods concerning this country and its population in 1900, and especially in regard to Jerusalem at that time, are constantly repeated, not only in the press or by Arab propaganda agencies, but in the press releases of those self-styled human rights organizations that almost always seem to favor the rights of one party to a conflict far more than the rights, or even the basic humanity of the other party or parties. These errors turn up over and over in scholarly books and journals, and in the often raucous babble of diplomats at the UN.

Standing out among the truths commonly disregarded concerning the Land of Israel and Jerusalem one hundred years ago, and of special importance at this time of Arab-Israeli negotiations, are:

1-- at the end of the nineteenth century, there was no "Palestine" on the ground, only in Western historical memory and in occasional usage by Western diplomats, scholars and travelers;

2--The population was religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse, although Muslim Arabs were a majority in the country at the time, albeit the country was not then a defined territory;

3--Jews were a majority of the population of Jerusalem and had been so at least since 1870 -- or earlier according to some estimates;

4--Jews were a majority of the inhabitants of the Old City in 1900;

5--Jews lived both inside and outside the Old City walls, inhabiting quarters which were to be occupied by Transjordan (later Jordan) in 1948, and were thus to form part of what could be called "Arab East Jerusalem" between 1948 and 1967.

Muslim Arabs traditionally saw the country as simply an undifferentiated part of Bilad ash-Sham, usually translated as Syria or Greater Syria. This vast expanse included not only Israel, but the Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan of today, roughly speaking. The country that Jews have traditionally called the Land of Israel, and that Christians called the Holy Land -- was not ordinarily or traditionally seen as a separate or distinct land by Muslim Arabs or the Ottoman state.

In 1900, the Land was divided among the vilayets (provinces) of Beirut and Damascus, and the mutesarriflik of Jerusalem. At the start of the nineteenth century, however, Jerusalem had belonged to the vilayet of Damascus. However, after a series of political-military vicissitudes and administrative changes, the Jerusalem district was made into an independent mutesarriflik or sanjaq (district), since its governor reported directly to the capital, not to a provincial governor. This innovation was introduced in 1854 during the Crimean War as a consequence of increasing influence by Christian powers on the Ottoman Empire and Jerusalem's political sensitivity due to the Christian powers' interest in the city. The British and French were doing much of the fighting for the Ottomans against the Russian Empire, and had to be compensated (with favors in Jerusalem, inter alia). Yet, from the Ottoman viewpoint, Muslim interests had to be protected too. Further, the Crimean War had grown out of Christian rivalries in Jerusalem focussed on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Thus decisions about Jerusalem had to be made quickly and at the highest level in Constantinople. They could not be left for the wali of the Damascus vilayet.

Ironically, although the Arabs did not ordinarily or traditionally see the country as a separate land, the term "Holy Land" appears in the Quran used in the Jewish and Christian sense. It says that the Holy Land was divinely assigned to the Children of Israel and they were commanded to enter it (Sura V:21; also V:12, XX:80). (2)

The Quran says too that God settled Israel in a "blessed land" (Sura VII:137; also X:94). It further relates that God will gather the Jews back to their Land from their Dispersion at the End of Days (XVII:104). Why the Muslims did not habitually call the country the Holy Land, in view of the Quranic text, should be the subject of research.

In any event, since the Muslim majority in 1900 did not see the Land as a distinct country, and that there were then deep gaps of identity and sentiment between the religious groups -- including among the Arabic-speakers of different faiths -- it is not credible to claim that the ethnically and religiously diverse population of the Land saw itself as a separate nation or people. The Muslims, who included not only Arabs, but Turks, Bosnians, Circassians, and others, plus Arab families originating in Egypt or elsewhere, saw all of Bilad ash-Sham, as part of the Islamic domain, of Dar al-Islam. Lands within the Islamic domain, originally conquered from non-Muslims, have the status of waqf, that is, property owned collectively by the Muslim community. Waqf ownership is holy and inalienable. This last point means that once a land is waqf it is always waqf, as a Hamas leader once explained to a French journalist. He pointed out that Spain, for instance, was still waqf land. (3)

In principle, he asserted, Muslims cannot accept non-Muslim sovereignty in an Islamic (waqf) land. (4)

Nevertheless, the Spanish example demonstrates that in practice Muslims recognize superior force and come to terms with it -- like nearly everyone else. In circumstances of Muslim weakness, Muslim law holds that the duty of jihad (holy war) to restore waqf land in non-Muslim hands to Dar al-Islam, is left in abeyance.

The waqf concept in its classic form does not allow for local nationalism. It places Islamic affinities above affinities to one's fellow countrymen who may belong to the wrong religion. Indeed, Jews and Christians in the Land suffered persecution and economic exploitation at the hands of local Muslim{s} during the nineteenth century, long before Theodore Herzl was born. Jews and Christians in the Islamic domain had the status of dhimmis, that is, "protected persons." This meant, among other disabilities, that they paid special taxes, jizya and kharaj, to the Islamic state. In practice, they were left open to further exploitation and extortion by local Muslim officials, strong men and notables. Thus they paid all sorts of irregular taxes, levies, exactions, fines, and bribes beyond what Muslim law prescribed. The Ottoman reforms in the mid-nineteenth century did much to make non-Muslims legally equal to Muslims. Yet the new laws were not always carried out and many Muslims resented the legal equality given to dhimmis, whose subordinate status persisted de facto to a great extent.

Although Muslims did not see the Land as a distinct country, in Jewish tradition the Land was called the Land of Israel through Second Temple times, while Christians, through the nineteenth century, were likely to call it Holy Land (in forms to suit each language: Terra Santa, etc.), with Palestine as the most common alternate name. Other alternate names among Christians were Zion, Judea, the Land of Israel, Promised Land, Land of the Bible, the Land of Jesus, etc. On the other hand, the Land was sometimes seen as part of a larger geographic notion, the Near East, Syria, the Levant, the Bible Lands, etc.

The name Palestine gained ground through the nineteenth century against other names. If the medieval Christian West had favored Holy Land, after the Renaissance, Westerners seem to have sought a more "scientific" name. The early modern West admired both science and classical culture. Names for scientific classification were taken from Latin, the language of the Romans, as Linnaeus was doing for biology, giving plants and animals Latin names.

Palestine was the late Roman name for the country, albeit earlier Greeks and Romans had called it Judea (Ioudaia, Iudaea). The Emperor Hadrian imposed the name Palestine after suppressing the Jewish Bar Kokhba revolt (135 CE) and with evident intent to further suppress the Jews. Provincia Iudaea had spread over Samaria, the Coastal Plain, Galilee, both sides of the Jordan and the Golan Heights. Hadrian renamed it Provincia Syria Palaestina. In the following centuries, Palaestina was divided into three parts, Palaestina Prima, Secunda, and Tertia. After the Arab conquest (ca. 640). Palaestina Prima, essentially the southern part of the country (without most of the Negev), was named Jund Filastin (Filastin military district). On the other hand, the Galilee and northern Transjordan (Palaestina Secunda) were renamed Jund Urdunn (Jordan military district). Since the Arabs often retained Roman geographic names, the name Jund Urdunn may indicate that the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire had changed Palaestina Secunda to Iordania before the conquest. The name Filastin was not used by Muslim rulers after the Crusades, and the whole Bilad ash-Sham was several times reorganized administratively by Mamluks and Ottomans before the British arrived. Incidentally, at first (1917-20), before San Remo, the British subsumed the Land under the rubric "Occupied Enemy Territory Administration-South."

Another Arab-retained Roman name was Iliya for Jerusalem, from Hadrian's name for the city, Aelia Capitolina, Aelia for short (Aelius was Hadrian's family or clan name). The Arab names commonly used for Jerusalem today, al-Quds and Bayt al-Maqdis, were introduced long after the conquest. They are modeled on Jewish names for the Holy City, haQodesh and Beyt haMiqdash (originally meaning the Temple of course, but after the Temple's destruction taking on the meaning of the whole city). There is no doubt that these names entered Arabic through contact with Jews.

Since the Christianized Roman Empire forbade Jews to live in Jerusalem, medieval Jews must have been grateful to the early Arab conquerors for enabling Jews live in the Holy City once again, albeit Jews there, like Christians, were dhimmis and subject to special exploitation as described above. The Crusaders put an end to the Jewish and Muslim populations in Jerusalem in 1099. Lasting, relatively stable Muslim rule there was not reestablished until 1260.

Skipping over all the hardships and trials of the Jews in Jerusalem under Mamluk and Ottoman sovereignty, at the end of the nineteenth century, Jews were a majority of the city's population and had been so since at least 1870. This emerges from the careful research of Prof. Yehoshua ben-Arieh. (5)

Some Western writers claimed a Jewish majority some years before that. One was Karl Marx -- yes, that Karl Marx (New York Tribune 4-15-1854). (6)

A French author, Gérardy Santine, who published his account of the city in 1860 (Trois ans en Judée, 1860), wrote that Jews were "a good half of the population of the Holy City," that is, as of 1860.

"Jews were the first inhabitants to move outside the Old City walls to build the New City, partly because the Jews were so crowded within the walls. Meanwhile, inside the walls, Jews spread into the Muslim Quarter, with the added motive of being close to the Temple Mount. Jews not only moved into the part of the Muslim Quarter adjacent to the Jewish Quarter, just west of the Temple Mount, but also farther away into the the Muslim Quarter's Bab al-Huta section, north of the Temple Mount and close to Damascus Gate and Herod's Gate in the northeast corner of the Old City. "By the end of the century, the Jewish community had expanded greatly [in Jerusalem]; in the Old City alone, it constituted more than half the total population." (7)

Jewish shops were numerous on David Street, on the Street of the Chain, in the Christian Quarter and on the central market streets (outside the Jewish Quarter). Yet, by 1948 Jews had disappeared from all of the Old City but the old Jewish Quarter. Pierre van Paassen provides part of the explanation for this. In August 1929, the chief Arab political and religious leader in the country, the British-appointed mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Amin al-Husayni (Husseini), "directed his fury [through incited mobs] against peaceful Jewish communities in ... the Bab Alchota [al-Huta] quarter of Jerusalem" and elsewhere in the country. (8)


In fact, a series of pogroms from 1920 through 1936-38 drove Jews out of their homes and shops in the Muslim and Christian Quarters of today. Not only homes but synagogues and yeshivot were abandoned. In one case, an Arab neighbor took it upon himself to protect the Torat Hayyim Yeshiva on Valley Street (Rehov haGai, al-Wad) where it coincides with the Via Dolorosa. This institution was preserved virtually intact with its furnishings and religious books until after the Six Day War -- the only one in the Muslim Quarter not looted and wrecked.

The pogroms during the period of British rule (plus British refusal to protect Jewish residents in certain places) also caused mass flight from Jewish quarters outside the Old City walls, most of which were eventually occupied by Transjordan in 1948. Jews were driven from Eshel Abraham (across from Damascus Gate, 1929), Silwan (1929, 1938), Batei Sham`a (1938) and the Beyt Yosef quarter (1929). Jewish forces retook Batei Sham`a in the 1948 war and it is now the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

Yet the Jewish neighborhoods around the Tomb of Simon the Just north of Orient House and the American Colony Hotel (Shimon haTsadiq and Nahalat Shimon) were cleared of Jews very early in the war, in December 1947 and early January 1948 (the Arabs benefitting from British assistance), as were the nearby Siebenbergen Houses somewhat later. Transjordan's Arab Legion eventually took over these areas and the Jews did not return. Thus was created what the mythology of Arab propagandists and the Western press now calls "historically Arab East Jerusalem" (for example, Lee Hockstader in International Herald Tribune, 31 July 2000), which in fact only existed between 1948 and 1967.

Another contemporary myth is that of a "Palestinian people" which, as commonly portrayed, has something to do with the Arabs but is somehow distinct. Yet, in 1900 the Arabs in the country did not see the Land as a separate or distinct land, nor did they have a consciousness of {being} a "Palestinian people." The Muslim Arabs were loyal to the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the scholars Zeine Zeine, an Arab, and Ziya Gokalp, a Turk, invalidate the notion of a separate Arab nationalism (let alone "Palestinian" nationalism) before the First World War. Zeine and Gokalp agree that the Ottoman Empire was a joint enterprise of Turks and Arabs. Zeine wrote, "The Arabs as Muslims were proud of Turkish power and prestige. The Ottoman Empire was their Empire as much as it was the Turks'... the Arabs did not consider the Turkish rule as 'foreign' rule..." (9)

Gokalp wrote, "the Ottoman state might even be called a Turkish-Arab state." (10)

The Arab upper class in the Empire generally, and that of what became Palestine at San Remo in 1920, in particular, contributed high officials to the Ottoman state. For instance, standing out among those who became Palestinian Arabs were Musa Kazem al-Husayni [Husseini] and Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, both active at the turn of the century. The former attended the Ottoman School of Administration and served as governor of various imperial districts, including {one} in Anatolia, far from his home in Jerusalem. The latter, another Jerusalem Arab notable serving in a highly responsible position, officiated as Ottoman consul in Vienna, which was a very sensitive diplomatic post for the Ottomans, given the delicacy of relations with the neighboring Austro-Hungarian Empire, which coveted Ottoman territory throughout the nineteenth century. Khalidi also held for a time the prestigious post of speaker of the Ottoman parliament.

Given that the Arab upper class was part of the Empire's governing class, they were pro-Ottoman until the Ottoman defeat in World War I. Neither did they call for a "Palestinian" state after the war. Most of them became pan-Arabists, eagerly supporting Faisal, the Hashemite would be king of Syria, whose kingdom based at Damascus was overthrown by the French in July 1920. They were not Zionists to be sure. Yet neither were they "Palestinian nationalists." After 1920, after San Remo had set up the Palestine entity as the Jewish National Home, they focussed faute de mieux, on fighting for "Palestine for the Arabs" (one of their slogans). Interestingly, spokesmen for the Arab side before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine (1946) denied that there was such a place as Palestine.



1.  Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall (New York: Norton, 2000), p 4

2.  Verse numbers and translations vary somewhat in different editions of the Quran

3.  Sheikh Samir AbuAssad quoted in Valeurs Actuelles, February 8, 1988: "The Quran absolutely forbids a Muslim to accept the sovereignty of a nonMuslim in an Islamic land. And this principle makes no exceptions: neither in Jerusalem, nor in Cairo, nor Beirut, nor even in Madrid..." (p 23)

4.  Ibid

5.  Y Ben Arieh, Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century: the Old City (Jerusalem: Ben Zvi, 1984), p 358

6.  Marx's article is reprinted in Shlomo Avineri (ed.), Marx on Colonialism and Modernization (New York: Doubleday, 1969), pp 149-150

7.  Y. Ben-Arieh, Vol I, p 400

8.  Pierre van Paassen, Forgotten Ally (New York: Dial, 1943), p 162

9.  Zeine quoted in Hans Tutsch, Facets of Arab Nationalism (Detroit, 1965), p 57; from Zeine N Zeine, Arab-Turkish Relations and the Emergence of Arab Nationalism (Beirut: Khayat's, 1958), p 117 ff. {Kimmerling and Migdal admit that a "political and social identity of Ottomanism" developed among the notables as they benefitted from official Ottoman positions (p 72) and the Arabs generally accepted the Ottoman Empire since it was Muslim (p 73).}

10.  Ziya Gokalp, "The Ideal of Nationalism," in E. Kedourie, ed., Nationalism in Asia and Africa (London, 1970), p 197

The author is a researcher, writer and translator, living in Jerusalem. This article was published in Midstream (New York) September-October, 2000.


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