To the Editor:
In “Palestine Before the Zionists” [February] David S. Landes gives an important account of the discrimination and poverty suffered by the Jews of Palestine during the 19th century. It is unfortunate, however, that as a result of the absurd propaganda churned out by Arab delegations at the UN and elsewhere, Jews feel obliged to defend the image of the Jews of Ottoman Palestine as a native population. . . .
The record shows that this was far from the case. Palestinian Jewry was part of the Diaspora in all respects except for its physical location. Contrary to the implication of Mr. Landes’s article, Jews did not survive the period of Islamic hegemony in Palestine simply by “shifting their residence at the dictates of their overlords, accommodating themselves to the tolerances of the successive rulers of the land.” The Jewish population was repeatedly decimated by famine, plague, or massacre and if not for a small but continuing immigration, the number of Jews in Palestine would have been negligible. The immigrants spoke the languages of their communities of origin: Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Arabic, etc., even after six or more generations. They preserved their Diaspora customs and attitudes, and clung tightly to their socio-cultural groupings. Also, as Mr. Landes notes, they lived almost entirely off the contributions of the Diaspora.
Mr. Landes’s effort to create the impression of an autonomous Jewish community in Palestine is, in fact, detrimental to the argument for the legitimacy of Zionism. For if the Jews of 19th-century Palestine are seen merely as a national minority, the Muslims were justified in their anger toward the tremendous influx of foreign co-ethnics, who arrived with the intention of eventually reconstituting their sovereignty. This tenuous and unhelpful line of thought arises because Mr. Landes has, in part, fallen into the trap of the Jordanian ambassador and others who would like to remove all mention of Palestine. If, however, one regards the land of Israel as the ancestral Jewish homeland, repopulated by the Zionists in an attempt to save the Jewish people from physical and cultural destruction, one need not make the illusory distinction between Palestinian and Diaspora Jewry in order to see Jewish settlement as a legitimate endeavor.
Jeremy Simcha Garber
New York City
To the Editor:
I was surprised that David S. Landes, whose scholarly work I have admired, would choose to focus his attention on the small Jewish Yishuv in Palestine prior to the second Aliyah as typical of Arab-Jewish relations throughout the Islamic period. . . .
The wretched souls, whether Jewish or Christian, who wended their way to the Holy Land to die on sacred soil prior to this century were mostly penniless and half-starved, kept alive only by handouts from often rapacious monks, rabbis, and officials and some well-meaning philanthropists. Is this the “excuse” Mr. Landes presents for the fear/hate complex induced in the Jews of this era by Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany and now gratuitously transferred to the Palestinian fellahin and other Arabs simply because they were found to be even more oppressed than the Jews of Russia, though without any international sympathy or support, their “fault” being that they lived on and tried to defend the land which the Russian Jews coveted?
Young people, regardless of nominal religious affiliation, will do well to look forward to the day when the current generation of apologists disguised as historians will move on to “make deserts bloom” elsewhere so that a new generation of scholars can get away from the stereotypes of Mr. Landes, “the ever-oppressed, but innocent Jew” and the “evil Arab,” and simply study mankind for what it is, sometimes splendid, sensitive, and generous, and sometimes depraved and unbalanced. Unless Mr. Landes somewhere along the way discovers that cross-cultural studies require the humility of the devout scholar of yore and the tools of the anthropologist and psychologist today, I don’t believe his new study of the Middle East conflict will be worth the effort.
C. Max Kortepeter
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literature
New York University
New York City
To the Editor:
David S. Landes’s article . . . is moving, forceful, timely, and historically revealing. Unfortunately, it will probably not find its way into the minds of those who most need it. One wonders, however, why Mr. Landes elected to use the King James translation of Jeremiah’s Lamentations rather than the Masoretic Text of the Jewish Publication Society, although the difference between the two . . . is more one of sentiment than of substance.
Harvey T. Adelson
Montvale, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Although David S. Landes has definitively disposed of the notion that pre-Zionist Palestine was a tolerable place for a Jew to be, your readers may be interested in the graphic description of the situation of the Jews in Jerusalem written in 1839 by the first British consul in Jerusalem, William T. Young, to Lord Palmerston. This letter is to be found in the Public Record Office in London (F.O. 78/368); also, it has been printed in Albert Montefiore Hyamson’s The British Consulate in Jerusalem in Relation to the Jews of Palestine, 1838-1914 (originally published in 1939, and reprinted in 1975 by AMS Press, Inc.). The letter is dated May 25, 1839, and reads in part as follows:
The Jews in Jerusalem are in general very poor, there are a few whose means are sufficient to make them independent of the contributions sent from Europe. For the past few years these contributions have been gradually diminishing, in consequence of which those who are dependent on this source chiefly for their subsistence are in a state of complete indigence, as their pecuniary means have diminished, the necessaries of life have increased in price. . . . At the moment I am addressing Your Lordship, the whole Jewish people are suffering the greatest distress—and if some relief be not afforded them by their brethren in Europe, whole families must, during this next winter, perish from want. . . .
The Pacha has shewn much more consideration for the Jews than his people have. . . . Still, the Jew in Jerusalem is not estimated in value much above a dog—and scarcely a day passes that I do not hear of some act of tyranny and oppression against a Jew, chiefly by the soldiers, who enter their houses and borrow whatever they require without asking any permission . . . At the moment I am have succeeded in obtaining justice for Jews against Turks. But it is quite a new thing in the eyes of these people to claim justice for a Jew—and I have good reason to think that my endeavors to protect the Jews have been, and may be for some little time to come, detrimental to my influence with other classes, Christians as well as Turks. . . .
So soon as the plague is reported to be in the city, the Jews at once become the object of cupidity, to every employee in the quarantine service who, with the native practitioners in medicine, rob and oppress them to the last degree. From one individual alone, of the better class, they succeeded lately in obtaining 4,000 piastres, equal to £40, they declared it to be plague, set a guard on his house, deprived him of all means of obtaining medical assistance. The patient died, and then, on his refusing to satisfy their demands, they threatened to burn everything in his house. This My Lord is not a solitary instance.
What the Jew has to endure, at all hands, is not to be told.
Like the miserable dog without an owner, he is kicked by one because he crosses his path, and cuffed by another because he cries out. To seek redress he is afraid, lest it bring worse upon him; he thinks it better to endure than to live in expectations of his complaint being revenged upon him. . . .
Washington, D. C.
David S. Landes writes:
Jeremy Simcha Garber is unhappy with what he calls my “efforts to create the impression of an autonomous Jewish community in Palestine,” which he finds “detrimental to the argument for the legitimacy of Zionism.” On the first point, I have apparently not made myself clear. When I wrote of communal autonomy (the millet system) in the Ottoman empire, I did not mean the separation of these groups from co-religionists outside the empire. Just as the Maronites had close ties with the Catholic church, so the Jews of Palestine were part and parcel of the larger Jewish people. This is a point that I thought I had conveyed by my discussion of their dependence on continued Aliyah and charitable contributions from fellow Jews abroad. Their autonomy within the context of the Ottoman system consisted in their right to govern themselves in religious and civil matters.
His second point, on the implication of my analysis of this arrangement for the legitimacy of Zionism, is simply irrelevant. As a Zionist, I am happy to find justification in history; but as a historian, I try to write my history “like it was.” In any event, there does not seem to me to be anything in the record of the millet system and communal autonomy in the Ottoman empire that touches in the slightest on the “legitimacy of Zionism,” which is a nationalist movement like other nationalist movements and derives its legitimacy from the needs and dignity of an oppressed people.
I am sorry to have disappointed C. Max Kortepeter, who writes that he has admired my scholarly work. His letter makes clear where his sympathies lie, and I am afraid that no evidence concerning historical facts will change his mind. It is not I who have raised the issue of the treatment of Jews in pre-Zionist Islam; it is Arab propagandists who have done so and who have chosen to use the myth as a political weapon. It is an elementary principle of law and fair play that he who raises an issue must be prepared for cross-examination. The facts are that Jews lived in precarious oppression in Muslim lands before the secular Zionism of the late 19th century existed, and that conditions in Palestine were in no way untypical of the larger experience. In that regard, I have the sense that Mr. Kortepeter never really read my article, which provides sufficient references to conditions in other parts of Islam to make clear the representativeness of the experience of what he calls the “small Jewish Yishuv.”
As for what I will write in later chapters, I can only say that I will do my best there too to collect and present the evidence as I find it. I cannot promise more. And I would hope that Mr. Kortepeter will find it worth his effort to read my pages. One thing I shall be careful not to do is place apparent quotations in proximity to names so as to give a fallacious impression of authorship. Mr. Kortepeter is perfectly well aware that I never wrote the words that appear between quotation marks in his final paragraph. Yet he speaks of them as “the stereotypes of Mr. Landes,” and an innocent reader would presumably infer that this is in fact what I said. If he is now prepared to demonstrate “the humility of the devout scholar of yore,” he might begin with an apology to the readers of COMMENTARY.