The wonderful coexistence of Jews and Muslims under Muslim rule is a modern myth that is widely believed. The golden past of the Jews under Islamic rule exists in the same mythological time and place as the Garden of Eden, the round table of King Arthur and the kingdom of Prester John.
The "golden age" of Jewish culture under Muslim rule has been glorified and fictionalized for political reasons, with the backing not only of Muslims, but of distinguished western scholars. In particular, the "brotherly coexistence" of Jew and Muslim under the benign Muslim rule in Palestine has been mythologized by Palestinian supporters and by some Zionists, especially as the Jews were offered sanctuary in the Ottoman Turkish empire after being expelled from Spain.
In truth, the position of the Jews was good in Muslim lands only relative to the horrors of European persecution of Jews. Though Jews were relatively safer in Muslim lands, there were numerous instances of Pogroms, forced conversions and other manifestations of violent Anti-Semitism and intolerance, as well as a few blood libels. In Muslim lands as in Christian Europe, Jews were an object of history and never a subject, always victims and never victors.
It is inevitable that any group living as a subject minority and not in control of its own destiny would be exposed to these persecutions and to the vicissitudes of common prejudice. It is therefore foolish to insist that Jewish life under Muslim rule was a perpetual idyll or that return to that state is desirable. The story of Diaspora life in Muslim lands as in Europe was always the same in the long run, and had to be the same. Jews would move to a place of relative comfort, where they were subject only to sporadic persecutions and perhaps Jewish cultural life would flourish for a time. Eventually however, the Jews were often expelled, converted or killed en masse. In the best of times they were subject to the "dhimmi laws" that prescribed humiliating conditions of dress and other restrictions.
The fortunes of Jews of the holy land under Turkish rule, were little different from that which obtained in other Muslim lands. However, since the land was always a stagnant backwater under Muslim rule, Jews never reached positions of power and wealth that they had for a time in Iraq, Morocco or Egypt. Depending on the ruler and the circumstances, they might be relatively safe for a time, and then suffer disastrous misfortune. In the cities of the land of Israel, the most frequent causes of disaster to the Jews were decrees of the rulers, predations of the Sultan's officials and attacks by bandits and demagogues.
The Jews of Safed had settled there for the most part after being expelled from Spain, and the Jewish population of the town had grown considerably. The firman (order) below was issued by the hand of Sultan Murad III, for the transfer (expulsion, deportation) of a thousand Jews from Safed to Cyprus, ostensibly in order to improve the economy of Cyprus. Actually, the order was for the deportation of a much larger group, which may have comprised all the Jews of Safed or most of them, since it called for registration of a thousand prosperous Jews and deporting of them, together with their families. That is, a thousand families, perhaps 4,000 - 8,000 people, were to be deported.
The firman was issued in 1576 and re-issued in 1577. The Sultan was mindful of the fact that the Jews would attempt, as usual, to evade the decree or soften it by bribery, and warned his Sanjaq-Beg severely against altering the register of intended victims. However, the order was rescinded in 1578, in part evidently because Murad was made to see that he would suffer a great loss of revenue if the Jews of Safed were deported. When such decrees were issued, the Jewish community met in panic and raised a hue and cry. If they were rescinded they viewed the reprieve as due to divine intervention and often canonized some "saint" who was the author of the "good fortune." This is the fabric of the "wonderful life" that is often fantasized by so called "Arab Jews" who insist on the great past of the Jews in Arab lands.
January 6, 2010
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Order for the Deportation of Safed Jews to Cyprus
15 Rajab, 984
(8 October 1576)
Order to the Sanjaq Beg and the Qadi of Safed,
At present I have ordered that a thousand Jews be registered from the town of Safed and its districts and sent to the city of Famagusta in Cyprus. I command that as soon as this order arrives, without delay and in accordance with my noble firman, you register one thousand rich and prosperous Jews, and send them, with their property and effects and with their families, under appropriate escort, to the said city. Once the Jews have been inscribed in the register, do not afterwards, by practicing extortion, remove them from it. Send a sealed copy of the register to my Felicitous Threshold. Thus, in the course of conscribing and registering of the prescribed number of Jews, if anyone receives protection, or any are removed from the register and instead of them others are a taken, so that in their place not rich but poor Jews are conscibed, your excuses will by no means be acceptable. It will be secretly investigated and dealt with. It is is proper that, if it becomes known to us that the the matter has been handled in a manner contrary to our noble command, then assuredly it will not end with your deposition, but you will be most severely punished. Accordingly be diligent, and avoid anything contrary to our noble command.
Bernard Lewis, ed. and translator, Notes and Documents from the Turkish Archives; A contribution to the History of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Oriental Notes and Studies of the Israel Oriental Society, no. 3 (Jerusalem, 1952) p. 33 no. 1 as it appears in Stillman, Norman, The Jews of Arab Lands, 1970, p 295.
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