Sunday, October 18, 2009

Living in the ruins of the Jewish West Bank

It is not the place of this blog to say who should rule those disputed lands that the media like to call 'the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank'. Often overlooked in the current debate, however, is the long pre-Arab history of the region, once again 'ethnically cleansed' between 1948 and 1967 of its Jewish inhabitants. Here Bat Yeor, the groundbreaking historian of the dhimmi, lyrically evokes Jewish Judea and Samaria in an article she wrote in 1978:

"Silence. We have taken cover in the shade of an olive tree. Instantly the children have nestled in the branches, listening solemnly to our guide. Somewhere a fig tree perfumes the air...or is it merely the breeze of the Judean hills? Circular gesture by Ya'acov Meshorer, chief curator of archaeology at the Israel Museum, renowned numismatist and former supervisor of excavations in Judea-Samaria.

"Excavations in Judea have brought to light flourishing towns possessing numerous synagogues. The architecture as well as the ornamental patterns are typical of the attractive pre-Islamic Hebrew civilisation, represented in Galilee by the synagogues of Capernaum, Beth Shearim, Chorazim, Kefar Baram, Meron and other places. Between the years 70 AD and the Arab invasion and occupation in 640, these hills were dotted with Hebrew towns and villages where an intense national, religious and cultural life prospered. Deprived of its indepdendence, the nation concentrated its genius by reflecting upon the richness of the national past. This the period in which the Mishnah was elaborated and completed in the second century, shortly to be followed by the Talmud - monumental religious, legal and social compendia. Completed in about 400, this work was continued for another two centuries, keeping alive an intense Messianic fervour whose force was to be felt as far as Arabia.

"The Arab occupation scarcely modified the Hebrew place-names and the Jewish inhabitants, now considered dhimmis, remained on their land. It was only later that the relentless mechanism typical of every colonisation gradually wiped out the indigenous population, thereby encouraging a progressive Arabisation of the soil."

"In the former Jewish town of Bethar, there are now 1500 Arabs. They call the place where the Jewish vestiges stand Khirbet al-Yahud, the ruins of the Jews. Nevertheless, were the Israelis to return, the Arabs would not hesitate to chase them away with indignation, referring to them as foreign intruders. Mystery of the Oriental mind or logic of the occupant? These Arabs, hardly interested in a past which is not theirs, ignore totally the history of the places where they live. Of course they know that the spot was inhabited formerly by Jews, as the name indicates, but these ruins, relating to a people dispossessed and driven out, are only of interest as a quarry conveniently providing stones which others have hewn. But the excited comments from the olive tree taught me that many a Jewish child knows more about the history of this place than its Arab inhabitants.

"In Eshtemoa, a bibical name Arabised by the occupations into Es-Samoa, the Arab inhabitants still live in houses built practically fifteen centuries earlier. The architectural elements and decorative designs, including the menorah, are all typical of pre-Islamic Hebrew art. It is common to find Arab villagers cooking on ancient mosaic floors. In the centre of the village was once a three-storied synagogue, of which only two ruined floors remain. The size of the synagogue suggests that there flourished here an important community. Like many other indigenous monuments, the synagogue was destroyed at the beginning of the Arab occupation. Its stones, particularly those decorated with bas-reliefs, were used by the Arabs and today adorn their door posts.

"At Yata, the biblical name of a Hebrew village, beautifully decorated Jewish ossuaries typical of the 1st and 2nd centuries are scattered around Arab houses and used as drinking-troughs for their cattle. Many troves of coins dating from the 2nd Temple and Hasmonean periods have been found in this area.

"The discrepancy between history and population in Judea and Samaria troubles the traveller constantly. It is true that the Hebrew place-names have been Arabised, that Jewish religious shrines have bene Islamised - as in Hebron and elsewhere - and that Arabisation has succeeded in erasing all traces of Hebrew nationalism. It is also true that from afar the Arab villages seem picturesque. This is only a superficial impression, however, for the traveller, endeavouring to account for his troubled spirit, were to look more closely he would discover a mere heap of ruins. The neglect of the surrounding vegetation is so general that one is reminded not of a biblical landscape of wooded hillsides, but of the sandy wastes of Arabia. One is struck with pity, for people do not generally live in ruins, however poor they are. Ruins are seen everywhere, so much so they are no longer noticed. (...)

"Today the populations of these regions are Muslims, with the exception of a few pockets of Arabised Chrstians, remnants of the Byzantine occupation or of Crusader times, which have survived thanks to the protection of European Christendom. The Samaritans have been reduced in their homeland to 470 survivors*, of whom 250 still live in Nablus. Up until 1948, Jewish inhabitants of the region were massacred or expelled and the right to reside was prohibited to them until 1967. The Arabisation of the region resulted in a judenrein Arab province, ie 'cleaned' of all trace of its pre-Arab culture.

"The indigenous peoples were replaced by Greeks, Arab-Beduins, Persians, Druze, Circassians, Turks and Slavs, who were thus able to benefit from the Arabised land of the dhimmis. Yet since 1967, these peaceful villagers, with unperturbed consciences, who justified their Arab rights established by the martyrdom of the banished or annihilated native peoples, are now experiencing a nightmare. The Hebrew, exiled in the wake of successive waves of occupation and its sequels, or tolerated in his own homeland but in a state of subjection - this Hebrew now returns. And he comes back, no longer a dhimmi - the sole status acceptable for a native - but as a citizen enjoying all the rights of a free man."

From Dhimmi peoples: oppressed nations by Bat Yeor (1978). Scroll down to link

* Today the Samaritans number about 700, divided between Nablus and the Israeli city of Holon

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