Israel Systematically Denies 1,400 Years of Muslim History

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Ramle in the late 19th century. As far back as the 1300s, it was described as 'a large city, with commendable markets.'
Ramle in the late 19th century. As far back as the 1300s, it was described as 'a large city, with commendable markets.'Credit: Félix Bonfils

How many among us have the slightest idea of what was happening in the Land of Israel during the Fatimid, Mamluk or Seljuk periods? While we’ve been busy arguing about the Nakba, all of us have been denying the Muslim past of this country.

“Filastin: It is the last one of the regions of Syria in the direction of Egypt. Its most famous cities are Ashkelon, Ramle, Gaza, Arsuf, Caesaria, Nablus, Jericho, Amman, Jaffa and Beit Guvrin.” This is the opening sentence of the section entitled “Filastin” that appears in the book “Dictionary of the Lands,” written by Muslim geographer Yaqut ibn Abdullah al-Hamawi in 1225. That was nearly 800 years before Likud MK Anat Berko raised the dubious assertion that “there isn’t even a ‘P’ in Arabic, meaning that the term ‘Palestine’ merits greater scrutiny.” She went on to explain that the Palestinians began to express their fabricated nationalism by means of adopting this name, “which was, in fact, being used by the Zionist movement.”

Berko’s baseless assertion provoked ridicule in the media. Yet the criticism of her at times bordered on the hypocritical, since denial of the Palestinian past of Israel is a widespread local phenomenon. The education system, the media and the tourism industry are all collaborators in the denial and omission of 1,400 years of Muslim history here.

Our history, as is well known to the majority of Israelis, abandoned the country following the Bar Kochba revolt, and reappeared only with the establishment of Petah Tikva in the late 19th century. Thus it is that precious few Israeli Jews, even among those who are well read in the Bible and the annals of the Zionist enterprise, know anything about the Fatimid, Mamluk or Seljuk periods?

Such subjects are studied by a limited circle of experts, and are considered in these parts to be about as esoteric as the history of the Aztecs. Similarly, the displays at archaeological sites in Israel underscore the short-lived Jewish past of the country (as the reader may recall, Jewish sovereignty existed over part of the land for only a few centuries, at most – if we include the kingdoms of both Israel and Judah). In many instances, strata from Muslim periods of history have been removed from the sites in order to showcase structures from periods of Jewish habitation. Crusader and Roman strata have been removed, as well. The idea is to de-emphasize periods of gentile rule.

The quote from the book by Yaqut cited above, can be found in “The Land of Israel in Arab Sources from the Middle Ages,” by Uri Tal, published (in Hebrew) two years ago by the Ben Zvi Institute. The book’s title is somewhat ironic because the sources it cites do not refer to the land in question as “Israel,” but rather as Falastin, as it is pronounced in Arabic. Nevertheless, the book is quite eye-opening, describing the wealth of villages and cities that existed in Falastin during periods of Arab rule.

Rachel's Tomb in the beginning of the 20th century. Credit: GPO archive

For instance, there’s Ramle, about which the Arab traveler al-Amri wrote in 1347: “The city Ramle, which is in Falastin, is a large city filled with everything that is good, which has commendable markets.” Or the large city of Nablus, in which, says al-Amri, they grow sweet watermelons and produce candies from carobs that are sold in Damascus and other cities of the region. Or Tiberias, which had been a city of bathhouses whose waters are “effective against flatulence, phlegm, abscesses, ulcers, eczemas, edemas, age-induced limpness of the body, and heightened obesity.” According to tradition, Tiberias was the location of the burial site of Sukayna, the great-granddaughter of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed; that same site is now referred to as “the grave of Rachel the Righteous, wife of Rabbi Akiva.” Throughout these periods of time, a fascinating array of characters lived and worked in the country, few of whom are familiar to the educated public in Israel.

Tal’s book is heavily annotated, with thousands of footnotes referring to the names of settlements cited in the Arab sources: Kakoun, Emmaus, al-Lajoun, Majdal Yaba, Kafr Saba, et al. Regarding the name of each locale, the author states, “it is the name of a settlement that once existed” – but if Kakoun “once existed,” why is it that it no longer exists? No answer to this question may be found in the book.

There is no other choice but to check the website of the organization Zochrot, which aims to raise awareness of Palestinian loss, to learn there that Kakoun was conquered on June 6, 1948, by the nascent Israel Defense Forces Alexandroni Brigade. Al-Lajoun was conquered by Golani on May 30, 1948, Majdal Yaba on July 13, 1948; Emmaus continued to exist until June 6, 1967. All of these settlements had existed continuously for hundreds of years, at the very least.

However, denial of the Arab past of the country is a broader subject than mere denial of the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Arabs were expelled or fled from their homes during Israel’s War of Independence, in 1947-49. Even someone who believes that Palestinians bear responsibility for their “catastrophe” can agree that one cannot deny the thousands of years of non-Jewish history of this land.

At the same time, given the unrefined political discourse current in Israel, numerous Jews do not deny the Nakba, but in fact justify it and are proud of it. This is not surprising: There is no reason for anyone to accept the catastrophic significance of the Nakba if he does not recognize the existence of the world it destroyed.

‘Temple denial’

The Sheikh Awad Tomb in Asheklon.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Something similar could be said about Jewish history: To understand the significance of the destruction wrought by the Holocaust, one has to first be familiar with the Jewish life and culture that existed prior to it. Otherwise, said destruction is pretty meaningless. And so it is that the Nakba has become a cliché, an empty expression that only causes some people to turn a blind eye.

Many people in Israel are convinced that at the start of the 20th century, the country was empty, and that the Palestinian residents arrived here in response to the advent of Zionism. These sorts of unfounded theories gain the support of dubious intellectuals. There is no reason to expect that any information of any type might dispel these myths. But it would be good to tone down the level of smug sanctimoniousness.

Newscasters and interviewers have of late been demanding that Arab leaders plainly state that the Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. “Temple denial” is presented as a crime against history. But are these same arrogant talking heads familiar with the holy sites of Muslims in and around Israel? For example, are they aware that situated in the city of Ashkelon is the holy site Mashhad Nabi Hussein, which for a period of time was where the head of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Mohammed, was said to be buried? It can be assumed that they do not know, because this mosque was destroyed in July 1950, at the behest of the commander of the Southern Command, Major General Moshe Dayan. So we should not say that only ISIS destroys historic structures.

If Israel had a reasonable system of education and culture, figures such as the reclusive monk Haritoun, the Ramle-based mystic Ibn al-Jila or the merciless despot Ahmed al-Jazzar from Acre would be at least as well known as Herzl and Haman the Agagite. But perhaps this is a nave hope.