Judah_HaleviHistorical survey of the waves of Jewish immigration into Palestine from the Arab conquest to the first Zionist pioneers. (640-1882)

I. Introductory.

The object of the following survey is to show how modern Jewish immigration was preceded by successive waves of immigration to Palestine in the ordinary, practical sense of the term. We intend to prove in the light of historical evidence that long before a ship brought the first modern Zionist immigrants to Jaffa in 1882, Jews from all parts of the Diaspora had been coming to the Holy Land. There is no truth in the contention sometimes put forward that the earlier immigrants to Palestine were only aged Jews, spending the last years of their lives in prayer and devotion in this country. We intend to prove that the early immigrants were also builders of the Yishuv, and that like their successors, they were drawn to the country partly by a deep sentimental attachment to the Holy Land, and partly by the life of unbearable humiliation they suffered in the Diaspora. Constant spiritual and physical contact, therefore, always existed between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel, with corresponding beneficial effects on Jewish life in Palestine.

Before the unprecedented catastrophe that befell the Jewish people in our own generation, two similar events in the history of Israel a permanent imprint on their lives. These were the Spanish exile, and the Russian pogroms. The latter brought in their wake the renascence of Jewish agricultural settlement in this country, while the former led to the revival of important urban and rural centres which were later expanded and strengthened by the successive waves of Ashkenazi immigrants which followed during the next four hundred years. Without the so-called “Old Yishuv”, the modern Yishuv outside the confines of of the walls of the old towns would have been inconceivable. Without the old “Love of Zion”, the modern “Love of Zion” with all its revolutionary implications, would have been unimaginable. Without the deep mystical faith which drove the earlier immigrants so that at times they assumed the proportions of messianic movements, the intense new faith in the revival of the people of Israel in the Land of Israel, the deep longing for the soil, of the builders of our modern Yishuv would now be incomprehensible.

In those days immigrants went through bitter trials before they were privileged to reach their destination. More than once they fell victims to pirates, who robbed them of all they possessed and sold them as slaves – to such an extent indeed that many Jewish communities had special funds for the liberation of those taken prisoner by pirates. Some of these pirates were actually persons of distinction, such as the Knights of Malta, or the members of the Order of St. John in the Islands of Rhodes and Cyprus, with whom piracy was a normal occupation, concentrated mainly on the spoliation of Jewish victims, for whose redemption there was ready money coming from the funds of Jewish communities in Italy and the neighbouring Mediterranean countries, Immigration to Palestine in earlier generations was fraught with formidable difficulties, and man-made dangers were often supplemented by those from the elements.

The journey to Palestine took months, and often years. There were no regular routes of travel in the Middle Ages, so that the prospective immigrant often had to wait a long time at his chosen port for the chance of a boat. The cost of the journey was difficult to calculate in advance, and often demanded more than the immigrant possessed. Generally speaking, the prospective immigrant could not raise the whole amount before setting forth, and it was usually only in the course of the journey that he found the means to continue his way. Jewish communities were always ready to come to the help of prospective immigrants, and this kind of assistance came high in the list of communal charities.

Where the Jew of the Diaspora could not proceed to Palestine in person, he could at least give financial help to those who could. This explains the origin of “Halukkah” funds, (literally–distribution) contributions to which were not merely designed to help Palestine settlers, but were looked upon by the donors as a substitute for their own personal immigration. By contributing to the “Halukkah”, the Jews of the Diaspora felt themselves closely linked with the life of the Yishuv. The intense love for the soil of Palestine throughout Jewish history was also expressed by many Jews in testamentary requests that their remains be taken to Palestine after their death.

The new immigrant quickly became acclimatised. He felt himself at home, and immediately began to preach the gospel of settlement in Palestine to others, extolling the virtues of the country in letters as well as in pamphlets written for the purpose.

II. Immigrants during the Early Arab period and up to the XIIIth Century.

Material and documents originating from the period between the Arab invasion of Palestine and the XIIth century point to a large-scale immigration up to the latter period. The majority of the immigrants were pilgrims attracted to the Holy City of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire and other parts of the world, including North Africa and even the Slav countries. Tiberias, too, attracted Jews from abroad, who came to bathe in its hot springs. Among those who settled in Jerusalem, Jews from Babylonia were foremost. There were also Babylonian settlers in Ramleh, Tiberias and Banyas in Galilee. Immigrants from Syria and Egypt, too, came with their families to settle in the country. We have records of an Egyptian Jew who applied to the Beth Din (Religious Court) for an immigration “permit” for his wife on the grounds that “I have no peace and contentment here, for I am separated from my wife, she being in Egypt and I in Ramleh. I cannot join her in Egypt, and I am anxious that she should join me in Ramleh”. Most of the immigrants settled in Jerusalem of Ramleh, – the former, in order to be near to the Holy Places, and the latter, (founded by Caliph Suleiman in 716 because it was the capital of the province. Ramleh was a prosperous business centre and many Jews built houses and shops there. “Sephardic Colonies” of immigrant from Toledo, Madrid and other Spanish towns also existed in Ramleh and Jerusalem. There were immigrants from Africa, and there is mention of one who came from the Sahara Desert to settle in Jerusalem. 1 One striking personality deserves special mention. Whether he finally reached Palestine in order, as he himself puts it, “to visit the ruins of the destroyed Temple” is not known. Legend alone speaks of Yehuda Halevy, the greatest poet of the mediaeval Diaspora, sitting by the ruins of the Temple, and reciting his last poem to Zion, as he met his death under the hooves of an Arab horseman. The truth of the story is immaterial; the historical facts are that Halevy set out on his way to Palestine, and at least reached Egypt. The immigration of that single individual, which made a profound impression on his generation at the time, is important in that it was the realization of the dream of a great poet of Israel who sang the song of national redemption.

Yehuda Ben Shemuel Halevy was born in Toledo, Southern Castile, towards the end of the XIth century, on the eve of the decline of the Crescent and the rise of the Cross in Spain. His childhood was spent amid constant fighting between Christianity and Islam, which incidentally brought about the destruction of whole Jewish communities in Spain. The clash of the hostile armies found its echo in the inner struggles of the poet, and his realistic views of the problem of the Diaspora found forceful expression in many of his poems and in his philosophical work, the “Cuzari”. He does not content himself with mourning life in the Diaspora, but reveals a clear national and religious vision-that his people were in exile solely because the site of the Temple, Palestine, was occupied by aliens. In 1140 Halevy left his home and took ship by the quickest route to Palestine. At sea his most exalted poetry was written-the sea and the waves sing their praise to their Maker. But the ship was compelled to leave her course and take shelter in Alexandria. He found his co-religionists in Egypt leading a life of comfort in well-organised communities; they begged him to remain with them, but he would not stay, preferring to undertake the hazards of a journey through the desert. Then we lose track of him, and legend alone tells of a strange and mythical death. Perhaps reality was no different from the legend, for this would be a glorious end for the author of “Zion, wilt thou ask”.