Interior of a Palestinian Christian
home in the mid-19th century
The posting that I did recently on Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck New Jersey and his suggestion to relocate the Muslim Noble Sanctuary from Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to “Saudi Arabia, Syria or wherever it is wanted” as well as his encouragement to push the Arab/Palestinian population from Israel/Palestine is symptomatic of this sort of thinking. After all, it makes sense—the Arabs are latecomers to the Promised Land. What claim do they have to live in this land that God promised to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, and gave to Joshua and the children of Israel more than 3200 years ago?
There is some confusion about the Palestinian people and that leads to this racist misconception. We call them Arabs because they speak Arabic, but their ethnic identity is a bit more complex.
There were native Syrian peoples living in the lands that today are called Israel and Palestine more than 12,000 years ago. They began as nomadic tribes with their domesticated sheep and goats, but gradually settled down on the rich soil and began raising crops. Like other peoples in the “Fertile Crescent”—that geographic strip that runs northward from Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the East and then crescents south along the coast to Egypt, there was a flourishing civilization in the region some six millennia or more ago. At this time—c.4000 BC—various tribes such as the Jebusites, Hittites, and Amorites migrated into the land and established their own settlements side by side with those already there. These people are often referred to as “Canaanites” but that term can mislead us to think of them as a single homogenous people. In fact, these various peoples tended to have distinct settlements with a minimal amount of inter-marriage except among the ruling class where inter-tribal marriage forged political alliances. While they may have borrowed various cultural elements from one another and even borrowed the worship of various gods, they tended to remain distinct from one another with their own rulers and socio/legal traditions.
Sometime around 2300 BC the Phoenician peoples made settlements along the coast. Through this period these people tended to be even more unique than the various Cannanite tribes and the Phoenicians, being a sea-going people, branched out westwards into the Mediterranean establishing trading posts and colonies in what is today Sicily, North Africa, and Spain.
The Israelite exodus from Egypt and their entrance into the land is usually dated between 1250 and 1200 BC. The Israelites found the land already occupied by the aforementioned peoples but throughout the period of the Judges gradually carved out territories for themselves where they established their own towns and villages. One of the chief concerns of the Judges, of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, and later of the Prophets, was to prevent cultural assimilation with their non-Israelite neighbors and maintain their distinct tradition, Law, and religion. This met with mixed success as we see with the infidelities of David and Solomon as well as the criticisms of the later kings for idolatrous practices by the prophets.
The Israelites were not the last people into the land. Only a generation after the Children of Israel entered the land of Canaan, the Philistines came and established settlements along the seacoast. A century later the Arameans came in.
The Assyrians, the Babylonians, and then the Persians invaded the land in 722, 587, and 540 BC respectively. The difference with these invasions is that the invaders came to conquer but not to settle, and so they did not leave the imprint on the ethnic makeup of the land that the various settling peoples had. The Greeks under Alexander the Great would be the next invaders in 333 BC. They were followed by a small but not insignificant Armenian invasion around 100 BC. In 63 BC the Romans annexed the land as a “client kingdom” under the Hasmonean dynasty until Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, ruled so badly the kingdom was taken from him and formed into the Roman Province of Iudaea.
During the period of Greek domination under the rule of the Antiochean Seleucid Kings who ruled the land after the death of Alexander the Great, the policy had been to homogenize the diverse peoples, cultures, and religions of the land into a single Greek culture. While most of the various peoples dwelling in Syria/Palestine/Judea acceded to this plan and began to cede their unique cultural identities, the Jews, under the leadership of the Macabees, resisted this Hellenization and did so to the point of martyrdom.
Mark 7:26 has an interesting description of a woman as “Greek, a Syro- Phoenician by nation.” This indicates that while there was a certain amount of assimilation, particular ethnic identities survived. One group that was distinct that we have not yet mentioned are the Samaritans. The Samaritans were Israelites who never accepted the hegemony of the Temple at Jerusalem but had (and have today) their own Temple on Mount Gerizim in what is today Israel. They were regarded as heretics by the Jews for whom the Temple at Jerusalem was the only place where sacrifice was to be offered. The Samaritans, a small community today, have retained their distinct ethnic identity to the present day.
the Jews were expelled from the land of Judea after the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 AD. While small groups were able to remain in the Galilee, most of what is today Israel remained without Jewish inhabitants until the late 19th century and the Zionist movement which encouraged Jews to return to the ancient land they claim as their patrimony.
Under Roman Rule the remaining population continued to homogenize and as the Roman Empire gradually slid into its Byzantine Identity in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christianity gave an even more unifying force to the once distinct peoples. Christianity was not totally unifying, however, as the segment of the population that was descended from the various Canaanite peoples and who tended more to be rural, followed the West Syrian liturgy known as the Liturgy of Saint James, while the Byzantines—townsfolk and predominately descendants of the Greeks and the Romans—followed the Greek Rite that would come to be called the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. The Armenians retained their distinct identity with their own liturgical rites as well as some basic doctrinal differences with both the Greeks and the Syriacs.
In the seventh century, invaders came up from the Arabian Peninsula bringing Islam. While they seized control of the land from the Emperor at Constantinople, they did not force either Islam or the Arabic language on the local population. Indeed the native population remained overwhelmingly Christian for centuries and Aramaic, the common language of the land in the time of Jesus, remained the ordinary language of most of the population.
What one had then in the land was a base population that was, except for pockets of Druze and Samaritan minorities, predominately Christian divided into their different villages according to their specific liturgical/ethnic peculiarities: Syrian, Melkite (Greek), Armenian, Maronite and with an Arab Muslim ruling class. During the period of the Umayyad Caliphate at Damascus, Christians often held key administrative posts. The father of Saint John Damascene, for example, was a court official of the Caliph.
Non-Muslims were free to practice their religion but they did have to pay an extra tax, the jizya. This tax was an exemption from serving in the military, participation in which was limited to Muslims. Over a period of time, of centuries, more and more of the population converted to Islam, in part to avoid this tax. Nevertheless, at the time of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, almost half of the Palestinian population, descendants of these Greek-Syriac peoples who themselves were descended—at least in part—from the ancient Canaanite peoples—were still Christian. They were about half Greek Orthodox, with the other half divided between Roman Catholics and Melkite (Byzantine) Catholics. There were also significant Armenian and Syriac Orthodox communities and a smaller Coptic Christian community. As the situation in Israel made life more and more intolerable for the Palestinian peoples, many emigrated to the United States, to Canada, to Australia and to other parts of the world where they would not suffer the limits of freedom and opportunity imposed on them by the unabashedly apartheid policies of the State of Israel. The Christians, being mostly townspeople and merchants, have found it easier to emigrate than the Muslims who, being predominately farmers, are more closely tied to the land and orchards their families have operated for centuries and which are now being confiscated and turned into “settlements” for the refugees that have flooded Israel from Russia and other Eastern European countries.