Medieval Jerusalem Jews


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Here is a report on the condition of Jews under Muslim rule in Jerusalem, from a source that hated Jews as well as Muslims, but was obviously uninterested in exaggerating the persecution of the Jews. Fra Francesco Suriano, a Franciscan Friar lived in the Levant for many years. For six years he was Custos Terrae Sanctae or Guardian of the Holy Land for his order. He was the highest ranking Western Christian official in the Land of Israel, charged by the pope with overseeing Roman Catholic interests in the Christian holy places and Church affairs in the country, and with helping Catholic pilgrims. He was delegated by Leo X to the Maronites in 1515. He wrote a book, Il trattato di Terra Santa e dell' Oriente. that was published in 1485 according to some sources, or perhaps as late as 1515.

It has become customary "folklore" to believe that Jews led a sheltered existence in Muslim lands and suffered no persecution. This is true 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. While the blood libel accusation was  a late phenomenon due to Christian influence, and in some cases the accusations were encouraged by Western consuls. The other types of persecution were experienced throughout history under Muslim rule. While it may be sterile to argue whether Muslims are inherently anti-Jewish, 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. 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. This sad reality was true of Jerusalem as well, as long as it was under Muslim occupation. During the time of the Crusaders, the fate of the Jews was worse, since no Jews were allowed to live in Jerusalem at all.

The good friar, is happy to report that the Jews of Jerusalem are treated according  to their just desserts in the light of the teachings of the church. That is, they are most miserable and despised. His assertion that Jews could only convert to Islam after first converting to Christianity is untrue in general, though it may have happened in a specific instance that he relates. There are numerous cases recorded where Jews were forced to convert to Islam, as for example in the case of the false Messiah Shabettai Tzvi.

It is noteworthy that this overtly racist account portraying the persecution of Jews under Muslims in the frankest way was translated and published in English by the Arab Catholic church in Jordan in 1949.

Ami Isseroff

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Brother, I wish you to know how these dogs of Jews are trampled upon, beaten and ill-treated, as they deserve, by every infidel nation, and this is the just decree of God. They live in this country in such subjection that words cannot describe it. . . there in Jerusalem, where they committed the sin for which they are dispersed throughout the world [i.e., the Crucifixion], they are by God more punished and afflicted than in any other part of the world. And over a long time I have witnessed that. Among themselves, they are likewise divided, and one hates and persecutes  the other in such a way that the Saracens worry them like dogs. No infidel [i.e. Muslim] would touch with his hand a Jew lest he be contaminated but when they wish to beat them, they take off their shoes with which they strike them on the mustaches; the greatest wrong and insult to a man is to call him a Jew. And it is a right notable thing that the Moslems do not accept a Jew into their creed unless he first become a Christian. And in point of fact I saw two Jews in Jerusalem, men of reputation and among them not of the lowest lowest condition, who wished to abandon the Mosaic law and become Saracens to be in a position to take revenge of other Jews their enemies, so first they had themselves baptized by the Greeks, seeing that otherwise the Saracens would not accept them.

And if they were not subsidized by the Jews of Christendom, the Jews who live in Judea would die like dogs of hunger...

Fra Francesco Suriano, Treatise on the Holy Land, trans. T. Bellorini and E. Hoade (Ein Karim 1949) pp 101-102.

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