Do the Palestinians have Jewish Roots?
Do the Palestinians have Jewish roots? The question may sound fanciful. But not only do many Jews and Palestinians share remarkably similar DNA, there are also numerous customs and even names that overlap.
Among those who have researched the topic is Tsvi Misinai, an Israeli businessman who writes and speaks extensively about the connection between the Palestinians and the Jews. He claims that nearly 90 percent of all Palestinians are descended from Jews who remained in Israel after the destruction of Second Temple 2,000 years ago, but were forced to convert to Islam.
According to Misinai, the Hebrew ancestors of the Palestinians were rural mountain dwellers who were allowed to remain in the land in order to supply Rome with grain and olive oil.
While Misinai is an advocate of this theory, he’s not the only scholar or even political figure to claim a Jewish connection for the Palestinians. The first president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi as well as former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, wrote several books and articles on the subject.
Ben-Tzvi suggested that Jews who remained in the Land of Israel “loved the land so much that they were willing to give up their religion.” The reference is to an edict in the year 1012 by Caliph el-Hakim who ordered non-Muslims to either convert or leave. The decree was revoked just 32 years later, but it was too late for most of the converts. Only 27 percent returned to Judaism openly and even they remained Musta’arabi (culturally and linguistically Arab).
Journalist Rachel Avraham, who works for Israel’s Channel 2 News, asserts that Jews did convert to Islam, but that it came much more recently – in the early 1900s under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. She cites a confidential interview with a Palestinian man living in Jerusalem who says the conversion push was a response by the Ottoman sultan after Theodore Herzl informed him of the Zionist movement’s intentions in the Land of Israel. “This resulted in the Sultan going crazy and making sure that would not happen, although he did refrain from issuing a formal edict of conversion,” Avraham writes.
She also mentions a Sephardi Jewish family living in Bayt Itab, near Beit Shemesh, that began holding Friday prayers “on both Friday and Saturday so that the Ottomans would be fooled into believing that they were not Jews.” She adds that local Palestinians use the expression “he’s a Cohen” to refer to someone who is wise. “Why do they use that term [when] most Palestinians don’t know what a Cohen is?”
Whether their Jewish roots go back 100 or 1,000 years, Ben-Gurion went so far as to set up a task force headed by Moshe Dayan to develop ways to “Judaize” the Bedouin, teaching them about modern Jewish life with an aim towards integrating them with the Israeli people – if not religiously, then ethnically. The program was eventually dropped when Dayan convinced Ben-Gurion that the idea would upset the Islamic world.
More recently, Israeli Rabbi Dov Stein offered his own estimate that up to 85 percent of Palestinians on the west side of the Jordan River are descended from Jews.
Misinai elaborates on his thesis about the Jewish roots of the Palestinians in his 2008 book, Brother Shall Not Lift Sword Against Brother. He claims, for example, that the 1919 cooperation agreement between Emir Faisal and Chaim Weizmann, who would later become Israel’s first president, was based on a shared heritage.
“Faisal’s proclamations of kinship with the Jews were more than lip service,” Misinai says. “Faisal’s paternal line was Hashemite…but the mother of his maternal grandfather, King On, was descended from a family of forced Jewish converts to Islam that immigrated to the east bank of the Jordan, later returning to one of the villages west of the Jordan. Unlike today, when Faisal was growing up his grandfather’s mother’s Jewish origin was known and they made no great effort to hide it.”
Indeed, Misinai says that “more than half” of the Palestinians know about their Jewish roots, which include such Jewish traditions as lighting candles on Friday night, seven days of mourning (vs. the usual three in most Islamic communities), circumcision on the eighth day (brit mila), and even wearing Tefillin (phylacteries). The latter was done usually by someone who was ill, especially by those suffering from headaches. The rosh of the Tefillin would be placed on the forehead with the straps wrapped around the person’s head and tightened. Unfortunately, today, “other than among a few people, the true meaning of the Tefillin has been lost,” Misinai says.
“Several Palestinians have gone through formal conversion,” Misinai adds, while others have taken on Jewish practices and “say they don’t need to convert because they know they’re already Jews.” Several Palestinian families own ancient hanukkiot which they use in mid-winter, usually around Hanukah time, Misinai says. Some homes have doorpost indentations for a mezuzah (although the scroll itself is usually missing).
Among the more knowledgeable Palestinians of Jewish descent are several large clans in the hills near Hebron and among the Bedouin in the Negev. Not only do they know of their heritage, they “even have family trees that document their roots…their neighbors would call them ‘the Jews,’ even though they were technically as Muslim as anyone else,” Misinai says.
In one of the Hebron-area villages, a tribal leader describes his clan’s Jewish history. In a departure from Misinai’s main thesis, Muhammed Amsalem explained in an interview with Aharon Granot of Mishpacha Magazine, that ”our elders tell us our forefathers came to this land during the Spanish Inquisition, via Morocco. They settled in Ramle. Then the Mamluks forced them to convert to Islam, and they moved to the southern Hebron area.”
The ancient name of the Amsalem family clan – Maahamra – means “winemaker,” a trade that is forbidden by Islam. Because the Maahamras converted relatively late in history, even more “secret” customs have been preserved. One man in the Amsalem clan has a small Hebrew booklet of Psalms with which he continues to pray to this day.
In 1982, the leaders of the Palestinian village of Bidya offered to enlist in the IDF to fight in Lebanon. “The Jewish origin of many of Bidya’s clans is a well known fact, even today,” says Misnai.
Misinai once interviewed a Bedouin leader who said that his people “had no choice but to convert. This was centuries ago. I remember my mother and grandmother wouldn’t light fire on Sabbath and they had a special mikveh” (a ritual bath).
Even in Gaza, there are Palestinians of Jewish descent, Misinai says – even higher than the 90 percent he claims for the rest of the region.
Not everyone agrees with Misina’s ideas. American archeologist Eric Cline reported in his book, Jerusalem Besieged that historians “have generally concluded that most, if not all, modern Palestinians are probably more closely related to the Arabs of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, and other countries [and that] the major movements of those Arabs into the region occurred after 600 CE.” Sherif Hussein, the Guardian of Islamic Holy Places of Arabia, has stated that the ancestors of the Palestinians have only been in the region for 1,000 years.
Writing in The Jewish Press, Rachel Avraham adds that, according to other scholars, “following the Black Plague and Crusades in 1517, only 300,000 people were left in the Land of Israel, of whom 5,000 were Jewish…many of the ancestors of the modern Palestinians came in the late Ottoman and early British Mandate period. During the British Mandate period alone, 100,000 Arabs from neighboring countries immigrated to the Holy Land.”
Misinai remains unconvinced. Among the evidence for the ancient Jewish roots of the Palestinians are names – both place and family names. Villages such as Kfar Yasif, Kfar Kana and Kfar Yatta rarely appear in other Arabic-speaking countries, Misinai says.
Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, in his 1932 book The Peoples of Our Land, adds that some 227 villages and sites west of the Jordan River had names that were similar to or the same as Jewish communities on the same sites during the Second Temple times. “If in fact the Jewish settlements became inhabited by entirely different people, they would not have preserved the Hebrew names,” Misinai says. That’s what happened on the eastern side of the Jordan River, he points out.
The village of Kawazbe, in Eastern Gush Etzion, is considered by both Jews and local Palestinians to be a corruption of Kuzeiba, the original name of Bar Kochba, who led the rebellion against the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. Not far away, in a Palestinian village near the Jewish community of Tekoa, a village elder explains that his grandfather was a Jew who converted to Islam.
Israeli Rabbi Stein adds that, “up to about 200 years ago, the Galilee village of Sakhnin was a Jewish town with an active synagogue. The Turks pressured them to convert to Islam, but the people there know they are of Jewish origins.”
Then there are the many family names, which have no roots in Arabic – like the Abulafias of Jaffa who are descended from the 13th century Spanish Jewish Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Abulafia; the Almogs of Jenin; and the Dawouda (from David) clan of Hebron. Misinai claims that there are even some 4,000 forced converts to Islam living in Jordan with the Hebrew name Cohen.
In 2011, Misinai produced a short film, demonstrating visually some of what he wrote about in his book. In the film, there are visits to Palestinian villages and cities where the Jewish Star of David can still be seen on houses and public buildings.
Another clue can be found in language. All the way back in the 1890s, The Institute for Israel Research reported that the Palestinian dialect of Arabic contains many terms and words not found in standard Arabic, but that result rather from the integration of Hebrew and Aramaic. (Aramaic was the language spoken by many of the Jews in the ancient world and is the language the Babylonian Talmud is written in.)
Scholars believe that these “Hidden Jews” of the Land of Israel spoke exclusively Aramaic as recently as the days of the Crusades and, in 1974, residents of a Palestinian village on the site of the ancient biblical Ofra were Christians who spoke Aramaic. Why is this significant? Non-Jews who converted to Christianity in its early days would probably have spoken Greek. A group that clung to Aramaic would be more likely to have Jewish roots.
Food is often a clue to Jewish roots, and for many Bedouin, non-kosher animals are forbidden. In addition, as Israeli matzah manufacturers have learned, around Passover time, sales of unleavened bread in Palestinian villages and towns goes sky high. Is there just a taste for matzah among the Palestinians or does it have more to do with an ancient religious custom?
The genetic record provides the most striking evidence of the Jewish roots of the Palestinians. A 2001 study by Spanish researcher Prof. Antonio Arnez-Vilna in Human Immunology magazine shows that the immune systems of the Jews and the Palestinians are extremely close to one another. Another study, in 2002, found that only two groups in the world – Ashkenazi Jews and Palestinians – were genetically susceptible to an inherited deafness syndrome.
Hadassah Medical School’s Prof. Ariela Oppenheim performed an international genetic study that backs up the conclusions of “surprisingly close” Jewish-Arab genetic similarities. Oppenheim says her study shows that both Jews and Arabs in Israel are linked with the Kurds of Aram in Babylon – the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham. “It is clear we are from the same family,” Oppenheim declares.
In 2012, Harry Ostrer, professor of pediatrics and pathology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, and Karl Skorecki, director of medical and research development at the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, determined that, “the closest genetic neighbors to most Jewish groups were the Palestinians, Israeli Bedouins, and Druze (in addition to the Southern Europeans, including Cypriots).”
Ostrer’s research on “Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era,” published in October 2012 in The American Journal of Human Genetics, sampled 652,000 gene variants from each of 237 unrelated individuals from seven Jewish populations: Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Italian, Turkish, Greek and Ashkenazi. These sequences were then compared with reference samples from non-Jews drawn from the Human Genome Project. Each of the Jewish populations, the research found, “formed its own distinctive cluster,” indicating their shared ancestry and “relative genetic isolation.”
Whether Misinai is right, and whether the scientific, archaeological and genealogical evidence supports him, there is undoubtedly more to be discovered about the surprising Jewish history of Palestinians in the Middle East.