Itamar Taxel: Combatting Accusations of Israeli Colonialism
It pays to be knowledgeable about the Arab Conquest of the Levant when engaging Jew-haters who call us colonialists. We can learn some interesting aspects of the impact of the Conquest on the contemporary population, even from an Israeli archaeologist who seems reluctant to acknowledge that Israel is the country he is working in. I am referring to Itamar Taxel , author of a book chapter entitled Migration to and within Palestine in the Early Islamic Period and of an article on settlement patterns during that period.
First I will point out a problem with Taxel and then I will tell you what I learned from him that was interesting in spite of the problem.
My Problem with Itamar Taxel
In his chapter, Taxel notes that:
It is a well-known fact that the region of historical Palestine, which occupies a major share of the southern Levantine territory, has for millennia been an important and often pivotal crossroad used by armies, merchants, pilgrims and migrant populations.
So here we have another scholar who refers to the ancient Land of Israel as “historical Palestine”, a misleading term that gives the impression that what is currently regarded as “Palestine” is a real country that existed independently in the past (and that the Arabs currently inhabiting it are its indigenous population). In his article, he writes that “historical Palestine” includes “modern-day Israel and the land governed by the Palestinian Authority” but his footnote is much more precise:
… the focus of this article is largely on the Early Islamic districts of jund Filasṭīn (equivalent to the central hill country, most of the coast and the Negev desert) and the southwestern part of jund al-Urdunn (namely the Galilee, the Golan Heights and the southern Phoenician coast).
Note that “jund” means “military district”. In other words: he is referring to the parts of the Arab ruled jund Filasṭīn and jund al-Urdunn that were in the ancient Land of Israel and now in the modern State of Israel. So why does he refer to this as “Palestine” throughout the text in both the chapter and the article? Would it really hurt him to call the districts by their names or to call Israel Israel? He even writes:
Extensive excavations recently carried out in urban centers throughout Palestine have revealed virtually no evidence for the violent destruction of buildings or infrastructure. [emphasis added]
Could it be that he has some political agenda? He did not excavate in Palestine, but in Israel. Since jund Filastin was only one of the two districts of concern, why did he not refer to excavations carried out in Israel in what were two districts of the Arab administered lands? I am not waiting for him to answer.
What I learned from this article
The earliest historical studies of the Early Islamic Period were based mostly on Arabic sources that were written about 300 years after the Conquest. Therefore, these sources are not as authoritative as would have been those written at the time, and they may have been biased by “political or religious affinity of the writers.” According to these early writers, Taxel writes, most regions of the Byzantine province of Palaestina Prima offered little resistance to the Muslim conquerors with the exception of Caesaria, the capital of the province under the Byzantines. The capital was defended valiently during a 7-year seige in which many were massacred, but it finally fell.
While the capture of the province by the Arab conquerers was followed by migration to the region of the soldiers’ families and others, Muslims remained a minority among the non-Muslim, now dhimmi, population. Ramla was declared the capital in 715 and it has the distinction of having been the only town built by the Arab conquerers NOT to have been built on top of or alongside the earlier Israelite settlements or holy sites.
The rural areas were dotted with royal estates and private farms granted to military personnel. A fortification system was constructed to protect the coast and inland cities; it was comprised of isolated fortresses and fortified towns that served as military and religious centers. Christians moved from the coast to inland settlements in “Palestine” and across other Mediterranean lands. Taxel claims that this was both in response to the military conquest and out of deliberate Muslim strategy. What about the Jews? Doesn’t say.
Throughout the consecutive Arab dynasties, Muslim migrants arrived from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Persia and North Africa, and Christians also migrated to the region and settled near established monasteries or built new ones. Thus, Taxel writes, great numbers of outsiders arrived in “Palestine” between the 8th and 11th Centuries, many settling permanently. In addition to this, Jews from Iraq, Egypt and North Africa arrived as well, either as pilgrims or merchants or because of discrimination in their places of origin.
Taxel describes how settlements were abandonned or declined as a result of one or more of the following:
- the severe earthquakes of 660 and 749 CE
- drought and consequent reduced agricultural yields
- increased poll and land taxes imposed upon non-Muslims
- the prohibition against wine production and thus reduced income for Jews and Christians involved in viticulture
- raids carried out by nomadic tribes
Very important to our understanding of our own Jewish history on the land is in the following paragraph from Taxel’s article:
The non-Muslim population—mainly Christians, in addition to Jews and Samaritans—remained the overwhelming majority of the country’s rural society until late in the Early Islamic period and in certain regions, perhaps until its end. It therefore should not be surprising that no clear-cut evidence has yet been found for the abandonment of most known churches, village monasteries (as opposed to isolated monasteries; see below) and synagogues before the late 7th or 8th centuries. In fact, many of these institutions clearly functioned within economically-vibrant communities well into the 8th and 9th centuries, with several apparently continuing until the end of the period. [emphasis added]
I do wonder about his comment “mainly Christians, in addition to Jews and Samaritans” as if Jews are peripheral to life in the region and not central to it. A sly way of promoting his agenda downplaying the fact that Jews are indigenous to Israel perhaps?
Emphasizing the continuity of Jewish life under Arab rule:
A permanent Muslim presence in typically rural areas in Palestine was minimal during the 7th and apparently most of the 8th century and from the archaeological perspective, Muslims are almost invisible in rural contexts dating to this period and even later (see Schick 1995, 156–158). The presence of Muslims in the Palestinian countryside could, however, be seen in aristocratic estates (ḍiyāʿ al-khilāfa; including private villages), such as the luxurious palatial complexes at Khirbet al-Mafjar near Jericho/Arīḥā (Whitcomb et al. 2016) and Khirbet al-Minya (Kuhnen 2016) and Khirbet al-Karak/Ṣinnabra (Greenberg, Tal and Daʿadli 2017) near Tiberias, all of which were located in areas densely inhabited by Christian and Jewish populations … [emphasis added]
Taxel concludes his article with:
In very general terms, the settlement history of the rural and urban milieu following the Muslim conquest was by no means uniform and the local population, especially those who were non-Muslim [i.e., Jews?], experienced significant change. The region’s countryside indicates cases of migration and/or conversion of local Christians, Samaritans and Jews, alongside the likely settlement of Muslim newcomers, though the latter have nevertheless remained a minority among the rural population well into the discussed period. Some settlements experienced territorial and economic growth, some maintained the status quo, while others eventually underwent a decline or were deserted. Some communities were resilient while others were less able to adapt to the gradual shift in the religious and ethnic identity of the region’s population and landscape (with the 8th century clearly marking a turning point in the history, character, and economy of most settlements). [emphasis added]
I do not understand what he means by the last sentence here — is he inferring that Jews and Christians converting to Islam was an act of “adapting” to the shift in character of the population? But Taxel repeatedly claims that Muslims were in the minority. Furthermore, conversion was more likely an act of submission to the sword or a desire to escape dhimmi status. But at least in this article we see that a scholar who does not appear particularly biased toward Israel shows that Jews were continually on the land, and that they were there when the Arabs moved in from the Hijaz in their conquest of the Middle East and North Africa. That has got to be worth something in these days of invented history.