Jews in the Arab Lands – a Brief Historical Perspective from the mid 7th Century until the 19th century, According to Jewish Sources By Dr. Jaafar Hadi Hassan


Both Islam and Judaism have their origins among the Semitic peoples of the Middle East. Differences between the two faiths obviously exist, of course, but in spite of these, the followers of both religions were able to live side by side for many centuries in the lands governed by Muslim rulers. One of the most important reasons for this co-existence is that Islam considers the followers of Judaism “Ahl al-kitab” (people of the Book) and believers in one God and regards their prophets as both holy and as messengers of God. Indeed, there are some Quranic verses to that effect. As people of the book, therefore, it is not surprising that the Jews were usually left alone to practise their religion and regulate their internal affairs according to their own customs and traditions.

According to Abraham Halkin “The extension of internal autonomy to the Jewish communities under Islam made possible the continuance of a Jewish way of life or at least the semblance of it” and in the words of one of the Jewish leaders in Palestine, Yehudai, “When the Ishmaelites (The Muslims) came they left them (the Jews) free to occupy themselves with the Torah”. ( N.Rejwan, The Jews of Iraq pp. 87 and121 ). There is little information about the condition of the Jews in the Arab lands in the first two centuries of Islam. But the little that we do have shows that the Jews had welcomed the Muslim rulers. According to one report, the Jews of Iraq who had suffered from persecution at the end of Sassanian Persian rule (226-642AD) sympathetically received the Muslim conquerors of the land. It is reported that in 658 AD the head of Punbeditha Academy, R. Isaac (d. 660AD), went out to welcome the fourth Caliph Ali b. Abi Talib with many thousands of Jews and was recognized by him as the spiritual leader of the Jewish community. (S.W.Baron A Social and Religious History of the Jews vol.3, p.99).

A statement in an apocalyptic book called “Mysteries of Rabbi Simon bar Yohai” apparently written in part during the days of the Arab conquest of Palestine in the seventh century says “The Holy one blessed be He, is only bringing the kingdom of Ishmael in order to help you (the Jews) from the wicked one”. (S.W. Baron,op. cit. vol 3, p. 93) A remarkable development that one ought to mention here is that soon after the Islamic conquest the Jews in general in the Middle East gave up the languages they spoke such as Aramaic and adopted Arabic. This was in striking contrast to the situation in medieval Christendom, where the Jews made very limited use of Greek and virtually none of Latin. The period discussed in this paper had witnessed a number of Muslim empires in the Arab Lands. First of these was the Umayyad Dynasty which lasted until the middle of the eighth century and ruled from Damascus. We have very little information about the situation of the Jews during this period. However, it is related that the Umayyad Caliphs exercised tolerance towards non-Muslim subjects and employed both Jews and Christians, some of whom obtained high posts in the government hierarchy. It is attested that several Jews were in the court of Maawiya the first Caliph of the dynasty and during the reign of Abdul Malik a Jew was in charge of the mint . When Fustat (Old Cairo) was founded in the seventh century a relatively large Jewish community established itself there. The Abbasid empire which followed, lasted from the eighth to the thirteenth centurie. When Baghdad was founded by the second Caliph al-Mansur in 762AD many Jews moved to the city to live . Baghdad soon became the centre not only of the Muslim Empire but also of Babylonian Jewish learning and life. Shortly after its emergence as a capital and metropolis, it gradually became the seat, first of the Exilarch (head of the Jewish community) and then of the Geonim (Heads of Jewish Academies) (N.Rejwan, op. cit. p. 99). The traveller Benjamin of Tudela writing in the second half of the twelfth century about the Jews of Baghdad says “There are approximately 40,000 Jews in Baghdad, among them scholars and exceedingly wealthy people. They live in peace and tranquillity and honour under the great Caliph and there are twenty eight synagogues and ten yeshivot (religious schools).” Then he goes on to tell us about the elaborate procession of the Exilarch through the streets of Baghdad. He also mentions that the Muslims called him “our master” (sayyidna) the son of David. In Kufa a major centre of trade and learning, the Jewish community there grew very rapidly. Of even greater significance though was the Jewish community in the city of Basra which rivalled Kufa as an intellectual and commercial centre.

In all these centres of Islamic culture and literature, educated Jews developed a considerable taste for literature in Arabic whether it was poetry, philosophy, history or other subjects. They even used the Arabic language to discuss Jewish theology. David Sasson says the following about the Jews in Basra in the ninth century: “We find scholars and medical men who were born in Basra officiating in Palestine and in Egypt”. ( N.Rejwan op. cit. pp. 83-84). In this period some important works were written by Jewish scholars such as the first Arabic translation of the Bible by Saadia Gaon who lived in the tenth century in Iraq. It is worth mentioning here that some Jewish authors in this period, encouraged by the tolerant scholarly climate, felt free to criticise the basic tenets of the Muslim faith and were often outspoken in their critique while enjoying a wide circulation of their work without any overt hindrance by the authorities. An example of this is a book, written by a prominent member of the Jewish community, the philosopher, Ibn Kammuna (d.1285) who lived in Baghdad, entitled “Critical Inquiry into the Three Faiths”. The author allotted to Islam almost two thirds of the book in which he defended Judaism and criticised the Muslim faith. (N Rejwan, op. cit p. 161). Such literature did not cause any immediate reprisals from the Muslim authorities and, most significantly, we have no record of the burning of any Jewish books by Muslim authorities ( S.W.Baron, op. cit.vol.3, pp 133-134). A good deal of easy social intercourse particularly in earlier times existed amongst Muslims, Christians and Jews who, while professing different religions, formed a single society in which personal friendship, business partnerships, intellectual discipleships and other forms of shared activity were normal and, indeed, common. A testament to this social cooperation is the fact that Jews often attended Muslim festivities and family celebrations, and entertained Muslim friends in their homes (S. W. Baron op. cit.vol 3 pp.132-4). In the sphere of trade Jewish merchants were free to travel throughout the empire to do business in different types of merchandise. In this regard the Jews were not subject to occupational restrictions such as we find in Europe in the period we have discussed. After the Mongol conquest of Iraq in1258 the Jews suffered and indeed did the rest of the population. We have little information about the Jews in this turbulent period. In Palestine, another centre of Jewish learning, religious schools were established and their academy in Tibarias, headed by Gaonim, flourished. This city was also the centre for a group of scholars who for the first time developed vocalization for the Hebrew Bible and standardized its text around the eighth century. Some scholars believe that this work was influenced by what the Muslims had done in regard to the Quran a century earlier. (See J. H. Hassan “The Jewish Qaraite Sect pp.83-84 ). The Jews in Palestine also began to build new synagogues, the most famous of which was the synagogue of Anan b David, (founder of the Jewish Qaraite sect) which was built in the ninth century. This sect also called on its followers to emigrate to Palestine from many different countries.Cosequently it became the main centre of their activities and learning. In Egypt the number of Jews increased when according to documents from Cairo Geniza a considerable number of Iraqi Jews emigrated there from the mid eighth century and established a separate community called the Iraqi congregation ( N.Rejwan, op.cit. p 98). During the Fatmid Period many Jews who had only recently settled down in North Africa moved to Egypt with them in 969 AD when they conquered the country.

At this time Egypt became the centre of a vast and powerful empire which at the end of the tenth century, included Syria and Palestine as well as almost all of North Africa. The unification of these countries brought a period of prosperity to the region in both industry and commerce from which the Jews also benefited. Of even greater importance perhaps was the characteristically tolerant attitude adopted by the Fatimids towards non-Muslims. They permitted the construction and repair of non-Muslim houses of prayer, and according to some Jewish sources they even granted financial support to the (yeshivot) Jewish religious schools in Palestine. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Fatimids). They also intervened to solve Jewish sectarian disputes. The only ruler of this dynasty to depart from the policy of tolerance towards non-Muslims was al Hakim (d.1020) who, in fact, also discriminated against some sections of Muslim society, such as women. Towards the end of his rule, however, he did change his policy. The first vizier of the Fatimids was Jacob ibn Killis (991), a Jew who converted to Islam but remained loyal to his former coreligionists. He appointed a Jew “Menassah al-Qazzaz” to head the administration in Syria. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, ibn Killis) Al-Kazzaz utilized his power on behalf of the Jews and granted many of them positions in the government. His son Asiya was also a high ranking official. In the eleventh century the office of the Nagid (head of the Jewish community) was established and some of these Nagidim also became court physicians.

During this period some Jews reached very high positions among them Abu Sa’ad al-Tustary (Abraham b. Yashar) who had the power to make and break viziers, a power which he did in fact exercise (N.Stillman,The Jews of the Arab Lands, p.51). In the early 12th century the chief minister of agriculture was a Jew called Abu al-Munajja (Solomon ben Sha’ya) who ordered the digging of the canal which still bears his name. According to some Jewish authors the Jewish community of Egypt in the Early Middle Ages was affluent, influential and on the whole stable and secure and well organized. There was a sizeable Jewish population in Egypt during the eleventh and twelfth centuries and over ninety cities, towns, villages and hamlets with Jewish inhabitants are known (N.Stillman op. cit. p. 48-52). Life continued to be well organized and Jewish cultural and religious activities were maintained during the time of the Ayyubids (1121 AD-1250 AD) who ruled from Egypt to East Asia in the East and Yemen in the South. This new dynasty showed tolerance towards Jews and Christians. In 1190 Saladin allowed the Jews to settle again in Jerusalem after the Crusaders had compelled them to leave the city and consequently their numbers in Palestine increased. In Syria a lengthy list of physicians and government offcials is mentioned by the Hebrew poet Judah al-Harizi when he visited the country in the 1st quarter of the 13th century. Egyptian Jewry benefited from the stable regime and Jewish scholars from Christian countries came to join the communities. The most famous Jewish scholar and philosopher who lived at this time was Maimonides, who was also a physician of Saladin. The autonomous organisation of the Jewish communities in Egypt remained intact and continued under the leadership of the Nagidim during the rule of the Mamluks. This dynasty were former slaves brought by the Ayyubids from Russia and the Balkan peninsula who came to power in Egypt in 1250 AD and also ruled over Palestine, Syria and adjacent regions in North Africa and Asia Minor.

Although the Jews in this period did experience limitations and restrictions imposed on them by the government and there occurred the occasional violent popular outburst, these never turned into massacres such as took place in the wake of the Crusades (75). Any discrimination that did take place in this period against the Jews was not aimed specifically at them but also included Arabs who, for example, were not allowed to dress like the Mamluks or ride horses. In Spain the Jews not only welcomed the Muslims when they conquered the country in 711AD but in fact they actively made alliance with them against the Visigoths.This seems to be a very rare occurance in the history of the Jews.(N.Stillman, The Jews of the Arab Lands. pp.24and54) The immediate sequel to the conquest was that many Jews who had left Spain at the time of religious persecution by the Visigoth kings and their descendants, returned from North Africa where they had found shelter. The economic situation of the Jews in Spain prospered and they were successful in many occupations including medicine, agriculture, commerce and crafts. Jewish scholarship and culture flourished alongside its Arab counterpart and was influenced by it. A real Jewish cultural revival began in the tenth century when Cordoba was a centre of both Arab and Jewish culture. This was the time of the political rise of the court physician, diplomat and statesman Hasdai b. Sharput who headed diplomatic negotiations with Christian rulers on behalf of the Caliphate. Another personality who should be mentioned here is Samuel Hanagid (d.1055) ( known by the Arabic name of Ibn Nagrila) who was both scholar and poet and served as vizier and commander of the army of Granada for more than 25 years. Furthermore, he was also head of the Jewish community in Islamic Spain. It is interesting to note that he too was the author of a criticism of the Quran which was cited by the contemporary Muslim historian and philosopher ibn Hazm. (Encyclopedia Judaica ,Ibn Nigrila ). Some Jewish contemporaries of Samuel Hanagid in Saragossa and Seville also rose to the ranks of Vizier and in the words of Norman Stillman, author of “The Jews of Arab Lands” “no office, except that of the ruler, seemed out of the reach of a talented and ambitious Jew”(. p. 57). B.J. Bamburger states in his book “The Story of Judaism”, “Oppressed for centuries under the Christian Goths, the Spanish Jews began a new and happy era in the eighth century when the peninsula was conquered by the Arabs. Under a series of enlightened Moslem rulers they attained a status of security and honour such as they had not known since their own national life was destroyed. In numbers, wealth and prestige the Jewish community of Spain became by far the greatest in the world. The civilisation to which they belonged was the most advanced seen by Europe between the decline of Rome and the Renaissance.”(p.154).

In North Africa, the Jews in general led a relatively peaceful existence and those of Hafside Tunisia, in particular, enjoyed the most tranquillity of any North African Jewish community during the period of the Middle Ages. Only the narrow minded al-Mohads who ruled in North Africa and Southern Spain at one point forced Jews and Christians to convert to Islam. The later al-Mohads, however, modified their stance and permitted non-Muslims to practise their religions. (Lewis 52) . Jewish authors stress that the al-Mohad period was a definite aberration in the history of the Jews in the Arab lands, or any Muslim country for that matter. Salo Baron says that al-Mohad extremism was exceptional and proves the general rule that under Islam the Jews resided in their respective countries as of right, and not merely on temporary sufferance (111. p.127). In the 13th and 14th centuries, some Jews in the Further Maghreb, as Morocco was called in Medieval Arabic, rose to high positions. One of these was Aaron b. Batash, who was a Vizier during the reign of Abd al-Haqq b. Abi Sa¢d (1421-1465) (N. Stillman,op.cit. 79) and Abraham Cabassa, head of the Spanish community in the Kingdom of Marrakesh who was minister to the First Saadian Sultan in the 16th century. His brother Samuel was financier of the court and another brother Isaac controlled Morocco’s foreign trade.

The fifteenth century saw the rise of a new and powerful Turkish Dynasty, the Ottomans, who conquerd much of the Middle East and North Africa. As Muslims they continued to allow the Jews in their domains to practise their religion and regulate their internal affairs. The The Ottoman government was happy to provide a haven for large numbers of Jewish refugees from the Iberian peninsula. Sultan Beyezid II (1481-1512) welcomed the Sefardic Jews into his realm and issued firmans (decrees) to his provincial governors specifying the terms of Jewish settlement and ensuring the protection of the newcomers (87) Beyezid is said to have considered Ferdinand of Spain a fool for impoverishing his own kingdom while enriching his (N.Stillman,op. cit. 87). The Jewish refugees from the expulsions of 1492 and 1496 were soon followed by Marranos (Jews who had been compelled to accept Catholicism) fleeing the terror of the Inquisition. When Egypt, Syria and Palestine all became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517 large numbers of refugees began taking up residence in these countries as well. (N.Stillman,op. cit pp.82-88) The prosperity and relative security of the sixteenth century was enjoyed by Jews in most of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. In each province, Jews lived their own independent communal life (Stillman p.90). and some of them such as Don Joseph Nasi, Soloman b. Ya’ish and Moses and Joseph Hamon became very influential at the Sublime Porte. The Turks created the position of Hakham Bashi (Chief Rabbi) and the position of Sarraf Bashi (Chief Banker) a position which usually had a Jewish occupant. Jewish communities were internally organized and stable but the decline of the Empire after the sixteenth century was, of course, reflected in the life of Jews in the provinces of the Empire. The rise and fall of the False Messiah Shabbatai Zvi in the seventeenth century, whom many Jews believed in and followed from Poland to Yemen did nothing to help their situation and in fact caused harm to many of their communities. Few prominent scholars are known to us from this period. One of them is Joseph Caro (d. 1575) the author of a well known manual on Jewish law called ‘Shulhan Arukh”. Another is Isaac Luria (d.1572) the famous Cabbalist. Both of these scholars lived in Palestine. After reforms were introduced by Sultan Muhamuad II (d. 1839) and continued by Sultan Abd al-Majid (d.1862) the situation of the Jews and the Christian minorities greatly improved and they participated fully in cultural and economic life and began to hold government posts, to establish businesses and to found schools for their children.

Throughout Ottoman times the situation of the Jews in Arab lands was generally peaceful and undisturbed. In summary one can perhaps state the following points: Throughout the centuries Jews lived in the Arab Lands and managed to live together in relative peace and harmony. They did not experience anti-Semitism, expulsions or massacres nor were they forced to live in ghettos as Muslim law never called for segregated quarters for different faiths. Also they were not forced to convert as the overwhelming majority of Muslims accept the Quranic dictum “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) Those that did convert were usually welcomed and well treated and they were absorbed rapidly into Muslim society. Of course there were some exceptions but these, fortunately were very few.

* This paper was presented at a seminar held in the House of Lords on the 25th of March 2004. Other speakers were Ms. Karen Armstrong and Professor Bernard Wasserstein.


The Pakistani and Israeli foreign ministers have met publicly for the first time.  This meeting came about after Israel had decided to withdraw from Gaza after 38 years of occupation.  After the meeting Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, called it a “historic and huge breakthrough” and expressed his happiness and said “We are hoping to establish diplomatic relations between our countries”.  The Pakistani foreign minister, Khursheed Kasuri, said that Pakistan had decided to “engage” with Israel and called the meeting “a gesture to underscore the importance we, in Pakistan, attach to Israel ending its occupation of Gaza”.

Historically this was not the first contact between the two countries aiming at establishing diplomatic relations.  In fact, contact with this aim in mind goes back to the 1940s, almost immediately after Pakistan and Israel joined the United Nations.  The two representatives of the two countries at the world body, Abba Eban (later foreign minister of Israel) and Ahmed Shah Bukhari, initiated the contact to establish diplomatic relations.  The Pakistani foreign minister at the time, Zafarulla Khan, whom the Israel Intelligence Service called al-Ahmedi (because he was of the Ahmediyya Sect) encouraged the contact. Zafarulla Khan also called on Arab countries to make peace with Israel after the Arab Jewish war ended in 1948.

The contact (negotiation) continued for some time but ceased when the Prime Minister of Pakistan Liyaqat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951, the cause of which remains a mystery.  According to a report submitted by Abba Eban, Pakistan was on the verge of recognising Israel.

It is not known why Pakistan started these early contacts with Israel despite the disquiet among people in the Muslim world after the United Resolution in 1948 to divide Palestine, as a result of which Israel emerged as an independent country and also despite the uproar and demonstrations in Pakistan itself at the time.  

The suggestion of Abba Eban that the reason for this contact was that Pakistanwanted to embarrass India which had not recognised Israel yet, was not, I think, either a good or a justifiable one.  Later on there were other contacts between the two countries though they were not very serious ones. These contacts took place in the 1950s, between the Pakistani foreign minister Fairuz Khan Noon and Shabtai Rosen, an Israeli ambassador.  There were also some casual and clandestine contacts.

One of these clandestine contacts is detailed in a recently published book by the journalist George Crile in which he mentions the secret deals by the Pakistani army, then headed by General Zia ul Haq, and Israel, through the CIA, for weapons to supply the Afghan Mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union.

The recent initiative by Pakistan towards Israel was prepared for by some statements by the Pakistani leader, Pervez Musharraf, such as his statement in an interview with a private TV channel in 2003 in which he said “We have to review our policy towards Israel and to look at it anew devoid of sentiment …because we do not want to be Palestinians more than the Palestinians themselves and not to be Catholics more than the Pope”.  And when Shimon Perez met him two years ago at the Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland the former said to him “There are many rumours that relations have been established between our two countries”. Musharraf replied by saying “We are putting great efforts towards this aim but you have to make progress towards the conflict with the Palestinians”. President Musharraf also agreed for the first time to give a speech to a conference in America organised by a Jewish group, which was convened last September and in the same month met Ariel Sharon during the United Nations Summit meeting.

It is also reported that he was saying to the Americans who have always pressurised him to recognise Israel and to do so publicly, that he was waiting for the right moment to do this.

According to the Jerusalem Post General Musharraf himself initiated the recent contact and he himself wanted it to be public and Turkey was asked to hold the meeting of the foreign ministers of the two countries.  However, he subsequently emphasised in New York during the UN annual gathering that there would be no normalisation with Israel until after the Palestinian State was established. The Pakistani foreign minister stressed that the meeting did not mean recognition and this would come after progress in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  But I believe such statements by the Pakistani officials are made only to calm the domestic and Muslim opposition to this move. Because there was some disquiet in Pakistanwhen the meeting took place and one of the opposition leaders in Pakistan said “It is a dark day for the Pakistani people and we object to (diplomatic) relations with Israel”.

Regardless of how much Pakistan tries to trivialise the move, it is obvious that it is the beginning of the normalisation of relations.  This was emphasised by the Israeli sources which said that the next move would be to cancel the ban on Pakistanis travelling to Israel so that the Pakistani people could travel to Israel in great numbers, as Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia.  This would then be followed by delegate visits at ministerial level and so on. All these activities would finally be crowned by the establishment of diplomatic relations.

Many people have asked the question what prompted Pakistan to take this step despite the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians which has not yet been resolved?  Has Pakistan been pressured or does it need diplomatic relations with Israel?

Some analysts believe that there are two important issues at work here.  One of them is Pakistan’s relations with the United States and the other is its relations with its historical enemy India.  As for its relations with the former, Pakistan has come to the conclusion that to get the support and help of the United Statesparticularly after the invasion of Iraq, it should establish diplomatic relations with Israel as the United States had been asking President Musharraf to do.  The opportunity for Pakistan came when Israel decided to withdraw from Gaza.

As for its relations with India, Israel established official relations with India in the early 1990s and has been developing them since then and one of the important aspects of these relations was military involvement such as selling equipment, arms and sophisticated planes to India besides the exchange of intelligence information.  And because of all this Pakistan, the experts say, wanted to balance this relationship in order that, that between Israel and India would not be at her expense, and she would not be on the losing side. Some believe that Pakistanalso needs to send her students to improve their knowledge of technology and advanced science at Israeli universities because the United States is putting many conditions on her students after the 11th September.

Whatever the reasons are, relations between the two countries will have important implications for the politics of the Middle East.  First of all it will open the door wide for other Arab and Muslim countries many of whom are now negotiating in secret with Israel for this very purpose.  This relationship will be very beneficial economically to Israel as it has many goods and a lot of expertise to export to Pakistan. In addition, many Pakistanis will flock to Israel as tourists and this will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to the Israeli economy.  With this relationship Israel will have another important country to support it in the international organisations by which Israel is complaining that she is neglected and not given a role suitable to her status in these organisations.

There is another advantage Israel will gain in that she will be closer to Iran which she considers an existential threat to her and  enemy number one plotting to destroy her and she will be able to gather intelligence more effectively.

Lastly there is another important point which not many people are aware of which is related to the Judaising of some tribes who live between Pakistan and Afghanistan and who some Jewish organisations think are originally Jewish but who converted to Islam many centuries ago.  Jewish organisations such as Kullanu (all of us) and Amishab (my people returned) are working very hard but secretly to convert them to Judaism. Some of these activities include publishing books and making videos. These operations will be easier after Israel has established diplomatic relations with Pakistan.

The Law of Return, the Chief Rabbinate and the Status of Non-Orthodox Jews in Israel By Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan

It is a well known fact that most of the population in Israel are immigrants who came to the country according to the Law of Return which was passed by the Israeli Knesset in 1950. This Law, in conjunction with a later Nationality Law, gives every Jew the right to settle in Israel and acquire instant, automatic citizenship. It is worth mentioning here that the Religious Authority in Israelrecognizes as Jews only those who are born to a Jewish mother or were converted to Judaism according to the Halakhah (Jewish Religious Law) as interpreted by the Orthodox. However, among the groups which emigrated according to this law, were followers of some sects which are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, the Religious Authority, in Israel. They are considered non-conformist. This paper will deal with these groups which faced and are still facing problems with the Religious Authority and with Orthodox Jews in general, regarding their Jewishness. The state, nevertheless, still encourages them to emigrate and grants them citizenship in order to help fill the land, in this case, with people whose Jewish origin is not recognized by the Religious Authority.

One of the earliest of these groups which emigrated to Israel according to the Law of Return and has encountered problems with the Chief Rabbinate ever since their arrival in the country, are the Qaraites. The Qaraites are a Jewish sect which was founded in the eighth century AD by Anan ben David in Iraq and subsequently spread to many other countries.1 From its inception this sect did not recognize the Talmud which is considered by mainstream Jews as the second source for the Jewish religious law after the Torah (Old Testament). Consequently when the Qaraites arrived in Israel the Chief Rabbinate refused to recognize their Jewishness. In fact they considered them heretics and as such their marriages and divorces invalid. In addition, their marriage with non-Qaraite Jews is not sanctioned by the Religious Authority. When former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Nissim was asked if there was any way that a marriage between a Qaraite and non-Qaraite could be validated, his answer was that it is impossible unless the Qaraite converts to Orthodoxy. He even said that “the position of a Qaraite is worse than the position of the Christian who wants to become Jewish because of the doubtful legitimate birth.” Additionally, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Ulterman said “Our stand was defined through the generations and ages that our sages cursed any one who would remove the ban on marriage to the Qaraites and, therefore, the ban is impossible to remove.”2 As a result of this, the Qaraites cannot be issued with marriage and divorce certificates which naturally creates problems for them, and also cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries, serve on religious councils etc. Consequently Qaraite leaders have repeatedly tried to resolve their ambiguous status. They applied in 1960 for separate recognition of their religious council, but were talked out of it by the head of the state, Ben Zvi. He, together with other secular Jews, wanted to avoid a legal distinction between Qaraites and other Jews. Similar appeals were made in 1962 and in 1965 and although the government refused these appeals, it did, however, form a Commission for Examination of the Personal Status of the Qaraites. After a year’s deliberation it issued its recommendations which called for granting the Qaraites legal authority over their own personal status and for recognition of their religious courts. After several years’ delay and several more public appeals by Qaraite leaders, a bill to the effect was introduced in the Knesset. It was not passed.3 The Qaraites nowadays are considered a separate sect and because of this they feel betrayed by the state and treated as second-class citizens. As a result many of them, frustrated by this treatment, have emigrated to France, Canada and the United States.

Another Jewish group which faces problems in Israel with the Chief Rabbinate is called the progressive group, mainly the Reform and the Conservative (Masorti) Jews. These groups have different opinions from the Jewish Orthodoxy regarding the Torah and the Talmud. They recognise female rabbis and have many other different practices which do not conform with the Jewish Orthodoxy. These people have therefore faced discrimination from the Religious Authority since the establishment of the state. When they complained of discrimination against their kind of Judaism in the early years of the state, Ben Gurion and Golda Meir told them that their movements would be accepted in Israel only if sufficient numbers of their members settled in the Jewish state. The Religious Authority considers this group, like the Qaraites, as a separate sect and does not recognise any conversions to Judaism they perform in Israel or outside it as valid. When the Reform Jews demanded that their conversions be accepted in Israel, the conversion authority in the Chief Rabbinate office proposed the recognition of the Reform Jews as a separate religious community in Israel and stated “Reform is anyway a different religion in every manner – it allows intermarriage…and does not believe in the Torah.” The former Sephardic chief Rabbi Itzhak Nissim even stated that Reform is not a religion and said “Freedom of religions is intended for members of all religions, including minorities, but it is not intended to achieve the opposite objective with the result that the dominant religion in the state, Judaism, be jeopardized and torn asunder…Reform is not a religion”.4

Orthodox Rabbis and politicians have used every opportunity to delegitimise and harass progressive Jews. The Chief Rabbinate in Israel is always warning practising Jews not to attend Reform and Conservative services. A statement circulated in 1984 proclaimed that “it is strictly forbidden to pray in Reform and Conservative synagogues. Whoever prays in such a place almost certainly has not fulfilled the obligation of Torah reading, or prayer”.5 Progressive Rabbis are not permitted to serve as army chaplains, officiate at marriage ceremonies, serve on religious councils etc. According to this group, Israeli schools and textbooks portray them in a very stereotyped way, as inherently assimilationist and anti-Zionist, in spite of the fact that they are very active Zionists and have two Zionist organizations, one called ARZA which belongs to the Reform Jews and one called Merkaz which belongs to the Conservatives. The followers of progressive Judaism number many thousands in Israel and in spite of the stance of the Religious Authority towards them, the government still encourages those outside to emigrate.

The followers of Reconstructionist Judaism are considered to be in the same category and treated in the same way. This movement was established by Rabbi Mordacai Kaplan in the 1930s in the United States after he had published his book “Judaism as Civilization”. This book provides the foundation for the Reconstructionist ideology. According to Kaplan, Judaism should be understood as evolving religious civilization. He believes that in order for the Jewish community to survive, Judaism must eliminate its authoritarian dogmatic features. In particular, Judaism must divest itself of supernatural beliefs such as belief in a supernatural God. Kaplan also believes that the Bible is the work of many people in many ages and does not believe that the Halakhah (the Jewish Religious Law) is holy and unchangeable. In their prayer book the Reconstructionists have eliminated all references to the Revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the doctrine of the personal messiah and the Jews as the chosen people. Kaplan and his followers were excommunicated by the Orthodox for expressing atheism, heresy and disbelief in the basic tenets of Judaism.6

Yet another of these groups is that of the Ethiopian Jews who are known as the Falashas and who call themselves Beta Yesrael. These Jews were brought to Israel, according to the Law of Return, in two operations in the nineteen eighties and early nineties of the last century. Their number is estimated now at about 70,000. Ever since their arrival in Israel the Chief Rabbinate has cast doubt on their Jewishness. The reason given was that the Ethiopian Jews had totally lost contact with Jewish laws (implying non-recognition of the Talmud). In the eyes of the Rabbis they were considered “mamzerim” (illegitimate children) and their marriage contracts were not recognized and, consequently, neither were their divorces.7 They were asked to convert to Orthodox Judaism. One of the requirements for conversion to Orthodoxy is circumcision, which the Ethiopian Jews have practised. However the Chief Rabbinate did not recognize the manner in which circumcision was practised by them. There were also other rituals which they had to undergo and observe. Some of them conformed to this conversion but the majority of them rejected it as they considered it to be insulting and humiliating. Some declared it to be pure racism, protested and demonstrated and about 30 people committed suicide in 1985-1987 because of the discrimination against them.8 Because of these problems some of the Ethiopian Jews began to join Reform or Conservative Judaism for recognition and some began to shun Judaism in general, and Israelis in particular, and have begun looking for an identity and culture of a mixed African and Caribbean type. They have begun to talk about black nationalism, stating their belief in that, rather than in Judaism.

The Messianic Jews are another group which faces problems in Israel with the Religious Authority. These people who number several thousand in Israel today consider themselves Jews, but also believe in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, whereas all other Orthodox Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to come. Because of this group’s belief in Jesus, the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize them as Jews. In fact, some ultra-Orthodox want the followers of this sect to be forced to become orthodox or be deported and they have established organizations to fight this group, to spy on them and inform the Ministry of the Interior about their proselytising activities. The best known of these organizations is called “Yad L’ahim” (Strength for the Brothers). Messianic Jews are often harassed and persecuted by the Orthodox. In 1997 two Knesset members proposed a bill which makes the printing, possession, reproduction, distribution or import of religious material that induces conversion criminal offences, punishable by a year in jail. The Messianic Jews criticized this bill and said “The bill criminalizes basic human rights and limits the freedom of people to tell about their beliefs”.9 Nevertheless, despite all this, their number is on the increase and they have many places of worship.

A further group of non-conformist Jews who emigrated from the United States to Israel, according to the Law of Return, are the Black Jews who call themselves Hebrew Israelites. The first group of these people arrived in Israel about 1969 and since then others have followed. Although the authority doubted their Jewishness they were allowed to stay temporarily and recently were granted residence. They now number a few thousands and their number is increasing because of their high birthrate. They too, like other non-conformist Jews, are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel because they believe only in the first five books of the Old Testament and the Talmud has no authority over them. They also differ from the Orthodox Jews in believing that Jesus is a prophet of God. In addition they do not celebrate some of the important Jewish festivals and do not practise all Jewish rituals. They believe too that the founder of the sect and their current leader, Ben Ammi, is a prophet. The Chief Rabbinate asked these people to convert to Orthodox Judaism as otherwise they would not be recognized as Jews, but they rejected this suggestion fiercely and considered it an insult. Now they live in Israel as residents but not as citizens, nonetheless there is no doubt that the government will eventually grant them citizenship.10 A well known incident occurred recently which confirms the non-recognition of this group by the Orthodox Jews, when one of their members was killed on 17th January 2002 and was not allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery by the Religious Authority and was buried outside it.11 Another group that I would like to mention here are followers of Secular Humanistic Judaism which appeared in the sixties of the last century in the United States. This sect, like the majority of those already discussed, has many followers all over the world including Israel. These people believe in a Judaism devoid of a divine element. They profess to be atheists and believe that Judaism was the creation of the Jews. They also deny the existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and consider the Exodus account to be a myth. According to them, the Biblical account is not authoritative, rather, it is a human account of the history of the Israelites.12 Although the beliefs of this sect go against the basic tenets of Judaism they are active in Israel and work for their brand of Judaism publicly and have their own synagogues.

Another group which emigrated in the latter years of the last century came from Russia. Many thousands of them are not considered proper Jews. According to the head of the Conversion Authority at the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, up to 300,00 of the recent arrival (of Russians) maybe gentiles, (non-Jewish) but only 5,000 have converted. Many of these arrivals are Christians and others are not interested in becoming Jews.13 Others say that almost 50 per cent of the total population of the Russian immigrants are non-Jewish.14 But these immigrants have, nevertheless, been granted citizenship, given accommodation and all kinds of help and are very active in supporting and maintaining the State. The fact that the Religious Authority does not recognize any of these groups and sects did not and does not in any way deter the State from encouraging them to emigrate, welcoming them and assisting them to settle in every way. In other words, using the Law of Return as an instrument in order to fill the land with people who say they are Jewish. This policy is a deliberate one and it is not new. In fact it has been pursued by Israel for a long time so that displaced Palestinians or their descendants will have no land to return to. This goes against the UN Resolution No 194 which demands that Israel allow them to return to their homeland.


  1. On the Qaraite history and belief see Jacfar H Hassan, The Jewish Qaraite Sect (Arabic). 2. S.Z. Abramov, Perpetual Dilemma pp.282-3. 3. D. Ross, Acts of Faith p.142. 4. W. Frankel, Israel Observed pp.217-8 5. M.A. Meyer, Response to Modernity, A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism p.468. 6. Dan-Cohn-Sherbok, The Future of Judaism pp.135-137 7. R.S. Feuerlicht, The Fate of the Jews p.206 8. T.G. Wagaw, For Our Soul : Ethiopian Jews in Israel pp.118-9 9. The Jerusalem Report 29/5/1997 10. On the history and beliefs of the Hebrew Israelites see M. Launds (Jr) Israel’s Black Hebrews. 11. The Jerusalem Report 11/2/2002 12. The main reference on the subject of Secular Humanistic Judaism is “Judaism Beyond God” by Sherwin T Wine (a prominent exponents of this sect). 13. the Jerusalem Report 25/12/1997 14. D. Siegel The Great Immigration , Russian Jews in Israel, p.64 *This paper was given at the international conference on the Israeli Law of Return, which was held at the University of London in April 2002.