The lost Palestinian Jews

According to amateur historian Tsvi Misinai, many Jews and Palestinians share not only DNA, but also customs and even names.

Tsvi Misinai 88 248 (photo credit: T. Misinai)
Tsvi Misinai 88 248
(photo credit: T. Misinai)
"We are of the same race and blood, and cooperation will bring great prosperity to the land," wrote Emir Faisal to Felix Frankfurter in 1917. Faisal was known for his affinity to the Zionists who had begun streaming to the Holy Land; in 1919, he signed a cooperation agreement with Chaim Weizmann, to whom he wrote that he was "mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people." But Faisal's proclamations of kinship with the Jews were more than lip service to a commonly held belief, says Tsvi Misinai, who knows perhaps more about the origins of the modern Palestinians than anyone. "Faisal's paternal line was Hashemite," he says, "meaning he was directly descended from Muhammad. 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. And what was known to Faisal is known to many Palestinians today as well." This is a story of what may be one of the best-kept secrets in history - one that could, in time, heal the terrible rift that has torn the Land of Israel asunder. After years of research, Misinai says that he can declare with certainty that nearly 90 percent of all Palestinians are descended from the Jews. "And what's more, about half of them know it," he says. Not only that, many Palestinians retain Jewish customs, including mourning rituals, lighting Shabbat or memorial candles and even wearing tefillin. While the common wisdom among many Israelis is that the group that calls itself "Palestinian" is a motley collection of Arabs from various parts of the Middle East who immigrated to the Land of Israel following the employment opportunities provided by Jews, Misinai says that the vast majority of today's Palestinians are descended from the remnants of Jewish families who managed to avoid being deported over the past 2,000 years, or returned to their lands after they were exiled, as the Jews in the Holy Land suffered blow after blow - from the Roman destruction of the Temple to the Crusades to famine, poverty and war throughout the Middle Ages. One thing many were unable to avoid, however, was converting to Islam - a forced conversion that never really "took," done more out of fear than conviction. Misinai has made it his mission to spread the word among Palestinians, giving them the opportunity to retrieve their lost heritage. And not just introduce them to their roots; according to Misinai, the reintegration of what he calls the "descendants of Israel" with the Jewish people is the best - perhaps the only - way to solve the seemingly endless Middle East crisis. Despite what some may be thinking, Misinai is not a nut. In fact, he is a hi-tech entrepreneur, perhaps the first in Israel's history. While the kids from ICQ and Google were still in diapers, in the early 1980s Misinai was building Sapiens into a world-class application developer, focusing on the insurance industry. All those rule-based, object-oriented applications we use every day; it was Misinai who invented the concept, and the product, winning the Rothschild Award for industrial development in the field of software in 1992. Several years afterward, he retired from the hi-tech business to return to his first love - researching the history of the Land of Israel. "I became interested in this area because of my father, who was a great collector of artifacts about the Land of Israel," he says, a hobby he has continued. But besides objects, Misinai collected stories - legends and folklore from the mouths of mukhtars, village elders throughout the land, attesting to the truth of his assertions. "There are large clans throughout the country, in the Hebron Hills, in Samaria and among the Negev Beduin, who know of their heritage and even have family trees that document their roots. Not only that; many of them have specifically Jewish customs, and their neighbors would call them 'the Jews,' even though they were technically as Muslim as anyone else." Close to nine out of 10 Palestinians in the Land of Israel - Israel proper, Judea, Samaria and Gaza - have Jewish roots. In fact, he says, the percentage in Gaza is somewhat higher than 90 percent. Misinai is far from the first researcher to have stumbled upon this historical find. The first president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, wrote several books and articles on the subject. In fact, Ben-Gurion believed so strongly in the idea that in 1956 he set up a task force headed by Moshe Dayan and Haim Levkov (the Palmah's "point man" among the Arabs of Israel, he worked with Yigal Allon to set up the Trackers' Unit, traditionally the domain of Negev Beduin), that was supposed to develop ways to "Judaize" the Beduin, teaching them something about modern Jewish life and tradition to integrate them with the Israeli people, ethnically if not religiously. The Beduin were willing enough, but the teachers who were supposed to live and work with them dropped out of the program because of the rough living conditions. In the end, Dayan convinced Ben-Gurion that the idea would upset "the Islamic world," and the program was dropped. That's an important point, Misinai says. "I don't necessarily believe most, or even some, of the Palestinians would want to convert to Judaism, at least right now. Reintegrating them with the Jewish people does not necessarily require them to convert, and I imagine many of the rabbis would be reluctant to go ahead with such a program." Plus, he says, many Israelis of all stripes would be suspicious that the Palestinians were embracing their "Jewish identities" as a way of getting Israeli ID cards - to get National Insurance money, if not to carry out terror attacks. IN HIS book, Brother Shall Not Lift Sword Against Brother, which discusses what he calls "the Engagement," Misinai foresees a gradual process of education and integration that could take 40 to 50 years, with immigration and natural growth among the Jews keeping the demographic balance in check. "It sounds like a long time, but we often forget that it's been 40 years since the Six Day War and the only 'progress' that we've made has been the Oslo process, which has turned out to be a tragedy for Israel and the Palestinians," Misinai says. Besides, he says, many of the Palestinians might not have to convert anyway. "Many of the families in question know they are of Jewish origin, and they marry among themselves. Halachically there may be some questions, but I have consulted with rabbis who say they are resolvable. It would certainly be in line with historic Judaism, which in the past - during the Temple periods, for example - had more lax standards for accepting returnees. For example, Jews who were idol worshipers during the First and Second Temple periods were not forced to convert back in order to be considered part of the people of Israel." Besides, he says, with most of the available spouses living in the land coming from Jewish backgrounds themselves, the opportunity to intermarry with someone of non-Jewish ancestry was low - far lower than the chances for such a marriage to take place in modern-day America or Russia, he says. "Several Palestinians have gone through formal conversion, but I know of a number who have taken on Jewish practices - and who say they don't need to convert because they know they're already Jews." And the evidence for the Jewish ancestry of the Palestinians is persuasive - very persuasive, when all the information is taken into account. First, there are the names - not just place names, but family names. "Many villages here have names that are not Arabic, and very rarely appear in other Arab lands. Among such names are Kafr Yasif, Kafr Kana, Kafr Yatta, Kafr Manda, Kafr Samia, and many others," says Misinai. Indeed, Ben-Zvi in his 1932 book The Peoples of Our Land wrote that west of the Jordan River, 277 villages and sites - nearly two-thirds! - had names that were similar to or the same as the Jewish settlements on the same sites during Second Temple times. That in itself, said Ben-Zvi in his book, is proof that the inhabitants of those villages were Jews who had remained after the destruction. "If in fact the Jewish settlements became inhabited by entirely different people, they would not have preserved the Hebrew names (which in fact, did occur in most of those settlements where the population did change, such as in the eastern part of the Jordan). Such is not the case in western land of Israel where the old Hebrew names are preserved, which proves the continuity of settlement in this place," he wrote. It's not just place names; many Palestinians have Hebrew-derived family names as well, reflecting their origins, says Misinai. Already in the 1860s, "Colonel Condor of the Institute for Israel Research found biblical names among Palestinian fellahin [peasants]. Many of these names have no root in the Arabic lexicon. Large, distinguished families from various parts of the country carry Hebrew names or Jewish family names." Among the surnames of some of the larger clans are the Abu Khatsiras, who control much of the fishing in Gaza; Elbaz, a family of Jews who immigrated from Morocco; Abulafia, the family with the famous Jaffa bakery which is descended from the 13th-century Spanish kabbalist Rabbi Abraham Abulafia; the Almogs of Jenin; the Dawouda (Davids) of Hebron; and even, believe it or not, 4,000 forced converts to Islam named Cohen living in Jordan. Not only that: The Palestinian dialect of Arabic contains many terms and words not found in "standard" Arabic - the result of the integration of Hebrew and Aramaic into the Arabic they were forced to learn after the various Arab and Turkish conquests. Israel Belkind, one of the organizers of the Bilu movement, who researched the roots of the Palestinians during the 1890s, wrote that "it was already proven by Major Condor, in his research on the land of Israel, that the 'Arabs' of the Land of Israel had spoken Aramaic in the days of the Crusades, the language spoken by the Jews until the Arab conquest - meaning that these Aramaic-speaking 'Arabs' were actually Jews themselves." In fact, Misinai says, Aramaic was still the lingua franca among some villagers not too long ago. "In 1974, the settlers who established the modern Ofra were astounded to find that the residents of the village on the ancient biblical site of Ofra - called Tybiba - were Christians who spoke Aramaic." While many gentiles converted to Christianity in the religion's early days, they would most likely be Greek speakers; any group that spoke Aramaic is far more likely to have Jewish roots. Many Jewish customs have survived among the Palestinians as well, Misinai says. "In Islam, parents are required to have their sons circumcised by the age of 13. While in many Islamic countries the custom is to wait several years, among Palestinians many perform the ritual a week after their son is born - meaning on the eighth day," he says. Other customs include sitting seven days for deceased loved ones instead of just three (a custom, Misinai says, that has fallen by the wayside since the first intifada), lighting memorial candles for the dead (a custom found nowhere in the Muslim world), lighting Shabbat candles and practicing levirate marriage - the practice of having a brother marry his deceased sibling's wife under certain circumstances. That's a widespread practice among the Beduin, says Misinai, and in fact "much of the legal code of the Beduin is remarkably similar to many laws in the Torah and the Mishna." In addition, several Palestinian families own ancient hanukkiot, which they used in mid-winter - around Hanukka. YEHUDA BOORLA described in his book Be'ein Kochav (about his service as an officer in the Turkish army during World War I) interesting information about an Arab attendant from the Land of Israel who accompanied him. One section of the book describes a "moment of discovery" on the part of the attendant. Upon hearing the author speak about the Islamic custom of cutting off the breasts of Jewish women, the Arab attendant realized that his mother, who suffered from the same deformity, was in reality Jewish. Until today, elderly Palestinians in Jordan who moved there from west of the river tell of this tradition, says Misinai. "They say that this was done in cases where Muslim men married Jewish women, so that the Jewish women would not be able to breast-feed and their children would not take in the milk of their Jewish mothers. Thus the children would not be thought to be Jewish." One of the most curious of the Jewish customs that were once widespread among the Palestinians was the putting on of tefillin - usually done by someone who was ill, especially by those suffering from headaches. The rare tefillin were wrapped in cloth (to preserve them, says Misinai). When a sick person needed "treatment," they would place the tefillin box (which houses the scroll) on the middle of the ill person's forehead and wrap the connected fabric straps around his head. With the use of a key, an assistant would tighten the strap, thereby creating pressure around the head. The heightened pressure increased the headache pain - so when the tefillin was removed, it seemed as if the victim's original pain had decreased, if not disappeared completely. "Other than among a few people, the true meaning of the tefillin was lost," says Misinai. Food, too, is high on the agenda of these lost Jews. Many Beduin refrain from eating camel and other nonkosher animals, and around Pessah time, many Palestinians find themselves with a yen for matza. "In the region around Bethlehem, there is a high demand for matza during Pessah. When trucks delivering matza pass through, the customers crowd the trucks, taking the boxes right off the trucks even before unloading and bringing them into the store." The same story repeats itself in Nazareth and Shfaram, where residents make special trips to Upper Nazareth to buy matza. "Possibly they do this because they like matza, but given the other testimonies about these people, it's more logical to say that, at least in origin, the demand for matza during the start of the spring has more to do with religious custom than a recurring heightened seasonal desire for dry crackers," says Misinai. And while all the anecdotal evidence cited could be the result of historical confusion or some other factor, the one thing that cannot be falsified is the genetic record - which overwhelmingly proves the closeness of traditional Jews and Palestinians, says Misinai. "In 2001, Human Immunology magazine published a genetic study conducted by Prof. Antonio Arnez-Vilna, a Spanish researcher from the University of Complutense in Madrid, who discovered that the immune systems of the Jews and the Palestinians are extremely close to one another in a way that almost absolutely demonstrates a similar genetic identity. Following the publication of the article, the magazine instructed readers to destroy it due to the fact that the author had inserted political opinions into the article," Misinai says, adding that no allegations of falsified data were ever made. OTHER STUDIES, including a 2002 test by Tel Aviv University researchers, determined that only two groups in the world - Ashkenazi Jews and Palestinians - were genetically susceptible to an inherited deafness syndrome. All the studies he cites in his book, says Misinai, show that "the Palestinians are genetically much closer to Ashkenazi Jews than they are to the Arabs." The findings, by the way, also should dispel once and for all the canard that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from the Central Asian Khazars, and not from the population of the Land of Israel. If "secret Judaism" is as widespread among Palestinians as Misinai says, why are so many so opposed to Jewish settlement here? Because the issue has been "hijacked" by groups - the leadership of the Arab world, and Palestinians who have forgotten their Jewish roots. For this reason, most of the youth are not told about their origins until later on - when they have learned the art of obfuscation, balancing multiple identities to ensure their survival. It should be noted not all Palestinians hate Israel, Misinai points out; in 1982, for example, the leaders of Bidya in Samaria offered to enlist in the IDF in the First Lebanon War to fight the PLO. "The Jewish origin of many of Bidya's clans is a well-known fact, even today," says Misinai. But still, there's no denying that many Palestinians would like to see the Jews just disappear. And there are several reasons for that, says Misinai, the "loss of memory" among many Palestinians who now see the Jews as a "competitive other," and fear of radicals and terrorists among those who would otherwise feel affinity for Jews - as they undertake terrorist acts to throw off suspicion that they are "collaborators." In his book, Misinai painstakingly describes the origins of the Palestinians, who he says are made up chiefly of two groups: Jews who lived in the mountain regions of Judea and Samaria, who were able to maintain their Jewish identities for hundreds of years before being forced to make a choice between exile and conversion to Islam; and members of the ancient nations of Edom and Moab, who were converted to Judaism en masse at least twice. The two groups, whom Misinai calls respectively the "descendants of Israel" and the "brethren of Israel," are the chief components of what we today call the Palestinians, with the addition of a smattering of Arabs (barely a few percent), Samaritans (who maintain their own distinct religious identity), descendants of the soldiers who served in the occupying Roman army after the destruction of the Second Temple and even some survivors of the ancient Canaanite and Philistine nations - "idol worshipers who can be found in Gaza and in the village of Jisr a-Zarka, near Haifa," says Misinai. The collective memory of the mountain people was better than that of the "brethren of Israel," who eventually settled in the lowlands and coast from where most of the Jewish refugees originated; most of these people forgot their Jewish roots, and they comprise the bulk of refugees who fled Israel in 1948. And, Misinai says, they're the ones who are most active in terror activities. It's this group that participated most actively in the intifada, with their objective to return to the lands they abandoned in 1948 (which they themselves occupied only about 100 years before, as they settled near areas were Jews had built towns and cities to get work). In essence, though, the brethren have now returned to their ancestral homeland east of the Jordan. Which leaves the "descendants" the major component of the Palestinian population on the west side of the Jordan. And it's these people, Misinai believes, that Israel can - and must - work with to resolve the Palestinian issue. Not by creating a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria, but by offering the "mountain people" the opportunity to reconnect with their roots - with the Jewish people and with the modern State of Israel. "It sounds impractical, but Zionism always was impractical. And yet it succeeded," says Misinai. But the Palestinian problem has thrown Zionism out of kilter. Nobody, despite reluctance to go through another partition, is interested in being an "occupier." But Israel's reintegration - Engagement, as Misinai puts it - of the Palestinians with the Jewish people would allow Zionism to renew its roots, and complete the task of building the modern Israeli nation. "There are lots of reasons why this would work," says Misinai. "The fact that most Palestinians consider themselves Muslim is not an issue, because most of the Palestinians are not particularly religious Muslims. Until recent decades, there were few mosques relative to population outside Jerusalem. It was King Hussein, and later the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs, that prompted much of the mosque building in recent years. Bidya, for example, only had one mosque for 25,000 residents until recently." In his writings, Ben-Zvi cited an interesting phenomenon that he observed. "When the Palestinian peasant swears in the name of the prophet Muhammad, the oath is not taken seriously. But if he goes to the grave of a holy person of the village or of the surrounding area and swears there, we may completely rely on his oath." THE PALESTINIANS' veneration of the Jewish prophets, their preservation of the grave sites of the Jewish patriarchs, and their embrace even of Jewish rituals (Ben-Zvi cites witnesses who recounted Palestinians and Beduin coming to dance at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai in Meron on Lag Ba'omer) indicates that the "Musta'abari [secret Jews] spirit" is still alive and that if offered the possibility of being not so religious Muslims or not so religious Jews, the majority would opt for the latter. This is where the state has a major role to play, Misinai says. "Most Palestinians are loyal above all to their families, then to their clans, then to those in position of power and only at the end to their religion and people. A strong State of Israel, confident in its direction and its just cause, can successfully execute the Engagement plan." One reason Palestinians have kept their Jewish roots secret for so long - despite the desire of many to come out of the Islamic closet - is because of their fear of the bully elements in the Palestinian and Arab leadership, the same groups that perpetuate the misery of Israeli Jews and descendants of Israel. "Many of the descendants' families are forced to prove their loyalty to the 'cause' on pain of death," says Misinai. "For example, many families name one of their children Jihad to 'prove' their credentials as loyal fighters against the Jews." If the state were to offer them an alternative, however, Misinai says many would find the courage to break out of their old patterns and embrace their true heritage. It's not at all about conversion, he says, more about developing a cultural affinity and a single national group. But, he says, it's likely that a large number would want to convert anyway. Even if many Palestinians prefer not to join the Jewish people, the fact that many would be willing would set the tone. For similar reasons Israeli Jews, since the days of Ben-Zvi and Ben-Gurion, have shunted aside the clear evidence of the Jewish background of the Palestinians. "After the Holocaust, the issue was set aside, as the Yishuv had more pressing matters, besides the obvious issues of language and lifestyle that separated Jews and Palestinians, not to mention the suffering inflicted by the various uprisings and pogroms conducted against the Yishuv. And the arrival of Jews from Eastern countries who had just been booted out of their homes by Muslims, whom they didn't trust, only exacerbated the divisions." But now, 60 years later, with the seemingly intractable issue of two nations laying the same ancestral claim to the same piece of land, it is time to revisit the past to build the future. In the end, Misinai says, the reintegration of the Palestinians with the Jewish people is the best - and only - solution. "We've been down the path of partition, defensive war and what the world calls occupation. Nothing has worked. The world is getting very tired of our bickering, and is pushing to implement a solution - any solution. So far, the only solutions are the ones that have failed, but here is some new, fresh thinking, that many Jews and Palestinians would accept. And if we accept it, so will the nations of the world." Misinai's Engagement would unite the "two kingdoms of Israel" described by the prophet Ezekiel. "The Jews who went into exile held onto their culture, beliefs and religion, while those that remained behind held as long as they could to the Land of Israel. Both loves - love of Torah and love of land - come from the same wellsprings. It's time to repair the historic damage done by our enemies, the Romans, and reunite our people."