There are those who claim that the Jews are the troublemakers of the Middle East. If not for them, it is argued, the Palestinians would be peaceful shepherds and fishermen, as they have been from time immemorial. However, examination of a historical journal, written 130 years ago, reveals a less idyllic picture.
After spending several decades as British Consul in Yerushalayim, James Finn recorded his experiences of Palestine in his book, “Stirring Times.”
THE KAIS AND YEMINI
In this work, he describes how the agricultural population (Fellanheen) of Palestine was divided into two feuding factions, the Kais and the Yemini. It was theorized, he explains, that these two groups originated in Yemen, the Yemini coming from South Yemen and the Kais from further north. During the Moslem conquest of Syria and Palestine, each faction gained local adherents and the two groups developed a vicious enmity for one another.
Even individual villages were often divided between the two groups, such as south-west of Yerushalayim, in the village of Macha, where Arabs fought bloody battles across their own streets. Additionally, as if all this wasn’t bad enough, the Kais and Yemini were subdivided further into feuding subclans. The causes of this constant peasant warfare, technically known as miadeh, were numerous: lust of power among the sheiks, hereditary feuds, and vindictive retaliation for past treacheries. As long as taxes were paid more or less on time, the Ottoman Empire was willing to let the violence run its destructive course.
“They were left to themselves to waste human life, to impede or destroy agriculture at their perverse will, and so the country became a desert,” Finn writes, “as I have known the people of Wad Fokeen, beyond Bethlehem, on finding themselves pressed by a stronger faction than their own, cut down their own vineyards and orange trees, nay even send to auxiliary villages for help in destroying their olive trees lest they should become the property of the enemy.”
Travelers had to be careful to avoid these mini war-zones. In her memoirs, James Finn’s wife describes “a disturbing incident” that occurred during one of the trips they took through the countryside.
“The tribes on each side, west and south, were fighting and the cries of war and the gunshots went on all day long,” she records. “Early in the morning, we heard gunshots close to our tent. Jumping up, we found that one side of the combatants had come in and from behind our boundary wall were firing upon the enemy and the bullets whizzed past us. So Mr. Finn ran out to them and said, ‘This will not do; please go outside to fight.’ They said, ‘Very well,’ and did! We had weeks of fighting all around us.”
Finn describes many of the various warring clans, including the Abu Ghosh clan whose headquarters still lie adjacent to modern-day chareidi Telzstone.
“Abu Ghosh means ‘Father of Deceit,’” he writes. “The clan is reputedly descended from Circassian Mamluks who came with Sultan Selim to Jerusalem in 1516, which explains their pale complexions. His capital village is Kuriet el ‘Aneb, the Kiryat Yearim of Scripture, which they had conquered from another family named B’khakhrarh. Situated along the high road between Jaffa and Jerusalem, three hours from the latter, commanding a long view of travelers and pilgrims.” Travel books of those times describe the Abu Ghosh chief as a robber and blackmailer. Taking advantage of the weak Turkish security, he would extort ghuf’r, or road tolls, from people traveling from Yaffo to the holy places in Yerushalayim until the Turks calculated that the best way to stop him was to put the cat in charge of the cream; for an annual salary of 40,000 piastres (about 400 English pounds) and various tax exemptions, they appointed him security warden of the Yerushalayim road.
ABDERRAHHMAN OF CHEVRON
Another infamous clan was the Amer family, two hours from Chevron, headed by “foul, bull necked” ‘Abderrahhman who spent his time “oppressing the peasantry, plundering the helpless Jews in Hebron, and even employing agents to rob travelers upon the roads.” He had installed himself as governor of Chevron after Turkey retook Eretz Yisroel from Egypt in 5600/1840. Finn devotes pages describing how this violent governor tyrannized both Arab and Jew. Like his modern counterparts, no matter what violence he committed, he always managed to find a scapegoat on whom to place the blame; all his robbery and violence was an innocent attempt to right everyone else’s wrongs against him.
After being arrested for debts in 5612/1852, ‘Abderrahhman decided to collect funds by terrorizing the inhabitants of Chevron. He began levying huge fi nes on the inhabitants, especially the Jews who formed a substantial proportion of the population. Since many of these Jews were under the protection of the British Consulate, Finn set off to personally witness ‘Abderrahhman’s proceedings, “in the hope that my presence among our people there might in some degree check the miscreant in his career.” Finn set off with a bodyguard of two boushi bozuk (irregular Turkish soldiers) and was put up at the home of the Jewish pakid (leader).
“To my surprise,” he reminisces, “the Spanish Jews (who are Turkish subjects), at other times so full of protestations of gratitude for my visits, betrayed in their countenances an excessive fright and they came about me declaring that ‘Abderrahhman had done them no harm and had not injured anybody.’ One of their leading rabbis implored me in the case of ‘Abderrahhman coming to visit me, as might be expected, not to say that I had come for protection of Jews, for that if I did so, he would be sure to punish them doubly at my departure.” Finn soon discovered that he was in a precarious situation. ‘Abderrahhman was surrounded in his town house by 500 armed men while the government forces in Chevron amounted to six men. In fact, the entire Turkish military force of Yerushalayim consisted of 800 regular infantrymen, 160 boushi bozuks, and 16 artillerymen. So ‘Abderrahhman was not particularly concerned when a small force of 30 Turkish soldiers finally showed up at his doorstep.
“At 9 a.m.,” Finn reports, “the troop from Jerusalem arrived with a rattle of kettledrums and advancing direct to ‘Abderrahhman, the captain presented him with a letter from the Pasha… On this, ‘Abderrahhman stormed curses at him and calling in people from passing along the street, demanded, in a voice of thunder, if he had robbed or done violence to anyone? In terror, they shook their coats and said, ‘G-d forbid.’ One after another avouched that ‘Abderrahhman was the best of all possible governors and had done injury to no one.”
‘Abderrahhman insisted to Finn that his plundering was simply to recover bribes he had been forced to pay and money stolen from him by the government.
“If the Consul will recover that money for me,” he told Finn, “I will retire to my own place, put my hand under my head and go to sleep. If not, I will plunder every house in this town, allow neither Christian nor Jew to live here…”
Unable to do anything, Finn and the Austrian Consul left Chevron, grateful they had not been seized as hostages. As they passed through the streets, Jews shouted after them in German and Hebrew that they were in a terrifying situation, despite having said the opposite in the tyrant’s presence. |
“Es giebt viel furcht. Aval yesh pachad, ach yeish mora belibeinu,” “We are afraid, there is fear in our hearts.”
A few months later, the Arab peasants of Chevron had enough of ‘Abderrahhman and crushed him in a revolt.
Shechem, one of Eretz Yisroel’s modern hotspots, was not much different in Finn’s time. The Arab clans there controlled a belt of territory extending across the middle of Eretz Yisroel from the Mediterranean Plain to the River Jordan.
“The population there is evidently of a different race from that of other parts of Palestine,” Finn notes. “They are distinguishable by a mean and cruel cast of countenance… When the factions of Jebel Nabloos were at war with each other, their fi ghting was more savage and cruel than that of the clans in the Jerusalem territory, south and west… It is easy to understand that whenever the Turkish government was weak or whenever it suited the Pasha for the time being to promote strife, the Nabloos factions were at open war with each other.”
Finn reports the Moslem reaction in Palestine when the Crimean War broke out between Turkey and Russia during his stay in Eretz Yisroel; local Arabs regarded this as a potential opportunity to impose Moslem rule over the whole world.
“It was interesting to hear the bazaar talk in Jerusalem at the beginning of the Russian war and afterwards, when an alliance between Turkey and some of the European nations was first being mooted,” he writes. “People were so ignorant, even among the upper classes of Moslems, that it was gravely said that the Sultan, being attacked by the Christians (Russians), was about to call upon his vassals for aid in money and by arms… He was about to call upon the Queen of England as his friend (and vassal) and upon the Latin kings or, at any rate, their friend, the French emperor… If they, the vassals, came when summoned and did their duty, well. If not, they must be supposed to have made common cause with the enemy.”
“And then? Why then the green flag must be unfurled, the Jehad must be proclaimed against all Christians… and Inshallah! It would not be long before the last great triumph, the coming of Mohammed and victory for ever to Islam.
“’What idle talk all this is!’ someone would say and laugh.”
Finn concludes with a comment no less frightening today than it was over 150 years ago:
“But it seemed to us that words could never be quite idle, however erroneous, so long as thousands and millions of men, women and children believe in them, are influenced by them, and are ready, at whatever sacrifice, to act blindly upon them.”
(Sources:  Finn, James, Stirring Times. C. Kegan Paul & Co.: London, 1878;  Reminiscences of Mrs. Finn. Hunt, Barnard and Co: Great Britain.)