I was reading a book by James Finn from 1872 titled Byeways in Palestine. James Finn was a British politician who served as the British Consul to Jerusalem from 1846-1863 during the Ottoman occupation. If there was ever a man during that time who knew the area and whose information we should trust, it is Finn.
The book Byeways in Palestine deals with a journey he took through the Holy Land during the 1850s, long before Herzl, World War I, or the British Mandate. I came across a passage in the book that talks about a small town called Shefa ‘Amr near Haifa. Today, this town in an Arab village in Northern Israel with 41,000 inhabitants and it is almost exclusively Muslim. But in the book, in a passage dated March 1850, it states:
“The majority of the inhabitants are Druses. There are a few Moslems* and a few Christians; but at that time there were 30 Jewish families living as agriculturists, cultivating grain and olives on their own landed property, most of it family inheritance. They had their own synagogue and legally qualified butcher, and their numbers had formerly been more considerable.”
This is an unbelievable quote. Not only does it state that an Arab town in Northern Israel, which is often referenced in Electronic Intifada and other anti-Israel propaganda sources as an example of colonialism, was not Arab at all, but Druze with just a few Muslims* , but it also states that it had a considerable Jewish population (30 families could be 100 to 400 people) with Jewish institutions and land ownership. Furthermore, it states that Jews inherited this property from their families meaning they had owned this land for a while, and that in the past the Jewish population was even bigger!
Further down the page it states that “upon the road that day, and in half an hour from the town, I met a couple of rosy-faced strong peasant men, with sparkling Jewish eyes, who set to speak Hebrew with some Rabbis in my company…I shall never forget this circumstance, of finding men of Israel, fresh from agricultural labour, conversing in Hebrew in their own land.”
That passage just blew several holes in some of the most invective anti-Israel narratives that exist.
- The prevailing charge is that yes there were some Jews in the cities, but the smaller towns and villages were almost exclusively Arab and had no Jews. Here we see a town in the North that had a Druze majority with a very small Muslim* presence and more importantly a sizable Jewish population who had owned land for generations.
- Modern historic revision leads one to believe that you may see some Jews in the bigger towns, but would not find Jews between towns and villages. Here we see that half an hour from town they stumbles on two Jewish peasants who were rosy-faced and had sparkling Jewish eyes. These are clearly not tourists or wealthy Europeans that moved to Jerusalem or Haifa. These are local Jewish villagers.
- James Finn stated that the local Jewish peasants were speaking Hebrew to a Rabbi that he was traveling with in 1850! The ramifications of this are huge. Modern history states that Hebrew had disappeared by this time as a spoken language and had remained only as a liturgical and academic language. The language was not revived as a conversational language until the latter parts of the 19th century by Eliezar Ben Yehuda. The thing is that Ben Yehuda, who was born in Russia, was not born until 1858, eight years after this journey when two Jewish peasants spoken in Hebrew. Furthermore, this was happening in the Holy Land, not Europe!
- Jews have traditionally been thought of as merchants and city dwellers who made a living peddling or loaning money. Here we see that the indigenous local Jewish population in the Holy Land engaged in agriculture. They owned and worked the land.
- Finally, and most importantly, the British Consul to Jerusalem in the middle of the 1800s in the midst of the Ottoman rule referred to Jews in Palestine as being “in their own land.” This statement was not politically motivated. There was no political Zionist movement at this time. Herzl was still ten years away from being born. For millennia Israel/Palestine/Southern Syria/Holy Land/Whatever you want to call it was known as the land of the Jews. It only stopped being referred to as the land of the Jews in the the 20th century as a psychological weapon of war & disinformation.
Wikipedia Is Not a Reliable Source
Excited from reading this passage in James Finn historical record, I wanted to see what Wikipedia said about Shefa ‘Amr. I looked it up and read the section under “Ottoman era” and sure enough it did mention the passage in the James Finn book, albeit in a way that seemed to be biased. But the fact it even mentioned it was a good sign. But as I looked at it more closely, I began to see some glaring issues with the entry. First of all, it states “James Finn reported wrote in 1877.” Even though the book was published in 1877, James Finn died in 1872. There was no way he was reporting five years after his passing. Furthermore, Wikipedia makes it seem like the statistics that Finn provides are from 1877, and only the part related to the Jews is from 1850. This is also not correct. Everything he wrote was in reference to his visit in 1850.
Further on down the Wikipedia paragraph it states “Conder and Kitchener, who visited in 1875, was told that the community consisted of “2,500 souls—1,200 being Moslems*, the rest Druses, Greeks, and Latins.” Conder refers to British author and editor Josiah Conder. Here is the problem. Conder never visited the Holy Land or anywhere else he wrote about. It even states that he never visited the places he wrote about in the Wikipedia entry about Josiah Conder!
In the next paragraph, it states that “A population list from about 1887 showed that Shefa-‘Amr had about 2,750 inhabitants; 795 Muslims, 95 Greek Catholics, 1,100 Catholic, 140 Latins, 175 Maronites/Protestants, 30 Jews and 440 Druze.”
The source of these statistics is the chart below from Quarterly statement – Palestine Exploration Fund published in 1887.
Here is where we get into serious problems with Wikipedia and why it should never be used for scientific or research purposes. If you look at the official numbers and totals, they are based on Socage. Socage was a tax that male head of households had to pay to the Ottoman Pasha. So the number that owes Socage under the “Total” column is correct. But, the number of “Souls” or everyone is an estimation. Multiple the “Total” by 5 and you will get the number of “Souls”. It’s not an actual head count. So for Shefa ‘Amr 550 Total X 5 = 2750 Souls. But as I mention, it’s an estimation, not the actual number of residents. Wikipedia never tells you that it is an estimation. They state it as a fact. That is very dangerous. Here is another problem, these number are only based on who owes Socage and then extrapolated. But we know that many people lived in the Holy Land under protection of a foreign government who did not owe Socage, and many of those were Jews. There were other reasons that an adult male might not pay Socage, but none of this is mentioned in Wikipedia. The number of total residents that is based on an estimation requiring many assumptions is stated as a fact.
On Statistics from Israel/Palestine Pre-1948
In discussions of population statistics from the Holy Land before the state of Israel, supporters of Israel state that Jews have always lived on the land, which is true. Often, others will reply that at such-and-such date Ottoman statistics show that the area was 94% Arab and 6% Jewish. Is that true?
Let’s look once more at the statistic that James Finn gives for Shefa ‘Amr from 1850 in Byeways in Palestine. He states that the majority of the inhabitants are Druze with few Muslims* and Christians and a significant number of Jewish families. In 1875, Josiah Conder states that there are 2,500 people, 1,200 of which are Muslims and the rest Druze Greeks, and Latins. He doesn’t mention Jews at all. Then in 1877, the Quarterly Statement by the Palestine Exploration Fund states that there are 2,750 people, with 1,100 Catholic, 140 Latins, 175 Maronites/Protestants, 95 Greek Catholics, 795 Muslims, 440 Druze and 30 Jews. Three sources within 27 years of each other with three different majority populations and two of them giving nearly identical total population count but with a different ethnic majority.
Shefa ‘Amr Population:
Source 1 – 1850: Druze majority
Source 2 – 1875: Muslim majority
Source 3 – 1877: Christian majority
So, what gives? How can there be such discrepancies from population statistics from different sources at approximately the same time. What does that tell us about populations in the Holy Land before Israel? We can deduce three very important points about population statistics pre-1948.
The first and most obvious point is that population statistics from this time in the Holy Land were whole unreliable. The data we saw from Shefa ‘Amr can be repeated for dozens of other places in the Holy Land. Different sources from the same time period will have varied population statistics and ethnic breakdowns. Let’s take a look at Jerusalem as an example.
Here we see three different sources of statistics from Jerusalem. The first image is from 1806 by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen. He puts the population of Jerusalem at just 8,774 souls, from which 4000 are Muslims* and 2000 are Jews. The second image is from the book Letters to Palestine from 1817. Here we see that the population jumps up from 8,774 to 25,000 of which 13,000 are Muslims* and 3 to 4,000 are Jews. The third and final source is from Robert Richardson in 1822 who lists the population of Jerusalem down to 20,000 with 10,000 Jews and only 5,000 each of Muslims and Christian. Three different sources within 16 years with three wildly different total population figures, ethnic/religious breakdowns, and a different majority population.
The second important point we can draw from these statistics is that populations in the Holy Land before 1948 were fluid. There wasn’t a single ethnic group called the Palestinians that inhabited the land in the same way as Egyptians inhabited Egypt. There were many Arabs living on the land, but there were many other ethnic groups also – Jews, Greeks, Turks, Druze, Latins, Maronites, Assyrians, Bedouins, and Armenians just to name a few. The Holy Land was always a destination for both immigration and pilgrimage. It was both a prized possession for the occupier but also a bit of a backwater for the Ottomans. In 500 years little changed in the land except for the people. And the people would come and go, including Arabs from different parts of the Middle East. That is why in the statistics about Shefa ‘Amr you may have a Druze majority in one year and then ten years later a Muslim majority, and then fifteen years after that a Catholic majority. People in the holy land were on the move both internally and externally. That can also explain how in Jerusalem the Muslim population goes from 4,000 in 1806 to 13,000 just eleven years later and then back down to 5,000 five years after that.
1806: 8,774 (4,000 Muslims)
1817: 25,000 (13,000 Muslims)
1822: 20,000 (5,000 Muslims)
You have a total population increase of 285% in just eleven years and then a drop of 20% in the following five years. How does that happen? The answer is migration. The population in the Holy Land was never stable. Through multiple invasion, wars, and conquests, people had moved in and out of the area. Immigration and emigration wasn’t a phenomenon exclusive to Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century. It happened constantly and by all ethnic groups.
The third and final point about statistics from pre-1948 is that they are incomplete. Let’s reconsider the data from Quarterly statement – Palestine Exploration Fund published in 1887. This was the table shown previously where the ethnic breakdown of the population was based on Socage from which some Wikipedia editor took the liberty to incorrectly extrapolate that date to show the ethnic breakdown for total population, even though the real numbers are not known. The reason that the editor took that approach is because generally data from that time is incomplete, but more so from the Holy Land. The reason there has been so much interest in the Holy Land throughout history is specifically because it was the Holy Land. Many people would make pilgrimage to it, especially Christians who would go to the Holy Land to do missionary work in hopes of converting the Jews. Their data was not scientifically obtained. That is why different travelers had differing statistics sometimes even within a short period of time. There was no census taken at that time. The record keeping was spotty at best. So one might logically ask, “What about the Ottomans that occupied the area. Didn’t they record population statistics?” They did, but the Ottoman statistics are possibly even more unreliable than traveler statistics.
Ottoman statistics are possibly the most unreliable sources of ethnic population statistics from the Holy Land before the British Mandate.
Why are the Ottoman statistics not reliable? Because we do not know who was counted and who wasn’t. This is illustrated once again with the 1887 table that showed the ethnic breakdown based on Socage. Only the ethnic characteristics of those that are liable to Socage are known. It could be that the Ottoman’s recorded statistics only for land owners and we know from history books that Jews were often excluded from owning land during Ottoman times. In the book A Revelation of a Journey begun An: Dom: 1610 published in 1621, the author wrote “Here be also some Jews, yet inherit they no part of the land, but in their owne country do live as aliens.” Meaning, Jews are treated as foreigners and can not purchase land in the Holy Land. If they are treated as foreigners it is a logical conclusion that they are not counted in any population statistics.
Take with a grain of salt statistics you read of the ethnic makeup of pre-1948 Israel/Palestine. Understand that these statistics can be easily cherry picked and used to present one point of view without showing the entire picture.
One last important point to make about ethnic statistics from the Holy Land.
What do they mean by Mohametan or Moslem? Does that mean Arab?
*An important note on all these statistics
If you look at nearly all historic statistics from the Holy Land before the 1940s, you will see that it lists Mohametans or Moslems, Jews, and various types of Christians. Jews are an ethnic group and Christians are broken down into ethnic groups, such as Greeks, Armenians, Copts, Maronites, Latins, etc. But Muslims, who come from as diverse ethnic groups as Christians, are just listed as Muslims without ethnic designation. It is very important to note that Muslims includes Arabs, but also includes the sizable population of the occupying Turks. Many sources list Turks as being a majority or significant population in some cities. For example, In the book Travels in the Bible Lands from 1872 by Reverend Emerson Andrews, he puts the population of Jerusalem as being equal number Turks, Greeks, and Jews, but does not mention Arabs at all (See image below). So when we see Mohametans or Moslems, we can not assume that they talking about Arabs or what we now call Palestinians. They are a mixture of Arabs (including Bedouins) and Turks and possibly other Arab ethnic groups from the Middle East and Northern Africa.