Research reveals a clear connection between the legal and social status of the Jews in Palestine in the 18th century and their ties with the Diaspora. The Jews who had immigrated to Palestine in that period were mostly poor and elderly. The country was economically backward and politically unstable, which made it impossible for the immigrants to support themselves through productive work. Therefore they lived off the contributions of their brethren overseas. Taxes and fees imposed by the Ottoman rulers increased the financial desperation of the Jews in Palestine. Prohibitions against young unmarried immigrant men and women made for an unstable population largely of old men, many of whom died shortly after immigrating. Families succumbed to disease, earthquakes, and famine, but in the face of these problems, the Jewish communities in Palestine persevered.
When financial support ceased at the beginning of the 18th century, it caused a sever crisis in the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Palestine). The Jews were unable to repay their debts to the Moslems, and many left the country. In 1726, a central organization was established in Istanbul to coordinate the Diaspora financial support of the Jews in Palestine. This Istanbul Committee of Officials oversaw the collection of support money for the Yishuv, managed the Palestine community’s budget, established regulations for governing the communities, and settled disputes between the Jews and the gentiles. The importance of the Yishuv in the spiritual life of the Diaspora alone could not ensure the continuation of the Istanbul Officials was crucial.
Fortunately, a registry containing copies of 500 letters written by the Istanbul Committee in the mid-18th century was preserved in the archives of the Jewish Theological Seminary. These letters reveal the extensive activity involving the Istanbul Committee and the Ottoman authorities, the Jews of Palestine, and the Diaspora.
In this English translation of the original 1982 volume published in Hebrew, Barnai has updated his research to take into account recent scholarship. He concludes that during the period under review, the number of Jews in the Yishuv was actually very small, but they were completely dependent upon the charitable financial support of their brethren overseas, as well as the goodwill of the country’s rulers.
About the Author
Jacob Barnai is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Jewish History and Palestine Studies at Haifa University and Visiting Professor at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.