Jews Under Mid-19th Century Palestinian Sharia, Versus American Freedom— Why Restoring Sharia Governance Remains an Unacceptable “Option”

The trickle of prisoner releases of those non-combatant Jews captured, but not slaughtered during Hamas’ October 7, 2023 jihad carnage in southern Israel, should remind us of what Hamas, or Palestinian Authority Sharia (Islamic Law)-based rule for surviving Jews would entail. That “vision” was laid out plainly during a July 6, 2001 Gaza sermon at the Ijlin mosque by Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim al-Mahdi:

We welcome, as we did in the past, any Jew who wants to live in this land as a Dhimmi (subjugated, humiliated non-Muslim tributaries per Qur’an 9:29), just as the Jews have lived in our countries, as Dhimmis, and have earned appreciation, and some of them have even reached the positions of counselor or minister here and there. We welcome the Jews to live as Dhimmis, but the rule in this land and in all the Muslim countries must be the rule of Allah (Sharia)…

Israel Joseph (I.J.) Benjamin [1818-1864], was a “maggid”, an itinerant Jewish preacher, best known for his extensive first hand mid-19th century travelogue accounts of the Jewish communities of Africa and Asia (“Eight years in Asia and Africa from 1846 to 1855”), and subsequently, America (“Three years in America, 1859-1862”). Benjamin’s writings were supported by letters and various other memorabilia he collected during his journeys, and ultimately garnered contemporary approval as “truthful and simple narrative” accounts by respected scholars of his era such as Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Ritter, and Julius Heinrich Petermann.

Benjamin’s observations from “Eight years in Asia and Africa from 1846 to 1855”, and “Three years in America, 1859-1862,” allow, uniquely, for a direct comparison of the condition of Jews in mid-19th century Palestine under the jurisdiction of  Sharia, relative to their simultaneous American experience under United States Constitutional law. The mid-19th century United States, in addition, was a devoutly Christian country, as noted by Alexis de Tocqueville:

“[T]here is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.

Mid-19th century Palestinian Jewry was subjected to rule under Ottoman Muslim administration, and its jurisprudence. Molla Khosrew (d. 1480) was a celebrated writer and jurist, who was appointed the Ottoman Shaykh-al-Islam (highest ranking Ottoman Muslim religious official) by Sultan Mehmed II in 1469.  One of Molla Khosrew’s authoritative, widely cited legal works—laying out the still operative binding imperatives for 19th century Palestine–reiterated the classical views on Sharia-based governance of Muslims, and their overall legal inequality including specific restrictions on religious and social freedoms. For example, he restated these classical views on the jizya—a blood ransom poll-tax demanded in lieu of being slain and completely dispossessed. The jizya was collected regularly (most often annually), in person, and in a manner that conferred the subject’s humiliation, due to their willingly imperfect belief, consistent with Koran 9:29. Of note also, is the specific admonition to Jews:

the tax collector is also expected to shake the clothing of the payer, saying “Pay the jizya, oh dhimmi”, further, … the tax collector can also say, ‘Oh Jew, enemy of Allah, pay!’ [emphasis added]

Also in accord with classical Islamic jurisprudence, Molla Khosrew outlines the typical regulations—regarding religious structures and practice, the prohibition on bearing arms, and distinguishing forms of dress, modes of travel, neighborhoods, and abodes—which complemented the jizya collection, and formed the basis for the system of dhimmitude (in this specific case, the Ottoman version). The Ottoman system of dhimmitude—consistent with all other variants of this Sharia-based institution—conferred upon Jews (and all dhimmis) two basic legal disabilities which denied them both protection, and redress, when victimized: prohibition of the right to bear arms; and the inadmissibility of dhimmi legal evidence when a Muslim was a party.  Even the series of reforms imposed by European powers (as so-called “capitulations”) upon the weakening Ottoman Empire during its final eight decades, almost continuously (through 1914), failed to rectify these institutionalized legal discriminations in a substantive manner.

I.J. Benjamin’s mid-19th century observations on the Jewish community of Palestine confirmed what the application of this bigoted and humiliating system wrought, predictably, highlighting five areas of concern:

Deep misery and continual oppression are the right words to describe the condition of the Children of Israel in the land of their fathers. —-I comprise a short and faithful picture of their actual state under the following heads.

1) They are entirely destitute of every legal protection and every means of safety. Instead of security afforded by law, which is unknown in these countries, they are completely under the orders of the Sheiks and Pashas, men, whose character, and feelings inspire but little confidence from the beginning. It is only the European Consuls who frequently take care of the oppressed, and afford them some protection .

2) With unheard of rapacity tax upon tax is levied on them, and with the exception of Jerusalem, the taxes demanded are arbitrary. Whole communities have been impoverished by the exorbitant claims of the Sheiks, who, under the most trifling pretenses and without being subject to any control, oppress the ‘Jews with fresh burthens.; It is impossible to enumerate all their oppressions.

3) In the strict sense of the word the Jews are not even to complain when they are robbed und plundered; for the vengeance of the Arabs would be sure to follow each com plaint. Alas, alas, that such in the nineteenth century should be the condition of some of our people.

4) Their lives are taken into as little consideration as their property; they are- exposed to the caprice of anyone; ever. the smallest pretext, even a harmless discussion, a word dropped in conversation, is enough to cause bloody reprisals. Violence of every kind is of daily occurrence. When, for instance in the contests of Mahomet Ali with the Sublime Porte (Ottoman seat of power), the City of Hebron was besieged by Egyptian troops and taken by storm, the Jews were murdered and plundered, and the survivors scarcely even allowed to retain a few rags to cover themselves. No pen can describe the despair of these unfortunates. The women were treated with brutal cruelty; and even to this day, many are found, who since that time are miserable cripples. With truth can the Lamentations of Jeremiah be employed here. Since that great misfortune up to the present day, the Jews of Hebron languish in the deepest misery, and the present Sheik is unwearied in his endeavors, not to allow their condition to be ameliorated, but on the contrary, he makes it worse.

5) The chief evidence of their miserable condition is the universal poverty which we remarked in Palestine, and which is here truly astounding; for nowhere else in our long journeys, in Europe, Asia and Africa did we observe it among the Jews. It even causes leprosy among the Jews of Palestine, as in former times. Robbed of their means of subsistence from the cultivation of the soil and the pursuit of trade, they exist upon the charity of their brethren in the faith in foreign parts….The ignorant and barbarous Arab tramples this sacred soi beneath his feet, and considers the Jew a disinherited and accursed being, unworthy of dwelling there;…In a word the state of the Jews in Palestine, physically and mentally, is an unbearable one.

Benjamin’s recording of the condition of American Jews at the outset of the Civil War was a study in stark contrasts, auguring what Jews liberated from the Sharia might achieve in their indigenous homeland:

“If anyone has any doubts about the ever fresh and youthful strength of our religion…let him go to the United States and see what it has effected and produced there…The rapid expansion which Judaism itself has undergone, the magnificent institutions that it has called into life, the great increases of congregations, which their members joined out of personal inspiration, the variety of religious viewpoints that are expressed with neighborly patience and without animosity and with the greatest freedom—all these manifestations prove that Judaism there is full of hope and is advancing towards an exalted and prosperous future.”

Charting how the Jews’ “tireless industry” gave rise to their prosperity, Benjamin noted that the “political position of the Jews kept pace with this rapid commercial development.” As “every office was open to all without distinction of religion or birth,” he further observed,

[T]the Israelites were represented, not only in all the states in the municipal and state offices, but they were also members of Congress, in the Senate as well as in the House of Representatives…

Restoring Sharia governance to all of historical Palestine has been an Arab Muslim goal since former Ottoman governor of Jaffa, and President of the Arab Palestinian Congress, Musa Kasem el-Husseini’s exhortation to the British High Commissioner in 1920. I.J. Benjamin’s chronicle underscores why that should remain an unacceptable outcome.


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