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The lost Palestinian Jews


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"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."

Tsvi Misinai in the Old City.

Tsvi Misinai in the Old City.
Photo: T. Misinai

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.

[Illustrative]

[Illustrative]
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski

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.

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