Old Yishuv

The Old Yishuv (Hebrew: היישוב הישן, haYishuv haYashan) were the Jewish communities of the southern Syrian provinces in the Ottoman period,[1] up to the onset of Zionist aliyah and the consolidation of the New Yishuv by the end of World War I. As opposed to the later Zionist aliyah and the New Yishuv, which began with the First Aliyah (of 1882) and was more based on a socialist and/or secular ideology emphasizing labor and self-sufficiency, many Jews of the Old Yishuv, whose members had continuously resided in or had come to Eretz Yisrael in the earlier centuries, were largely religious Jews, who depended on external donations (Halukka) for financial support.

The Old Yishuv developed after a period of severe decline in Jewish communities of the Southern Levant during the early Middle Ages, and was composed of three clusters. The oldest group consisted of the Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jewish communities in Galilee and the Judeo-Arabic speaking Musta'arabim who settled in Eretz Yisrael in the late Mamluk and early Ottoman periods. A second group was composed of Ashkenazi Hassidic Jews who had emigrated from Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries. A third wave consisted of Yishuv members who arrived in the late 19th century.[2] The Old Yishuv was thus generally divided into two independent communities – the Sephardim (including Musta'arabim), mainly consisting of the remains of Jewish communities of Galilee and the four Jewish holy cities, which had flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries; and the Ashkenazim, whose immigration from Europe was primarily since the 18th century.[3]

The 'Old Yishuv' term was coined by members of the 'New Yishuv' in the late 19th century to distinguish themselves from the economically dependent and generally earlier Jewish communities, who mainly resided in the four holy cities of Judaism, and unlike the New Yishuv, had not embraced land ownership and agriculture. Apart from the Old Yishuv centres in the four holy cities of Judaism, namely Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed, smaller communities also existed in Jaffa, Haifa, Peki'in, Acre, Nablus and Shfaram. Petah Tikva, although established in 1878 by the Old Yishuv, nevertheless was also supported by the arriving Zionists. Rishon LeZion, the first settlement founded by the Hovevei Zion in 1882, could be considered the true beginning of the New Yishuv.


While a vibrant Jewish center had continued to exist in the Galilee following the Jewish–Roman wars, its importance was reduced with increased Byzantine persecutions and the abolition of the Sanhedrin in the early 5th century. Jewish communities of the southern Levant under Byzantine rule fell into a final decline in the early 7th century. and with the Jewish revolt against Heraclius and Muslim conquest of Syria, the Jewish population had greatly reduced in numbers. In early Middle Ages, the Jewish communities of southern Bilad al-Sham (Eretz Yisrael), living under Muslim protection status, were dispersed among the key cities of the military districts of Jund Filastin and Jund al-Urdunn, with a number of poor Jewish villages existing in the Galilee and Judea. Despite temporary revival, the Arab Muslim civil wars of the 8th and 9th centuries drove many non-Muslims out of the country, with no evidence of mass conversions, except for Samaritans.[4]

The Crusader period marked the most serious decline, lasting through the 12th century. Maimonides traveled from Spain to Morocco and Egypt, and stayed in the Holy Land, probably sometime between 1165 and 1167, before settling in Egypt.[5] He had then become a personal physician of Saladin, escorting him throughout his war campaigns against the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Following the Crusaders' defeat and the conquest of Jerusalem, he urged Saladin to allow the resettlement of the Jews in the city, and several hundred of the long-existing Jewish community of Ashkelon resettled Jerusalem. Small Jewish communities were also existent at the time in Gaza and in desolate villages throughout upper and lower Galilee.[citation needed]

The immigration of a group of 300 Jews headed by the Tosafists from England and France in 1211 struggled very hard upon arrival in Eretz Israel, as they had no financial support and no prospect of making a living. The vast majority of the settlers were wiped out by the Crusaders, who arrived in 1219, and the few survivors were allowed to live only in Acre. Their descendants blended with the original Jewish residents, called Mustarabim or Maghrebim, but more precisely Mashriqes (Murishkes).[6]

The Mamluk period (1260-1517) saw an increase in the Jewish population, especially in the Galilee, but the Black Death epidemics had cut the country's demographics by at least one-third. In 1260, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris arrived in Eretz Israel, at the time part of Mamluk Empire, along with his son and a large group of followers, settling in Acre.[7][8] There he established the Talmudic academy Midrash haGadol d'Paris.[9] He is believed to have died there between 1265 and 1268, and is buried near Haifa, at Mount Carmel. Nahmanides arrived in 1267 and settled in Acre as well.[citation needed]

In 1488, when Rabbi Ovadiya from Bertinoro arrived in the Mamluk domain of Syria and sent back letters regularly to his father in Italy, many in the diaspora came to regard living in Mamluk Syria as feasible.