The Talmud tells us of a discussion between four rabbis in the mid-2nd century: Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, Rabbi Yehuda (bar Ilai), Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai (Rashbi) and Rabbi Yehuda ben Gerim.
Rabbi Yehuda praised the Romans: Look what good things they build - markets and bridges and bath-houses. Rabbi Yose didn't take a stand, but Rashbi spoke up against the idea: everything they built, they built for their own use or to make money off us.
Rabbi Yehuda ben Gerim reported the conversation to the Roman authorities, and they in turn lauded Rabbi Yehuda and sentenced Rashbi to death. Rashbi fled, and together with his son, hid in a cave for a dozen years.
In "Life of Brian", Monty Python spoofed this rabbinic discussion. In this skit the Jewish rebel leaders discuss 'what have the Romans ever done for us?'
With this short Aggadah our rabbis showed us the different ways of looking at an occupying force. But the Romans were not the only occupiers throughout our long history. How did Jews view the Muslim occupiers?
Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer is an Aggadah-midrash compiled in the first centuries of the Muslim occupation (7th-9th). In chapter 30 we find a list of things the Muslims did in Israel.
"Woe to those who live in their [Muslim] days [...] The sons of Ishmael will do fifteen things in the Land at the end of days, and these are:
(1) They will measure the land with ropes, and (2) they will turn the cemetery into grazing lands and trash-heaps, and (3)they will measure from them (the cemeteries) and to the mountain-tops, and (4) lie will proliferate, and (5) truth will be persecuted [or: hidden], and (6) law will become distant from Israel, and (7) there will be many sins [or: poverty] in Israel , and (8) scarlet will be like [or: become] wool, and (9) paper and pen will dry up, and (10) The royal coins will be rejected, and (11) they will rebuild the destroyed towns , and (12) they will clear the roads , and (13) they will plant gardens and orchards, and (14) they will repair the breaches in the walls of the Temple [Mount], and (15) they will build a building in the Temple (Heichal)
and two brothers will rule them at the end, and in their days Messiah will come."
This midrash depicts the events of the early days of the Muslim occupation, in the 7th century. The Muslims conquered Israel in 636. The 'two brothers' are Abd Al-Malik and Abd Al-Aziz. Abd al-Malik, the 5th Umayyad Caliph (685–705), instituted several reforms, which are reflected in this midrash, as we'll see below.
Academic opinion is divided on this midrash. Some say that it lists both bad (1-10) and good (11-15) things the Muslims did. There's even an opinion that these were two separate lists which were compiled together. Others think that all fifteen things listed were bad for Israel.
A new occupier had come to the land. As with the Romans.. was it good that they built bathhouses and bridges, or was it only done for their own use, and Israel will suffer no matter what?
Let's look at the breakdown of this list.
(1) They will measure the land with ropes
The new rulers surveyed the land in order to levy taxes, but more importantly, in order to divvy it up among the new owners.
Throughout history, Arab desert tribes living at the edge of the civilized world fought to enter the land. With the Arab conquest, the doors were flung open for massive immigration.
The Arab invaders encouraged additional immigration into 'Greater Syria', to settle people loyal to the new Arab/Muslim rulers, and to protect from future attacks by the Byzantines. In the first years of his rule, Muawiyah I, the first Umayyad Caliph (661 – 680), settled here an army of 5000 Slavic mercenaries. We also know of Persians and an Indian tribe who came here.
The Arabs were merchants and nomadic herders, and despised agricultural work. The new occupiers therefore gave out land in payment for services rendered, and to ensure that the new settlers stay. As another Muslim-era midrash, Nistarot Rashbi (The Secrets of Rashbi), says: "They are going to measure the land with ropes, as it says (Daniel 11, 39) 'And [he] shall divide the land for a price'.
This left the Jews as serfs on the land they formerly owned, and they had to pay their new landlords for the privilege of working the land. The direct result being that Jews, who until then lived off the land, were pushed out of farming life.
(2) They will turn the cemetery into grazing lands and trash-heaps
The Arab hordes brought in their flocks, and the land was overrun by grazing animals.
The 'Secrets of Rashbi' midrash quoted above continues: "And they turn the cemeteries into grazing lands for sheep and goats, and when one of them dies, they bury him any place they find, and then they plough the grave and sow over it, as it says (Ezekiel 4, 13) 'Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their bread unclean'. Why?" The midrash explains: because the fields weren't being purified anymore.
This might explain why we don't have many ancient cemeteries from those days.
(3) They will measure from them (the cemeteries) and to the mountain-tops
This relates back to point #1. All land was divvied up, including cemeteries and the mountain agricultural plots.
(4) Lie will proliferate and, (5) truth will be persecuted [or: hidden]
After centuries of fighting off the Christians who claimed to represent the 'new truth', a new religion appeared on the scene. The Islamic conquest and expansion caused concern among the Jews. The lie of Islam was taking hold, while the truth of the Torah was hidden.
Another opinion says this talks about moral issues among the Jews, caused by the Muslim conquest, and not about the Islamic expansion itself.
(6) Law will become distant from Israel, and (7) there will be many sins [or: poverty] in Israel
The Jewish Beit-Dins lost their power. This might also reflect the messianic hopes of the day, as this phrase is mentioned in Micha 7:11, and taken to mean that in messianic times, some Jewish law will not be required anymore. The midrash points out that the 'law is distant', not because Redemption is close, but because the Jews are sinning.
According to a different manuscript version, #7 is talking about the worsening financial situation.
(8) Crimson will be like [or: become] wool
The clothing industry, and specifically the crimson industry, was destroyed. The expensive crimson was replaced by simple wool.
Until then, real Techelet (blue dye) was used in tzitzit, as we see in Midrash Tanhuma, which was compiled in the early 9th century (Shelach Lecha, 15): "The commandment is to use White and Techelet to make [the tzitzit]. When? When there will be Techelet. And now that we only have White and Techelet is hidden, the commandment is to use White."
This is linked to the fact that the Jewish towns in the area between Hebron and Beersheba (ie, 'Daroma', south) were dying out (or being destroyed). Before the Muslim conquest this area was known for its crimson industry. In Tanhuma (Naso, 8) we find a discussion about whether a Cohen can bless the people with hands dirtied by paint. Rabbi Hoshaiah ha-Gadol says "If most of the townspeople work with it, he can bless the people, just as in the south there are skins (or: towns?) painted crimson, and their hands are dirtied by paint."
(9) Paper and pen will dry up
Some think that, similarly to #8 above, this is a reference to the destruction of the paper industry. Others think that this talks about the lack of Torah scholarship. Interesting to note, though, what the Babylonian Talmud scholar Pirkoi Ben Baboi (9th century) wrote: while the Byzantines forbade the Jews from learning Torah, "The Ishmaelites came and allowed them to engage in Torah study".
(10) The royal coins will be rejected
In 693, Abd al-Malik instituted a mint and started coining Islamic currency, featuring Koranic quotes. The Byzantine coins were taken out of circulation, and the Jews who held the old Byzantine coins lost their money.
The new Arabic-language coins were also a sign of another reform: The far-reaching plan to integrate all foreign elements into a new Arab nation. After a millennia of Greek cultural hegemony, Arabic was now the official language of government.
(11) They will rebuild the destroyed towns, and (12) they will clear the roads , and (13) they will plant gardens and orchards
Abd al-Malik rebuilt the destroyed towns: Ashkelon, Caesarea and Tyre. He marked the roads with new milestones. He also set up the first postal service.
Researchers debate whether these points were brought as good or bad things. The Muslims did not rebuild the town and plant gardens for the Jews' sake.
(14) They will repair the breaches in the walls of the Temple [Mount], and (15) they will build a building in the Temple (Heichal)
Once again, there is a debate on whether this was good for the Jews of the time.
In other midrashic sources we see that the Jews of time were ecstatic. In the 'Secrets of Rashbi' we find that
"The second king of Ishmael will be a philosemite (!), and will repair their breaches, and the breaches of the Temple (Heichal), and will dig Mount Moriah and flatten it, and will build for himself there a place of prostration on the Foundation Stone (Even ha-Shtiya), as it says (Numbers 24,21): 'and though thy nest be set in the rock'.The second Muslim Caliph, Umar, allowed Jews to live in Jerusalem ('repaired their breaches'), after years of being banned from the city under the Byzantines. The Byzantines had turned the Temple Mount into the city dump. Umar is credited with clearing up the trash (digging and flattening). The Jews participated in this cleanup job, and saw this as the first sign of Redemption.
In this midrash Umar is portrayed as a modern-day Maccabee. The Greeks had made thirteen breaches in the wall surrounding the Temple. When the Temple was re-captured by the Hasmoneans, they repaired the breaches and decreed that anybody who passes them should prostrate and thank G-d for Israel's victory and the Greek's demise. Umar too 'repaired the breaches' and 'built a place of prostration.
According to another midrash, published by Rabbi Wertheimer, (available on HebrewBooks):
"Muawiyah son of Abi-Sufyan (Muawiyah I) will rule after him, and the Lrd will stir up his heart and he will build the walls of the Temple (…)"Muawiyah I is described here in terms very reminiscent of Cyrus (Koresh). The midrash continues to describe the Umayyad family tree, and then gets to Abd Al-Malik:
" (…) and he will build the House of Hashem, the G-d of Israel (!) (…) and his name is Abd Al-Malik son of Marwan."The 'structure in the Temple' and 'House of Hashem' refers to the Dome of the Rock, built in 691 by Abd al-Malik.
For political reasons, Abd al-Malik didn't want his subjects making Hajj to Mecca, and so he built the Dome of the Rock and presented the Temple Mount as the Muslim alternative. The Muslim focus on the Temple Mount inspired Jewish messianic hopes. However, it had severe repercussions, which we're still suffering from today.
Abd al-Malik later built the al-Aqsa Mosque, and appointed Jews to clean and take care of it. Jews were also in charge of the lamps and wicks. We can only imagine what those Jews felt, once again serving on the Temple Mount!
Gradually the Jews lost their rights on the Temple Mount, and in the days of Umar II (717-720), they were kicked out of municipal administrative positions in Jerusalem, and replaced by the Caliph's slaves.
So, what did the Muslims do for us?
So? These are all good things, right? But some might say, they developed the towns for their own commerce, the land to levy taxes, and the Temple Mount for their own religion, and we're stuck with that till today.
We are now in the week between Jerusalem Day and Shavuot. On Jerusalem Day Rav Goren walked into that 'House of Hashem' on the Temple Mount with a Torah scroll in his arms. On Shavuot we stay up all night learning it.
Shavuot is a great opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the Torah writings of our rabbinic ancestors here in this land. The two midrashic works I quoted above - Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer and Tanhuma - are easily obtainable at every Jewish bookshop. Spend some of your Shavuot learning, listening to the voices of our forefathers who 'stuck it out' in the Land during the Exile.
[* This post is based on research by Idan Deshe, Michael Ish-Shalom, Simcha Asaf, Shmuel Klein, L.A. Meir and Aryeh Hurshi]