Jewish Life in Pre & During Ottoman Palestine

Crusader years

This time period brought great destruction to Jewish life in Palestine. Together with Arabs, Jews fought against the Crusaders, most famously at the Battle of Haifa, where they held back the Crusaders for over a month. Most Jews at the time in the region were artisans.


Sultan Saladin defeated the Crusaders and issued a proclamation inviting all Jews to return and settle in Jerusalem.


Groups of rabbis from France and England arrived; later followed by Spanish Jews.

Mamluk Period (1260 – 1517)

Dhimmi law for non-Muslims (second-class status) was enforced; Palestine’s population decreased by two-thirds. Though Jewish and Christian communities declined during this time, this period experienced waves of Jewish immigration from North Africa, Syria, and Europe. Jews at this time were artisans, merchants, physicians, and calligraphers. In Hebron, Jews were shepherds, glassmakers, and weavers.

  • Italian Jew, Obadiah ben Abraham arrived in 1488 and set out rejuvenating Jerusalem’s Jewish community
  •  Tzfat (Safed) – Jewish population increased to 10,000 by early 16th century
1907 Hashomer security group
1907 in Upper Gallilee, members of the Jewish security group, Hashomer, guard the area

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Women at Kotel
Jewish women at the Kotel, 1898

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Palestine was conquered by Sultan Selim II and became part of the Ottoman district of Syria for the next 400 years.  Jews and other non-Muslims lived under a Millet system, whereby each group was responsible for its own religious systems and practices. The Ottomans viewed Sephardic Jews as the point authority on all matters Jewish, and for a while, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews lived separately in Jerusalem.

Under Sultan Suleiman, the longest reigning ruler (1520 - 1566)

The Ottoman Empire experienced great economic gains. The Jewish population consisted of those who never left the region, along with immigrants from Europe and North Africa. Most Jews lived in Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, Gaza, Tzfat, and the Galilee villages. After the death of the Sultan in the late 1500’s, the subsequent rulers, who had administrative offices in Damascus and ruled from Istanbul, treated the land of Israel as an afterthought. The Jews living there were very poor at the time. Malaria was rampant and resources were scarce. The land was sparsely populated.


Steep decline in Jewish population due to natural disasters, unstable security situations with Druze and other communities, and desertion of urban spaces.


200 Ashkenaz Jews and 1,000 Sephardi Jews lived in Jerusalem, many of them poor; other Jews lived in Tzfat, Tiberias, Gaza, and Hebron. For the remainder of the 18th century, Jewish life began to relatively recover and the majority of Jews in Palestine were Sephardi and Mizrahi. By the late 18th century, Ottoman rulers began restricting the number of Jews allowed to live in Jerusalem, and expelled Jews from the Galilee.


Ashkenazi Jews began arriving in great numbers following pogroms in Eastern Europe, as well as Sephardi Jews from Bulgaria, Turkey, and North Africa. In 1882, “The Ottoman Government informs all [Jews] wishing to immigrate into Turkey that they are not permitted to settle in Palestine. They may immigrate into the other provinces of [the Empire] and settle as they wish, provided only that they become Ottoman subjects and accept the obligation to fulfil the laws of the Empire. “

Overlooking Jerusalem 1875
View of Jerusalem from Mount of Olives, 1875

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Jews in Palestine 1880s
Jews in Ottoman Palestine, 1880s

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Jerusalem end of 19th century
View of Jerusalem, end of the 19th century

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Arab farmer under Ottoman Rule in Palestine
In Palestine under the Ottoman Empire, most Arab farmers owned small farms or were tenants of large landowners.

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Cemal Pasha and members of Turkish Parliament in Jerusalem 1916
Cemal Pasha and members of the Turkish Parliament in Jerusalem, 1916. He had military success in Iraq in 1915, but left Palestine after Turkish troops faltered in 1917

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