Jews, Arabic-Speaking - Sociopolitical Organization

The Fertile Crescent was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 to 1917, when the various Arab provinces of the empire were divided between the British and the French. Under all of these regimes, the Jews were recognized as a religious grouping and were generally granted the right to deal with matters of personal status and other matters through their own officials. Until the post-World War II period, separate rabbinic courts adjudicated such matters, but such courts have since been abolished in some countries of the area.

Under the Ottomans, a hierarchy stretched from the sultan, through governors, down to the village or neighborhood headmen. Jews and members of other "protected" minorities (especially Christians) were obliged to follow Ottoman law and to maintain low profiles. They also had to pay special taxes. They could not build conspicuous houses of worship, and they had to show deference to Muslims. In return, the minority communities were granted considerable autonomy. In areas pertaining to their internal affairs, they were under the authority of their religious leaders.

From 1839 on, the Ottoman government maintained a hierarchy of "chief rabbis" comparable to Christian bishops. The term for chief rabbi was hakham bashi. Although the chief rabbi was nominated by the notables of the local community, his appointment had to be confirmed by the governor and the central government. This system remained in place under the successor states. Until World War I, the hakham bashi represented the Jews on municipal councils. Each neighborhood had a headman ( mukhtar ). In mixed neighborhoods and villages, there might be a headman to represent each major religious group.

Social Control. Within the Jewish communities, the rabbis have exercised a high degree of control, including the use of excommunication (ostracism) and the application of corporal punishment to enforce their decisions. In families, senior males exercised authority over women and children.

Conflict. Within the Jewish community, one line of conflict was between veteran residents and newcomers, as between the "Arabized" Mustaribim and the immigrants from Spain and Sicily in the sixteenth century or, in recent times, between Jewish Ottoman subjects and the Jews who held foreign passports. At times, there also were quarrels between powerful wealthy individuals and the rabbinic authorities.

The nature of the relations between Jews and their Gentile neighbors has varied. In the nineteenth century Jews generally had better relations with the Muslim majority than with Christians, who were directly in competition with Jews for similar quasi-governmental niches. Right after World War I, there was considerable friction in Aleppo between Jews and newly arrived Armenian refugees from Anatolia. Since the 1930s, Jewish relations with Muslims have been embittered by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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