A mezuza hidden behind a cupboard? Tefillin hidden in socks? If this sounds to you like the period of the Marranos in Spain or Portugal, you might well be right. However you might be amazed to find out that such singular occurences may be taking place in our time in…..Israel. Believe it or not, there are still people who have to hide items of Jewish identity from their vengeful neighbours.
As strange as it may seem to some of us, many of the Palestinians living in Israel have Jewish roots. Already Ben Gurion and Ben Zvi, the leaders of the Zionist movement, had noted in the early 1900's that “if we were to check the origin of the Falachim, (the Palestinian farmworkers), there is no doubt that a lot of Jewish blood flows in their veins”. Many of these Palestinians were descended from Jewish families forcibly converted to Islam over the course of the centuries. Some of them steadfastly maintained Jewish symbols and continued to practice some customs in secret. For example, on many Arab houses one could see a Star of David etched in stone until recently, and many of the graves in Moslem graveyards do not face Mecca and also have Stars of David or a Menorah on them, silent relics to a Jewish ancestry.
Some families are aware of their Jewish past. For example, they describe grandparents or great-grandparents who would not light a fire on Shabbat, or even women who would go to a Mikveh. Others tell of lighting Shabbat candles and performance of circumcision after the seventh day, as opposed to Islamic custom, as well as levirate marriages.
This could all be interpreted as Jewish influences on local inhabitants, but recent research tends to support Ben Gurion's contention about the Palestinians. According to Prof. Ariella Oppenheim of the Hebrew University, both Palestinians and Jews descend from Mesopotamia (which is indeed where Avraham was born) and share many common genetic traits. Amazingly, some of the Palestinians hold the Kohen gene, the unique gene which is found almost exclusively in Kohanim.
To the south of Chevron lies the village of Yatta. About a half the population belong to the Machamra tribe, meaning “the winemakers”. Islam eschews alcohol in all forms and therefore the Machamra consider themselves to be of Jewish ancestry. Many of them put on Tefillin at times of distress and even have Tehillim in their houses “as a sign of blessing”. Some of them even harbor a secret desire to live as Jews.
The Bible tells us that the ten tribes will eventually return and form part of the people of Israel. Is it possible that descendants of Jews will also return with them? When Moshiach comes, we may find Jews returning from many different nations…and even Arabs living in Israel may be among them.