The city of Shfar'am (pop. 34,000), ten miles east of Haifa, is known today as an Arab city in the Galilee - but it was not always that.
Though today it is nearly half-Christian, a third Muslim, and the rest Druze, it was for many years a large Jewish city - and boasted a significant Jewish presence for centuries on end.
In a project recounting the Jewish origins and history of many towns in the Land of Israel that are today considered "Arab," historian Dr. Rivka Shpak-Lissak shows that Shfar'am was populated by Jews from the days of Joshua bin Nun, and from the times of the Mishnah up until only 88 years ago.
Dr. Shpak-Lissak told Israel National News that she was surprised to learn that Arabs began to settle in many towns that re today considered "Arab" only 300 years ago. "I started to investigate these towns," she wrote on the Omedia site, which is publishing her series in Hebrew, "in order to see if it was true that the Arabs of the Galilee are actually descendants of Jews who converted to Islam. I never imagined that I would find that in most of the towns, the Arabs started to move in only in the 17th and 18th centuries" - well after the Arab conquest in the 7th century.
Shfar'am rose to the headlines in the summer of 2005 when a soldier killed four Arabs in a bus, and was then himself killed in a lynching (though the soldier was seen handcuffed and in police custody before he was killed).
Hebrew Name Changed to Arabic
Located along the ancient highway between Acco and Nazareth, Shfar'am is named in Hebrew based on the Hebrew words shofar [ram's horn] and am [nation]. Many centuries later it was given the Arabic name Shfa-Amar, for the "health of Al-Amar," referring to an Arab who conquered the city.
During the period of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, at the end of the Second Temple period, Shfar'am was one of the largest Jewish cities in the Galilee. It was later mentioned in the Talmud, and the Sanhedrin (Supreme Jewish Court) was headquartered there during the 2nd century C.E.
Christians began to move there during the ensuing centuries, and Moslems moved in after the Muslim conquest in the 7th century. Centuries later, when the Crusaders passed through the Holy Land, Arabs from Shfar'am used their town as a kick-off base to attack them. Later, however, the Crusaders were able to build a fortress in the city.
Jews continued to live there, and records show that Sephardic Jews began to move in towards the end of the 15th century. Subsequently, Bedouin gangs began to gain more power, which they greatly abused, and Christian and Jewish residents began to leave. After the Ottoman Turks conquered the Land in 1516, Jews began to return.
In 1525, three Jewish families were listed as living there, and this number grew to 10 within a decade. Jews from Tzfat later moved to Shfar'am, and in the 17th century a synagogue was built on the ruins of an ancient one.
Last Jew Left in 1920
In 1761, Shfar'am was conquered by a Bedouin, Dahar Al-Amar, who renamed the city after himself. Over the course of the next century, travelers such as David D'Beth Hillel reported on Jewish life in the city. During the First World War, Jews began to leave because of various difficulties, and Avraham Al-Azri, the last remaining Jew in Shfar'am, left in 1920.
Twenty years later, Shfar'am became a base for anti-Jewish Arab forces, and in the War of Independence in 1948, Israel's new army captured the area for the newborn State of Israel.
Foreigners vs. Jews in the Holy Land
The bottom line, Dr. Lissak told Israel National News, is that the Arab claim that they have been here for "thousands of years" is far from true. "The goal of all the rulers of the Holy Land, from the times of the Romans and onward, was always to rid the Land of the Jews," she said. "Finally, they succeeded. Many Jews simply left the Land rather than convert to Islam."