Nevertheless, there is a tendency to think that the beginnings of the Jewish settlement in Ramla began as early as the 8th century.

Ben-Zion in his article on “the History of the Settlement of Ramla” writes:

“We have no reason to say that no Jews will settle in the first city of the Land of Israel under Arab rule during the first century of its founding, when we know for a fact that there were Jewish settlements dating from that time in nearly all cities of the Land of Israel, big and small….” Segal goes even further and says that it is possible that the Jewish settlement began to take shape alongside the founding of Ramla.

To prove this argument, he brings the statements of two prominent Arab historians. The first, Baladori, indicates that the palace which Sulyaman built was called Dar Atz-Tzabain (the House of the Painters). The second historian, Yakot, writes that Sulyaman in constructing the city, allocated a special space for painters.

Ramla / Ramleh Market

Photo: Ron Peled

“If we take into account the fact that painting was regarded as a Jewish art in the Land of Israel and its environs many years after the Arab conquest, we may estimate – says Segal – that those painters who arrived in Ramla upon the founding of the city, were [in fact] also Jews”.

The same researcher brings additional evidence from the “Katav Elanwar” to Kreksani, who tells the story of the Ramla sect that was founded in the 9th century by Malik Ar-Ramli, and which has its roots in Judaism. He opines that the growth of this sect, of which we have had knowledge for nearly a century, cannot be explained by any other factor aside from the background of the large Jewish settlement: 

“The early settlement of the Jews in Ramla is evidenced by the appearance of Malik in the mid-9th century, and it is clear that these Jews did not arrive in Ramla upon his arrival, but rather preceded him by several years”. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Ramla was a large and prosperous city, and the Jewish settlement therein flourished. 

Synagogues and Rabbinical Courts 

The Jews dealt in commerce and artisanry, and there were also those who attained great wealth and assumed high positions in the courts of the rulers. We have no clear knowledge as to the exact number of the Jews of Ramla, however various documents suggest the possibility of a considerable population size. Ze’ev Vilnai, relying upon the documents from the Geniza, writes in his book about Ramla: 

“In Ramla there were synagogues for the Jewish residents. One of them was called Beit Knesset Ash-Shamain, of the inhabitants of the Land of Israel and Syria, who were called: Ash-Sham in Arabic. There were also synagogues of Jews who were natives of various neighboring countries. In one document from the Geniza, the writer reminisces about the synagogues and declares: “We descended to Ramla…and we sought to descend to the synagogue (Beit Knesset)….and we are in a different assemblage (Knesset).”

Alongside the synagogues, there were also courts in the Jewish community of Ramla which judged the inhabitants. The courts constituted an authority and were recognized in Jerusalem as well. Among documents that were found was a testimony that was submitted at the court in Ramla, in 1014, in which Malka the daughter of Rucha sues her husband Machtar Ben Salama Ad-Damaski to return to her “in the way the sons of Israel stand before their wives” or to give her a get (Jewish bill of divorce) and pay her alimony and mohar bridal payment (dowry) to which she is entitled. From 1015-1020 the large and prominent yeshiva of the Land of Israel was set up in Ramla. Later on, when the yeshiva relocated to Jerusalem, the Gaon, one of the prominent Rabbis of the Yeshiva, would make frequent visits to Ramla, in order to maintain the ties between the Jewish community and the authorities.

He was in charge of legal issues, and dealt with financial matters, and supervised the meat market. From 1024-1029 the city suffered from pogroms at the hands of enemies who came from outside. In these trying times the city’s Jews turned to their brothers in Egypt”: “Take pity on us, take pity on us, you are brothers the House of Israel, because a hand has struck us”. Following the recovery from these riots, a new calamity befell the city. In 1033, a sudden earthquake destroyed the city.

An incredible and horrifying account of the destruction is delivered by the Gaon Ben Yehuda who was in Ramla at the time: “…..[everyone] emerged from their houses out into the streets because they saw the houses and walls crumbling down and the beams breaking away from the walls and tumbling back and forth, and reinforced buildings toppling and new apartments destroyed, many died beneath the avalanche because there was no escape. They wandered about hither and thither and everyone escaped from their houses that had collapsed and left everything they had and fled for their lives”…. The settlement recovered from the destruction, the community began to rebuild itself, and there is documented evidence dating from 1065 as to the existence of Jewish courts and distinguished personalities who held high positions.

The natural disasters did not spare the city and in 1067 once again an even stronger earthquake hit the city, destroying everything and killing 25,000 inhabitants. Before the city could recover, it was attacked by the Seljuks, who robbed and pillaged it. A document dating from 1096, signed in Ramla by several Rabbis, still implies the existence of a Jewish settlement. However, in 1099, upon the entry of the Crusaders into the city, most of its residents escaped to Ashkelon, and it may be assumed that the city’s Jewish inhabitants did the same.

The Earth Trembled 

From this point and until the 16th century, a period of hardships prevailed in Ramla in general, and in the Jewish settlement in particular. This was a prolonged period of conquests, and unstable, oppressive and tyrannical rule. The Jewish settlement, if it existed at all, was sparsely populated and transient.

The Crusaders exploited its geographical and strategic location as a passage city and as a city in the central region of the Land of Israel, and transformed it into a fortified Crusader base, however not for long. Due to the city’s importance to the Crusaders and the Muslims alike, Ramla became the scene of difficult battles between the two sides, being alternately transferred from one to the other. There is no evidence of a Jewish settlement in Ramla during the Crusader period, aside from the impressions of Rabbi Binyamin of Tudela who recounts that in the year 1170, he had found “about three hundred Jews” in Ramla in the past. Ben-Zion Dinor, asserts that the settlement which Rabbi Binyamin of Tudela is talking about derives from a special privilege that was established for the merchants of Marseilles in 1152 to trade in Ramla.

Based on various testimonials, which place an emphasis on the pivotal role that the Jews of Marseilles played in trade in general, and in trade in the East in particular, Dinor raises the hypothesis that among the merchants who came from Marseilles to Ramla were many Jews who replenished its Jewish community. “This renewed community – continued Dinor – was the core and the foundation of the refugees of Ramla, and other refugees”, who increased Jewish settlement in the city. According to Yehoshua Praver, the community which Rabbi Binyamin refers to “was established only by refugees who returned to the city”. 

In my opinion, the unreliable testimonial of Rabbi Binyamin, in various publications appears as: “about three Jews” only and the disputes regarding this subject do not constitute sufficient evidence of a turning point in the restoration of the Jewish settlement in Ramla during this period. Only in 1260 is the city finally handed over the Muslims – the Mamluks, who reign until the dawn of the 16th century.

According to an article by M. Ish-Shalom on “The History of the Jewish Settlement in Ramla”, there is knowledge dating from the Mameluk period, attesting to the existence of a Jewish settlement in Gat Ramla, delivered by Rabbi Ashtuir Hafarhi in his book “Kaftor Vaperach”. According to him, in 1322, the city’s Jewish residents had the custom of celebrating the second day of the Jewish festivals which were only celebrated in the Diaspora. From 1322 and until the Turkish rule, in the opinion of Yitzhak Ben Zvi, according to his article “The Jewish Settlement of Ramla”, there is no documented evidence of a Jewish settlement in Ramla.

Ottoman Conquest

The Ottoman conquest which treated the Jews favorably, aroused hope that upon the Land of Israel’s amalgamation with Turkey, the situation of the Jews would improve, and instead of an inferior and low station, which was their lot during the reign of the Mamluks, their status would improve and would be equated to that of the Jews in the rest of the districts of the Ottoman empire; despite our anticipation of renewed Jewish settlement in Ramla at the outset of the Ottoman period, we have no knowledge of this.

And indeed, it may be estimated that the Jewish settlement did not renew itself, and the reason for this is that most of the olim from Spain headed towards the Galilee, in particular to Safed and Tiberias, during a period which marked their golden era. An additional factor which could have prevented settlement was the earthquake that occurred in the city in the year 1546, and destroyed it to the ground.

Only in 1581 do we find that there was a Jewish settlement in Ramla, via the testimonial of the German tourist Solomon Schwiger, who visited Ramla and told of “the city Rama which was called by the natives Ramla, we find in the book “The Ruins of Jerusalem” which recounts the story of Rabbi Haim De Shiriz who lived in Ramla and intermediated between his brother in Jerusalem and the Ottoman Rule in Damascus. According to M. Ish-Shalom De Shiriz did not serve as the leader of the city’s Jewish community, and it may be estimated that Rabbi Haim de Shiriz, along with many others, escaped to Ramla and settled there.

The escape from Jerusalem came in waves, according to records dating from 1662, from the “Mishpatei Tzedek” by Shumel Gramizan, the Jews of Jerusalem fled “out of fear of the taxes and levies, and settled in Gat (Halmer) with their wives and built homes”. Among the fugitives were Rabbi Moshe Ben Haviv, who later became the Rabbi of Jerusalem, and in whose book “Get Pashut (A Simple Divorce)” another “two Rabbis who were among the outstanding Rabbis of the generation such as Rabbi Hananiya and our Teacher Rabbi Yehuda Garafi”, who in 1697, recounts the tourist Aubry de La Moultrie, were the secretaries of his ship, who departed to Ramla in order to give a report to a Jewish merchant regarding his merchandise on the ship. He also describes the Jewish synagogue which he visited and he describes in his writings an argument that he heard in Ramla between a Jew and a Turk.

Sparsely populated Jewish settlement

From the 18th to mid 19th century there is little knowledge of the Jewish settlement in Ramla. It may be assumed that the settlement in Ramla during this period was sparse and temporary due to several reasons: a. The local authority at this time took over all the realms of authority, and detached itself from the central authority, and all its energies were focused solely on collecting taxes. B.

The Jewish Olim from Eastern Europe who were students of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Gra – HaGaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna – as well as the Kabbalists, preferred to settle in the holy cities of Jerusalem and Safed, where there were thousands of Jews. Whereas in cities that were not holy such as: Jaffa, Nablus, Acre, Gaza and Ramla, there was a sparse Jewish population.

Beginnings of the Farming Communities

The Jewish settlement in Ramla was renewed only at the outset of the establishment of the farming communities. In 1886, Yudilevitz recounted in “Hamagid” 5746 that “and the Jews moved to settle in Ramla which did not previously have a Jewish settlement; among them were iron and wood artisans who studied at Nissim Bachar’s school in Jerusalem, and with his support settled there, and found a profitable livelihood there”.

And even the Hovevei Zion – Lovers of Zion (forerunners of the Zionist movement) supported the ritual slaughterer in Ramla, who also served the farming communities, and a Jewish hotel was set up there, which existed up to the Events of 5689 (Meoraot Tarpat – Massacres of 1929), where Jewish travelers would rest.

Efraim Deinard attempted to set up a Jewish settlement in Ramla, and purchased a large plot of land and a garden for this purpose, which was called “Efraim’s Garden” after him. It should be noted that in 1906, the “Poalei Zion” Committee convened in Ramla to receive the “Poalei Zion in Israel” platform. There is a testimonial regarding the development of the settlement in Ramla dating from 1917 which recounts: “The current Jewish settlement in Ramla is 30 years old. Initially, Jews originating from Western countries settled there, polymitum merchants, who returned to their homes in Jaffa for the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. When the Jewish farming communities (Rishon LeZion, Ekron, and Rehovot) were built nearby this city, many Ashkenazi families settled there, as well as workers and craftsmen who could not obtain apartment in the new localities.

The community organized itself from 5649-5650 (1888-1890). The “Lema’an Zion” Jerusalem Society saw to the public needs, and constructed three houses for public services. During those years, the number of Jewish residents grew to 30 households, approximately 130-150 people. Most of them were agricultural laborers, who worked in the nearby farming communities. Shopkeepers, merchants and artisans also counted among them.

Over the years this settlement downsized. The workers went elsewhere and no new inhabitants replaced them. One of these settlers built a furnace for burning whitewash, and he would proceed from here to Jaffa and to the farming communities. Five years ago a new inhabitant bought a plot of land and built a house on it, with the aim of expanding the initial settlement.”

Jewish City 

“During the First World War and the Expulsion, another few families left the city. When the census was organized in Ramla in Elul 5677 – 1916 – there were only five households, 21 people (half of whom were women).

Two of them had settled in the city five years ago, one, a hotel owner – nine years ago, and only one family (a widow and her two seamstress daughters) had settled in the city twenty years ago”. In British censi which were taken later on, a picture of a sparsely populated settlement is depicted. In the census of 1922, 35 Jews out of the overall population were listed, and in 1931, there were only 5 Jews, as the Massacres of 1929 brought an end to the Jewish settlement, and only a few agreed to return to their original residence.

Only on July 12, 1948, upon the liberation of the city in “Operation Danny” did the Jewish settlement in Ramla renew itself. Ramla became a Hebrew city, a city of olim, recording steady grown, and currently numbering about 71,000.