Shfar'am was Jewish in the Past and Jews lived There until 1920 / DR.R.S.Lissak

The Galilean City, Shafar‘am, was formerly a Jewish town, with some Jewish families still living there at the beginning of the 20th century. The last Jew left in 1920.

Today, Shfar’am is an Arabic city in the Lower Galilee. Its population numbers about 33,500 residents, 45% Christian, 35% Muslim, and 20% Druze.

There are 2 versions to the city’s Hebrew name. According to one version its a combination of the words ‘Shofar’ (ram’s horn) and ‘Am’ (nation or people). According to another version the name means Shefer (goodness). Following Dahar El Omar’s conquest in 1761 the city’s name was given a new interpretation: Shafa (recovery or convalescence) and ‘Omar (after El Omar). This Arabic interpretation implies that El Omar recovered by drinking from the town’s spring water.

Archaeological excavations show that the ancient inhabitants of the place were Canaanite, but Shfar’am the city was Israelite-Jewish. From Joshua’s time to the end of World War I it was inhabited by Jews, who made their living for centuries mostly from farming.

The Second Temple Period (538 BCE – 70 CE)

On the eve of the Great Revolt, Shfar’am was one of the larger Jewish cities in the Galilee. It is mentioned in connection with the Great revolt (66 – 70 ) and some graves from that period were found in the city.

The Roman and Byzantine Periods (70 CE – 640 CE)

Shfar’am was a Jewish city throughout the Mishna and Talmudic periods, and is mentioned in the Talmud. A synagogue was built there at some stage. During the 2nd century CE the Sanhedrin( assembly of 71 scholars in Jewish law) moved from Usha to Shafr’am.

Rabbi Yossey the Galilean, one of the great sages of his time and a contemporary of Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya and Rabbi Akiva, lived in Shfar’am. They belonged to the Bar Kokhba revolt period (132 – 135). So did Rabbi Yehuda Ben Babba who was executed by the Romans in 144 CE for continuing to teach the Torah despite their ban. Some time during the Byzantine period Byzantine Christians began to settle in Shfar’am alongside the Jews, and built their church there.

During the Byzantine period Christians began to settle in the city and around the 4th century a church was built. Graves from the 5th and 6th centuries were found in the city.

The Arabic Period (640 CE – 1099 CE)

Muslims began to settle in Shfar’am alongside the Jews and the Christians after the Muslims conquered the land. During the wars against the Crusaders Shfar’am served as a base for Arab attacks on the Crusaders.

The Crusader Period (1099 – 1260)

Jews and Christians continued to live in Shfar’am during the Crusader period. There is no evidence on the fate of the Muslims. The Crusaders built a fort because of the city's strategic position to control the road that led from Acre to Nazareth. The crusaders changed the city's name to Safran. The city was conquered by Saladin after the Hittin battle (1187) and served as a military base to attacks on Acre. By 1229 the city was back under Crusade rule.

The Mameluke Period (1260 – 1516)

The Mamelukes conquered most of the country in 1260, but Shfar'am came under their control in 1291.The Jews of Shfar’am continued living there during the Mameluke period. Druze began settling in Shfar’am in the 13th century, and at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century Jews from the Spanish Exile and anussim (Jews who were forced to convert in Christian Spain, but kept Jewish laws secretly until they ran away) established their homes there.

At the end of the Mameluke period the Mameluke government lost control in the area, and gangs of Bedouins and robbers threatened the Galilean population, who in addition were heavily taxed. Due to the difficult economic and security conditions, some of the residents of Shfar’am, especially the Jews and Christians, left the city to seek refuge elsewhere.

The Ottoman Period (1516 – 1918)

Some of the Jews who left the country returned following the Ottoman conquest, including Jews from Shfar’am who resettled in it. According to the Ottoman census, there were only 3 Jewish families in Shfar’am in 1525-1526. Between 1533 and 1539 they grew to 10 families. The Sephardic Jews who joined the Jewish community in Shfar’am increased the number of Jews in the city. During the 16th century, the Galilee suffered numerous outbreaks of contagious diseases. Some of the Jews of Safed who left their city to avoid contagion settled in Shfar’am. In the 17th century the Jewish community in Shfar’am built a synagogue on the ruins of the ancient one.

From Shfar’am to Shafa-Omar

The Bedouin Dahar El Omar took over Shfar’am and changed its name to Shafa-Omar. El Omar lived in Shfar’am until he conquered Acre and moved there. He appointed his som Othman as governor of the city. Two citadels were built in Shfar’am during the El Omar period: A-Sariya (“palace” in Turkish) and El Barj. Horse stables were located on the ground floor of A-Sariya and a wall surrounded it, giving it the appearance of a citadel. El Barj was built on the ruins of the Crusader citadel, south of A-Sariya.

Othman built a second church for the Christian community. It was named St.Peter and St. Paul church.

El Omar invited more Jews to settle in the city, and Rabbi Hayim Aboul’afya settled there with his students. They renovated the old synagogue.

An English traveller named Buckingham toured the country in 1816 and wrote a description of Jewish life in Shfar’am. Rabbi David D’Hillel visited the country in 1824 and found 20 families of Jews (who were born in Israel) farming in Shfar’am. He also saw a synagogue there and a Jewish cemetery. He reported that some 200 Arabic families were living in the city but did not mention any Christians.

According to a memorandum written by the British Consul in Acre (an Italian Jew called Mr. Finci), the Jews of Shfar’am paid their taxes in wheat and barley, indicating that farming continued to be the source of income for the Jews of Shfar’am through the Ottoman period.

According to the Montefiori census done in 1839 there were 107 Jews in Shfar'am. In 1849 the Jewish community sent a letter to Montefiori, telling him about their economic difficulties as a result of the Ottoman Taxes' policy. They wrote that some Jews were forced to leave the city because they were unable to pay the heavy taxes. Their land was taken by Druze and Christians. This letter is another evidence on the heavy taxes that forced Jews to leave their villages in the Galilee.

The Jewish community grew again in number when 30 Jewish families from Marocco settled in 1850 and 12 more in 1887.

Jews continued to live in Shfar’am during the 19th century. Victor Guerin visited Shfar’am at the end of the 19th century and reports that it had 80 Jews, 300 Druze, 400 Muslims, and 1500 Christians.

After World War I Jews began to leave the city to find employment elsewhere. The last Jew, Avraham El Ezry, left Shfar’am in 1920, because of the Arabic pogroms against Jews around the country..


During the War of Independence, Shfar’am served as a base for Arabic forces in the Galilee. It was conquered during the Dekkel Operation in July 1948.

Ibraheem Nimer Hussain, one of Shfar'am's mayors was head of the Supervision Committee of Israeli Arabs formed in 1975. Orssan Yassin, the mayor who replaced him in the 1990's refused to serve as the head of the committee.

Orssan Yassin, was still Shfar'am's mayor in 2008. He was a Muslim and an out-of-the-ordinary person among the Israeli Arab leaders. Contrary to the position of the “Israeli Arab Supervision Committee” he announced that his city will join Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, declaring: “It is unacceptable to bring up our children in this country to hate Israel” and has also encouraged drafting into the IDF. He is not afraid to hang the Israeli flag on the municipality’s buildings for all to see.

In August 2005 a tragedy occurred in Shfar'am, when a Jewish army deserter, of the extreme right wing, killed 4 residents of the city on a bus and was lynched. This event created a severe tension between the government and the people of Shfar'am.

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