This is part 1 of a 5 part series.
In 1882 there were fewer than 25,000 Jews living in the region of the Ottoman Empire that is now the State of Israel. Within 65 years, that number had increased over twenty-five fold and the Ottoman Empire had crumbled, leaving the land open to Jewish migration and giving way for settlement by a civilization that had been homeless, oppressed, and almost wiped off the face of the Earth. Now there are almost seven million Jews living in Israel, it has become the Middle East’s only democracy and gone from being a sparsely inhabited desert to one of the most agriculturally successful countries in the region. This essay-in-five-parts will show how a beleaguered population, scattered across the world and subjected to rampant racism for over 1,800 years, rose to a position of prominence that allowed them to overcome numerous warmongering adversaries, extreme economic challenges, a hostile landscape, and the worst genocide the world has ever seen.
This series shall further illuminate the reader on the ancient history of the Jewish people (the Jews), discussing the very origins of the Semitic culture, and detailing its many challenges on the way to the creation of modern Israel and the challenges faced in its early years. The ancient biblical times onward to the destruction of the first Jewish Kingdom (586 BCE and prior), as well as the post-exile and Second Temple era (586 BCE-136 CE) will be discussed in Part 1. The pre-Zionist era and early Zionist era (136-1897 CE), during which the Jewish nation emerged from a loose knit social movement across the (predominantly) Western world and formed under the Ottoman Empire’s rule, is covered in the Part 2. The interwar era’s increased immigration and the precursor state, or Yishuv, under the British ruled post-Ottoman Palestinian Mandate (1904-1918 CE) is discussed in Part 3. Finally, the fate of Palestine during WWI and II the birth of the state of Israel, and its ensuing challenges as a fledgling nation (1916-1967 CE), is explored in Parts 4 and 5.
It is difficult to trace the true origins of the Jewish people due to the deeply ancient nature of their history. According to the Bible, Jewish history began with Abraham and his descendants, as detailed in the “book of Genesis,” but this account cannot be verified and is a highly controversial interpretation of Jewish history. If taken literally, the biblical history states that after making a covenant with God, Abraham would eventually settle in the land of Canaan about 4,000 years ago (2000 BCE) after travelling from ancient Mesopotamia, where he settled and gave rise to 12 tribes led by his various descendants. Interestingly the very name Israel comes from the grandson of Abraham, Jacob, who’s name was changed to Israel, which meant “one who hast striven with God and with men and has prevailed.” Also worth noting is the origin of the term, Jew, which stems from the ancient Tribe of Judah, from which King David emerged.
From Abraham’s settlement of Canaan onward, biblical history posits that several centuries of favourable existence in these lands unfolded, but that eventually the 12 tribes were forced under a position of servitude and slavery by the ancient Egyptians. It may have been during this time period that the first true “nation” of Jews began to emerge, united under hardships forced onto them by the Egyptians; historical records say the “Children of Israel,” or Israelites came to coalesce into one people during their period of slavery in Egypt. After an alleged 430 years of oppression by these foreign rulers, the ancient Jews revolted, escaped, and gained their freedom under Moses, who according to the “Book of Exodus,” was chosen by God to lead his people out of Egypt and back to Israel. The exodus from Egypt is given as the source of the Jewish festival of Passover, and if biblical records are to be taken as historically accurate, occurred in the mid-13th century BCE.
While plagued by divisions, the early Jews, having returned to their homeland, were eventually united under a single king, almost certainly for the first time, after a Philistine invasion into the land of Canaan led the fractious tribes of Israelites into a singular kingdom. This king, Saul, was able to unite his people into a singular state some time in the late 11th century BCE, thanks, perhaps entirely, to the Philistine invasion which forced his people into a united resistance. Rulership of the Kingdom of Israel was inherited in 1010 BCE by his successor, David (mentioned above), perhaps best known for the biblical story in which he killed the giant Goliath, and became king by popular acclaim after first being banished by Saul and then being granted his position after Saul’s death at the hands of the Philistines. David defeated the Philistines, leading his people into war and further uniting them, establishing the Kingdom of Israel as a major power in the Mediterranean, expanding its borders and taking the city of Jerusalem, which was a crucial access point to trade routes, and had previously been ruled by the Jebusites.
This historical turning point not only marks the end of a divided and tribal nation but also the beginning of a singular state of Israel as a successful military and economic power in the region. Historical sources state that David was able to create not only a capable and sizeable military but furthermore build infrastructure and trade ties with foreign nations, with Jerusalem as his capital, leading to the establishment of arguably the most important city in the history of Jewish civilization. Following David, was King Solomon, who furthered his predecessor’s work through the mid 10th century BCE, not only by maintaining Israel’s military power and trade ties, but also constructing a royal palace and the Temple of Jerusalem, drawing both religious and political power further into the capital that David had created.
While the legend of the creation of the Temple of Solomon lived on, the Kingdom of Israel did not. After Solomon’s death, Israel went through a period of civil war, breaking into two kingdoms; Israel to the north, and Judah to the South. Both were eventually conquered, Israel by the Assyrians during the late 8th century, and Judah by the Babylonians in the early 6th. By 586, Jerusalem had been successfully besieged, its king captured, and the Temple burned to the ground; beginning the period of Jewish exile after the destruction of the first Jewish kingdom.
After the exile period began, Jewish culture was both shattered and united; as the conditions of exile spread its people across the Mediterranean world, but also forced Jews into a state of cohesion unprecedented in the pre-exile era (as was evidenced by the civil war that divided Israel after the death of Solomon). The longing for a homeland which proliferated among Jews was ubiquitous, leading to the biblical psalm 137, which spoke to the widespread desire of Jews to return to their ancient homeland. This is evidence of the antiquity era Zionist aspirations of the Jewish people, “If I forget thee, oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.”
While Jews wandered in poverty and with little success as a people, the ancient Persians prevailed, and under Cyrus the Great, conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple. While most remained in diaspora, some did otherwise and in 538 BCE, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Jews embarked on the First Return to create a second Jewish nation under the leadership of Zerubbabel, a descendant of the House of David. The second temple was thus rebuilt between the years of 520 and 515 and over the next two centuries the Jewish people experienced varying degrees of freedom under Persian rule, which led to the Second Return, an ensuing wave of immigration back to the Jewish homeland precipitated by Ezra the Scribe in the mid fifth century BCE. This period of relative peace for the Jews continued, leading to the development of the Knesset Hagedolah (the Grand Assembly), which provided religious and judicial leadership for the Jewish people and is now considered the Second Temple period.
The conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE ended Persian rule and, after his death, led to rule first by the Ptolemaic and then Seleucid dynasties. By 175 BCE, a campaign against Judaism began under the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV that led to the prohibition of Jewish religious practice and also the desecration of the Second Temple. As a result of this harsh treatment, the Jewish people banded together and launched a rebellion, founded by Mattathias ben Johanan, and later led by his son Judah, who successfully led the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire to victory from the years 167 to 160 BCE. The victory of the Jews over the Seleucids led to the development of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, which was founded to commemorate the purification of the second Temple and restoration of religious freedom for Jews in their homeland, and also to the creation of a new Jewish nation under the Hasmonean dynasty, the Kingdom of Judea, which lasted form 142-63 BCE.
Unfortunately for the Jews, this period of independence did not last, and in 63 BCE, after 80 years of sovereignty, the Romans conquered Hasmonean Judea and granted its people only limited freedom. This did not sit well with the Jewish people and so they rebelled, in 40 BCE the last Hasmonean ruler, Mattathias Antigonus led a revolt that was defeated 3 years later in 37 BCE leading to the end of the Hasmoneans and the forcing of Judea into total vassal statehood to the Romans. With its semi-independent rule stripped from it, Judea was appointed a new King by the Roman Senate, Herod who had fought against the Hasmonean’s for Rome, and ruled from 37 BCE onwards to 4 BCE. During Herod‘s rule he was awarded significant authority over the kingdom allowing him to become one of Rome’s most influential vassal state rulers.
While Herod had no control over foreign affairs, he consolidated his power over his kingdom and began a massive building program across Judaea leading to the construction of several cities and fortresses as well as the renovation of the Second Temple. His death however, led to a period of diminished ruled by his heirs and eventually Judaea was named a province of Rome and brought under direct Roman administration in 6 CE. The Romans continued to allow a degree of religious autonomy for the Jews, avoiding the Seleucid’s mistake, though their increasingly harsh conditions, such as taxation and punitive laws, led to a revolt in 66 CE by a group later referred to as the Zealots. Over the next several years, the Romans would put down these rebellions, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, the successful siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. By 73 CE the last Jewish fortress of Masada was captured, at which the remaining defenders chose to take their own lives rather than surrender or be taken prisoner. The significance of the sacrifice made by the defenders of Masada is still remembered today through the commemoration ceremony performed by newly trained Israeli Defence Force soldiers who often swear the oath “Masada shall not fall again,” upon completion of their training.
While seemingly crushed, the Jewish people were allowed to continue to exist in the Roman province of Judea and forced under total Roman rule with no representation of their own. Tired of despotic Roman rule, the Jewish people would rise up once more, and in 132 CE, Shimon Bar Kokhba would regain control over the province of Judea and declare it an independent kingdom once again. Sadly for the Jewish people, this period of independence would again be short-lived, only lasting for three years, and Shimon Bar Kokhba would be besieged at his fortress of Beitar in 135 where he led a stand against the Romans only for him and his men to be massacred. After defeating Bar Kokhba, the Romans wiped out the Jewish people living in Judea, exiling the rest, and burning Jerusalem to the ground, ending the Jews last hope for freedom from Rome in 136 AD.
While Judea’s name was changed to Syria Palaestina and Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina in an attempt to erase any historical and cultural ties the land possessed for the Jewish People, the name Betar would later become the name of a Zionist youth movement founded in 1923 by the Revisionist Zionist leader, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, in order to celebrate Bar Kokhba’s revolt and his heroic attempt at winning freedom for the Jewish people.
Written by David Proulx – UTKM White Belt
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Gilbert, M. (1998). Israel, a History. London. Doubleday.
Stockman Shomron, I. (1984). Israel, the Middle East, and the Great Powers. Israel. Shikmona Publishing Company.
Reich, B. (2005). A Brief History of Israel. New York. Check Mark Books.