A Sketch of Jewish History
“Israel,” to which special sanctity
attaches, is the name a nation is known in the Bible. “Hebrews” and “Jews” are
the other names commonly in use, both of which are rich in historical and
emotional connotations. Abraham and the prophet Jonah were called “a Hebrew”,
whereas Mordecai in the Book of Esther is called a Jew. “Hebrew” has remained
important: as the name of the language which Jews often call “the holy tongue,”
the language of the Bible and liturgy, as well as the modern state of Israel. The
word “Jews” is derived from Judoh, the ancient territory of which Jerusalem was the
capital, and which Jews in ancient times looked to as their homeland.
It is important for us to learn
the background of Judaism. Let us start with a historical sketch of the Jewish
people so as to deepen our knowledge of the land and the people of the Bible.
The long and complex history of the people of Israel con easily be divided into three periods: ancient, medieval, and
modern. The ancient period can be further subdivided into three: extending from
the Biblical period, the Greek period, to the Early Arabic period, which saw
the establishment of the political power of Christianity in the fourth and
fifth centuries and of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries. This is the
period in which the foundation of Judaism was laid, and its classical
literature, the Bible and Talmud, was written.
1.1 The Biblical period
encompasses the remote beginnings of the Jewish people as nomads, the
settlement in the Land
of Israel and the
establishment of the monarchy. David (1004-965 BC) conquered a new capital,
Jerusalem, and made it an effective center by installing there the Ark of the
Covenant, the religious symbol to which all gave allegiance. Solomon (965-928 BC)
consolidated the victories of his father but his tight bureaucratic control and
heavy taxes proved too much for his people. After his death the northern
portion of his realm became a separate kingdom of Israel. After a series of
bloody uprisings as a means of succession to the throne, it was destroyed by
the Assyrians (721 BC). Like its northern neighbour, the Southern Kingdom of
Judah could not escape the same fate of destruction by the Babylonians (587-86
BC). The traumatic experience of the Exile lasted a period of seventy years
until they were permitted to return to their homeland (538 BC) to rebuild Jerusalem in 516 BC under
the Persian rule (538-332 BC).
1.2 The Greek period (332-63 BC)
extends from the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great of
Macedonia (331 BC) until the destruction of the second Temple in 70 AD. After the death of
Alexander, the land
of Israel became the
battleground of his two generals. Ptolemy acquired Egypt
and Seleucus had Syria
and Bobylonia under his control. The Ptolemies held Palestine until 200 BC when it passed into
the hands of the Seleucidae. The Seleucidae displaced the traditional Zadokite
high priesthood and imposed the Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish ways of
life and religion. Eventually the three Maccabean brothers revolted in 167 BC,
struggling for religious freedom and political independence. The Maccabees
succeeded to establish the Hosmonaean dynasty which extended the Jewish
dominance to the whole of Palestine, the Golan
and the east bank of the Jordan,
almost the extent of the empire of David and Solomon.
The Jewish world widened its
frontiers throughout the Middle East and the Eastern Roman Empire and as far to
the west as Spain.
This dispersion (Greek “diaspora”) is an encounter with Greek culture, which
was in turn countered by Phorisaism and nascent Christianity.
1.3 Following the Grecian period
is the Roman period (63 BC — 324 AD). Herod the Great (40 BC — 4 AD), who
received some autonomy and some added territories from the Romans, undertook
the project of renovating the Temple
and expanding its areas. His sons, Antipas, Philip, and Archaelaaus locked the
qualities of their father, forcing the Romans to resume direct control.
Political authority was vested in a Procurator who resided in Coesaria. This
Roman witnessed the ministry of Jesus Christ (AD 27- 30) whose crucifixion,
resurrection, and ascension destined to have such tremendous consequences for
the world. Under the Roman mismanagement, the First Jewish Revolt broke out in
66 AD. In reprisal Titus and Vespasian laid waste the land. The destruction of
the Temple in
70 precipitated a major shift within Judaism, The sacrificial worship no longer
existed and old priestly aristocracy gave way to the legalists. Later, when the
nationalist aspirations became more and more active and defiant, the Roman
emperor Hadrian resolved to raze it completely. This provoked the Second Revolt
(132 - 135) led by Bar Kokhba. The Roman victory permitted Hadrin to carry out
his plans. Aelia Copitolina was built on the levelled ruins of Jerusalem. Being refused entrance to Jerusalem and harassed in Judaea, Jews began to move
northward and built villages and synagogues in Galilee
and the Golan.
1.4 The Byzantine period (324-
640) started with the transfer of the capital of the empire from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium
which was renamed Constantinople (330). As one
of the most important political events, Emperor Constantine legalized
Christianity in 313 and fostered its development. His consecration of the sites
associated with Christ’s birth, death-resurrection, and ascension awakened
interest in the Holy Places which become the centers of the pilgrims. Churches
were established everywhere and monasteries flourished in the desert. During
these centuries, Palestine
suffered theological controversy and was troubled only twice: the Samaritan
revolt (529) and the Persian invasion (614). Both were short-lived but proved
1.5 The Early Arabic Period (640-
1009). By the seventh century, the Byzantine Empire was infested with internal
intrigues and struggles against Persia.
Mohammad (570- 632) preached the new faith of Islam which soon swept over the Arabian desert. The bottle of
the Yarmuk on 20 August 636 marked the end of Palestine for the Christians. In 638, caliph
Omar, successor to Mohammad, accepted the surrender of Jerusalem. From this time onwards, the holy
city had been protected and embellished by the successive dynasties until 1009.
when the mad caliph Hakim savagely persecuted Christians
and destroyed many churches.
During the ancient period,
following the adaptation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman
empire in the early fourth century and the consolidation of Christian influence
in the fifth century, the opportunities open to the Jews become progressively
reduced. Access to political power and to the educational
institutions of the majority culture were deprived and their economic
and social life was circumscribed. Often they suffered physical attacks by
Christian mobs, and harsh and arbitrary decrees, including expulsion from
Christian cities and states. Meanwhile, the conquest of the Middle East and North Africa by Muslim Arabs in the seventh century led
to similar, if less oppressive, conditions to the Jews. Religious persecution
and massacres were frequent.
But this third phase of the
ancient period was also the Talmudic period in which Judaism in Palestine and Babylon
developed under guidance of rabbis. The learned doctors of the law were the
heirs of the priests and scribes of the previous period. They undertook the
codification of Jewish law and embodied their discussions and decisions in the
Talmudic literature. Rabbinic Judaism was to retain its dominance for most Jews
throughout the subsequent long Middle Ages.
2.1 The Crusader Period
(1009-1291). Seeing that the Holy Land and Christendom in the East were under
the domain of the Arabs, Pope Urban II called for a crusade to liberate the
Holy Places in 1095 and the great religious enterprise thus began. On 15 July
1099 the Crusaders occupied the Holy City, massacred all the Muslim inhabitants
(From this act of atrocity was born the inflexibility of Islam). Baldwin 1(1100
- 18) became the first king over the new territory. The Crusaders introduced
their European feudal system and governed effectively. Castles, abbeys and
manor houses were built all over the land. But the era of the Crusaders did not
last long when in 1187 Salodin finally defeated them at the Horns of Hottin. In
1250, the Bahri Mamelukes toppled the Ayyubid dynasty of Salodin and began a
series of campaigns which culminated in the capture of the last Crusader
stronghold, Acre (Akko) in 1291.
2.2 In the Mameluke Period (1250
- 1517), the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453, bringing an end to the
Eastern Roman Empire and established the beginning the Ottoman
Empire (1517-1918). The first two sultans of the Ottoman
Empire were effective administrators. Constantinople
and Salonica emerged as the prominent cities. On the part of Palestine,
Suliman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, the spectacular appearance of
which remains until today. But, subsequent incompetent sultans, local
chieftains, and raiding Bedouins resulted in a population decline in Palestine. Villages and
fields were abandoned, and parts of Jerusalem
fell into ruins.
During the above-mentioned
medieval period, the heads of the main Talmudic academies (called “Geonism”)
were responsible for elaborating the teachings of the Talmud and spreading them
to other parts of the Jewish world. In the eleventh century the Geonic
academies declined, and the center of gravity shifted to North
and northwestern Europe. Jewish philosophy,
Bible, commentary and Hebrew poetry, both sacred and profaned flourished. Moses
Maimonides, the philosopher, poets Solomon lbn Gobirol and Judah ha-Levi, the
commentators Rashi, Abraham ibn Ezra and David Kimhi are just a few among many
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492,
coinciding with the completion of the Christian reconquest of the country,
marks the end of an era. Many of those expelled from Spain
found their refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and the New World
began to see the Jewish communities. Among the Jewish population in Europe
there were two main notable groups, Sephardim (a word deriving from Hebrew
“Sephard” for Spain)
and Ashkenazim, Jews of German origin. The expulsions from France and the central European states had
pushed the Ashkenazim eastwards into Poland. They contributed to the
prosperity and cultural flourishing of the country in the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries. As a result of the turmoil of the Cossack rebellion
(1648), Yiddish-speaking Ashkenozim migrated westward to settle in the Rhineland where their ancestors had originated.
These upheavals brought changes
to the character of the Jewish life. The Jews tended to retreat from the real
world and pursue esoteric speculation and instant salvation, as evidenced by a
mystical school in a small town Safed of Galilee hod influence abroad in the
sixteenth century. As a contrast, the humanism of the European Renaissance, the
spread of printing and other broadening aspects of cultural life stimulated
Jewish cultural and scholarly activity, among the culturally active groups, the
Crypto-Jews returned to the Judaic faith from the Christian belief which had
been imposed on their forefathers centuries ago in Portugal. It
was a time when the Jews were emancipated from the condition of segregation and
The Modern Period of the Jewish
history began with the French Revolution of 1789. From then until the Russian
Revolution in 1917, ills characterized by a period of renewed vitality. This is
the, age of Haskalah (enlightenment) movement which enabled the Jews to adapt the
new influence of European culture. Religious reforms emerged from the new ways
of thought and life. But along with the process of emancipation there come
anti-Semitism in central and eastern Europe. Because of economic hardship, more
than two millions Jews left Europe for the United States.
The Revolution of 1917 in Russia,
a country with the largest Jewish population, cast a spell of darkness and
terror on religion. The communal structure of schools and synagogues were
abolished and rabbis were arrested. Religious practice was outlawed and driven
Another decisive historical event
in this period was the First World War in which the Turks sided with the
Germans. The victors dismembered their empire, and the British troops advanced
The Balfour Declaration was issued on 2 December 1917, supporting the
establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. A series of treaties between 1920
and 1923 subdivided the Holy Land, for 400
years. Part of the Ottoman Empire (1517- 1918), was created the British Mandate
of Palestine and Transjordan, and the French
Mandate of the Levant States. Increased immigration led to racial strife which
grew in intensity to a point where the British turned the problem over to the
United Notions. In 1947 U.N. recommended that Palestine be partitioned between Arab and
Jew. War broke out when the British withdrew on 14 May 1948. The same day came
the declaration of an independent state of Israel. An armistice was accepted
on 18 July 1948 leaving Jordan
in possession of the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem while the new
state of Israel hod control
of the western port
of Jerusalem and the rest
of the country. In June 1967 Israel
was victorious in the war and since then it has occupied the Old City of Jerusalem
and the West Bank.
In 1917 the American intervention
in the First World War was accompanied by on assumption of responsibility by
American Jews for the struggle for civil rights of their brethren in Europe. The severe tribulation suffered by Russian Jews
was followed by the “Jewish” question in Germany
which led to the brutal murder of half of the Jews in Europe.
The holocaust, in which six million Jews were annihilated by the Nazis and
their collaborators, was a haunting psychological blow to the Jewish memory for
many generations to come.
Since 1948 the state of the Israel
has become a symbol of national revival and hope for all Jews in the world.
Warfare in 1948 split Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan. After the Six Day War in
June (5 - 10), victorious Israel
annexed the Arab sector, took Golan from Syria
and the West Bank from Jordan.
During this period most Jews in North Africa and Asia emigrated
Whereas the American Jews reaches 44% of the world Jewish population, Israel has 25% and USSR, 13%. In France, Great
Britain, Conada, Argentina, Brazil,
and elsewhere one can find a significant number of Jews.
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