Jewish History

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Early History and the Biblical Period
The Jews in Europe
The Jews in Muslim Countries
The Modern Period

Abba Eban in My People: the Story of the Jews writes: “Israel’s history opens in a twilight zone where fact and legend meet.  The legend has entered so deeply into human experience that it has acquired its own reality.  What men believe to have happened in the Middle East has been no less formative in world history than that which is known to have occurred” (1).

Jewish History can be divided into a number of periods.  What follows is a very brief review of the major periods.

Early Jewish History and the Biblical Period

Early History

The present-day area known as Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria is located at an important crossroad which links three continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia.  The area was influenced by the history and cultures of these three continents and was the focus of many wars and conquests. The earliest inhabitants of the area were cave dwellers who have been carbon-dated to 200,000 B.C. E.

Caves in the Carmel Mountains Inhabited before the Biblical Period

The Biblical Period

Because the events described in the Bible are not confirmed by other historical sources, which means they cannot be dated by historians, I will make no attempt to provide dates.  While the existence of many of the places mentioned in the Bible has been confirmed, no archaeological evidence or additional historical records have been found to confirm these events.  Even the Exodus from Egypt  is undocumented by other sources.

The Patriarchal Period - began with Abraham, who destroyed his father’s idols and declared his belief in one God, thus initiating the first known monotheistic religion: Judaism.  Abraham married Sarah and moved to Canaan, which is the equivalent of the region mentioned above.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were the three Patriarchs.  Their wifes, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel were the Matriarchs. The twelve sons of Abraham's grandson, Jacob, were the founders of the twelve tribes that made up the people of Israel.

The Egyptian Period – According to the Bible and Jewish tradition, the Israelites became slaves in Egypt and were freed by their leader Moses, who led them through the desert for forty years until they reached Canaan.  The Exodus is central to Jewish tradition, as can be seen by the number of holidays dedicated to events that were part of the Exodus and has developed into a symbol of national liberation in many later cultures. The Passover holiday commemorates the exodus from Egypt; Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments in the desert at Mount Sinai, and the Sukkot holiday, the festival of booths, celebrates the survival of the Jews while wandering in the desert.  The Ten Commandments form the basis of the ethical moral nature of Judaism, and marked a sea-change from the standards that prevailed in the surrounding cultures. Joshua inherited the leadership from Moses and led the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan.

The Period of the Judges – lasted for some two centuries.  It was a turbulent period in which the Israelites were ruled by judges. among them Deborah, Samson, Gideon, Eli, and Samuel.  The start of the period can be dated to around 1200 B.C.E. when the name "Israel" was first mentioned in a contemporary archaeological source. It included several attempts at conquest by peoples who may have been the ancestors of the Philistines.

The Monarchy– Saul was the first king of Israel, followed by David, who expanded the kingdom through military expeditions, and his son Solomon. Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem, which became the center for religious worship for the entire nation. Crops and animals for sacrifice were brought to the Temple three times a year by the people.  The reigns of David and Solomon, which saw the unification and economic, cultural, and spiritual growth of the Jewish nation, were a pinnacle of Jewish history, a Golden Age, which provided a source of unity and pride during the many years of exile and dispersion.

The Period of the Kingdoms– internal strife brought on by policies of King Solomon which were considered oppressive by the northern tribes led to the division into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The northern  Kingdom of Israel lasted for two hundred years until it was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.E.  The Kingdom of Judah survived until its conquest by the Babylonians in 597 B.C.E. The Temple  was destroyed during the siege of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and the date,  Tisha B'Av, is still commemorated by fasting and mourning.

The Period of Captivity and Conquest -  During this turbulent period, much of the population was exiled and many of the kings who ruled in the area reverted to the idolatry of the conquering peoples. After the conquest of the Babylonian Empire by the Persian Empire, the Jews were allowed to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. The area was later ruled by Alexander the Great, the Egyptian Ptolemaic Empire and the Greek Seleucid Empire. The Maccabeen revolt against the Seleucids is still celebrated during the Jewish holiday Hanukah.

In 63 B.C.E., Pompey conquered the region, which became a province of the Roman Empire. A revolt broke out three years later, during which the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., and much of the population perished, were taken as slaves, or fled. A new center of Jewish learning was set up in the town of Yavne along with a religious governing body, which survived until 425 C.E.  

In order to suppress Jewish culture, the area was renamed Palaestina (Palestine) after the Philistines. The region was controlled by the Byzantine Empire from 391 to 636 when it was conquered by the Arab Caliphate. Except for the period of the Crusades, it remained under the control of various Arab dynasties until the modern period

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The Diaspora

The term “diaspora” is used to denote the forced dispersal of ethnic peoples from their homeland.  The Jewish Diaspora began with the Babylonian Captivity in 597 B.C.E. and continued through the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 C.E. and the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 C.E. against the Roman Empire. The Diaspora roughly covers the two thousand year period from the fall of the Second Temple to the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.  During this period, Jewish communities developed throughout Europe, North Africa, Western Asia and later North and South America.  Although a handful of Jews continued to live in the land of Israel until the present day, the Roman and Arab conquests made the living conditions too difficult for a return of the exiled Jewish nation.  Jews in the Diaspora prayed for a return to Israel in their daily prayers and some made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to the site of the only surviving remnant of the Temple, the Western Wall. They continued to regard Israel as their true homeland and never relinguished their faith that someday they would be able to return.

Jewish History in Europe

The Fall of Rome to the Late Middle Ages

With the rise of Christianity, Jews throughout Europe found their religion and religious practices restricted by law. The conditions of the Jews in the different regions varied depending upon how severely restrictive laws were enforced.  Normal economic and civil relations between the Christian and Jewish populations were forbidden, which contributed to the growing gap between the two groups.  The Papal prohibition on Christians engaging in money lending opened this occupation to the Jewish population.  Money lending and trade were among the only occupations permitted to Jews.  This made them economically indispensable to their Christian countrymen, but also contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism.  The Jews were despised for earning their living from other people’s money. 

In general, Jews were not permitted to own land, engage in agriculture, become members of craft guilds, hold political office, or attend schools with the Christian population. Intermarriage between Christians and Jews was forbidden unless the Jew was willing to convert to Christianity. This led to the growth of insular Jewish communities that took care of their own economic needs, provided  their male children with religious instruction through a network of religious institutions, and had their own courts and religious leaders who mediated with the civil authorities when necessary. 

Because there was no longer a central religious establishment to make rulings on Jewish law, schools grew up around strong religious leaders and questions of religious law were discussed and codified into a series of explanatory texts called the Talmud, which interpreted the Torah. These texts contained all the information necessary for Jews to live a religious life.  Unlike the Christian communities of the Middle Ages that left the preservation of their religion in the hands of priests and the Papal authority, the Jews encouraged universal literacy for the male population (and did not prohibit it for girls, who were often taught to read).

Italian Ghetto Today

A strong emphasis was placed on the study of Jewish law, and scholars earned the respect of their communities, regardless of their economic status.

The first ghettos appeared in the 13th century in Germany, Spain, and Portugal. “Ghetto” refers to a restricted neighborhood in which the Jews of a community were forced to live.  These were walled areas whose gates were locked at nightfall to restrict the movement of the Jews within. Because the size of the ghetto did not grow with time, they were usually extremely crowded.  The ghettos were progressively demolished beginning in the 19th century, but were revived during the Nazi Era.

The Crusades

Jews (identifiable by distinctive hats) being killed by Crusaders in 1250 French Bible illustration.

The beginning of the Crusades in 1096 brought a series of catastrophes upon the Jewish communities of Europe, which were plundered and murdered by roving bands of Crusaders.  Entire communities were wiped out.  The Jewish community in England was banished in 1290, and 365 years passed before Jews were permitted to return. The Jews were driven out of France in 1394, and out of Germany, Italy and the Balkans between 1350 – 1450.  They fled eastward to the area that is today Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia. 

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The Jews in Muslim Countries


In general, the Jews who lived in the Muslim-ruled countries of Spain and North Africa fared better than the Jews of Europe. They were not forced to live in ghettos and maintained their own communal organizations.  They were respected for their learning and often held positions of power and influence with the local rulers.  At the same time, their rights were not protected by law and they were subject to the whims of local rulers who often enforced cruel arbitrary laws.  Centers of Jewish learning flourished in Babylonia, Syria, Egypt, and Muslim Spain.

Manuscript page written by Maimonides in Arabic using Hebrew letters

Four hundred years before the European Renaissance, the countries under Muslim rule experienced a tremendous rebirth of culture and science. The Jews of the Muslim world played an important part in this renaissance and used their linguistic skills to transmit the growing body of knowledge throughout the region and into Europe. Important figures like Maimonides influenced Jews and non-Jews alike.  The Inquisition marked the end of this fruitful cooperation between Muslims and Jews.

The Spanish Inquisition

Under Muslim rule, Spanish Jewry flourished and Spain became a noted center of learning and culture. As the Catholic kingdoms increased in strength, so did persecution of the Jewish population, culminating in 1492, when the last Muslim stronghold fell to the Christian kings. The avowed purpose of the Spanish Inquisition was to cleanse Spain of all those who did not believe in the Christian faith, including thousands who had converted to Christianity but secretly continued to practice the Jewish faith. The exact number of the Jews and Muslims killed by the Inquisition is in dispute.  Over 200,000 Jews were expelled, many dying during their flight. Many of the exiles fled to the Balkan Peninsula, Turkey and North Africa.

El Albaicín, the ancient Jewish quarter of Granada

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Jewish History in the Modern Period

The Rennaisance in Western Europe, which is generally accepted to have begun in the 14th century, led to the growth of art, culture and free thought which later found its way into the Jewish community in the 18th century Enlightenment.  For the first time, educated Jews rejected the restricted life of the Jewish community and tried to assimilate into the larger culture.  In many cases this meant giving up their religious beliefs and practices.  The Reform Jewish movement, which was founded in Germany in the 19th century, attempted to modernize the Jewish religion to provide an alternative practice for Jews who no longer wanted to live under the restrictions of the Orthodox law, but wanted to preserve their religious faith.

    The Zionist Movement, begun in the late 19th century, believed that the Jews were a nation, not just a religion, and thus require their own homeland.  Although made up of different ideological threads and opposed by many Jews at the time, the Zionist Movement held that the land of Israel had been given to the Jewish people which had maintained their connection with the land for two thousand years of exile. The Zionist Movement was strengthened by the large-scale anti-Jewish riots called pograms which swept through Russia and Russian-controlled Poland beginning in the mid-eighteen hundreds in which thousands of men, women and children were murdered.  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, purporting to expose a global Jewish economic consipiracy, was written and propogated  by the Czar’s secret service during this time, and remains an anti-Semitic forgery with insidious influence to this day.

Photo of a Jewish shtetle in Poland around 1915

 The Zionist Movement maintained that Jews would never be safe without their own homeland.  Although prominent Jews had returned to Israel thoughout the Middle Ages in order to fulfill one of the 613 commandments and to be buried in the Holy Land, the first wave of immigration in modern times began in 1882.  The area was then a part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, inhabited by some 450,000 Moslem and Christian Arabs, as well as a small handful of Jews. The early immigrants established new agricultural settlements.  After Turkey’s defeat in World War I, the area was transferred to British control, which lasted until the U.N. decision of May 15, 1948 to create a bi-national state for the Jewish and Arab populations. 

 The Holocaust

Although Jews had served in armies on both sides of the conflict during World War One, World War Two brought a catastrophe whose reverberations continue to be felt today, fifty years later.  The rise to power of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in the 1930s with their doctrine of racial purity, culminated in the death of over six million Jews in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of others were also murdered, among them people with mental and physical disabilities, Roma and Sinti (gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents, homosexuals, and Russian prisoners of war.  If the war had lasted longer, the entire Jewish population of Europe and North Africa would have been wiped out.  Much has been written about the Holocaust and I will not go into detail here.  The aftermath of the Holocaust left thousands of Jewish refugees facing continued persecution and death if they attempted to return to their former homes to reclaim their property.  The survivors who had lost their family and their possessions required a desperate solution.  The need to create a Jewish homeland for these refugees strengthened the Zionist Movement, which maintained that if such an option had been available before the Second World War, millions of lives would have been saved.  The influx of Jewish refugees into Palestine was strongly opposed by the Arab countries, however. 

Photo from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943

The Creation of Israel

The bi-national state created by the U.N. on Nov. 26, 1947 was rejected by the Arab states.  Their armies greatly outnumbered the small Jewish army and they foresaw an easy victory.  In the ensuing conflict, the Arab armies were driven back, the borders of the bi-national state were redrawn, and a population of Palestinian refugees was created.  The Jews living in Arab ruled countries also became refugees and the majority emigrated to Israel and Europe. The State of Israel was proclaimed on May 15, 1947. Today’s Arab-Israeli conflict is the bitter legacy of this period.

The May 16, 1948 edition of The Palestine Post


Jews Today

According to the World Jewish Population Survey of 2002, Jews today number  13,296,100 people.  0.2% of the global population is Jewish, or one in every 457 people. 46.5% of world Jewry lives in North America, 11.7% in Europe and 37.8% in Israel. The U.S., Israel, and France have the three largest Jewish communities. Israel’s Jewish community is expected to surpass that of the U.S. in the next few years.

Today, Israel is the only country whose Jewish population is increasing due to natural growth.  In almost every other country, the Jewish population is steady or declining.  Assimilation and marriage to those not of the Jewish faith has been increasing for many years.  In the U.S. and U.K., for example, the rate of intermarriage is around 50%. Judaism does not actively try to convert non-Jews, but in recent years has been reaching out to secular Jews and the children of mixed-faith marriages, to encourage them to practice the Jewish religion.  The Jewish community also encourages Jews to strengthen their Jewish ties by visiting Israel to learn about their historical and cultural heritage.

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