an archaeological, non-religious and non-political examination
THE PROMISED LAND
O Children of Israel! Call to mind the favor which I bestowed
Palestine in the Time of Christ
To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates. Genesis
A Brief History of Israel
he Bible recounts the history of the ancient Hebrew civilization, which in reality has very, very, little in common with modern Israel. The story commences in Genesis: God made a covenant with Abraham and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’, and came to end under the Romans.
The end of the ancient Hebrew civilization in fact occurred in two steps: the first when their Temple was razed by Titus in 70AD and second when Hadrian crushed the Second Jewish Revolt in 130AD, rebuilding Jerusalem as a Roman city and naming it Aelia Capitolina. The Jews were dispersed to the four corners of the Roman world, their homeland destroyed and transformed into a Roman province, their Temple razed to the ground, not a stone remained, its site never again found, erased from human memory. The Israel of today is made up of a people forged from Germans, North Africans, Russians, Ethiopians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Iranians, Ukrainians, Arabs and many others, living together in a reconstituted land, which was colonised and then progressively appropriated by the new arrivals.
Logically the questions that we dare not ask should be asked, not with the objective of hurting or dividing, but trying to explain the perhaps unexplainable. Leaving aside the ethical and politically correct considerations defined by Western civilization in the third millennium for a moment, it can be asked what the peoples of the countries mentioned above have culturally speaking little in common? Are European Jews members of the same ethnic family that speak Hameo-Semetic languages? Are Ethiopian Jews culturally the same as Siberian Jews? This is not a question of trying to define belongings or trying to balance the politically dangerous question of what is a people, but simply to objectively look at the constitution of the population of modern Israel relative to that of the time of Herod, which may or may not have been homogeneous. The same question could be asked relative to the Hebrews at the time of Solomon or even Moses or Abraham. The answer is of course religion. It is not language; the people of Israel spoke Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Latin and other languages. Religion bounds and binds these different elements together. Will the Israelis of tomorrow resemble those of today? It is impossible to say. In comparison the Britons of the time of Boadecia would have had little in common with the Normans or the English of William Shakespeare’s time, and even less with Victorians or the multi-ethnic British society of the 21st century, but they were all Britons or became Britons.
What is left of the past, what became of the ancient Jews, what became of their religion, language and culture, what had become of their temples, cities and monuments?
The archaeological history of what is modern Israel and Palestine, in terms of the earliest agricultural communities, commences sometime between 10000 and 5000BC. The Bible story commences with a people descended from Abraham called the Hebrews who founded the Kingdoms of Israel. The Hebrew name Yehudi came into being after the Kingdom of Israel was split into the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. The Latin word Iudeus is derived from the Greek Ioudaios, and means Judaean, from the land of Judaea. Later following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the word Jew came to mean a follower of the Jewish faith, or someone of Jewish descent.
Between 10000 and 5000 BCE, agricultural communities were established. Evidence of such settlements were found at Tell es-Sultan (picture to the left), Jericho and include mud-brick rounded and square dwellings, pottery shards, and fragments of woven fabrics.
But commencing with the solid vestiges of their past we are forced to admit very little remains, there are of course the Hasmonian tombs, there is absolutely nothing that resembles the ruins of Egypt, Rome or Ancient Greece, neither Babylon nor Persia, or Hattusa the capital of the Hittites, or even the Nabeatean city of Petra. The Jews ancient language, which became practically extinct as a spoken language in around the third century AD, was revived and modernised, it had been barely spoken outside of synagogues, replaced by the languages and dialects of their respective homelands, Ladino, Yiddish, Russian and many others. Their culture was that of their different countries. So what was Judaism, what bound the Jews together, were they bound together? Was it a religion based on the Bible, the Torah and other ancient texts, the collective memory of an ancient people with its commentaries, or was it the collective rejection and persecution of their descendants by the Christians and Muslims in the lands they had made their homes.
Did they consider Andalusia, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, North Africa or the Middle East as their homelands? What did an Austrian Jew living in Vienna in 1900 have in common with a Moroccan Jew living Marrakech? It was certainly not their language, or their culture. To find a common root it was necessary to go back perhaps two thousand years, a link as tenuous as that of an Italian Christian with an early Roman Christian in Palestine.
When did the Hebrews become Jews? To trace their history it is necessary to go back to the biblical legend of King David and his son Solomon, who built the first Temple of the Hebrews in Jerusalem, which according to the Bible stood for 400 years, until in 588BC King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered the city and destroyed the Temple, exiling the Hebrew leaders and their elite to Babylon.
Then came the Persians who defeated the Babylonians in 540BC and Cyrus the Great, King of the Persians, allowed the Hebrew exiles to return home from Babylon. The Second Temple was was built under Nehemiah, who was appointed governor by the Persians in 445 BC, when the walls of the Temple Mount were rebuilt and its fortifications strengthened.
Over the course of the following 500 years, the Greeks, Seleucids and Romans took turns in conquering the city, at times forbidding Jewish religious practices in an effort to assimilate the Jews into their respective cultures.
Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem in 333 BCE and then established Hellenistic monarchies in the Eastern Mediterranian: the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucid dynasty in Syria under Seleucus I Nicator. Under Antiochus III they captured Jerusalem from the Egyptians and Palestine fell under Syrian rule. The desecration of the Temple by Antiochus IV provoked a Jewish insurrection led by Judah Maccabee, who succeeded in defeating the Syrians in 161BC, liberating Jerusalem and re-establishing Jewish worship in the Temple.
After one hundred years of independence civil war broke out and the Romans, under Pompey, conquered Judea in 63BC, ending the autonomy of Israel for two thousand years. The Jews simply became another of the many different peoples of the Roman Empire.
The Romans ruled over Palestine relatively peacefully for nearly a century until the First Jewish Revolt 66AD. It had been ruled as a vassal state like the other provinces of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Herod, a Judean, who was made king in 37BC and ruled until 4BC, was a friend of Agrippa, the son-in-law of the Emperor Augustus, and built many cities including Caesarea, where the Roman governor resided, and more significantly he transformed the Temple of Jerusalem into a magnificent edifice to be worthy of the Jewish God Yaweh.
After Herod's death, Judea was divided among his three sons, but their endless quarrels resulted in Rome appointing a governor to rule Palestine and Jerusalem directly from his official residence in Caesarea. One of these was Pontius Pilate, who governed from 26-36AD.
An unsettled period followed with periodic riots in Jerusalem resulting in frequent clashes with Roman troops. In 66AD, when the population of Jerusalem had reached an estimated 150,000-200,000 inhabitants, a much more serious revolt broke out against Roman rule; it ended in 70AD when a Roman army of 80,000 soldiers, under the leadership of Titus, besieged and conquered the city, plundering then razing the Temple to the ground. More than 100,000 Jews were killed or died of hunger, the rest were executed or sold in slavery. Virtually the entire city was destroyed and all Jews banished from Jerusalem.
In 130AD, the Emperor Hadrian after crushing the Second Jewish Revolt decided to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman city and the city was renamed Aelia Capitolina. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, Queen Helena and her son, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, transformed Jerusalem into a Christian city.
Almost all of the population of Palestine had by then been converted to Christianity, with however, the exception of some Jews. The Byzantines forbid the remaining Jews entry into Jerusalem, except for just one day a year, when they mourned the destruction of their Temple, who were also deprived of most of their rights including the building of synagogues.
During these Christian centuries Persia continued to be a threat to Christian Palestine and the capture of Antioch by the Persian Emperor Khosrau I in 540AD was the beginning of the last great Persian onslaught against Byzantium. In the early 7th century Khosrau II launched his attack, giving hope to the Jews that the Christians would be defeated and their rights be restored just as they had been after the Persians captured Jerusalem in 540BC.
In the spring of 614 the Persian army entered Palestine burning Christian churches and reached soon Jerusalem. When the city fell 60,000 Christians are massacred and another 35,000 were sold into slavery, and symbolically worse taking the most holy relic of Christendom, the True Cross of Christ back to Persia as part of their booty.
In AD 622 the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius counter attacked sweeping through Asia Minor and Armenia to the frontier of Persia. After a series of attacks and counter-attacks the war ended when Heraclius entered Mesopotamia and defeated the Persians at Nineveh destroying Khosrau's palace in the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. The True Cross was returned in 629AD, to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
But, peace did not last long as a new threat suddenly appeared from nowhere with a new religion and the emergence of the Arabs with a powerful all conquering army composed of desert tribesmen from Arabia. The Christian cities of Syria and Palestine quickly fell to the Arabs. In 635AD, Damascus, and in 638AD Jerusalem fell to the Muslim army of Caliph Omar after a siege that lasted for a year.
Mohammed had preached that Moses and Jesus were prophets, his predecessors, and Jerusalem took on a special significance. In 691AD, the Caliph Abd al- Malik of the Umayyad dynasty built the Dome of the Rock on the supposed site of the Jewish Temple. Jerusalem thus became the third most holy place for the Muslims after Mecca and Medina.
Under Muslim rule, a Jewish community was re-established in Jerusalem and flourished. Jews were even among those who guarded the walls of the Dome of the Rock. In return, they were absolved from paying the poll-tax imposed on all non-Muslims.
The Muslim dynasty of the Umayyads ruled most of the Arab world in the second half of the 7th Century, but after a dispute with the rulers of Mecca and Medina, the holiest of Islamic cities, they decided to make Jerusalem, which was nearer their capital Damascus, a holy city to counter the rivals of Mecca and Medina. They rebuilt Al-Aqsa and also built a magnificent monument, the Dome of the Rock, on the summit of the mountain, on the presumed site of the Jewish temple. They also built palaces to the south of the mountain and their actions made Jerusalem the third holiest city of Islam.
Then the Abbasid dynasty moved the Arab capital from Damascus to Baghdad with the result that Jerusalem declined in importance, enabling the Crusaders to take the Holy City in 1099 AD, massacring tens of thousands of its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. King Baldwin I became the first ruler of the Crusaders' Kingdom, called the Kingdom of Jerusalem, until 1187AD when Sultan Salah a-Din besieged and captured the city. The Jews were allowed to return in 1210AD joined by other Jews from Europe and the Maghreb.
Jerusalem lost its importance as a political centre under the Muslim rulers first belonging to the province of Damascus, then becoming a separate province. It fell to the Turks in 1517AD, and remained under their control for four centuries.
At the beginning of the 19th century the population of Jerusalem was just 9,000 inhabitants. It was about that time the city and the Near East were rediscovered by the competing European nations, commencing with Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt.
‘We must go to the Orient. All great glory resides there.’ In addition to the thirty odd thousand troops that landed near Alexandria there were almost one thousand officials, artists and poets, botanists and zoologists, surveyors and economists, who compiled the Descriptions de l'Egypte, the twenty-two volumes of which were to be one of the most famous descriptions of Egyptology to that time. The treasure he brought back to France included the Rosetta Stone which was to provide the key to Egyptian hieroglyphics deciphered by Champolian.
In Napoleon's plans to conquer Egypt, part of the Ottoman Empire, he attacked the Turks by marching on Palestine with an army of 13,000 men in the spring of 1799, sacking Jaffa after bombarding it with his artillery. Jerusalem was of no military importance, though Napoleon wrote to the Jews backing the idea of a Jewish nation. At that time less than two thousand Jews lived in the City of Jerusalem, a miserable backwater. He target was Acre, which he believed to be a strategic point in the Holy Land, but he failed to capture the city when his troops were ravaged by plague.
A century later, the city's population had reached 55,000 of which more than half were Jews.
In the course of the First World War came the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917, in which Great Britain declared: ‘His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’
Following the victory of the Allies over Germany and its Turkish ally the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and Britain occupied Palestine, which at that time included the territory that is now Jordan.
The Mandate zone covered more than one hundred thousand square kilometres, but 1921, Britain split it into two zones, three quarters to the east of the Jordan River was made into an Arab protectorate, which was to become the Kingdom of Jordan, from where the Jews were forbidden to live or own land. The territory to the west of the river became what we as Israel and the Occupied Territories today.
Modern Israel commenced after the First World War when Britain was given the Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations. This included the creation a Jewish National Home in the territory, according to the Balfour Declaration.
In the following years the hostility of the Arab population to Jewish immigration and the majority Jewish presence in Jerusalem grew. Outbreaks of violence against Jewish residents were frequent often resulting in death and injury. This led to the British government seriously restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1939.
In 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states with Jerusalem under a special international regime. Immediately the State of Israel was proclaimed and an Arabs coalition composed of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria attacked Israel.
An armistice was signed in 1949 between Israel and Jordan, and Jerusalem was divided into two zones, the West became the capital of Israel whilst the East was the Arab city until the 1967 war when Israel occupied the whole city.
In the nineteenth century Palestine was part of the tottering Ottoman Empire, and was seen by the Arabs as part of Bilad ash-Sham, or Great Syria, a region that approximately includes what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. In 1831 the region was usurped by Muhammad Ali of Egypt from his Ottoman suzerains.
What role did the Arabs play in the Ottoman Empire? The Sultan in Istanbul was the Caliph, that is to say the successor of Mohammed, the supreme religious authority of the Muslim world. The Arabs saw the Ottoman Empire just as much as their Empire as the Turks, as Muslims they were proud of the Empires power and prestige, fighting for it, at first to expand Ottoman Europe and then to defend it.
Before the 1890s there had already been attempts to settle Jews in Palestine, which at that time had a population of some 520,000 people, mostly Muslim and Christian Arabs and about five percent Jews.
Jewish immigration to the Holy Land had started in the 1870s with the arrival of small numbers of Russian Jews fleeing the anti-Jewish pogroms when the Jews were wrongly blamed for the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II, though the Ottomans discouraged large-scale immigration to Palestine. At that time most Jews in Palestine belonged to the old Yishuv, or community, that had settled in the Holy Land for religious reasons and peacefully cohabited with the Arabs. Tensions between the Jews and Arabs commenced after the first Zionist settlers arrived in the 1880s, purchasing land the absentee Arab owners.
As a result Arab anti-Zionism commenced in the late nineteenth century with the arrival of significant numbers of Jewish settlers in Palestine.
Between 1882 and 1903, about 35,000 Jews arrived in Palestine, though however, many of them soon left as their lives as small time farmers was extremely hard. In 1891, the first sign of political opposition to Zionism made its appearance. Arab notables from Jerusalem called upon the Ottoman administration to prohibit the immigration of and the sale of land to Jews and the Ottoman rulers took measures to restrict immigration and land purchase. But with the Zionists, a political movement that advocated a homeland for the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, the Ottomans gave way to European demands and immigration grew. The poor Arab peasants naturally considered the land on which they had lived for generations to be theirs, but it was sold from under their feet without their knowledge by the absentee landlords, the legal owners, to Jewish settlers. Those Palestine Arab farmers who refused to move from the land purchased from absentee owners were evicted by the Turkish authorities.
Theodor Herzl, an Austrian Jewish journalist, the founder of modern political Zionism, wrote in his diary after the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, in August, 1897: ‘Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word - which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly - it would be this: “At Basle, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.”’
Land was sold to Jewish settlers by Palestinian Arabs attracted by the possibility of quick profits thus causing prices to rise creating a vicious circle whereby absentee landlords hastened to sell there land before the music stopped. This was accelerated by the severe economic depression that affected the territory resulting in unemployment and economic difficulties which only went to aggravate the situation of many Arab peasants, who were forced to sell their land to survive.
In 1931 the Jewish population had risen to almost two hundred thousand and the British High Commissioner for Palestine at that time recommended the total suspension of Jewish immigration and land purchase to protect Arab agriculture as all cultivatable land was was occupied by the indigenous population and sale to Jews would create a class of landless Arab cultivators.
The Arabs proclaimed a general strike in 1936 boycotting Jewish businesses and goods, they demanded an end to Jewish immigration and land transfers to Jewish owners together with a new government that represented their interests. In a campaign of terror Jews were killed as armed gangs of Arabs attacked Jews until in August 1936 the British crack-down on the terrorists.
At that time David Ben Gurion, noted that ‘in our political argument abroad, we minimize Arab opposition to us,’ whilst he recommended, ‘let us not ignore the truth among ourselves.’ The revolt was brutally put down by the British authorities.
Violence continued on and off until 1939 when World War Two more or less suspended suspended political unrest.
By 1949, after the founding of the State of Israel, the population of the country was approximately 1,200,000 people, of which were 86% were Jews. In 2006 it was nearing 7,000,000 with almost 80% Jews.
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