The history of the evolving relationship between God and the Jewish people set forth in the the Hebrew Bible–the five books of the Torah, neviim (prophets), and ketuvim (writings)–known to Christians as the Old Testament, begins with myths. The stories of creation, the temptation and sin of the first humans, their expulsion from an idyllic sanctuary, the flood, and other folkloric events have analogies with other early societies. With the appearance of Abraham, however, the biblical stories introduce a new idea–that of a single tribal God. Over the course of several centuries, this notion evolved into humanity’s first complete monotheism. Abraham looms large in the traditions of the Jewish people and the foundation of their religion. Whether Jews by birth or by conversion, each male Jew is viewed as “a son of Abraham.”
It was with Abraham that God, known as Yahweh, made a covenant, promising to protect Abraham and his descendants, to wage wars on their behalf, and to obtain for them the land of Canaan, an area roughly approximate to modern Israel and the occupied West Bank (in another part of the Torah, God pledges to Abraham’s descendants “the land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,” an area much larger than historic Canaan). In exchange, the ancient Hebrews were bound individually and collectively to follow the ethical precepts and rituals laid down by God.
Canaan, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, was a narrow strip, 130 kilometers wide, bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, the Arabian Desert to the east, Egypt to the south, and Mesopotamia to the north. Situated between the great Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, Canaan served as a burgeoning trading center for caravans between the Nile Valley and the Euphrates and as a cultural entrepôt. The clash of cultures and the diverse commercial activities gave Canaan a dynamic spiritual and material creativity. Prior to the emergence of Abraham, however, Egyptian and Mesopotamian hostility, continuous invasions of hostile peoples, and Canaan’s varied topography had resulted in frequent fighting and general instability.
In the last quarter of the second millennium B.C., the collapse of the Hittite Empire to the north, and the decline of Egyptian power to the south at a time when the Assyrians had not yet become a major force set the stage for the emergence of the Hebrews. As early as the latter part of the third millennium B.C., invasions from the east significantly disrupted Middle Eastern society. The people who moved from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean spoke western Semitic languages of which Hebrew is one. The term Hebrew apparently came from the word habiru (also hapiru orapiru), a term that was common to the Canaanites and many of their neighbors. The word was used to designate a social class of wanderers and seminomads who lived on the margins of, and remained separate from, sedentary settlements. Abraham was the leader of one of these immigrant habiru groups. He is depicted as a wealthy seminomad who possessed large flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle, and enough retainers to mount small military expeditions.
The Canaanite chieftains urged Abraham to settle and join with them. Abraham remained in the land, but when it came time to select a wife for his and Sarah’s son Isaac, the wife was obtained from their relatives living in Haran, near Urfa in modern Turkey. This endogamous practice was repeated by Isaac’s son Jacob, who became known as Israel because he had wrestled with God (Gen. 32:28).
During Jacob-Israel’s lifetime the Hebrews completely severed their links with the peoples of the north and east and his followers began to think of themselves as permanently linked to Canaan. By his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and their two serving maids, Bilhah and Zilpah, Israel fathered twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, the “children of Israel.” The term Jew derives from the name of one of the tribes, Judah, which was not only one of the largest and most powerful of the tribes but also the tribe that produced David and from which, according to biblical prophecy and postbiblical legend, a messiah will emerge.
Some time late in the sixteenth or early in the fifteenth century B.C., Jacob’s family–numbering about 150 people–migrated to Egypt to escape the drought and famine in Canaan. Beginning in the third millennium B.C. large numbers of western Semites had migrated to Egypt, usually drawn by the richness of the Nile Valley. They came seeking trade, work, or escape from hunger, and sometimes they came as slaves. The period of Egyptian oppression that drove the Israelites to revolt and escape probably occurred during the reign of Ramses II (1304-1237 B.C.). Most scholars believe that the Exodus itself took place under his successor Merneptah. A victory stela dated 1220 B.C. relates a battle fought with the Israelites beyond Sinai in Canaan. Taken together with other evidence, it is believed that the Exodus occurred in the thirteenth century B.C. and had been completed by about 1225 B.C.
The Book of Exodus describes in detail the conditions of slavery of the Jews in Egypt and their escape from bondage. The Exodus episode is a pivotal event in Jewish history. The liberation of a slave people from a powerful pharaoh–the first such successful revolt in recorded antiquity–through divine intervention tied successive generations of Hebrews (Jews) to Yahweh. The scale of the revolt and the subsequent sojourn in Sinai created a self-awareness among the Hebrews that they were a separate people sharing a common destiny. Moreover, the giving of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai set down a moral framework that has guided the Jewish people throughout their history. The Mosaic Code, which includes the Ten Commandments and a wide body of other laws derived from the Torah, not only proclaimed the unity of God but also set forth the revolutionary idea that all men, because they were created in God’s image, were equal. Thus, the Hebrews believed that they were to be a people guided by a moral order that transcended the temporal power and wealth of the day.
The conquest of Canaan under the generalship of Joshua took place over several decades. The biblical account depicts a primitive, outnumbered confederation of tribes slowly conquering pieces of territory from a sedentary, relatively advanced people who lived in walled cities and towns. For a long time the various tribes of Israel controlled the higher, less desirable lands, and only with the advent of David did the kingdoms of Israel and Judah come into being with a capital in Jerusalem.
Prior to the emergence of David, the Hebrew tribes, as portrayed in the last three chapters of the Book of Judges, were fighting among themselves when the Philistines (whence the termPalestine) appeared on the coast and pushed eastward. The Philistines were a warlike people possessing iron weapons and organized with great discipline under a feudal-military aristocracy. Around 1050 B.C., having exterminated the coastal Canaanites, they began a large-scale movement against the interior hill country, now mainly occupied by the Israelites. To unify the people in the face of the Philistine threat, the prophet Samuel anointed the guerrilla captain Saul as the first king of the Israelites. Only one year after his coronation, however, the Philistines destroyed the new royal army at Mount Gilboa, near Bet Shean, southeast of the Plain of Yizreel (also known as the Plain of Jezreel and the Plain of Esdraelon), killing Saul and his son Jonathan.
Facing imminent peril, the leadership of the Israelites passed to David, a shepherd turned mercenary who had served Saul but also trained under the Philistines. Although David was destined to be the most successful king in Jewish history, his kingdom initially was not a unified nation but two separate national entities, each of which had a separate contract with him personally. King David, a military and political genius, successfully united the north and south under his rule, soundly defeated the Philistines, and expanded the borders of his kingdom, conquering Ammon, Moab, Edom, Zobah (also seen as Aram-Zobah), and even Damascus (also seen as Aram-Damascus) in the far northeast. His success was caused by many factors: the establishment of a powerful professional army that quelled tribal unrest, a regional power vacuum (Egyptian power was on the wane and Assyria and Babylon to the east had not yet matured), his control over the great regional trade routes, and his establishment of economic and cultural contacts with the rich Phoenician city of Tyre. Of major significance, David conquered from the Jebusites the city of Jerusalem, which controlled the main interior north-south route. He then brought the Ark of the Covenant, the most holy relic the Israelites possessed and the symbol of their unity, into the newly constituted “City of David,” which would serve as the center of his united kingdom.
Despite reigning over an impressive kingdom, David was not an absolute monarch in the manner of other rulers of his day. He believed that ultimate authority rested not with any king but with God. Throughout his thirty-three-year reign, he never built a grandiose temple associated with his royal line, thus avoiding the creation of a royal temple-state. His successor and son Solomon, however, was of a different ilk. He was less attached to the spiritual aspects of Judaism and more interested in creating sumptuous palaces and monuments. To carry out his large-scale construction projects, Solomon introduced corvées, or forced labor; these were applied to Canaanite areas and to the northern part of the kingdom but not to Judah in the south. He also imposed a burdensome tax system. Finally, and most egregious to the northern tribes of Israel, Solomon ensured that the Temple in Jerusalem and its priestly caste, both of which were under his authority, established religious belief and practice for the entire nation. Thus, Solomon moved away from the austere spirituality founded by Moses in the desert toward the pagan cultures of the Mediterranean Coast and Nile Valley.
When Solomon died in 925 or 926 B.C., the northerners refused to recognize his successor Rehoboam. Subsequently the north broke away and was ruled by the House of Omri. The northern kingdom of Israel, more populous than the south, possessing more fertile land and closer to the trading centers of the time, flourished until it was completely destroyed and its ten tribes sent into permanent exile by the Assyrians between 740 and 721 B.C. The destruction of the north had a sobering effect on the south. The prophet Isaiah eloquently proclaimed that rather than power and wealth, social justice and adherence to the will of God should be the focus of the Israelites.
At the end of the sixth century B.C., the Assyrian Empire collapsed and the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city of Jerusalem, captured the king, and ended the first commonwealth. Even before the first Exile, the prophet Jeremiah had stated that the Israelites did not need a state to carry out the mission given to them by God. After the Exile, Ezekiel voiced a similar belief: what mattered was not states and empires, for they would perish through God’s power, but man.
From the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C., the majority of Jews have lived outside the Holy Land. Lacking a state and scattered among the peoples of the Near East, the Jews needed to find alternative methods to preserve their special identity. They turned to the laws and rituals of their faith, which became unifying elements holding the community together. Thus, circumcision, sabbath observance, festivals, dietary laws, and laws of cleanliness became especially important.
In the middle of the sixth century B.C., the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians and permitted the Jews to return to their homeland “to rebuild the house of the Lord.” The majority of Jews, however, preferred to remain in the Diaspora, especially in Babylon, which would become a great center of Jewish culture for 1,500 years. During this period Ezra, the great codifier of the laws, compiled the Torah from the vast literature of history, politics, and religion that the Jews had accumulated. The written record depicting the relationship between God and the Jewish people contained in the Torah became the focal point of Judaism.
In 332 B.C., Alexander the Great of Macedon destroyed the Persian Empire but largely ignored Judah. After Alexander’s death, his generals divided–and subsequently fought over–his empire. In 301 B.C., Ptolemy I took direct control of the Jewish homeland, but he made no serious effort to interfere in its religious affairs. Ptolemy’s successors were in turn supplanted by the Seleucids, and in 175 B.C. Antiochus IV seized power. He launched a campaign to crush Judaism, and in 167 B.C. he sacked the Temple.
The violation of the Second Temple, which had been built about 520-515 B.C., provoked a successful Jewish rebellion under the generalship of Judas (Judah) Maccabaeus. In 140 B.C. the Hasmonean Dynasty began under the leadership of Simon Maccabaeus, who served as ruler, high priest, and commander in chief. Simon, who was assassinated a few years later, formalized what Judas had begun, the establishment of a theocracy, something not found in any biblical text.
Despite priestly rule, Jewish society became Hellenized except in its generally staunch adherence to monotheism. Although rural life was relatively unchanged, cities such as Jerusalem rapidly adopted the Greek language, sponsored games and sports, and in more subtle ways adopted and absorbed the culture of the Hellenes. Even the high priests bore such names as Jason and Menelaus. Biblical scholars have identified extensive Greek influence in the drafting of commentaries and interpolations of ancient texts during and after the Greek period. The most obvious influence of the Hellenistic period can be discerned in the early literature of the new faith, Christianity.
Under the Hasmonean Dynasty, Judah became comparable in extent and power to the ancient Davidic dominion. Internal political and religious discord ran high, however, especially between the Pharisees, who interpreted the written law by adding a wealth of oral law, and the Sadducees, an aristocratic priestly class who called for strict adherence to the written law. In 64 B.C., dynastic contenders for the throne appealed for support to Pompey, who was then establishing Roman power in Asia. The next year Roman legions seized Jerusalem, and Pompey installed one of the contenders for the throne as high priest, but without the title of king. Eighty years of independent Jewish sovereignty ended, and the period of Roman dominion began.
In the subsequent period of Roman wars, Herod was confirmed by the Roman Senate as king of Judah in 37 B.C. and reigned until his death in 4 B.C. Nominally independent, Judah was actually in bondage to Rome, and the land was formally annexed in 6 B.C. as part of the province of Syria Palestina. Rome did, however, grant the Jews religious autonomy and some judicial and legislative rights through the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin, which traces its origins to a council of elders established under Persian rule (333 B.C. to 165 B.C.) was the highest Jewish legal and religious body under Rome. The Great Sanhedrin, located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, supervised smaller local Sanhedrins and was the final authority on many important religious, political, and legal issues, such as declaring war, trying a high priest, and supervising certain rituals. Scholars have sharply debated the structure and composition of the Sanhedrin. The Jewish historian Josephus and the New Testament present the Sanhedrin as a political and judicial council whereas the Talmud describes it as a religious, legislative body headed by a court of seventy-one sages. Another view holds that there were two separate Sanhedrins. The political Sanhedrin was composed primarily of the priestly Sadducee aristocracy and was charged by the Roman procurator with responsibility for civil order, specifically in matters involving imperial directives. The religious Sanhedrin of the Pharisees was concerned with religious law and doctrine, which the Romans disregarded as long as civil order was not threatened. Foremost among the Pharisee leaders of the time were the noted teachers, Hillel and Shammai.
Chafing under foreign rule, a Jewish nationalist movement of the fanatical sect known as the Zealots challenged Roman control in A.D. 66. After a protracted siege begun by Vespasian, the Roman commander in Judah, but completed under his son Titus in A.D. 70, Jerusalem and the Second Temple were seized and destroyed by the Roman legions. The last Zealot survivors perished in A.D. 73 at the mountain fortress of Massada, about fifty-six kilometers southwest of Jerusalem above the western shore of the Dead Sea.
During the siege of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakki received Vespasian’s permission to withdraw to the town of Yibna (also seen as Jabneh) on the coastal plain, about twenty-four kilometers southwest of present-day Tel Aviv. There an academic center or academy was set up and became the central religious authority; its jurisdiction was recognized by Jews in Palestine and beyond. Roman rule, nevertheless, continued. Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-38) endeavored to establish cultural uniformity and issued several repressive edicts, including one against circumcision.
The edicts sparked the Bar-Kochba Rebellion of 132-35, which was crushed by the Romans. Hadrian then closed the Academy at Yibna, and prohibited both the study of the Torah and the observance of the Jewish way of life derived from it. Judah was included in Syria Palestina, Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden to come within sight of the city. Once a year on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple, controlled entry was permitted, allowing Jews to mourn at a remaining fragment on the Temple site, the Western Wall, which became known as the Wailing Wall. The Diaspora, which had begun with the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C.,and which had resumed early in the Hellenistic period, now involved most Jews in an exodus from what they continued to view as the land promised to them as the descendants of Abraham.
Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., and especially after the suppression of the Bar-Kochba Rebellion in 135 A.D., religio-nationalist aspects of Judaism were supplanted by a growing intellectual-spiritual trend. Lacking a state, the survival of the Jewish people was dependent on study and observance of the written law, the Torah. To maintain the integrity and cohesiveness of the community, the Torah was enlarged into a coherent system of moral theology and community law. The rabbi and the synagogue became the normative institutions of Judaism, which thereafter was essentially a congregationalist faith.
The focus on study led to the compilation of the Talmud, an immense commentary on the Torah that thoroughly analyzed the application of Jewish law to the day-to-day life of the Jewish community. The complexity of argument and analysis contained in the Palestinian Talmud (100-425 A.D.) and the more authoritative Babylonian Talmud (completed around 500) reflected the high level of intellectual maturity attained by the various schools of Jewish learning. This inward-looking intellectualism, along with a rigid adherence to the laws and rituals of Judaism, maintained the separateness of the Jewish people, enabling them to survive the exilic experience despite the lure of conversion and frequent outbreaks of anti-Semitism.
As a geographic unit, Palestine extended from the Mediterranean on the west to the Arabian Desert on the east and from the lower Litani River in the north to the Gaza Valley in the south. It was named after the Philistines, who occupied the southern coastal region in the twelfth century B.C. The name Philistia was used in the second century A.D. to designate Syria Palestina, which formed the southern third of the Roman province of Syria.
Emperor Constantine (ca. 280-337) shifted his capital from Rome to Constantinople in 330 and made Christianity the official religion. With Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, a new era of prosperity came to Palestine, which attracted a flood of pilgrims from all over the empire. Upon partition of the Roman Empire in 395, Palestine passed under eastern control. The scholarly Jewish communities in Galilee continued with varying fortunes under Byzantine rule and dominant Christian influence until the Arab-Muslim conquest of A.D. 638. The period included, however, strong Jewish support of the briefly successful Persian invasion of 610-14.
The Arab caliph, Umar, designated Jerusalem as the third holiest place in Islam, second only to Mecca and Medina. Under the Umayyads, based in Damascus, the Dome of the Rock was erected in 691 on the site of the Temple of Solomon, which was also the alleged nocturnal resting place of the Prophet Muhammad on his journey to heaven. It is the earliest Muslim monument still extant. Close to the shrine, to the south, the Al Aqsa Mosque was built. The Umayyad caliph, Umar II (717-720), imposed humiliating restrictions on his non-Muslim subjects that led many to convert to Islam. These conversions, in addition to a steady tribal flow from the desert, changed the religious character of the inhabitants of Palestine from Christian to Muslim. Under the Abbasids the process of Islamization gained added momentum as a result of further restrictions imposed on non-Muslims by Harun ar Rashid (786-809) and more particularly by Al Mutawakkil (847-61).
The Abbasids were followed by the Fatimids who faced frequent attacks from Qarmatians, Seljuks, and Byzantines, and periodic beduin opposition. Palestine was reduced to a battlefield. In 1071 the Seljuks captured Jerusalem. The Fatimids recaptured the city in 1098, only to deliver it a year later to a new enemy, the Crusaders of Western Europe. In 1100 the Crusaders established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which remained until the famous Muslim general Salah ad Din (Saladin) defeated them at the decisive Battle of Hattin in 1187. The Crusaders were not completely evicted from Palestine, however, until 1291 when they were driven out of Acre. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a “dark age” for Palestine as a result of Mamluk misrule and the spread of several epidemics. The Mamluks were slave-soldiers who established a dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria, which included Palestine, from 1250 to 1516.
In 1516 the Ottoman Turks, led by Sultan Selim I, routed the Mamluks, and Palestine began four centuries under Ottoman domination. Under the Ottomans, Palestine continued to be linked administratively to Damascus until 1830, when it was placed under Sidon, then under Acre, then once again under Damascus. In 1887-88 the local governmental units of the Ottoman Empire were finally settled, and Palestine was divided into the administrative divisions (sing.,mutasarrifiyah) of Nabulus and Acre, both of which were linked with the vilayet (largest Ottoman administrative division, similar to a province) of Beirut and the autonomousmutasarrifiyah of Jerusalem, which dealt directly with Constantinople.
For the first three centuries of Ottoman rule, Palestine was relatively insulated from outside influences. At the end of the eighteenth century, Napoleon’s abortive attempt to establish a Middle East empire led to increased Western involvement in Palestine. The trend toward Western influence accelerated during the nine years (1831-40) that the Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali and his son Ibrahim ruled Palestine. The Ottomans returned to power in 1840 with the help of the British, Austrians, and Russians. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, Palestine, despite the growth of Christian missionary schools and the establishment of European consulates, remained a mainly rural, poor but self-sufficient, introverted society. Demographically its population was overwhelmingly Arab, mainly Muslim, but with an important Christian merchant and professional class residing in the cities. The Jewish population of Palestine before 1880 consisted of fewer than 25,000 people, two-thirds of whom lived in Jerusalem where they made up half the population (and from 1890 on more than half the population). These were Orthodox Jews, many of whom had immigrated to Palestine simply to be buried in the Holy Land, and who had no real political interest in establishing a Jewish entity. They were supported by alms given by world Jewry.
EVENTS IN PALESTINE, 1908-48
Before the Second Aliyah, the indigenous Arab population of Palestine had worked for and generally cooperated with the small number of Jewish settlements. The increased Jewish presence and the different policies of the new settlers of the Second Aliyah aroused Arab hostility. The increasing tension between Jewish settler and Arab peasant did not, however, lead to the establishment of Arab nationalist organizations. In the Ottoman-controlled Arab lands the Arab masses were bound by family, tribal, and Islamic ties; the concepts of nationalism and nation-state were viewed as alien Western categories. Thus, an imbalance evolved between the highly organized and nationalistic settlers of the Second Aliyah and the indigenous Arab population, who lacked the organizational sophistication of the Zionists.
There were, however, small groups of Western-educated Arab intellectuals and military officers who formed nationalist organizations demanding greater local autonomy. The primary moving force behind this nascent Arab nationalist movement was the Committee of Union and Progress, a loose umbrella organization of officers and officials within the Ottoman Empire in opposition to the policies of Sultan Abdul Hamid. The removal of Sultan Abdul Hamid by the Committee of Union and Progress in 1908 was widely supported by both Arab nationalists and Zionists. The committee’s program of constitutional reform and promised autonomy aroused hope of independence on the part of various nationalities throughout the Ottoman Empire.
After 1908, however, it quickly became clear to Zionists and Arabs alike that the nationalism of Abdul Hamid’s successors was Turkish nationalism, bent on Turkification of the Ottoman domain rather than granting local autonomy. In response, Arab intellectuals in Beirut and Damascus formed clandestine political societies, such as the Ottoman Decentralization Party, based in Cairo; Al Ahd (The Covenant Society), formed primarily by army officers in 1914; and Al Fatat (The Young Arabs), formed by students in 1911. The Arab nationalism espoused by these groups lacked support, however, among the Arab masses.
TO BE CONTINUED…