Written for the Beth David Star, April, 2003

A Brief History of Israel

Bob Zeidman

In honor of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, I've taken on the job of squeezing the entire 3300-year history of Israel into a 2000 word article. That's less than one word per year. If this works, I'll next tackle the job of explaining the Talmud while standing on one foot.

It's important to remember that Israel's struggle for existence, its struggle as a Jewish homeland, does not begin with national statehood in 1948, but much, much earlier than that. The Jewish connection to Israel goes back millennia and, unfortunately, outside forces have made many attempts to sever that connection. And while the Jews have lost battles and at times lost the land itself, they have never lost the spiritual connection. To understand this connection, you must understand the history.

The history of Israel begins around 1300 BCE when Moses led the Hebrews to Israel from slavery in Egypt, an event we commemorate each year on Passover. King Solomon built the first Temple in 922 BCE. By the time the Assyrians conquered Israel 200 years later, it was divided into two kingdoms - Israel and Judah. The ten tribes residing in the kingdom of Israel were exiled, and not much is known about what happened to them. We refer to them as the lost tribes.  Only two tribes living in Judah remained.

About 150 years later, in 586 BCE, the Babylonians conquered the kingdom of Judah, destroyed the Temple, and dispersed the Jews throughout the known world. Many Jews were forcefully taken to Babylonia, which covers much of what is today Iraq. The Babylonians allowed the Jews to establish schools and gave them the freedom to study and practice Judaism.

Fifty years later, in 539 BCE, the Jews returned to Israel and built the second Temple. In 165 BCE, the Jews, led by Mattathias Maccabee and his sons, overthrew the Syrians who controlled Israel at the time; this victory is celebrated every Hanukkah. But while the Maccabees were excellent military men, they and their descendants were poor rulers. For the next 150 years the Jews ruled themselves, but the leadership of the Maccabees was immoral and corrupt. In the year 70 CE, the Romans conquered Israel, destroyed the Second Temple, renamed it Palestine and once again the Jews were dispersed throughout the world.

Many who had not returned to Israel, thrived during that time.  The cities of Sura and Pompedita in Babylonia became centers of Jewish learning and housed famous yeshivas.  It was there, in 219 CE that the Jewish Rabbis began to document their discussions and interpretations of Jewish law. The resulting document is called the Babylonian Talmud. A similar process in the land of Israel resulted in the Jerusalem Talmud. Both documents were completed around 500 CE.

In the year 636 CE, the Arabs conquered Israel. This late date was their first appearance in the area, despite some claims otherwise. Jews were treated relatively well under Muslim Arab rule but perhaps only in comparison to their terrible treatment in Christian Europe. In Arab lands, Jews were forced to pay a special "Jaziya" tax. They endured humiliations such as the requirement to wear special clothes that identified them as Jews. They were restricted to employment in specific professions. And they faced the death penalty for violating any of these restrictions. The European Christians resented the fact that their holy sites were under Moslem control. Between 1099 CE and 1291 CE they organized at least nine Crusades to wrest control of the land from the "infidel." Israel vacillated between Christian and Muslim control until the Arabs regained complete control in 1291 CE. In 1516 the Ottoman Turks conquered Israel as well as much of Arabia and surrounding lands.

In the late 1800s, encouraged by Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, waves of Jews emigrated from Europe to Israel, which was then known then as Palestine. The Jews were escaping terrible pogroms - the mass slaughters of entire Jewish villages. Jews paid exorbitant prices to wealthy Arab landowners for arid, barren land in Israel. This is where a large part of the issue with the Arab population begins. Many Palestinians living in Israel at the time were squatters - people who lived on land, and built houses on land that they did not own. The Arab landowners ignored them because the land was of little value anyway. When the Jews purchased the land for their own homes, they removed Palestinian families, some of whom had lived there for generations.

In 1882 about 46,000 Jews lived in the Land of Israel, residing primarily in Jerusalem, Zfat, and Hebron. By 1906, Jews comprised the largest percentage of the population of Jerusalem, outnumbering Muslims nearly six to one and Christians three to one. In 1917, the British defeated the Turks and took control of Israel. Shortly thereafter, they announced the Balfour declaration that promised to create a Jewish homeland in the area. The Arab population was not happy with the idea of a Jewish state. Incitement against the so-called "foreign" Jews started, which was followed by Arab riots in 1920, 1929 and 1936/37. The 1929 riot was the most notorious and left 67 Jews in the city of Hebron dead.

In the wake of the Holocaust the United Nations decided to create two nations, side by side in peace, a Jewish state of Israel and an Arab state of Palestine. Israeli officials made serious calls to the Arab population of Israel to remain and live in peace. Instead, the Arab leaders rejected the Jewish state, confident that this small population and its poorly equipped military would be no match for the huge, Russian-equipped Arab armies. The Arab leaders called for Arabs to flee Israel temporarily, and frightened them using false stories of atrocities against Arab families. On May 14, 1948, Israel declared statehood. The following day, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq attacked Israel. They lost. This was a modern day miracle considering that the Arab countries had some of the largest armies in the world. Israelis fought with outdated equipment, a tiny budget, and many fewer military personnel.  But what they lacked in numbers and equipment they made up for with an irrepressible fervor to regain their ancient homeland, a country of safety and refuge for Jews all over the world.

No peace treaty was ever signed - in fact Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq are still officially at war with Israel. The 800,000 Arab refugees that fled Israel were never accepted into any Arab countries, forcing the United Nations to set up refugee camps in the Gaza strip, the West Bank, and Lebanon. Yet 900,000 Jews who were forced to flea their homes in Arab lands were happily accepted into Israel and successfully integrated into the new society.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization, headed by Yasser Arafat, grew out of the refugee problem. By 1965, terrorist attacks against civilian populations in Israel began, claiming innocent lives. In 1967, intelligence reports showed Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, and Kuwait placing armies on the Israeli borders. The UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai Peninsula was asked by Egypt to leave, and they did so. The Egyptian navy blocked the Straits of Tiran, an important waterway for Israeli trade with the world, an act universally accepted as an act of war. Without waiting for the inevitable attack, Israel demolished the Arab air forces on the ground in a pre-emptive strike. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) destroyed the Egyptian army, the most powerful Arab army, in the Sinai desert, and captured the Gaza Strip. Jordan was sent a diplomatic message asking it to refrain from attacking, but when Jordan disregarded the message, the IDF attacked the Jordanian army, capturing the West Bank. The IDF also forced Syria out of the Golan Heights, which was used by the Syrians as a base for shelling attacks on Israeli towns.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur. Once again the Arab armies were defeated and Israel captured the entire Sinai Peninsula, an area three times the size of the state of Israel.

By 1979, the Egyptian economy was in serious trouble and the Soviet Union, the main economic and military supporter of Egypt, was close to dissolving. Anwar Sadat, Egypt's president needed to make some radical, unprecedented move to help his country and its people. And he did. He came to Israel, spoke to the Israeli Knesset, and offered peace. Sadat and Menachem Begin, Israel's Prime Minister, signed a formal peace treaty. In return for peace, Israel dismantled all Jewish settlements in the Sinai and returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. The military commander in charge of dismantling the settlements was none other than Ariel Sharon, Israel's current Prime Minister. An interesting note is that Egypt refused to accept the return of the Gaza strip, not wanting to have anything to do with the refugees or the PLO.

The modern state of Israel has had only one military engagement that cannot be considered a complete success. In 1982, Israel attacked and occupied southern Lebanon for 18 years in an attempt to stop terrorist attacks by the PLO based there. While the occupation did stop terrorist attacks, many Israeli lives were lost and southern Lebanon was thrown into chaos. Israeli forces eventually left Lebanon in the year 2000.

The first Intifada, or uprising, took place from 1987 to 1993. Rock throwing and riots by Palestinians did much to disrupt Israeli and Palestinian society. In 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to sign the Oslo Peace Accords with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. In this agreement, the Israeli government agreed to gradually give Palestinians control over the West Bank and Gaza strip. In return, the Palestinians agreed to:

King Hussein of Jordan, also recognizing the advantages of peace, and wanting the support of the world's only superpower, the United States, in 1994 signed the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Agreement. Like Egypt, Jordan did not offer to take back the West bank.

Over the years, as part of the Oslo Accord, Israel gave limited self-rule to Palestinian towns and refugee camps, despite little effort by Yasser Arafat or the new Palestinian Authority, to stop terrorist attacks in Israel. Arafat continued to make demands and failed to meet the Palestinian requirements of the agreement. In 2000, Arafat rejected two new offers to expand his authority over a true Palestinian state. Instead the terror attacks increased. In 2001, at Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made one last attempt to offer Arafat control over 90% of "occupied territories." Once again, terror attacks increased, leading to the second Intifada, a coordinated, bloody, non-stop series of suicide attacks by Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Arafat's Fatah Movement.

That brings us up to today. Unfortunately, it leaves us with an Israel under steady attack from terrorists. But it does put things in perspective. Looking at the history of Israel and the Jewish people, we have been under attack by the world's largest armies throughout recorded time. Where is Roman civilization? What happened to the Assyrians? The Babylonians? The Jews have survived longer than just about any people on earth. Israel has been lost and regained. Is it our tenacity and determination or God's will? Whatever it is, the history of Israel should give us confidence that our land will survive and our people will survive. And that "Next Year in Jerusalem" will always be our prayer and our aspiration.

Bob Zeidman writes a regular column about Israel. You can contact him at bob@zeidman.net with your feedback and suggestions. You can also be put on his email list for information about Israel and upcoming rallies, lectures, and other activities.