The History of the land of Israel encompasses the history of the modern State of Israel, as well as that of the Jews in the Land of Israel. The area of modern Israel is small, about the size of Wales or half the size of Costa Rica, and is located roughly on the site of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah except that these ancient kingdoms also included what is now the West Bank. It is the birthplace of the Hebrew language spoken in Israel, and of the Abrahamic religions. It contains sites believed to be sacred to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Druze and Bahá’í Faith.
Although coming under the sway of various empires and home to a variety of ethnicities, the Land of Israel was predominantly Jewish until the 3rd century. The area became increasingly Christian after the 3rd century and then largely Muslim from the 7th century conquest until the middle of the 20th century. It was a focal point of conflict between Christianity and Islam between 1096 and 1291, and from the end of the Crusades until the British conquest in 1917 was part of the Syrian province of first the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and then (from 1517) the Ottoman Empire.
In the late-19th century, persecution of Jews, particularly in Europe, led to the creation of the Zionist movement. Following the British conquest of Syria, the Balfour Declaration in World War I and the formation of the Mandate of Palestine, Aliyah (Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel) increased and gave rise to Arab–Jewish tensions, and a collision of the Arab and Jewish nationalist movements. Israeli independence in 1948 was marked by massive migration of Jews from both Europe and the Muslim countries to Israel, and of Arabs from Israel leading to the extensive Arab–Israeli conflict. About 42% of the world’s Jews live in Israel today.
Since about 1970, the United States has become the principal ally of Israel. In 1979 an uneasy Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty was signed, based on the Camp David Accords. In 1993 Israel signed Oslo I Accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization and in 1994 Israel–Jordan Treaty of Peace was signed. Despite efforts to establish peace between Israel and Palestinians, many of whom live in Israel or in Israeli-occupied territories, the conflict continues to play a major role in Israeli and international political, social and economic life.
The economy of Israel was initially primarily socialist and the country dominated by social democratic parties until the 1970s. Since then the Israeli economy has gradually moved to capitalism and a free market economy, partially retaining the social welfare system.
Between 2.6 and 0.9 million years ago, at least four episodes of hominine dispersal from Africa to the Levant are known, each culturally distinct. The flint tool artifacts of these early humans have been discovered on the territory of the current state of Israel, including, at Yiron, the oldest stone tools found anywhere outside Africa. Other groups include 1.4 million years old Acheulean industry, the Bizat Ruhama group and Gesher Bnot Yaakov.
In the Carmel mountain range at el-Tabun, and Es Skhul, Neanderthal and early modern human remains were found, including the skeleton of a Neanderthal female, named Tabun I, which is regarded as one of the most important human fossils ever found. The excavation at el-Tabun produced the longest stratigraphic record in the region, spanning 600,000 or more years of human activity, from the Lower Paleolithic to the present day, representing roughly a million years of human evolution.
Map of the Ancient Near East during the Amarna Period, showing the great powers of the day: Egypt (orange), Hatti (blue), the Kassite kingdom of Babylon (black), Middle Assyrian Empire (yellow), and Mitanni (brown). The extent of the Achaean/Mycenaean civilization is shown in purple.
During the 2nd millennium BC, Canaan, part of which later became known as Israel, was dominated by Egypt.
The first record of the name Israel (as ysrỉꜣr) occurs in the Merneptah stele, erected for Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah c. 1209 BCE, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” William Dever sees this “Israel” in the central highlands as a cultural and probably political entity, more an ethnic group rather than an organized state.
Ancestors of the Israelites may have included Semites native to Canaan and the Sea Peoples. McNutt says, “It is probably safe to assume that sometime during Iron Age I a population began to identify itself as ‘Israelite'”, differentiating itself from the Canaanites through such markers as the prohibition of intermarriage, an emphasis on family history and genealogy, and religion.
The first use of grapheme-based writing originated in the area, probably among Canaanite peoples resident in Egypt. All modern alphabets are descended from this writing. Written evidence of the use of Classical Hebrew exists from about 1000 BCE. It was written using the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.
Villages had populations of up to 300 or 400, which lived by farming and herding, and were largely self-sufficient; economic interchange was prevalent. Writing was known and available for recording, even in small sites. The archaeological evidence indicates a society of village-like centres, but with more limited resources and a small population.
Israel and Judah
The Hebrew Bible describes constant warfare between the Jews and other tribes, including the Philistines, whose capital was Gaza. The Bible states that King David founded a dynasty of kings and that his son Solomon built a Temple. No material evidence indisputably of Solomon’s reign has been found. Yigael Yadin’s excavations at Hazor, Megiddo, Beit Shean and Gezer uncovered structures that he and others have argued date from his reign, but others, such as Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman (who agree that Solomon was a historical king), argue that they should be dated to the Omride period, more than a century after Solomon. This building is not mentioned in surviving extra-biblical accounts. Possible references to the “House of David” have been found at two sites, the Tel Dan Stele and the Mesha Stele.Both David and Solomon are widely referenced in Jewish, Christian and Islamic texts.
Around 930 BCE, the kingdom split into a southern Kingdom of Judah and a northern Kingdom of Israel.
It is possible that an alliance between Ahab of Israel and Ben Hadad II of Damascus managed to repulse the incursions of the Assyrians, with a victory at the Battle of Qarqar (854 BCE). (see the Kurkh Monoliths). However, the Kingdom of Israel was eventually destroyed by Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III around 750 BCE. The Philistine kingdom was also destroyed. The Assyrians sent most of the northern Israelite kingdom into exile, thus creating the “Lost Tribes of Israel”. The Samaritans claim to be descended from survivors of the Assyrian conquest. An Israelite revolt (724–722 BCE) was crushed after the siege and capture of Samaria by the Assyrian king Sargon II. Sargon’s son, Sennacherib, tried and failed to conquer Judah. Assyrian records say he leveled 46 walled cities and besieged Jerusalem, leaving after receiving extensive tribute.
Exile under Babylon (586–538 BCE)
On 586 BCE King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon conquered Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, he destroyed Solomon’s Temple and exiled the Jews to Babylon. The defeat was also recorded by the Babylonians (see the Babylonian Chronicles). Babylonian and Biblical sources suggest that the Judean king, Jehoiakim, switched allegiances between the Egyptians and the Babylonians and that invasion was a punishment for allying with Babylon’s principal rival, Egypt. The exiled Jews may have been restricted to the elite.
Jehoiakim was eventually released by the Babylonians (see Jehoiachin’s Rations Tablets) and according to both the Bible and the Talmud, the Judean royal family (the Davidic line) continued as head of the exile in Babylon (the Exilarch).
Classical era (538 BCE–636 CE)
Persian and Hellenistic rule 538–160 BCE
n 538 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon and took over its empire. Cyrus issued a proclamation granting subjugated nations (including the people of Judah) religious freedom (for the original text see the Cyrus Cylinder). According to the Hebrew Bible 50,000 Judeans, led by Zerubabel, returned to Judah and rebuilt the temple. A second group of 5,000, led by Ezra and Nehemiah, returned to Judah in 456 BCE although non-Jews wrote to Cyrus to try to prevent their return.
Scholars believe that the final Hebrew versions of the Torah and Books of Kings date from this period, that the returning Israelites adopted an Aramaic script (also known as the Ashuri alphabet) which they brought back from Babylon; this is the current Hebrew script. The Hebrew Calendar closely resembles the Babylonian calendar and probably dates from this period.
In 333 BCE, the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great defeated Persia and conquered the region. Sometime thereafter, the first translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, was begun in Alexandria. After Alexander’s death, his generals fought over the territory he had conquered. Judah became the frontier between the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt, eventually becoming part of the Seleucid Empire in 198 BCE. In the 2nd century BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ruler of the Seleucid Empire) tried to eradicate Judaism in favour of Hellenistic religion. This provoked the 174–135 BCE Maccabean Revolt led by Judas Maccabeus (whose victory is celebrated in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah). The Books of the Maccabees describe the uprising and the end of Greek rule. A Jewish party called the Hasideans opposed both Hellenism and the revolt but eventually gave their support to the Maccabees. Modern interpretations see this period as a civil war between Hellenized and orthodox forms of Judaism.
Hasmonean dynasty 160–37 BCE
The Hasmonean dynasty of (Jewish) priest-kings ruled Judea with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes as the principal Jewish social movements. As part of the struggle against Hellenistic civilization, the Pharisee leader Simeon ben Shetach established the first schools based around meeting houses. This led to Rabbinical Judaism. Justice was administered by the Sanhedrin, which was a Rabbincal assembly and law court whose leader was known as the Nasi. The Nasi’s religious authority gradually superseded that of the Temple’s high priest (under the Hasmoneans this was the king).
In 125 BCE the Hasmonean King John Hyrcanus subjugated Edom and forcibly converted the population to Judaism. In 64 BCE the Roman general Pompey conquered Syria and intervened in the Hasmonean civil war in Jerusalem. In 47 BCE the lives of Julius Caesar and his protege Cleopatra were saved by 3,000 crack Jewish troops sent by King Hyrcanus II and commanded by Antipater, whose descendants Caesar made kings of Judea.
Herodian kingdom 37 BCE–6 CE
From 37 BCE to 6 CE, the Herodian dynasty, Jewish-Roman client kings, descended from Antipater, ruled Judea. Herod the Great considerably enlarged the temple (see Herod’s Temple), making it one of the largest religious structures in the world. Despite its fame, it was in this period that Rabbinical Judaism, led by Hillel the Elder, began to assume popular prominence over the Temple priesthood.
The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was granted special permission not to display an effigy of the emperor, becoming the only religious structure in the Roman Empire that did not do so. Special dispensation was granted for Jewish citizens of the Roman Empire to pay a tax to the temple.
Roman rule 6–390
udea was made a Roman province in 6 CE. Following the next decades, though prosperous, the society suffered increasing tensions between Greco-Roman and Judean populations.
In 64 CE, the High Priest Joshua ben Gamla introduced a religious requirement for Jewish boys to learn to read from the age of 6. Over the next few hundred years this requirement became steadily more ingrained in Jewish traditions.
In 66 CE, the Jews of Judea rose in revolt against Rome, naming their new state as “Israel”. The events were described by the Jewish leader/historian Josephus, including the desperate defense of Jotapata, the siege of Jerusalem (69–70 CE) and the heroic last stand at Masada under Eleazar ben Yair (72–73 CE). Much of Jerusalem and the Temple lay in ruins. During the Jewish revolt, most Christians, at this time a sub-sect of Judaism, removed themselves from Judea. The rabbinical/Pharisee movement led by Yochanan ben Zakai, who opposed the Sadducee temple priesthood, made peace with Rome and survived. After the war Jews continued to be taxed in the Fiscus Judaicus, which was used to fund a temple to Jupiter.
From 115 to 117, Jews in Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, Mesopotamia and Lod rose in revolt against Rome. This conflict was accompanied by large-scale massacres of both Romans and Jews. Cyprus was severely depopulated and Jews banned from living there.
In 131, the Emperor Hadrian renamed Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina” and constructed a Temple of Jupiter on the site of the former Jewish temple. Jews were banned from living in Jerusalem itself (a ban that persisted until the Arab conquest), and the Roman province, until then known as Iudaea Province, was renamed Palaestina, no other revolt led to a province being renamed. The names “Palestine” (in English) and “Filistin” (in Arabic) are derived from this. From 132 to 136, the Jewish leader Simon Bar Kokhba led another major revolt against the Romans, again renaming the country “Israel” (see Bar Kochba Revolt coinage). The Bar-Kochba revolt probably caused more trouble for the Romans than the more famous (and better documented) revolt of 70. The Christians refused to participate in the revolt and from this point the Jews regarded Christianity as a separate religion. The revolt was eventually crushed by Emperor Hadrian himself. Although uncertain, it is widely thought that during the Bar Kokhba revolt, when a rabbinical assembly decided which books could be regarded as part of the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish apocrypha were left out. A rabbi of this period, Simeon bar Yochai, is regarded as the author of the Zohar, the foundational text for Kabbalistic thought. However, modern scholars believe it was written in Medieval Spain.
After suppressing the Bar Kochba revolt, the Romans exiled the Jews of Judea, but not of Galilee and permitted a hereditary Rabbinical Patriarch (from the House of Hillel, based in Galilee) to represent the Jews in dealings with the Romans. The most famous of these was Judah haNasi who is credited with compiling the final version of the Mishnah (a massive body of Jewish religious texts interpreting the Bible) and with strengthening the educational demands of Judaism by requiring that illiterate Jews be treated as outcasts. As a result many illiterate Jews may have converted to Christianity.
Jewish seminaries, such as those at Shefaram and Bet Shearim continued to produce scholars and the best of these became members of the Sanhedrin which was located first at Tzippori and later at Tiberias. Before the Bar-Kochba uprising, an estimated 2/3 of the population of Gallilee and 1/3 of the coastal region were Jewish. In the Galillee, many Synagogues have been found dating from this period. However, persecution and the economic crisis that affected the Roman empire in the 3rd century led to further Jewish migration from Syria Palaestina to the more tolerant Persian Sassanid Empire, where a prosperous Jewish community with extensive seminaries existed in the area of Babylon.
Early in the 4th century, Constantinople became the capital of the East Roman Empire and Christianity was adopted as the official religion. The name Jerusalem was restored to Aelia Capitolina and it became a Christian city. Jews were still banned from living in Jerusalem, but were allowed to visit, and it is in this period that the surviving Western Wall of the temple became sacred. In 351–2, another Jewish revolt in the Galilee erupted against a corrupt Roman governor. In 362, the last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, announced plans to rebuild the Jewish Temple. He died while fighting the Persians in 363 and the project was discontinued.
Byzantine rule 390–611
he Roman Empire split in 390 CE and the region became part of the (Christian) East Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire. Byzantines Christianity was dominated by the (Greek) Orthodox Church. In the 5th century, the Western Roman Empire collapsed leading to Christian migration into the Roman province of Palaestina Prima and development of a Christian majority. Jews numbered 10–15% of the population, concentrated largely in the Galilee. Judaism was the only non-Christian religion tolerated, but there were bans on Jews building new places of worship, holding public office or owning slaves. Several Samaritan Revolts erupted in this period, resulting in the decrease of Samaritan community from about a million to a near extinction. Sacred Jewish texts written in the Holyland at this time are the Gemara (400), the Jerusalem Talmud (500) and the Passover Haggadah.
In 611, Sassanid Persia invaded the Byzantine Empire and, after a long siege, Khosrau II captured Jerusalem in 614, with Jewish help, including possibly the Jewish Himyarite Kingdom in Yemen. Jews were left to govern Jerusalem when the Persians took over, though the short-lived Jewish commonwealth lasted only until about 617, when the Persians capitulated. The Byzantine Emperor, Heraclius, promised to restore Jewish rights and received Jewish help in defeating the Persians, but he soon reneged on the agreement after reconquering Palaestina Prima, issuing an edict banning Judaism from the Byzantine Empire. (Egyptian) Coptic Christians took responsibility for this broken pledge and fasted in penance. Jews fleeing Byzantium settled in the Baltic area, where the Khazar nobility and some of the population subsequently converted to Judaism.
Middle Ages (636–1517)
Arab rule 636–1099
Further information: Jund Filastin and Jund al-Urdunn
According to Muslim tradition, in 620 Muhammed was taken on spiritual journey from Mecca to the “farthest mosque”, whose location many consider to be the Temple Mount, returning the same night. In 634–636 the Arabs conquered Palaestina Prima and renamed it Jund Filastin, ending the Byzantine ban on Jews living in Jerusalem. Over the next few centuries, Islam replaced Christianity as the dominant religion of the region.
From 636 until the beginning of the Crusades, Jund Filastin was ruled first by Medinah-based Rashidun Caliphs, then by the Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphate and after that the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphs. In 691, Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik (685–705) constructed the Dome of the Rock shrine on the Temple Mount. Jews consider it to contain the Foundation Stone (see also Holy of Holies), which is the holiest site in Judaism. A second building, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, was also erected on the Temple Mount in 705.
Between the 7th and 11th centuries, Jewish scribes, called the Masoretes and located in Galilee and Jerusalem, established the Masoretic Text, the final text of the Hebrew Bible.
Crusader and Ayyubid rule 1099–1291
In 1099, the first crusade took Jerusalem and established a Catholic kingdom, known as the Kingdom of Jerusalem. During the conquest, both Muslims and Jews were indiscriminately massacred or sold into slavery. The murder of Jews began as the Crusaders traveled across Europe and continued when they reached the Holy Land. Ashkenazi orthodox Jews still recite a prayer in memory of the death and destruction caused by the Crusades.
In 1187, the Ayyubid Sultan Saladin defeated the Crusaders in the Battle of Hattin (above Tiberias), taking Jerusalem and most of the former Kingdom of Jerusalem. Saladin’s court physician was Maimonides, whose work had an enormous influence on Judaism. Maimonides was buried in Tiberias. A Crusader state centred round Acre survived in weakened form for another century.
From 1260 to 1291 the area became the frontier between Mongol invaders (occasional Crusader allies) and the Mamluks of Egypt. The conflict impoverished the country and severely reduced the population. Sultan Qutuz of Egypt eventually defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ain Jalut (near Ein Harod), and his successor (and assassin), Baibars, eliminated the last Crusader Kingdom of Acre in 1291, thereby ending the Crusades.
Mamluk rule 1260–1517
Egyptian Mamluk Sultan, Baibars (1260–1277), conquered the region and the Mamluks ruled it until 1517, regarding it as part of Syria. In Hebron, Baibars banned Jews from worshiping at the Cave of the Patriarchs (the second holiest site in Judaism), the ban remained in place until its conquest by Israel 700 years later.
The collapse of the Crusades was followed by increased persecution and expulsions of Jews in Europe. Expulsions began in England (1290) and were followed by France (1306). In Spain, persecution of the highly integrated and successful Jewish community began, including massacres and forced conversions. During the Black Death, many Jews were murdered after being accused of poisoning wells. The completion of the Christian reconquest of Spain led to expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. These were the wealthiest and most integrated Jewish communities in Europe. Many Jews converted to Christianity, however many secretly practised Judaism and prejudice against converts (regardless of their sincerity) persisted, leading many former Jews to move to the New World (see History of the Jews in Latin America). Most of the expelled Spanish Jews moved to North Africa, Poland, to the Ottoman Empire and to the region of Bilad a-Sham which roughly corresponds to the ancient Kingdom of Israel (united monarchy). In Italy, Jews living in the Papal States were required to live in ghettos (see Cum nimis absurdum). The last compulsory Ghetto, in Rome, was abolished in the 1880s.
Ottoman rule (1517–1920)
Under the Mamluks, the area was a province of Bilad a-Sham (Syria). It was conquered by Turkish Sultan Selim I in 1516–17, becoming a part of the province of Ottoman Syria for the next four centuries, first as the Damascus Eyalet and later as the Syria Vilayet (following the Tanzimat reorganization of 1864).
From the Middle Ages on, there was small scale individual Jewish migration to the Land of Israel, which tended to increase when persecution was bad elsewhere. The Jewish population was concentrated in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias, known in Jewish tradition as the Four Holy Cities. In the 16th century, following a wave of Spanish immigration, Safed became a centre for study of the Kabbalah. However economic decline and conflict between the Druze and the Ottomans, led to the community’s gradual decline by the mid-17th century. In 1660, a Druze revolt led to the destruction of the major Old Yishuv cities of Safed and Tiberias. In 1663 Sabbatai Zevi settled in Jerusalem, proclaiming himself to be the Jewish Messiah. He acquired a large number of followers before going to Istanbul in 1666, where the Sultan forced him to covert to Islam. In the late 18th century a local Bedouin Sheikh Daher el-Omar created a de facto independent Emirate in the Galilee. Ottoman attempts to subdue the Sheikh failed, but after Daher’s death the Ottomans restored their rule in the area.
In 1799 Napoleon briefly occupied the country and planned a proclamation inviting Jews to create a state. The proclamation was shelved following his defeat at Acre. In 1831, Muhammad Ali of Egypt conquered Ottoman Syria and decided to revive and resettle much of its regions. His conscription policies led to a popular Arab revolt in 1834, resulting in major casualties for the local Arab peasants, and massacres of Christian and Jewish communities by the rebels. Following the revolt, Muhammad Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali, expelled nearly 10,000 of the local peasants to Egypt, while bringing loyal Arab peasants from Egypt and discharged soldiers to settle the coastline of Ottoman Syria. Northern Jordan Valley was settled by his Sudanese troops.
In 1838 there was another revolt by the Druze. In 1839 Moses Montefiore met with Muhammed Pasha in Egypt and signed an agreement to establish 100-200 Jewish villages in the Damascus Eyalet of Ottoman Syria, but in 1840 the Egyptians withdrew before the deal was implemented, returning the area to Ottoman governorship. In 1844, Jews constituted the largest population group in Jerusalem and by 1890 an absolute majority in the city, but as a whole the Jewish population made up far less than 10% of the country. In 1868, the Ottomans banished the Bahá’u’lláh, one of the founders of the Bahai religion, to Acre where he is buried, and the movement subsequently established its global administrative centre in nearby Haifa. In 1874, Ottoman reforms led to the area of Jerusalem gaining special status as the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem.
Birth of Zionism 1870 – 1914
During the 19th century, Jews in Western Europe were increasingly granted citizenship and equality before the law; however, in Eastern Europe, where they were more numerous, they faced growing persecution and legal restrictions, including widespread pogroms. As a result millions of Jews began leaving Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, mainly for the United States, with a small percentage heading for what the Ottomans regarded as Southern Syria. In this period, national movements were emerging across Europe. Many such national movements rejected Jews as aliens, while some Jews were attracted by the notion that Jews were a nation. The movement began as a religious movement in Russia, evolving into a secular movement that became popular among Jews around the world. It coincided with a wave of Jewish migration to the Holy Land and Messianism among Yemenite Jews and Bukharan Jews.
In 1870, an agricultural school, the Mikveh Israel, was founded near Jaffa by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French Jewish association. In 1878, Russian Jewish emigrants established the village of Petah Tikva, followed by Rishon LeZion in 1882. Russian Jews established the Bilu and Hovevei Zion (“Love of Zion”) movements to assist settlers and these created additional communities which, unlike the traditional Ashkenazi-Jewish communities, sought to be self-reliant rather than dependent on donations from abroad. Existing Ashkenazi-Jewish communities were concentrated in the Four Holy Cities, extremely poor and lived on donations from Europe. The new migrants avoided these communities and tended to create small agricultural settlements. In Jaffa a vibrant commercial community developed in which Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews inter-mingled. Many early migrants left due to difficulty finding work and the early settlements often remained dependant on foreign donations. Despite the difficulties, new settlements arose and the community grew.
The new migration was accompanied by a revival of the Hebrew language and attracted Jews of all kinds; religious, secular, nationalists and left-wing socialists. Socialists aimed to reclaim the land by becoming peasants and forming collectives. In Zionist history, the different waves of Jewish settlement are known as “aliyah”. During the First Aliyah, between 1882 and 1903, approximately 35,000 Jews moved to what is now Israel. By 1890, Jews were a majority in Jerusalem, although the area was populated mainly by Muslim (settled and nomad Bedouins) and Christian Arabs.
In 1896 Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), in which he asserted that the solution to growing antisemitism in Europe (the so-called “Jewish Question”) was to establish a Jewish state. In 1897, the Zionist Organisation was founded and the First Zionist Congress proclaimed its aim “to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” However, Zionism was regarded with suspicion by the Ottoman rulers and was unable to make major progress.
Between 1904 and 1914, around 40,000 Jews settled in Southern Syria (the Second Aliyah). In 1908 the Zionist Organisation set up the Palestine Bureau (also known as the “Eretz Israel Office”) in Jaffa and began to adopt a systematic Jewish settlement policy. Migrants were mainly from Russia (which then included part of Poland), escaping persecution. The first Kibbutz, Degania, was founded by 9 Russian socialists in 1909. In 1909 residents of Jaffa established the first entirely Hebrew-speaking city, Ahuzat Bayit (later renamed Tel Aviv). Hebrew newspapers and books were published, Hebrew schools, Jewish political parties and workers organizations were established.
World War I 1914 – 1917
During World War I, most Jews supported the Germans because they were fighting the Russians who were regarded as the Jews’ main enemy. In Britain, the government sought Jewish support for the war effort for a variety of reasons including an erroneous antisemitic perception of “Jewish power” over the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turks movement, and a desire to secure American Jewish support for US intervention on Britain’s behalf.
There was already sympathy for the aims of Zionism in the British government, including the Prime Minister Lloyd George. In late 1917, the British Army drove the Turks out of Southern Syria, and the British foreign minister, Lord Balfour, sent a public letter to Lord Rothschild, a leading member of his party and leader of the Jewish community. The letter subsequently became known as the Balfour Declaration of 1917. It stated that the British Government “view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. The declaration provided the British government with a pretext for claiming and governing the country. New Middle Eastern boundaries were decided by an agreement between British and French bureaucrats. The agreement gave Britain control over what parties would begin to call “Palestine”. This appellation would remain uncontroversial until the rise of Anti-Zionism in the 1940s.
A Jewish Legion composed largely of Zionist volunteers organized by Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor participated in the British invasion. It also participated in the failed Gallipoli Campaign. A Zionist spy network provided the British with details of Ottoman troops.
British Mandate of Palestine (1920–1948)
First years 1920 – 1929
The British Mandate (in effect, British rule) of Palestine, including the Balfour Declaration, was confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922 and came into effect in 1923. The boundaries of Palestine initially included modern Jordan, which was removed from the territory by Churchill a few years later. Britain signed a treaty with the United States (which did not join the League of Nations) in which the United States endorsed the terms of the Mandate.
Between 1919 and 1923, another 40,000 Jews arrived in Palestine, mainly escaping the post-revolutionary chaos of Russia (Third Aliyah), as over 100,000 Jews were massacred in this period in Ukraine and Russia.Many of these immigrants became known as “pioneers” (halutzim), experienced or trained in agriculture and capable of establishing self-sustaining economies. The Jezreel Valley and the Hefer Plain marshes were drained and converted to agricultural use. Land was bought by the Jewish National Fund, a Zionist charity which collected money abroad for that purpose. A mainly socialist underground Jewish militia, Haganah (“Defense”), was established to defend outlying Jewish settlements.
he French defeat of the Arab Kingdom of Syria and the Balfour Declaration led to the emergence of Palestinian Nationalism and Arab rioting in 1920 and 1921. In response, the British authorities imposed immigration quotas for Jews. Exceptions were made for Jews with over 1,000 pounds in cash (roughly 100,000 pounds at year 2000 rates) or Jewish professionals with over 500 pounds. The Jewish Agency issued the British entry permits and distributed funds donated by Jews abroad. Between 1924 and 1929, 82,000 more Jews arrived (Fourth Aliyah), fleeing antisemitism in Poland and Hungary, and because the United States Immigration Act of 1924 now kept Jews out. The new arrivals included many middle-class families who moved into towns and established small businesses and workshops—although lack of economic opportunities meant that approximately a quarter later left. The first electricity generator was built in Tel Aviv in 1923 under the guidance of Pinhas Rutenberg, a former Commissar of St Petersburg in Russia’s pre-Bolshevik Kerensky Government. In 1925 the Jewish Agency established the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Technion (technological university) in Haifa.
From 1928, the democratically elected Va’ad Leumi (Jewish National Council or JNC) became the main institution of the Palestine Jewish community (“Yishuv”) and included non-Zionist Jews. As the Yishuv grew, the JNC adopted more government-type functions, such as education, health care and security. With British permission, the Va’ad raised its own taxes and ran independent services for the Jewish population. From 1929 its leadership was elected by Jews from 26 countries.
In 1929 tensions grew over the Kotel (Wailing Wall), a narrow alleyway where Jews were banned from using chairs or any furniture (many of the worshipers were elderly). The Mufti claimed it was Muslim property and that the Jews were seeking control of the Temple Mount. This (and general animosity) led to the August 1929 Palestine riots. The main victims were the ancient Jewish community at Hebron which came to an end. The riots led to right-wing Zionists establishing their own militia in 1931, the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (National Military Organization, known in Hebrew by its acronym “Etzel”).
Zionist political parties provided private education and health care: the General Zionists, the Mizrahi and the Socialist Zionists, each established independent health and education services and operated sports organizations funded by local taxes, donations and fees (the British administration did not invest in public services). During the whole interwar period, the British, appealing to the terms of the Mandate, rejected the principle of majority rule or any other measure that would give the Arab population, who formed the majority of the population, control over Palestinian territory.
Increase of Jewish immigration 1930 – 1938
In 1933, the Jewish Agency and the Nazis negotiated the Ha’avara Agreement (transfer agreement), under which 50,000 Jews would be transferred to Palestine. The Jews possessions were confiscated and in return the Nazis allowed the Ha’avara organization to purchase 14 million pounds worth of German goods for export to Palestine (which was used to compensate the immigrants). The Nazis did not normally allow Jews to leave with any money or to take more than two suitcases. The agreement was controversial and the Labour Zionist leader who negotiated the agreement, Haim Arlosoroff, was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1933. The assassination was a long source of anger between the Zionist left and Zionist right. Arlosoroff once dated Magda Goebbels and may have been assassinated by the Nazis to hide the connection which only emerged recently. In Palestine, Jewish immigration (and the Ha’avara goods) helped the economy to flourish. A port and oil refineries were built at Haifa and there was a growth of industrialization in the predominantly agricultural Palestinian economy.
Between 1929 and 1938, 250,000 Jews arrived in Palestine (Fifth Aliyah). 174,000 arrived between 1933 and 1936, after which the British increasingly restricted immigration. The influx contributed to the 1933 Palestine riots. Migration was mostly from Europe and included professionals, doctors, lawyers and professors from Germany. As a consequence German architects of the Bauhaus school made Tel-Aviv the world’s only city with purely Bauhaus neighborhoods and Palestine had the highest per-capita percentage of doctors in the world.
As Fascist regimes emerged across Europe, persecution of Jews massively increased, and Jews reverted to being non-citizens deprived of civil and economic rights, subject to arbitrary persecution. Significantly antisemitic governments came to power in Poland (from 1935 the government boycotted Jews), Hungary, Romania and the Nazi created states of Croatia and Slovakia, while Germany annexed Austria and the Czech territories.
Arab revolt and the White Paper
ewish immigration and Nazi propaganda contributed to the large-scale 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, a largely nationalist uprising directed at ending British rule. The head of the Jewish Agency, Ben-Gurion, responded to the Arab Revolt with a policy of “Havlagah”—self-restraint and a refusal to be provoked by Arab attacks in order to prevent polarization. The Etzel group broke off from the Haganah in opposition to this policy.
The British responded to the revolt with the Peel Commission (1936–37), a public inquiry which recommended that an exclusively Jewish territory be created in the Galilee and western coast (including the population transfer of 225,000 Arabs); the rest becoming an exclusively Arab area. The two main Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, had convinced the Zionist Congress to approve equivocally the Peel recommendations as a basis for more negotiation. > The plan was rejected outright by the Palestinian Arab leadership and they renewed the revolt, which caused the British to appease the Arabs, and to abandon the plan as unworkable.
Testifying before the Peel Commission, Weizmann said “There are in Europe 6,000,000 people … for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter.” In 1938, the US called an international conference to address the question of the vast numbers of Jews trying to escape Europe. Britain made its attendance contingent on Palestine being kept out of the discussion. No Jewish representatives were invited. The Nazis proposed their own solution: That the Jews of Europe be shipped to Madagascar (the Madagascar Plan).
Another British commission, the Woodhead Commission, reported on late 1938 that “it was impossible, whatever boundaries we might recommend, to set up an Arab State which should be self-supporting”. It proposed “a modification of partition which, …seems, subject to certain reservations, to form a satisfactory basis of settlement”, if the U.K was prepared to provide a “sufficient assistance to enable the Arab State to balance its budget”. It recommended setting up smaller Arab and Jewish zones. but this plan was rejected by both Arabs and Jews. Twenty years later, the Jewish Agency leader, David Ben-Gurion, wrote: “Had partition [referring to the Peel Commission partition plan] been carried out, the history of our people would have been different and six million Jews in Europe would not have been killed—most of them would be in Israel.”
With millions of Jews trying to leave Europe and every country in the world closed to Jewish migration, the British decided to close Palestine. The White Paper of 1939, recommended that an independent Palestine, governed jointly by Arabs and Jews, be established within 10 years. The White Paper agreed to allow 75,000 Jewish immigrants into Palestine over the period 1940–44, after which migration would require Arab approval. Both the Arab and Jewish leadership rejected the White Paper. In March 1940 the British High Commissioner for Palestine issued an edict banning Jews from purchasing land in 95% of Palestine. Jews now resorted to illegal immigration: (Aliyah Bet or “Ha’apalah”), often organized by the Mossad Le’aliyah Bet and the Irgun. Very few Jews managed to escape Europe between 1939 and 1945. Those caught by the British were mostly sent to Mauritius.
World War II and the Holocaust
During the 2nd World War, the Jewish Agency worked to establish a Jewish army that would fight alongside the British forces. Churchill supported the plan but British Military and government opposition led to its rejection. The British demanded that the number of Jewish recruits match the number of Palestinian Arab recruits, but few Arabs would fight for Britain, and the Palestinian leader, the Mufti of Jerusalem, joined the Nazis in Europe.
In May 1941, the Palmach was established to defend the Yishuv against the planned Axis invasion through North Africa. The British refusal to provide arms to the Jews, even when Rommel’s forces were advancing through Egypt in June 1942 (intent on occupying Palestine) and the 1939 White Paper, led to the emergence of a Zionist leadership in Palestine that believed conflict with Britain was inevitable. Despite this, the Jewish Agency called on Palestine’s Jewish youth to volunteer for the British Army (both men and women). 30,000 Palestinian Jews. and 6,000 Palestinian Arabs enlisted in the British armed forces during the war. In June 1944 the British agreed to create a Jewish Brigade that would fight in Italy.
Approximately 1.5 million Jews around the world served in every branch of the allied armies, mainly in the Soviet and U.S. armies. 200,000 Jews died serving in the Soviet army alone. Many of these war veterans later volunteered to fight for Israel or were active in its support.
A small group (about 200 activists), dedicated to resisting the British administration in Palestine, broke away from the Etzel (which advocated support for Britain during the war) and formed the “Lehi” (Stern Gang), led by Avraham Stern. In 1943, the USSR released the Revisionist Zionist leader Menachem Begin from the Gulag and he went to Palestine, taking command of the Etzel organization with a policy of increased conflict against the British. At about the same time Yitzhak Shamir escaped from the camp in Eritrea where the British were holding Lehi activists without trial, taking command of the Lehi (Stern Gang).
Jews in the Middle East were also affected by the war. Most of North Africa came under Nazi control and many Jews were used as slaves. The 1941 pro-Axis coup in Iraq was accompanied by massacres of Jews. The Jewish Agency put together plans for a last stand in the event of Rommel invading Palestine (the Nazis planned to exterminate Palestine’s Jews).
Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazis, aided by local forces, led systematic efforts to kill every person of Jewish extraction in Europe (The Holocaust), causing the deaths of approximately 6 million Jews. A quarter of those killed were children. The Polish and German Jewish communities, which played an important role in defining the pre-1945 Jewish world, mostly ceased to exist. In the United States and Palestine, Jews of European origin became disconnected from their families and roots. Sepharadi and Mizrahi Jews, who had been a minority, became a much more significant factor in the Jewish world. Those Jews who survived in central Europe, were displaced persons (refugees); an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, established to examine the Palestine issue, surveyed their ambitions and found that over 95% wanted to migrate to Palestine.
In the Zionist movement the moderate Pro-British (and British citizen) Weizmann, whose son died flying in the RAF, was undermined by Britain’s anti-Zionist policies. Leadership of the movement passed to the Jewish Agency in Palestine, now led by the anti-British Socialist-Zionist party (Mapai) and led by David Ben-Gurion. In the diaspora, U.S. Jews now dominated the Zionist movement.
Illegal Jewish immigration and insurgency
he British Empire was severely weakened by the war. In the Middle East, the war had made Britain conscious of its dependence on Arab oil. British firms controlled Iraqi oil and Britain ruled Kuwait, Bahrain and the Emirates. Shortly after VE Day, the Labour Party won the general election in Britain. Although Labour Party conferences had for years called for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, the Labour government now decided to maintain the 1939 White Paper policies.
Illegal migration (Aliyah Bet) became the main form of Jewish entry into Palestine. Across Europe Bricha (“flight”), an organization of former partisans and ghetto fighters, smuggled Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe to Mediterranean ports, where small boats tried to breach the British blockade of Palestine. Meanwhile, Jews from Arab countries began moving into Palestine overland. Despite British efforts to curb immigration, during the 14 years of the Aliyah Bet, over 110,000 Jews entered Palestine.
In an effort to win independence, Zionists now waged a guerrilla war against the British. The main underground Jewish militia, the Haganah, formed an alliance called the Jewish Resistance Movement with the Etzel and Stern Gang to fight the British. In June 1946, following instances of Jewish sabotage, the British launched Operation Agatha, arresting 2700 Jews, including the leadership of the Jewish Agency, whose headquarters were raided. Those arrested were held without trial.
In Poland, the Kielce Pogrom (July 1946) led to a wave of Holocaust survivors fleeing Europe for Palestine. Between 1945 and 1948, 100,000–120,000 Jews left Poland. Their departure was largely organized by Zionist activists in Poland under the umbrella of the semi-clandestine organization Berihah (“Flight”). Berihah was also responsible for the organized emigration of Jews from Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, totaling 250,000 (including Poland) Holocaust survivors. The British imprisoned the Jews trying to enter Palestine in the Atlit detainee camp and Cyprus internment camps. Those held were mainly Holocaust survivors, including large numbers of children and orphans. In response to Cypriot fears that the Jews would never leave (since they lacked a state or documentation) and because the 75,000 quota established by the 1939 White Paper had never been filled, the British allowed the refugees to enter Palestine at a rate of 750 per month.
The unified Jewish resistance movement broke up in July 1946, after Etzel bombed the British Military Headquarters in the King David Hotel killing 92 people. In the days following the bombing, Tel Aviv was placed under curfew and over 120,000 Jews, nearly 20% of the Jewish population of Palestine, were questioned by the police. In the U.S., Congress criticized British handling of the situation and delayed loans that were vital to British post-war recovery. By 1947 the Labour Government was ready to refer the Palestine problem to the newly created United Nations.
United Nations Partition Plan
On 2 April 1947, the United Kingdom requested that the question of Palestine be handled by the General Assembly. The General Assembly created a committee, United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), to report on “the question of Palestine”. In July 1947 the UNSCOP visited Palestine and met with Jewish and Zionist delegations. The Arab Higher Committee boycotted the meetings. During the visit the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin ordered an illegal immigrant ship, the Exodus 1947, to be sent back to Europe. The migrants on the ship were forcibly removed by British troops at Hamburg.
The principal non-Zionist Orthodox Jewish (or Haredi) party, Agudat Israel, recommended to UNSCOP that a Jewish state be set up after reaching a religious status quo agreement with Ben-Gurion regarding the future Jewish state. The agreement would grant exemption to a quota of yeshiva (religious seminary) students and to all orthodox women from military service, would make the Sabbath the national weekend, promised Kosher food in government institutions and would allow them to maintain a separate education system.
The majority report of UNSCOP proposed “an independent Arab State, an independent Jewish State, and the City of Jerusalem” …, the last to be under “an International Trusteeship System”. On November 29, 1947, in Resolution 181 (II), the General Assembly adopted the majority report of UNSCOP, but with slight modifications.The Plan also called for the British to allow “substantial” Jewish migration by 1 February 1948.
Neither Britain nor the UN Security Council took any action to implement the resolution and Britain continued detaining Jews attempting to enter Palestine. Concerned that partition would severely damage Anglo-Arab relations, Britain denied UN representatives access to Palestine during the period between the adoption of Resolution 181 (II) and the termination of the British Mandate. The British withdrawal was finally completed in May 1948. However, Britain continued to hold Jews of “fighting age” and their families on Cyprus until March 1949.
The General Assembly’s vote caused joy in the Jewish community and discontent among the Arab community. Violence broke out between the sides. From January 1948, operations became increasingly militarized, with the intervention of a number of Arab Liberation Army regiments inside Palestine, each active in a variety of distinct sectors around the different coastal towns. They consolidated their presence in Galilee and Samaria. Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni came from Egypt with several hundred men of the Army of the Holy War. Having recruited a few thousand volunteers, he organized the blockade of the 100,000 Jewish residents of Jerusalem. The Yishuv tried to supply the city using convoys of up to 100 armoured vehicles, but largely failed. By March, almost all Haganah’s armoured vehicles had been destroyed, the blockade was in full operation, and hundreds of Haganah members who had tried to bring supplies into the city were killed.
Up to 100,000 Arabs, from the urban upper and middle classes in Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem, or Jewish-dominated areas, evacuated abroad or to Arab centres eastwards. This situation caused the US to withdraw their support for the Partition plan, thus encouraging the Arab League to believe that the Palestinian Arabs, reinforced by the Arab Liberation Army, could put an end to the plan for partition. The British, on the other hand, decided on February 7, 1948, to support the annexation of the Arab part of Palestine by Transjordan.
David Ben-Gurion reorganized Haganah and made conscription obligatory. Every Jewish man and woman in the country had to receive military training. Thanks to funds raised by Golda Meir from sympathisers in the United States, and Stalin’s decision to support the Zionist cause, the Jewish representatives of Palestine were able to purchase important arms in Eastern Europe.
Ben-Gurion gave Yigael Yadin the responsibility to plan for the announced intervention of the Arab states. The result of his analysis was Plan Dalet, in which Haganah passed from the defensive to the offensive. The plan sought to establish Jewish territorial continuity by conquering mixed zones. Tiberias, Haifa, Safed, Beisan, Jaffa and Acre fell, resulting in the flight of more than 250,000 Palestinian Arabs. The situation pushed the leaders of the neighbouring Arab states to intervene.
On May 14, 1948, on the day the last British forces left from Haifa, the Jewish People’s Council gathered at the Tel Aviv Museum and proclaimed the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.