A Jew who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.– David ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of the State of Israel
Since the day God called Abram to leave his father’s household and go to a land He would show him, promising this land to him and his descendants as an everlasting possession, the Children of Israel have been a Chosen People inseparably tied to a Chosen Land. Sadly, however, for most of the history of Israel, the Chosen People have been forced to live outside this land.
Abram’s descendants were driven off the land and south into Egypt by a great famine. At first they prospered there, but as generations passed they came to be viewed as a threat and were enslaved. After God delivered them from bondage and, through Moses, led them in an exodus from Egypt, they wandered in the desert for 40 years. Eventually Joshua led them across the Jordan River into Canaan, the Promised Land. This was about 1400 B.C.
After conquering the land of Canaan, the Israelites lived under the rule of various judges before giving the people what they wanted – a king to rule over them. Following the reign of King Saul, King David and King Solomon, the kingdom was divided by internal strife and sin. The Northern Kingdom, made up of ten of Israel’s tribes, became known as the Kingdom of Israel. The Southern Kingdom —the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin (and some from Levi, the priestly tribe) became known as the Kingdom of Judah. The Southern Kingdom included Jerusalem and many people from the Northern Kingdom of Israel immigrated there.
In 722 B.C., the invading Assyrians overran the Northern Kingdom. Its population was captured and dispersed throughout the Assyrian Empire. Many of them were returned to their land. This is the origin of the great mystery of the “Lost Tribes of Israel.”
In 586 B.C., the Babylonians defeated the Southern Kingdom of Judah and took much of its population into captivity in Babylon. Just as God had promised, after 70 years the people miraculously returned to Jerusalem. Solomon’s magnificent temple had been destroyed when the Holy City was captured. Those who returned built a new temple, known as the Second Temple.
For the next five centuries, until Messiah’s birth, the Jewish People lived in their land under the control of the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Only briefly during the Maccabean Revolt of the second century B.C. did the Jews enjoy self-determination. Soon afterward, the Romans conquered the land and subjugated the people.
Rome’s rule was marked by a series of increasingly violent revolts and uprisings. The Jewish People particularly despised having their religion controlled by the Romans, who selected rotating high priests in defiance of the Law given by Moses. Roman legions under Titus destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D., a direct fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that “not one stone shall be left here upon another that shall not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). The final Jewish uprising was the Bar Kochba Revolt in 132-136 A.D. After six Roman legions crushed the rebellion, the Jews were dispersed throughout the empire and forbidden from entering Jerusalem.
For almost 1,900 years, the Jews wandered the earth, a people without a homeland. Grave persecutions followed the Jews wherever they went. They were blamed for causing plagues, falsely accused of using the blood of Christian babies to celebrate Passover, and were called “Christ-killers.” Waves of persecution during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and numerous pogroms killed untold thousands. Yet throughout, the Jewish People never lost hope that one day they would return to the Promised Land.
In the late 1800’s, thousands of Jews began immigrating to Israel, which was then under control of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. This first wave of immigrants came from Eastern Europe and settled in the land as farmers. This became know as the First Aliyah (return of the Jews to their homeland), and these early settlers struggled for survival in a hostile environment. Much of the funding for Jews to return to Israel and purchase land came from the wealthy Rothschild banking family. The family’s donations provided the means necessary to establish the beginnings of the modern nation of Israel.
The birth of Zionism
Theodore Herzl wrote a book in 1896 called The Jewish State. Herzl was a journalist who covered a famous trial that came to be known as the Dreyfus Affair. Herzl was so troubled by the implications of an anti-Semitic pattern of false accusation and blame-shifting onto all Jews by the court system that he ultimately devoted his life to the creation of a Jewish homeland. In 1897, Herzl organized the World Zionist Organization, which held its first international conference in Switzerland. He stated after the conference: “At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I were to say this today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50, everyone will see it.” Herzl’s words came to pass after nearly fifty years to the day.
Another milestone in the founding of the modern State of Israel was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in which the British cabinet expressed its support for the creation of a modern nation of Israel. Although this important document committed the British government to use its best efforts to this end, the First World War was raging, and Britain’s main focus was winning the war in Europe and the matter of Israel was set aside. However, just one month after the Balfour Declaration, British forces captured Jerusalem from the Turks.
Anticipating the downfall of the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of the First World War, the British and French agreed on a plan to divide the Middle East after the war. The Sykes-Picot Agreement split the former lands of the Ottoman Turkish Empire into different zones of control and influence for England and France. As part of that agreement, the Holy Land was to be placed under British control. The revelation of the secret treaty sparked a firestorm of protest in the Middle East. European diplomats and military officials had been making conflicting and contradictory promises to both Arabs and Jews. When the treaty was published, it unmasked the plans of the European powers to maintain control over the region rather than granting freedom to the peoples being liberated from Turkish control. The British did take control of the Holy Land, ruling it as a Mandate, but their commitment to create a Jewish homeland was not well received by the Arabs of the region.
To clarify their policy, the British government issued a series of White Papers, interpreting the Balfour Declaration and laying out plans to implement it. The 1922 White Paper set a quota for Jewish immigration and reduced the area of the Mandate by returning a large portion of it to Arab control. The 1930 White Paper went even further in restricting the number of Jews allowed to return. The final major White Paper, issued in 1939, rejected the idea of the area called “Palestine” as either a Jewish or Arab state and called for an independent state instead. It also imposed serious restrictions on land acquisition by Jews. The dream of a homeland was still alive, but it seemed no closer to becoming reality.
The Holocaust and the Rebirth of Israel
Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party, the Nazis, had attempted to overthrow the German government in the 1920s. While Hitler was serving a jail sentence for his part in the failed coup attempt, he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle) which laid out his plan to free Germany from “the Jewish peril.” Hitler was a strong believer in the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That book, published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be the minutes of secret meetings of Jews plotting to take over the world. Though quickly revealed as a thinly disguised forgery, the book was widely accepted by those who hated the Jews and spread quickly in a climate of growing anti-Semitism throughout Europe.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler took power in Germany. While Hitler worked to rebuild Germany’s tattered economy, he also instituted a systematic program of discrimination and isolation against the Jews. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of their citizenship. In 1938, Kristallnacht—the night of broken glass—unleashed unbridled nationwide violence and terror against the Jews. Kristallnacht is considered the beginning of the Holocaust.
Squads of storm troopers roamed the streets, looting and destroying thousands of Jewish-owned shops, homes, and synagogues. Dozens of Jews were killed, and thousands more rounded up and placed in concentration camps. It was a chilling preview of what was to come. After World War II started and the Nazis spread their control across Europe, Hitler’s attention turned to a “Final Solution” for the “Jewish problem”—the term Hitler used to describe his attitude toward the Jews. Mass extermination camps were built at places like Auschwitz, where Jews were shot, beaten to death, and gassed. By the time the Allied Forces liberated the death camps in 1945, some six million Jews and six million other “undesirables” had been murdered.
The British had to deal with growing pressure from the Arab nations to halt the inflow of Jewish refugees into Israel after the war. Britain established internment camps on the island of Cyprus for Jews who attempted to immigrate to Israel in violation of its policy. The camps operated from August 1946 to January 1949, holding over 50,000 persons. Many who survived the Holocaust ended up dying in these camps. In July of 1947, the British navy intercepted the refugee ship Exodus bound for Israel with more than 4,500 Jews on board in international waters. British sailors forcibly boarded the ship, killing two passengers and one crewmember and forced everyone on board to return to Europe.
Caught between growing pressure from the Arabs and constant attacks on their police and military from Jewish resistance groups such as the Haganah, Irgun, Lehi, and Palmah, the British grew weary trying to keep order in the Holy Land. Finally, they turned to the United Nations in hopes of a solution. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted on a partition plan known as UN Resolution 181. This plan, adopted by a vote of 33-13, divided what was then known as “Mandate Palestine” into two states, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs. The Jewish state was to receive 56% of the total land area, though it excluded Jerusalem, which was to be administered by the UN. The plan, accepted by most of the Jewish population but rejected by the Arabs, was set to take effect in October 1948. Before that happened, however, Great Britain announced it would unilaterally withdraw all troops and officially end the British Mandate on May 14, 1948.
Despite that announcement and their intention to leave, the British refused to hand over any authority or territory to Jewish control ahead of their departure. As a result, the fledgling Israeli government, under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, was forced to make preparations for the war they knew would follow the British departure. With only a tiny, untrained army and very limited resources, the vastly outnumbered Jewish population turned to supporters in America and other countries to raise the funds needed to purchase arms and military supplies. These contraband items then had to be smuggled into the country. On May 14, 1948, the history of Israel began a new chapter. Standing in front of a portrait of Theodore Herzl, Ben-Gurion read Israel’s Declaration of Independence that had been approved by the People’s Council. The ceremony was broadcast live to the nation on Voice of Israel radio. After all the members present had signed the document, Ben-Gurion declared, “The State of Israel is established!”
This new chapter has been marked by tension, war, terrorism, and many failed attempts at diplomacy. Even so, more than 6 million Jews, most of whom have made aliyah (return of the Jews to their homeland) from around the world, now call Israel home.