History of Israel – 1200 BCE to 1948

The history of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel spans over 3,000 years. It is a well-documented story, with many supporting archaeological documents and findings. It is a story of a conquest and the first monotheistic religion, exile and the yearning to return to the land where the Jewish history started. (As an alternative to reading, you can watch this high-speed, animated video.)

~1200 BCE to ~150 CE

Going back 3,000 years,

~1200 BCE to ~150 CE in roughly the area where Israel is today, the kingdom of Israel (Judah) was ruled by a Jewish king.

70 CE

The Romans destroyed Jerusalem, annexed Judea as a Roman province. 

132 CE

Bar Kokhba led a rebellion for 4 years which was suppressed with large numbers of Jewish captives sold into slavery and Jews were exiled into a wide diaspora. 

135 CE

After stamping out the province of Judea’s second insurrection, the Romans renamed the province Syria Palaestina—that is, “Palestinian Syria.” They did so resentfully, as a punishment, to obliterate the link between the Jews and the province. 

Large Jewish communities formed then in places like Iraq and Yemen, and north Africa, central and eastern Europe and in Spain and Portugal.

Over the centuries, Israel has consistently held a central place in Jewish culture and traditional identity, serving as the focal point to which Jews in the diaspora fervently prayed to return (“next year in Jerusalem”). There was always  a presence of small communities in Israel, and there have been ongoing efforts by Jews to reconnect with the land.
Historians note that immigrating to the Land of Israel was not just a sporadic event but rather an exceedingly common and almost regular occurrence in the life of the Jewish community.

7th to 16th centuries – Arab Caliphates and the Crusaders

7th to 12th centuries

Arab Caliphates: From the mid-seventh century, Muslim Arab armies from Saudi Arabia began to travel north into Central Asia and west across Africa, invading the countries they passed. The Islamic conquest brought Arab-Muslim rule to the region. The population grew as a result of Arab immigration and conversions. Jewish communities kept a smaller presence in small towns and neighborhoods.

12th to 13th centuries

Crusader period. During the Crusades, the population of the region was influenced by the presence of European Crusaders, who established their kingdoms there.

15th century 

Starting from the second quarter of the 15th century, the Mare Clausum (closed sea) policy was implemented. In essence, it was a papal decree prohibiting the passage of Jews, and the goods of Jewish merchants, from Europe to the Land of Israel.

At the end of this century, Jerusalem faced a difficult security situation. The city had no walls, leading to vulnerability to plundering bandits. In addition, the Jewish residents of the city also faced economic challenges and debts. Due to the dire situation, many Jews fled from Jerusalem. 

16th to early 20th centuries – The Ottoman Empire

In the Ottoman Empire, the population of Palestine included a mix of Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Jews, and others. 

The occupation of the Land of Israel and Syria in the year 1517 by Selim I, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, led to an increase in immigration to the Land of Israel. There was also a growth in the arrival of Christians and Muslims to the city. In fact, throughout the 16th century, the Jewish population in Jerusalem doubled, while the Muslim population in the city grew fourfold.

The 16th-century saw a resurgence of Jewish life in the land of Israel. “Palestinian” rabbis were instrumental in producing a universally accepted manual of Jewish law and some of the most beautiful liturgical poems. Much of this activity occurred at Safed, which had become a spiritual center.

During the waves of immigration from the early 17th century, thousands of immigrants arrived, significantly contributing to the growth and development of the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. These immigrants played a pivotal role in establishing and fortifying the delicate existence of the Jewish population, ushering in new initiatives.

Some examples: In the year 1700, a group of immigrants led by Rabbi Yehuda Hasid arrived in the Land. From 1740 to 1760, a notable influx of Hasidim, including relatives, friends, and disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, immigrated to the Land of Israel, further enriching the Jewish presence in the region.

The second half of the 17th century saw a steep decline in the Jewish population of Palestine due to the unstable security situation, natural catastrophes, and abandonment of urban areas, which turned Palestine into a remote and desolate part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman central government became feeble and corrupt, and the Jewish community was harassed by local rulers, janissaries, guilds, Bedouins, and bandits. The Jewish community was also caught between feuding local chieftains who extorted and oppressed the Jews.

The 18th century saw the Jewish population slightly recover, in 1714, Dutch researcher Adriaan Reland published an account of his visit to Palestine, and noted the existence of significant Jewish population centers throughout the country, particularly Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias, and Gaza. 

19th century

For most years Israel was sparsely populated, poorly cultivated, and widely-neglected expanse of eroded hills, sandy deserts and malarial marshes as can be seen in multiple testimonies by Mark twain and others:

“….. A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.” (The Innocents Abroad)

During the Annual General Meeting of the PEF in 1875, the Earl of Shaftesbury said of Palestine, “We have there a land teeming with fertility and rich in history, but almost without an inhabitant….”

During the 19th century there was a significant Arab immigration to the area. This immigration of Arabs was part of broader population movements in the region. Arabs from neighboring areas, such as what is now Jordan, Syria, and other parts of the Ottoman Empire, migrated to the region.

The most reliable estimates of previous centuries reveal that in 1800 the total population of Palestine numbered 250,000 individuals, reaching 500,000 in 1890 after major immigration into the area.

During the Peasants’ Revolt under Muhammad Ali of Egypt’s occupation, Jews were targeted in the 1834 looting of Safed and the 1834 Hebron massacre. 

By 1844, Jews had become the largest population group in Jerusalem, but as a whole the Jewish population made up less than 10% of the region.

Late 19th Century

The Zionist movement begins, advocating for a homeland for the Jewish people due to Jews experiencing appalling discrimination, persecution and brutal pogroms and murderous attacks, especially in Eastern Europe.

Simultaneously, Arab migration and population growth were occurring in the region.

1900

The Ottoman immigration policy (remained in effect unti World War I), prohibits Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.

1917

The Balfour Declaration was issued by the British government during World War I, expressing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

During World War I, many Jews were expelled from Palestine by the Ottoman authorities as enemy nationals. In 1917, the Ottoman authorities carried out the Tel Aviv and Jaffa deportation, expelling the entire Jewish civilian populations of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Many deportees subsequently died from hunger and disease.

1917-1948 – The British Mandate

Post-World War I

Following World War I, the British gained control of Palestine as part of the League of Nations mandate system.

1919 Faisal-Weizmann Agreement 

The Hashemites (House of Hashim), are the royal family of many Arab countries: Jordan, (which they have ruled since 1921), Hejaz (most of western Saudi Arabia), Syria, and Iraq (1921–1958) are looking to form an Arabic kingdom including Syria, Iraq and parts of Palestine, they agreed with the UK that such a kingdom will be built in Syria (Great Syria). 

Emir Faisal proclaimed King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria (brother of the Emir Abdullah of Trans-Jordan, and the son of Sharif Hussain the king of Iraq) and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the President of the Zionist Organization, signed the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement, which conditionally accepted the Balfour Declaration. Faisal’s acceptance of this declaration was based on the expectation that Arab states would gain autonomy from European powers. 

“Arabs are not jealous of Zionist Jews and intend to give them fair play, and the Zionist Jews have assured the nationalist Arabs of their intention to see that they too have fair play in their respective areas” (London Times, December 12,1918). 

In a letter to Felix Frankfurter (March 3, 1919), Faisal wrote: “We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist Movement. Our delegation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organization to the Peace Conference and we regard them as moderate and proper.” 

The UK betrayed the Hashemites, and gave Syria to the French. As a result the Franco-Syria war starts.

By July 1920 the French defeated the Arabs and had forced Faiṣal to give up his newly founded kingdom of Syria. The hope of founding an Arab Palestine within a federated Syrian state collapsed and with it any prospect of independence. Palestinian Arabs spoke of 1920 as ʿām al-nakbah, the “year of catastrophe.”

With the Arabs’ defeat in the war in Syria and the collapse of the Arab Syrian Kingdom, many Arab nationalists left Damascus (Syria), among them Amin al-Husseini. They came to Jerusalem and began to focus on local nationalist struggles. In the 1920s, tensions between the Jewish and Arab populations escalated significantly. In May 1921, Arab riots, known as the Jaffa Riots, broke out against the Jewish population in the Land of Israel. Thousands of Jewish residents of Jaffa fled for Tel Aviv and were temporarily housed in tent camps on the beach. 

In the aftermath of these riots, the Haganah, the primary Jewish defense organization, was established as the central military force of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel.

Between 1919 and 1926

Nearly 90,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in the Land of Israel. Jewish settlement organizations played a pivotal role in absorbing these immigrants, raising funds to purchase land across the Land of Israel for this purpose. Many Jewish pioneers sacrificed the comfort of towns and cities to establish new villages and agricultural development in those unpopulated newly-acquired lands. 

They arrived in a desolate, sparsely populated region and drained the swamps, irrigated the desert, grew crops and built cities. They worked unclaimed land or purchased it from the owners.
In some instances, substantial land acquisitions were made from landowners living abroad, displacing Arab tenants who rented the land, though compensation was often provided, it contributed to the tension growing between the Arabs and Jews.

Arabs (local and in other countries), especially after the British betrayal and the French taking over Syria, resisted the increasing Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel because they viewed it as a direct threat to their identity and their connection to the Arab space. Consequently, throughout the early 20th century, relations between the Jewish and Arab populations deteriorated, leading to increased hostilities between the two groups.
Opposition to Jewish immigration spurred the consolidation of a unified Palestinian national identity (which at no point in history was an Arab independent nation). The Arabs demanded: halting Jewish immigration, prohibiting land sales to Jews, and establishing an Arab state in the land of Israel. 

1920s-1930s

Tensions rose between Arab and Jewish communities. The British, tasked with balancing the interests of both groups, find themselves in the midst of growing conflict.

Under pressure from the rising Arab nationalist movement and in a hope to end the violence, the British enforced the White Papers, a series of laws greatly restricting Jewish immigration and the sale of lands to Jews. The laws, passed in 1922, 1930, and 1939, varied in severity, but all attempted to find a balance between British sympathies with the Jews and the Arabs.

1922

Creation of Transjordan: The British Mandate letter of 1922 separated the eastern part of the Land of Israel beyond the Jordan and entrusted its governance to the Hashemite family, Abdullah, the Emir of Transjordan, who later became the first King of Jordan. Later partition plans intended that the Arab area both west and east of Jordan river (west bank and the east bank) to be joined to Transjordan.

1929

Hebron Massacre: On 24 August 1929 in Hebron, Arab mobs attacked the Jewish quarter killing and raping men, women and children and looting Jewish property. They killed between 65 and 68 Jews and wounded 58, with some of the victims being tortured, or mutilated. Sir John Chancellor, the British High Commissioner visited Hebron and later wrote to his son, “The horror of it is beyond words. In one house I visited, not less than twenty-five Jews men and women, were murdered in cold blood.” Sir Walter Shaw concluded in The Palestine Disturbances report that “unspeakable atrocities have occurred in Hebron.

The Shaw report described the attack, “Arabs in Hebron made a most ferocious attack on the Jewish ghetto More than 60 Jews – including many women and children – were murdered and more than 50 were wounded. This savage attack, of which no condemnation could be too severe, was accompanied by wanton destruction and looting. Jewish synagogues were desecrated, a Jewish hospital, which had provided treatment for Arabs, was attacked and ransacked, and only the exceptional personal courage displayed by Mr. Cafferata – the one British Police Officer in the town – prevented the outbreak from developing into a general massacre of the Jews in Hebron.

(The Palestinians hold a memorial every year for the people who performed the massacre). 

1936-1939

There was an Arab Revolt against Jewish immigration and British rule. with Arab communities protesting Jewish immigration and British policies. The conflict escalates into violence, and the British are targeted by both Arab and Jewish militant groups.

The Arab Higher Committee called for “a complete and final prohibition” of Jewish immigration and a repudiation of the Jewish national home policy altogether.

By the time of the Second World War, the British had shifted their policy from support for Zionism to blocking Jewish immigration to Palestine. They did this to bolster support for their war effort, this time from Arab allies. In the face of Jewish people escaping the unfolding Holocaust in Europe, this caused growing resentment and conflict with Zionists who were trying to save European Jews by helping them get to Palestine.

1937

The Peel commission, officially known as the Palestine Royal Commission, was appointed by the British government in 1936 to investigate the causes of unrest in Mandatory Palestine and to make recommendations for future governance. In its report issued in 1937, they recommended the partition of Mandatory Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, along with an international administration for Jerusalem. The proposed partition plan allocated about one-third of the land to the proposed Jewish state. The Jewish leadership, represented by the Jewish Agency, accepted the partition. However, the Arab leadership, represented by the Arab Higher Committee, strongly rejected the proposal. The Arab leaders opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.

World War II and the Holocaust

1939-1945

The defining horror of the Second World War was the Holocaust in which 6 million European Jews were killed in horrific ways and which absolutely demonstrated to the world the extremity of the threat that Jews face and the requirement for a Jewish homeland which then drove large numbers of Jews to move to Palestine after the war.

The collaboration between Nazi Germany and the Arab world’s leadership, marked by cooperative political and military ties, was primarily rooted in a shared animosity toward common adversaries: the United Kingdom, France, and the Jews. 

A prominent figure in this alliance was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini, notable for his collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II. Al-Husseini engaged in radio broadcasts and speeches, vehemently advocating for the destruction of the Jewish community in the region and opposing any compromise with Jewish immigrants. His political strategies, disdain for Jews, and overall vision led to an extensive collaboration with the Nazis. The Mufti played a crucial role in pro-Nazi propaganda aimed at the Muslim world, actively encouraging the recruitment of Muslims into SS auxiliary troops, and attempting to obstruct activities aimed at rescuing Jews.

During a meeting with Adolf Hitler, Amin al-Husseini requested Nazi Germany’s opposition, as part of the Arab-Palestinian struggle for independence, to the establishment of a Jewish home in the Land of Israel. Specifically, al-Husseini sought a public announcement of Hitler’s intention to eliminate the Jews in Palestine, believing it would incite further violence against the Jewish population. He expressed that such a declaration would have a significant propagandist effect, awakening the Arabs from their momentary lethargy and boosting their morale for future actions. In response, Hitler affirmed that “Germany stood for the uncompromising war against the Jews.”

 During this meeting, al-Husseini received assurance from Hitler that Germany would obliterate the existing Jewish towns in the Land of Israel after a German victory in the war. During the course of World War II, the collaboration between Amin al-Husseini and Nazi Germany extended to a joint military operation known as Operation Atlas. 

In the meantime, during the war, the Jewish community volunteered to offer support to the aligned forces, as much as encouraging young jews to enlist in the British army. David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish leader of Jews in Israel at the time, famously proclaimed “We must help the English with the war as if there was no White Paper [restricting Jewish emigration, and sell of land to Jews], while we must stand against the White Paper as if there were no war.”

1945-1947

After World War II, British policies towards the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel led to growing disgrace and resistance. Jewish underground organizations united as the Hebrew Resistance Movement from 1945 to 1946, resisting British rule. Simultaneously, the Hebrew settlement organized illegal immigration operations, bringing about 70,000 immigrants to the Land of Israel, many detained by the British in Cyprus in detention camps, or sent back.

Eventually, the British government, unable to resolve the conflict diplomatically, returned the Palestine mandate to the United Nations.

Partition plans: From the start of the Arab Revolt in 1936 to the United Nations’ partition decision in November 1947, various efforts were made to find a solution that would be acceptable to the international community and reflect the realities in the Mandate territory. While the specific details varied, all of these plans proposed dividing the land into Jewish and Arab states based on demographic concentrations, with provisions for the rights of those who would not be part of their own nation state.

This approach was rooted in the recognition of two fundamental facts: First, that a significant number of Jews had settled in Palestine, with certain areas having a clear Jewish majority. Second, the belief was that the best chance for stability in the region was a two-state solution. From the perspective of both sides involved in the conflict, this approach represented both a significant accomplishment and a significant setback. The Jews succeeded in gaining international recognition of their right to a sovereign state, while the Arabs achieved their goal of preventing the new state from encompassing all the territory west of the Jordan River, as implied in the Balfour Declaration.

The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine was created. It published a report indicating that Arab Palestine would not be economically viable without customs redistribution from the Jewish state.  The committee was satisfied that the proposed Jewish State and the City of Jerusalem would be viable.

Resolution 181: The committee recommended and the United Nations General Assembly passes Resolution 181, recommending the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem as an international city. 

The Jewish state was supposed to be roughly 15,000 square kilometers and include an Arab minority. The Arab state was supposed to be approximately 11,000 square kilometers and include a Jewish minority. According to the partition plan, no state was to have contiguous territory. Additionally, Bethlehem was also supposed to be under the control of the United Nations. 

Neither side was entirely satisfied with the partition plan. The Jews were dissatisfied because, according to the plan, they would lose Jerusalem, which had a majority Jewish population at the time, and they were concerned about the ability to defend a non-contiguous state.

Nevertheless, the Jews accepted the plan.

Arab leaders and neighboring Arab states rejected the plan

After the Partition vote, The Arab League as a collective body expressed its strong opposition to the plan, rejected the idea of a Jewish state and vowed to oppose the plan with force if necessary. Arab leaders threatened the Jewish population of Palestine. For example, they spoke of “driving the Jews into the sea” or ridding Palestine “of the Zionist Plague

On the other hand, In numerous instances, Jewish leaders urged the Arabs to remain in Palestine and become citizens of Israel. The Assembly of Palestine Jewry issued this appeal on October 2, 1947:

We will do everything in our power to maintain peace, and establish a cooperation gainful to both [Jews and Arabs]. It is now, here and now, from Jerusalem itself, that a call must go out to the Arab nations to join forces with Jewry and the destined Jewish State and work shoulder to shoulder for our common good, for the peace and progress of sovereign equals.

On November 30, 1947, the day after the UN partition vote, the Jewish Agency announced: “The main theme behind the spontaneous celebrations we are witnessing today is our community’s desire to seek peace and its determination to achieve fruitful cooperation with the Arabs….”

A British police report from Haifa, dated April 26, 1948 explained that “every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives, to get their shops and businesses open and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe.” In fact, David Ben-Gurion had sent Golda Meir to Haifa to try to persuade the Arabs to stay, but she was unable to convince them because of their fear of being judged traitors to the Arab cause .By the end, more than 50,000 Palestinians had left.

May 14, 1948

On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. U.S. President Harry S. Truman recognized the new nation on the same day. Israel’s Proclamation of Independence invited the Palestinians to remain in their homes and become equal citizens in the new state:

In the midst of wanton aggression, we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its bodies and institutions.…We extend our hand in peace and neighborliness to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all.

King Farouk of Egypt was anxious to prevent Abdullah from being seen as the main champion of the Arab world in Palestine, which he feared might damage his own leadership aspirations of the Arab world. In addition, Farouk wished to annex all of southern Palestine to Egypt. Nuri as-Said, the strongman of Iraq, had ambitions for bringing the entire Fertile Crescent under Iraqi leadership. Both Syria and Lebanon wished to take certain areas of northern Palestine.

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