The 3,500 Year Connection

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The Jewish people have had a deep connection with the land of Israel for more than 3000 years, and a continuous physical presence. A Jewish state has existed there during three separate historical periods. Those who challenge the legitimacy of modern Israel disregard Jewish history, ideals and values, and create an obstacle to peace and coexistence.

The promised land and Jewish nationhood

        The land of Israel was promised to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, over 3700 years ago.

        The Jewish slave nation which left Egypt 3300 years ago, under the leadership of Moses, embarked on a journey of national liberation.  Their goal was to establish national life in the land of Israel and fulfil the biblical covenant.

        The first Jewish "state" was established in Israel during the period of the kings and the prophets, and lasted for around 600 years - from 1175 BCE to 586 BCE.  Its leaders included King David and King Solomon, and the prophets Samuel, Deborah and Isaiah.

        Ever since that time, the Jewish people have had a continuous and unbroken physical presence in the land of Israel

Destruction by the Babylonians and Romans

        The Jews never voluntarily abandoned Israel. But twice the nation was shattered by conquering empires.

        The first Jewish kingdom was eradicated by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and those Jews who survived were taken as prisoners into exile in Babylon.

        Within two generations, Jews had started to return.  They rebuilt Jewish life, and constructed a second temple in Jerusalem.  This revived period of independent national life in the state of Judaea lasted for around 400 years, under the leadership of such figures as Ezra, Simon the Just, Judah the Maccabee, and the Rabbi Hillel.

        This second period of nationhood was also ended by merciless invasion - this time by the Romans, who destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, killed vast numbers of Jews with extreme cruelty, and dispersed the remainder to various countries of exile.

        The second Jewish exile lasted for over 1800 years.

        While Jews did enjoy periods of relative stability in some of the countries to which they were dispersed, their overall experience was one of intense persecution and anti-semitism.

        The establishment of the modern State of Israel has marked the end of this era of dispersion and exile.

Survival in Exile - with a vision of a rebuilt Israel

        Despite the devastation of the second Jewish state, and the centuries of exile which followed, the Jews never lost their connection with the land or their faith that they would eventually return.

        In their effort to erase the Jews' bond with the land, the Romans changed the name of the country from Judaea to Palaestina. 

        Small numbers of Jews continued to live in scattered locations in Palaestina, such as Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed.  But it was not only this physical presence which maintained the Jewish connection, but also Jewish religious practice.

        When a Jewish person prays, he or she must face in the direction of Jerusalem.  The  daily prayers include the following pleas for Divine assistance:

"Behold our affliction, take up our grievance, and redeem us, speedily for Your Name's sake, for You are a powerful Redeemer May You shine a new light on Zion, and may we speedily merit its light  Gather us together from the four corners of the earth"

        Jews frequently made the hazardous journey from abroad to settle in the land, including the great rabbinical leaders Nachmanides (13th century, from Spain) and Ovadia Bertinoro (15th century, from Italy).

        Israel was seen, even during the bleakest periods of Jewish persecution, as the place in which Jews would eventually gather to re-establish the country and in due course herald a messianic age of universal peace and universal values.    

The Modern Return to Zion

        In the 18th century, increasing numbers of Jews began to return to the land, mainly religious Jews. By 1844 a majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish.

        Anti-semitism and modern nationalism in Europe each accelerated this return.  The influx of Jews (religious and non-religious)  peaked during the 1890s, early 1900s and in the 1930s, and then in 1945-8 following the Nazi Holocaust.

        In the 19th century, the vision of the return to Zion broadened out to embrace various non-traditional strands of Jewish thinking.

        Socialist Jews saw a revived Jewish nation as the way to end Jewish persecution, to enable Jews to be economically productive in an equal society, and to contribute to the betterment of humanity. The Israeli kibbutz is a unique social experiment which resulted from this vision.

        Assimilated Jews, guided by Theodore Herzl, viewed the prospect of the return to Zion as a cure for anti-semitism and as a way for the Jewish people to become a "normal" nation like any other.

        Politically right-wing Jews, whose guiding influence was Ze'ev Jabotinsky, viewed the return to Israel as a way to restore Jewish dignity, and to enable the Jewish people to defend themselves.

        Religious Jews, meanwhile, saw the return to Zion as the way to fulfil the ancient Biblical vision, and restore Jewish nationhood as it had existed at the time of the Jewish temples in Jerusalem.

        Each of these groups had passionate followers, dissenters and critics.  Together they expressed, in their varied ways, different Jewish visions for Israel.  They together comprise the modern Zionist movement.

        The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, led by David Ben-Gurion, marked the culmination of this movement. 

        The connection between the Jewish people and the land - fragile for nearly 2000 years - had been restored.  And in the 54 years since the declaration of independence in 1948, Israel has sought to have that connection recognised as legitimate by the Palestinian people and by the Arab world, and to achieve a secure and just peace with them.

Challenges of the Jewish people in Israel

    The Jewish people in Israel face massive challenges:

        nation-building:  to maintain a young country in a way which combines loyalty to the values of Judaism with the running of a modern state;

        in-gathering of the Jews:  to attract Jews from around the world to live in the country and contribute to its growth; while not negating the significance of Diaspora Jewry

        reaching peace and coexistence:  to achieve peace and coexistence with the Arab world and the Palestinian people.  The unending violence is a tragedy for the Jewish people who struggled for so long to regain national independence and freedom from fear; and

        participation in the family of nations:  to perform a positive role among the family of nations of the world, contributing humanitarian principles and Israel's technological expertise for the benefit of the wider world.  The Biblical tradition envisages a Jewish nation living in accordance with the values of social justice and peace, while relating in mutual respect with the non-Jewish peoples of the world.

Negating Jewish history

        There is a tendency, not only in the Arab world, but among many western critics of Israel, to characterise Israel as an artificial, 20th century phenomenon.

        It is depicted as the creation of "corrupt" external forces: either as a mistake resulting from British colonial incompetence, or as an entity which was created by the European powers after World War II in order to soothe their collective guilt over the Nazi extermination of the Jews. 

        These versions of history suggest that the Jewish presence in Israel has been unjustly "imposed" on the Palestinian "victims" by cynical Western forces, and usually continue by claiming that the external "occupation" is now being perpetuated by the United States.

        This narrative is a travesty. It negates the course of Jewish history, and the moral basis for Jewish national existence. 

        The right of the Jews to live permanently as a nation in peace and security in Israel has overwhelming historical, political and moral legitimacy.

Reconciling Different Rights

        There are, of course, fundamental issues to consider arising from the basic Jewish right to a national homeland:-

        How much of the territory is necessary to fulfil Jewish national goals?

        What historical connection and claim to the land do the Palestinians have?

        What are the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians today?

        How can the legitimate rights of the Israelis and Palestinians be reconciled, so that neither is pursued at the expense of the other?

        Each of these topics will be dealt with in other Beyond Images Briefings.

Conclusion - Towards Acceptance and Coexistence  

        The refusal of the Arab and Palestinian world as a whole to recognise the legitimacy of Israel lies at the heart of the conflict. 

        If that acceptance were forthcoming, in actions and not simply in words, then the basis would be created for peaceful coexistence.