Israel Science and Technology Directory


A Brief History of Israel and the Jewish People

Written by: Israel Hanukoglu, Ph.D.

Quote from Charles Krauthammer - The Weekly Standard, May 11, 1998

"Israel is the very embodiment of Jewish continuity: It is the only nation on earth that inhabits the same land, bears the same name, speaks the same language, and worships the same God that it did 3,000 years ago. You dig the soil and you find pottery from Davidic times, coins from Bar Kokhba, and 2,000-year-old scrolls written in a script remarkably like the one that today advertises ice cream at the corner candy store."

The people of Israel (also called the "Jewish People") trace their origin to Abraham, who established the belief that there is only one God, the creator of the universe (see Torah). Abraham, his son Yitshak (Isaac), and grandson Jacob (Israel) are referred to as the patriarchs of the Israelites. All three patriarchs lived in the Land of Canaan, which later became known as the Land of Israel. They and their wives are buried in the Ma'arat HaMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron (Genesis Chapter 23).

The name Israel derives from the name given to Jacob (Genesis 32:29). His 12 sons were the kernels of 12 tribes that later developed into the Jewish nation. The name Jew derives from Yehuda (Judah), one of the 12 sons of Jacob (Reuben, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Yisachar, Zevulun, Yosef, Binyamin)(Exodus 1:1). So, the names Israel, Israeli or Jewish refer to people of the same origin.

The descendants of Abraham crystallized into a nation at about 1300 BCE after their Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses (Moshe in Hebrew). Soon after the Exodus, Moses transmitted to the people of this newly emerging nation the Torah and the Ten Commandments (Exodus Chapter 20). After 40 years in the Sinai desert, Moses led them to the Land of Israel, which is cited in The Bible as the land promised by G-d to the descendants of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis 17:8).

The people of modern-day Israel share the same language and culture shaped by the Jewish heritage and religion passed through generations starting with the founding father Abraham (ca. 1800 BCE). Thus, Jews have had a continuous presence in the land of Israel for the past 3,300 years.

Before his death, Moses appointed Joshua as his successor to lead the 12 tribes of Israel. The rule of Israelites in the land of Israel started with the conquests and settlement of 12 tribes under the leadership of Joshua (ca. 1250 BCE). The period from 1000-587 BCE is known as the "Period of the Kings". The most noteworthy kings were King David (1010-970 BCE), who made Jerusalem the Capital of Israel, and his son Solomon (Shlomo, 970-931 BCE), who built the first Temple in Jerusalem as prescribed in the Tanach (Old Testament).

In 587 BCE, Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar's army captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and exiled the Jews to Babylon (modern-day Iraq).

The year 587 BCE marks a turning point in the history of the Middle East. From this year onwards, the region was ruled or controlled by a succession of superpower empires of the time in the following order: Babylonian, Persian, Greek Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Empires, Islamic and Christian crusaders, Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire.

Foreign Empires that ruled in Israel
PeriodEmpireMajor Events
587 BCEBabylonianDestruction of the first Temple.
538-333 BCEPersianReturn of the exiled Jews from Babylon and construction of the second Temple (520-515 BCE).
333-63 BCEHellenisticConquest of the region by the army of Alexander the Great (333 BCE). The Greeks generally allowed the Jews to run their state. But, during the rule of King Antiochus IV, the Temple was desecrated by placing in it idols. The actions of the Greeks led to the initiation of a revolt by the Maccabean family. Their rebellion succeeded, and the Maccabean family established an independent rule. The events related to this victory against the Greek army are celebrated during the Hanukah holiday.
63 BCE-313 CERoman The Roman army led by Titus conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. Jews were then exiled and dispersed to the Diaspora. In 132, Bar Kokhba organized a revolt against Roman rule, but was killed in a battle in Bethar in Judean Hills. Subsequently, the Romans decimated the Jewish community, renamed Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina and Judea as Palaestina to obliterate Jewish identification with the Land of Israel (the word Palestine, and the Arabic word Filastin originate from this Latin name).

The remaining Jewish community moved to northern towns in the Galilee. Around 200 CE, the Sanhedrin was moved to Tsippori (Zippori, Sepphoris). The Head of Sanhedrin, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi (Judah the Prince), compiled the Jewish oral law, Mishna (see Guide to Jewish texts).
636-1099ArabDome of the Rock was built by Caliph Abd el-Malik on the grounds of the destroyed Jewish Temple.
1099-1291CrusadersThe crusaders came from Europe to capture the Holy Land following an appeal by Pope Urban II, and massacred the non-Christian population. Later, the Jewish community in Jerusalem expanded by immigration of Jews from Europe.
1516-1917OttomanDuring the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem were rebuilt. The population of the Jewish community in Jerusalem increased.
1917-1948BritishGreat Britain recognized the rights of the Jewish people to establish a "national home in Palestine". Yet, they severely curtailed entry of Jewish refugees into Israel even after World War II. They split the Palestine mandate into an Arab state, that has become Jordan, and Israel.

After the exile by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish people migrated to Europe and North Africa. In the Diaspora (scattered outside of the Land of Israel), they established rich cultural and economic lives and contributed significantly to the societies where they lived. Yet, they continued their national culture and prayed to return to Israel through the centuries. In the first half of the 20th century, there were major waves of immigration of Jews back to Israel from Arab countries and Europe. Despite the Balfour Declaration, the British severely restricted the entry of Jews into Palestine, and those living in Palestine were subject to violence and massacres by Arabs mobs. During World War II, the Nazi regime in Germany decimated about 6 million Jews creating the great tragedy of The Holocaust.

Despite all the hardships, the Jewish community prepared itself for independence openly and in clandestine. On May 14, 1948, the day that the last British forces left Israel, the Jewish community leader, David Ben-Gurion, declared independence, establishing the modern State of Israel (see the Declaration of independence).

Arab-Israeli wars

A day after the declaration of independence of the State of Israel, armies of five Arab countries, Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, invaded Israel. This invasion marked the beginning of the War of Independence of Israel (מלחמת העצמאות). Arab states have jointly waged four full-scale wars against Israel:

Despite the numerical superiority of the Arab armies, Israel defended itself each time and won. After each war, Israeli army withdrew from most of the areas it captured (see maps). This is unprecedented in World history and shows Israel's willingness to reach peace even at the risk of fighting for its very existence each time anew.

Including Judea and Samaria, Israel is only 40 miles wide. Thus, Israel can be crossed from the Mediterranean coast to the Eastern border at the Jordan river within two hours of driving.

Ingathering of the Israelites

Ingathering of the Jewish People

This drawing by Dr. Semion Natliashvili depicts the modern ingathering of the Jewish People after 2,000 years of Diaspora.

The center image of the picture shows a young and old man attired in a prayer shawl and reading from a Torah scroll that has united the Jewish People. The written portion shows Shema Yisrael Adonay Eloheynu Adonay Echad (Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One).

The Star of David symbolizes the gathering of the Jewish People from all corners of the world, including Georgia (country of birth of the artist), Morocco, Russia, America, China, Ethiopia, Europe and other countries joining together and dancing in celebration. Other images inside the star symbolize modern Israeli industry, agriculture and military. The images on the margins of the picture symbolize the major threats that the Jewish People faced in Exile starting from the Exodus from Egypt, followed by Romans, Arabs, and culminating in the gas-chambers of the Holocaust in Europe.