August 30th, 2014

(For a print copy of the accompanying Power Point to this written lecture, a copy of the audio CD, or a DVD of the narrated Power Point, e-mail [email protected].)

Three years ago when Linda and I traveled to Israel, we came upon a chart in a tunnel near the southwest corner of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  I snapped several pictures of the wall chart, not even able to fit all of them in one frame.

The chart was titled “Jerusalem Time,” and it read right to left as words and charts do in Hebrew.  The various panels of the chart gave dates and titles in chronological order through Jewish history.  Looking at that chart I realized how little I know about the history of Jews.  Back home I created my own chart for a Power Point about our trip.  I layered Jewish history from Canaanite times to the present, noting with various colors when Jews were in charge, when Christians ruled the land, when Muslims had control, and when there was a secular or non-monotheistic government.

This fall, Linda and I plan to travel again to Israel.  I decided that not only for my sake, but for the sake of fellow travelers, it would be a good idea to learn more about the land of Israel and the Jewish people.  With multiple degrees in Bible and theology and a life of reading and teaching the Bible, I knew (or thought I knew) the highlights during the biblical period of Israel’s history.  But I knew almost nothing of anything Jewish between Masada (AD 73) and the twentieth century Holocaust.

While on vacation this summer, at the recommendation of my sister Elizabeth, I picked up Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews.  Sis had earlier referred me to Johnson’s biography of Churchill, and I like the way he writes.  The book humbled me about what I didn’t know and why it matters.  Elizabeth sent me some additional resources as well.  I became increasingly fascinated by this history, and decided to share it with you, whether you are traveling with us or not.

I wondered about the land.  When the Jews were not in the land, who was?  When the temple did not stand on the top of the mountain, what did?

I also wondered about the people.  Where were they, if they weren’t in the land?  Where did their distinctive traditions arise?  Who were the major leaders and influencers?  Have the Jews and Arabs always been enemies?  And why all these pogroms?  (Pogrom is a word of Russian/Yiddish origin which means “an organized massacre of helpless people” [Merriam-Webster], most often used of the Jews.)

I should offer some disclaimers.  First, I am more than aware that one hour only hits the bare minimum of highlights.  I hope it will stimulate additional reading or interest for you as well. Our church library has a number of resources available, as does the public library.

Second, I have no delusion that what little investigation I have done has turned me into an expert.  I am likely to misspeak, and even more likely to omit important details or choose the wrong highlights.

Having admitted my shortcomings, let me mention briefly the resources I did use.

  • I still have notes from our 2011 tour of Israel, and some information and quotes I will share with you come from our tour guide, David Tal.  Born in the U.S. to evangelical Christian parents, David grew up in Israel and knows the Bible well – Old and New Testaments, but considers himself a secular Jew.  He was a superb tour guide.
  • Paul Johnson is a popular historian who has published 40 books.  He’s an engaging writer, and his History of the Jews was for me hard to put down.  One surprise for me was how quickly he moved through the biblical periods which, even including the New Testament era, only covers about one fourth of the 600 pages.
  • Elizabeth also sent me two resources by Rabbi Berel Wein.  The cover of his book calls him “the best-known and most widely read authority today on Jewish tradition, culture, and history.”  I suppose I had not heard of him precisely because I am so ignorant of all things Jewish.  I listened to five one-hour CDs he calls “A Crash Course in Jewish History,” and read one of his more recent books, Patterns in Jewish History.
  • Another book I’ve had on shelf for years but had hardly touched will travel with me to Israel.  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy is more like an encyclopedia of brief helpful articles, with an excellent index.
  • I also used various sites on the Internet, which I will note as we go along.  Elizabeth noted in my Power Point I referenced Wikipedia once.  Sorry about that!  For that particular chart, I didn’t think the site would lead you astray.

Paul Johnson says, “No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny.”  My aim today is to trace this history from a Jewish perspective.  I will spend little time analyzing the meaning of the history, especially through a Christian lens.

Central to the Jewish view of their destiny is the physical location of the land of Israel at the intersection of three continents.  Rabbi Wein notes that God could have given the Jews Madagascar or New Zealand or somewhere else out of the way.  Instead, he gave them the land where armies have marched from Asia to Africa, or Europe to Asia, or Africa to Asia, and so on.  Any empire that wanted to rule the known world had to send its battling forces right through Palestine, at least until modern planes and ships gave other alternatives.  In fact, on the plain known as Megiddo (perhaps more familiar to most people as Armaggedon), the roads leading north, south, and east literally intersect.  This is why both battles in history and in the apocalyptic book of Revelation are centered there.

With that introduction, let’s look at these layers.

Canaanite, 3300 – 1006 BC

Archaeologists refer to the eastern rim of the Mediterranean between Syria and Egypt as the Levant.  Long before Abraham brought his family here, others were already in the land.  Hunter-gatherers had lived there for who knows how long, but during the Bronze Age (defined by the development of metal tools and weapons) city states emerged.  People congregated in communities and created political entities.

From a Jewish perspective, these polytheistic cultures were pagan and idolatrous.  It wasn’t just the many gods they worshiped, with each city-state worshiping its own deity.  It was the way they worshiped, sacrificing human life and even children to appease their gods.  A nomadic people called the Amorites invaded the central Levant in the Middle Bronze Age, and took control of many existing cities.

During this same time God comes to a man called Abram and promises him this land, and descendants, and through them a blessing to the whole world.  He leaves the land of his fathers in the southeast corner of what we call Iraq, and journeys with his wife Sarai around the fertile crescent and eventually into the land of Canaan.  The book of Genesis tells the story of the Jewish patriarchs – perhaps among the most familiar of Jewish stories to most Christians – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.

The end of Genesis and the book of Exodus continue the story with a cycle that prefigures 4000 years of Jewish history.  The book of Leviticus (25:23) calls the Israelites “strangers and sojourners,” and it seems that, too, was their destiny – starting with Jacob.   Threatened with extinction (in this case by famine), Abraham’s descendants leave one place for promised protection and provision in a new land.  They prosper there for centuries.  But eventually hardship, persecution, and even pogrom force them to migrate.  This pattern would reoccur throughout the centuries in their own homeland, in Babylon, in Spain, in Poland, in Russia, and in Germany.

In the book of Exodus, Moses is their God-sent deliverer, and all of Jewish identity and history traces its headwaters back to him.  The central Jewish celebration is Passover, commemorating the exodus from Egypt.  At Mt. Sinai God establishes his eternal covenant with the people, revealing not only the Ten Commandments but the basics of their obligations, including festivals.  The Torah, the Written Law, also includes a larger body of history, the sacrificial system, and the “second law” (Deuteronomy), reiterated toward the end of Moses’ life.  Jews also trace what they call the Oral Law back to this same era.  (I will return to that theme.)  The people wander in the desert for forty years (continuing the “sojourning” theme of their history) and set up their tabernacle and system of worship through sacrifices and festivals according to God’s command.  These are the building blocks of Jewish identity and practice that continue until the present time.

Under Joshua the Jews assault those Canaanite city states and begin occupation of their homeland.  Then follows a period of decentralized and unstable leadership by women and men we call “judges.”  The people are not successful in displacing all those who had occupied the land before them.  In addition, a new migration of sea people, probably from Greece, arrive in the 12th century B.C. and settle along the coast.  These “Philistines” begin to figure prominently in their story, a conflict which continues today in the Gaza-Israel War of 2014.  The Canaanite era ends with a transitional figure of Samuel – the last judge and first prophet – who hears a plea from the people to appoint a king “like all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5).  Their first king is a man named Saul, who is indeed an ideal warrior-king like all the other nations have, but his obedience to the Torah is, at best, half-hearted and inconsistent.  God rejects him.

The most important legacy of this era for the Jews is the Torah.  You don’t understand any stage of Jewish history if you don’t understand the centrality of the Torah.  Rabbi Wein says, “Torah is not merely an intellectual subject for Jews.  It is an object of love and affection and it is the oxygen of Jewish life” (Patterns, 38).

Israelite, 1006 – 586 BC

The Israelite period is also known in Jewish history as the First Commonwealth.  There has never been a longer, more prosperous era of Jewish autonomy than these four centuries.  Neither have the borders of Israel expanded further than they did under Saul, David, and Solomon, the kings of the United Kingdom.  Spiritually, the nation stabilizes under David, the gold standard of worshiping Yahweh faithfully.  All subsequent monarchs in Israel are judged against his plumbline.  His son Solomon (or “Shlomo” as Rabbi Wein calls him) falls into the trap the rabbis will later call “too.”  “Too,” Rabbi Wein says, is always a problem – too much, too little, too many.  Shlomo is a model for prosperity but “too” is his nemesis, especially too many wives.

You may wonder why the “Israelite” era of our outline does not begin until 1006 BC if the Jews had entered the land under Joshua centuries earlier.  The reason is that the timeline I am using is “Jerusalem Time.”  Joshua and the Judges notwithstanding, until the time of King David Jerusalem was still a Canaanite city.  David conquers the city of the Jebusites and names it the “City of David.”  When you travel to Israel, you realize this is not contiguous with Jerusalem, even though the names are sometimes used synonymously.  David occupies the existing Jebusite city on the southern slope of the mountain and begins the Israelite era for Jerusalem itself.

David leaves to his son the task of building a permanent and glorious temple to Yahweh, replacing the tabernacle.  This is Solomon’s legacy, and it is built on the summit above the City of David.  This is the place where Abraham had almost sacrificed Isaac (Genesis 22), and it is also the same location where David himself had prayed to stop a plaque following the sin of his census (2 Samuel 24).  The sacredness of this mountain is now permanent as a great temple to Yahweh rises high above the skyline.

Under Solomon’s son the kingdom divides.  The legacy of this era is the first layer of Jewish writings that expand and apply the teachings of Torah.  David, Solomon, and others write poems and songs.  Oral prophets (Samuel, Elijah, Elisha) are followed by prophets whose warnings and encouragements are preserved in written form.  The warnings are especially directed at first toward the northern kingdom of Israel, whose leaders and people do not have the advantages of the temple and the line of David.  They at first build localized shrines to Yahweh, which Torah had forbidden, but this is only an intermediary step toward syncretism and then outright loyalty to the same gods the Canaanites had worshiped – and the same worship that had led to their judgment and expulsion.

As a result of their idolatry, the northern kingdom of Israel is defeated by the Assyrian empire in 722 BC.  The Assyrians’ method of control was dispersion and resettlement, and it was effective with Israel.  As they removed the northern tribes, the Assyrians resettled the area with non-Jews, and before long the bloodlines and religion mixed.  The ten tribes become the “lost tribes,” and no one knows what happened to them.  Mormon tradition says they wound up in North America, but no one else seems to agree.   I used to think this was the Diaspora – i.e., how the Jews migrated into Europe and Russia and so on, but as you’ll see shortly that was not the case.  Perhaps many died or most were simply assimilated into other lands and cultures.  Maybe one day through DNA analysis we will know more.

Whatever the case with those particular people, they were the first Jews to face the three choices Jews have always faced in their exile.  Rabbi Wein namsd two of them – acculturation and assimilation.  I would add a third – separation.  Jews not living in their homeland can live isolated from everyone else and keep all their laws and traditions – that’s separation.  Or, they can adapt to the culture around them while still keeping their bloodline and worship pure – that’s acculturation.  But often Jews end up intermarrying and looking and acting like everyone else within a relatively short period of time – that’s assimilation.

Babylonian Exile, 586 – 538 BC

The era of the First Commonwealth and the First Temple ends with the Babylonian invasion of 586 BC.  In contrast to the Assyrian method of control (dispersion), the Babylonian method of control was exile – particularly of the brightest and best.  Once again, the purpose is to prevent reorganization of the leadership into resistance.  The Babylonians completely destroy the Jerusalem wall, burn the gates, and both burn and disassemble Solomon’s glorious temple.

Who is in the land during this era?  A remnant of Jews in Judea and the Samaritans.

Where are the people?  A large number return to Abraham’s ancestral home in Babylon.  The best recorded stories of this era involve Daniel.  But Jeremiah the prophet had told the people it was God’s will for them to settle down, build homes and businesses, and raise families – even to pray for the prosperity of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7).  Certainly they long for home, as expressed so poignantly in Psalm 137.  But with the religious freedom granted by the Babylonians, they turn their attention in earnest toward studying the Torah.  Those who lead this study are known as sages (the wise ones).  They continue developing what Jews call “the writings” (poems, songs, prophetic musings on their plight) and are even given a measure of self-rule under Zerubbabel who forms a government-in-exile.

Persian, 538 – 332 BC

For those who read the Bible, the story most connected with the Persian era is that of Esther, a Jewish girl who becomes queen by hiding her identity until an attempted pogrom by Haman forces her hand.  From this story emerges the Jewish Feast of Purim (“lots”), still celebrated annually by the Jews with costume parties and, of course, food.  David Tal told us that Jewish festivals essentially amount to this:  “They tried to kill us.  They didn’t kill us.  Let’s eat.”

Judah becomes the Persian province of Yehud.  Cyrus, the king of Persia who defeats the Babylonians is looked upon kindly in the book of Isaiah (44:28; 45:1).  Jewish tradition sees him as the grandson of Esther.  Cyrus allows the Jews to return home and rebuild their temple in the 6th Century BC, in keeping with the Persian philosophy that defeated peoples would remain more content if they were granted a greater degree of autonomy in their own homeland.  Zerubbabel becomes the governor, Ezra teaches them the law, and Nehemiah leads in rebuilding the wall.

The people during this era are split between Israel and Babylon.  Only about 40,000 Jews take advantage of Cyrus’ offer to rejoin the remnant. The majority remain in Babylon, establishing a Jewish presence there that would last 1500 years.

Back in the land, what Jews refer to as the “Second Commonwealth” begins.  The “Second Temple” is built.  High priests return to a place of religious and political prominence.

All of this restitution is opposed by Samaritans in the north, who eventually will build their own temple on Mount Gerizim.  Even today, when you hear of the “West Bank,” this is the area of Palestine the Jews have never occupied or controlled since the time of the Assyrian defeat of the northern kingdom in 722 BC.

Although there is some difference of opinion about when the final canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was established, many date it to this period.  By canon I mean the accepted body of Jewish Scripture, with three sections referred to by Jews with the acronym “Tanakh” – Torah (Law) + Nevi’im (Prophets) + Ketuvim (Writings).

A further note of interest on this period:  the Second Temple is built in less time and with far fewer resources than Solomon’s temple.  Both Ezra and Haggai refer to this bittersweet result.  Haggai (2:3) asks, “Who of you saw this house in its former glory?  How does it look to you now?  Does it not seem like nothing?”

Hellenistic, 332 – 63 BC

The next empire to rule the Levant (and more) is the Greek empire.  In 332 BC Jerusalem surrenders to Alexander the Great.  He dies young, and his kingdom is divided among four generals.  Once again, in its strategic location Palestine is caught in a tug-of-war.  It is ruled first by the Ptolemies based in Egypt and then by the Seleucids based in Syria.

The word “Hellenistic” comes from “Hellene,” which is a synonym for “Greek.”  The Greeks’ method of maintaining control was to impose Greek culture and language everywhere they could.  To be sure, their culture was in many ways attractive – fun, exciting, interesting – from theatrical plays to public games.

Antiochus Epiphanes proves to be a disaster for Greek rule in Palestine, underestimating Jewish opposition and resistance to his attempt to Hellenize the Jews.  The Greeks honored many gods, and Antiochus attempts to turn the Second Temple into a place where pagan gods could be worshiped alongside the God of the Jews.  His greatest offense is offering a pig on the altar of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

In 164 BC, Judas Maccabees leads a revolt and cleanses the temple.  The miracles associated with the ensuing war leads to establishing the Feast of Hanukkah, and for the next century Judas’ family (“Hasmonean” was the family name) give the Jews their only period of independence from the fall of Babylon until 1948.  Notably the wall chart I found in Jerusalem did not even indicate this century-long independence as a separate era.

The Hasmoneans attempt to combine political and religious power in their family, which leads to resistance by a number of new groups that emerge and outlive the Hasmonean dynasty.  The Sadduccees are wealthy aristocrats who eventually gain control over temple functions.  They believe only the Torah is authoritative.  The Pharisees and early Rabbis honor the entire Tanakh and other additions and interpretations that had developed.  Together both groups form the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council that would eventually under the Romans govern all Jewish matters the Romans would permit them to control.  A third primary group, known as Essenes, retreat to the desert and live an ascetic lifestyle, copying Scriptures and creating their own additional writings in what we now call the Qumran community.  They consider themselves “Sons of Light” preparing for war against the “Sons of Darkness,” who are not necessarily the pagans but the rogue Jews then in charge of temple life.  They store up money and hide a large cache of scrolls in their caves – perhaps as the Romans invaded in the first century AD.  These are the famous scrolls that were accidentally discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are only one example of a larger trait and theme of the Jewish people – a passion for literacy.  Paul Johnson writes, “The people of Israel….probably produced, in sheer quantity, the greatest literature of antiquity, of which the Old Testament is only a small fragment” (History, 88).

How about the Jewish people during the Hellenistic era?  In the first century BC, about 2.5 million are living in Palestine, but an estimated 5.5 million are living elsewhere – in Babylon, as we said earlier, but also in Arabia, in northern Africa, and in southwest Asia and southern Europe.  This is why the population of Jerusalem swells for major festivals, especially Passover, because the Torah itself required men to appear before the Lord three times a year.

During this era of the Diaspora, Hellenized Jews in Alexandria translate the Tanakh into Greek in the second century BC, a new development bitterly opposed by Hebrew-speaking Jews living in the homeland.  This is also the era of the synagogue, which allowed local communities to develop their own religious instruction for males.  The establishment of a synagogue required active commitment by at least ten adult Jewish men.

Roman, 63 BC – AD 324

The map of Palestine during the Roman era shows various provinces the way the Romans divided them, which are not necessarily the way Jews thought about themselves.  Judea and Samaria are one province, for example, even though pious Jews would do all they could to avoid traveling through Samaria on their way from Galilee in the north up to Jerusalem.  The Greeks had developed ten cities in the region, most of them east of the Jordan River, collectively known as the Decapolis (from the Greek for “ten” and “city”).  These were thoroughly Hellenized communities.

Pompey, the Roman general who later became emperor, takes Jerusalem without a fight in 63 BC.  The dominant name in Jewish history in the first century BC, however, is Herod the Great.  His grandparents were Idumeans, part of a kingdom south of Judea whose history includes the only known instance of forced conversion and even pogrom committed by the Jews.  The Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus had compelled the Idumeans to embrace the Jewish faith, and this is how Herod could claim before the Romans that he himself was a Jew.

Herod (37 BC to AD 4) is insane, a ruthless man who murders his first wife, his son, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, the high priest, and, according to Matthew’s gospel, innocent babies in Bethlehem in his effort to kill baby Jesus.  Ceasar Augustus quips of him, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”  But Herod is also politically savvy, and uses his Roman connections and Jewish heritage to get himself proclaimed the King of Judea by the Roman Senate.  In an effort to win affection from the Jewish people and establish his own legacy, he engages in massive building projects during his rule – including palaces, harbors, fortresses, stadiums, and so on throughout Palestine.

His greatest positive legacy for the Jews is expanding the temple platform and remodeling the Second Temple, a process that took a decade’s work for 10,000 laborers and 1,000 priests to complete the basic structure.  Work would continue on the temple restoration long after Herod’s death, into the 60s, not long before its destruction.  The Israel museum today includes a scale model of first century Jerusalem that covers almost an acre and shows how the temple dominated the skyline.

Debates over Jewish law continue among the Jews during this era, with two schools of thought predominating. Shammai emphasizes studying and following the letter of the law.  He is opposed by Hillel, who is gentler and more thematic.  One well-known point of disagreement is over divorce.  Shammai is strict, allowing divorce only for adultery.  Hillel permits divorce for any reason.  Shammai wants each biblical law to be thoroughly dissected and properly applied, while Hillel quipped, “What is hateful to you, do not unto your neighbor; this is the entire Torah.  All the rest is commentary – go and study it.”  In other words, get the big picture.

From the Jewish perspective, the key figures in the rise of Christianity in the first century are not that significant.  It is their later impact, as we will see, that affects Judaism far more.  John the Baptist is seen as emerging from the Essene community.  Jesus is a rabbi who follows mostly the school of Hillel and is rejected a false Messiah – one of many false Messiahs in this era.  Paul is a Pharisee who decides that faith in Jesus trumps obedience to Torah.

Rabbi Wein (Patterns, 92) offers four Jewish answers to the question of why Jews did not and do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

  1. A dead Messiah cannot fulfill his mission.
  2. God has no parts.
  3. No messianic benefits accrued to mankind through Jesus.
  4. There is no room in Judaism for a replacement revelation to supersede the revelation at Sinai.

The Jewish story continues past the New Testament, of course, and from this period to the twentieth century most of us Christians are woefully ignorant.

Two Jewish revolts follow during the Roman era.  The momentum for these rebellions had been building since the time of the Roman occupation, with various groups organizing anything from terrorist attacks to small armies, and Jews arguing among themselves whether revolution or cooperation was the way to go.  A Jewish revolt in AD 66 proves disastrous, as the Romans sweep in with the Tenth Legion and not only crush the revolt but destroy the Second Temple, completely emptying the temple platform of every stone.  The last Jewish resisters flee to Masada, a palace and fortress Herod had built on top of a mesa south of the Dead Sea.

Paul Johnson (History, 137) says, “Virtually our only authority for the war (meaning the first Jewish revolt) is Josephus, and he is tendentious, contradictory, and thoroughly unreliable.”  Josephus was born a Jew but many Jews consider him a traitor to the Romans.  He convinced Vespasian, the Roman general, to appoint him as a historian.  With that in view, it is Josephus who says that it took three years of siege and an elaborate ramp for the Romans finally to penetrate the high fortress of Masada.  Then 1000 holdouts committed suicide at the last minute rather than yielding to inevitable enslavement by the Romans.  David Tal told us that the modern Israeli army still uses that story to inspire its young military recruits – sometimes taking them to Masada for an inspirational backdrop.

In the second century AD, what will prove to be the final Jewish revolt against the Romans feels like déjà vu, recalling the Maccabean revolt of three hundred years earlier.  The role of Antiochus Epiphanes this time is played by Hadrian, the Roman emperor who makes plans to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina.  On the former site of the temple he erects a temple to the god Jupiter.  A Judas Maccabees-wannabe, Simon Bar Kokhba, leads a revolt which, unlike the Maccabean revolt ends badly with 580,000 Jewish dead.  The Romans rename the land Palestina.  The fourth century Christian St. Jerome says that during this era you would pay more for a horse than for a Jewish slave.  The devastation and humiliation are complete.

Hadrian had won, but Roman might was temporal and temporary, as human political power always is.  According to Rabbi Wein (Patterns, 133) “The Talmud tells us that being anti-Jewish in the short run is a formula for success, power, and popularity, but it is also the long-run prescription for decline, if not even disaster.”  This pattern history also ratifies.

It is during this era that it becomes tradition for Jews to visit annually a section of the supporting wall for the temple mount closest to where the temple had stood.  There they would weep over the city’s destruction.  Others call it the Wailing Wall; for Jews it has always been known as the Western Wall.  In centuries following the Arabs used that area for a dump to humiliate Jews who came to visit, but when the Israelis finally took control of the area in 1967, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan became the first to insert a written petition into the crack – a custom that remains for many visitors to the Western Wall.

Once again, without a commonwealth to give them identity, Jews turn their attention in the late Roman era back to Torah.  For centuries, the primary way to pass down interpretations of the Law had been in face-to-face interaction between students and teachers in the Jewish schools, known as the yeshivah (plural yeshivot). The schools had been destroyed by the Romans, however, and so many rabbis died that there was a fear that the Oral Law would be forgotten.  A Rabbi named Yehuda Hanasi (Judah the Prince) set out to systematize and write down the Oral Law in 63 tractates.  One tractate covers all the material in Torah and in the Oral Law related to the Sabbath.  Judah’s tractates are collectively known as the Mishnah (“repetition”) and are the authoritative source for the Halakhah, the consensus of scholars on what Jewish law requires.

Related terms to Halakhah, often confusing to non-Jews, include Haggadah, various stories and folklore that illustrate the Halakhah, and the Midrash, which is somewhat parallel to what I studied in seminary as hermeneutics.  It’s about how one should read and apply the Torah.

Rabbi Telushkin offers an example.  The opening Mishnah in one of Judah’s tractates offers what’s called a halakhic discussion, or debate over one particular case.  Suppose two men are holding a cloak and both claim ownership.  They come before a judge, both swearing they found it.  There are numerous biblical laws and oral traditions that apply here, including the search for the original owner and the fact that Jewish law sees possession as nine-tenths of the law.  Since both men are holding the cloak and swear to have found it, what happens to the cloak?  This matter engages lengthy discussion.  So the Mishnah often reads like “case law” in our American judicial system.

What’s fascinating to me is that ancient Jews read and dissected the Bible as Christians have for centuries, even up to the present.  But Jews quarrel over duty and Christians quarrel over doctrine.  Those are not an absolute statements, of course, but doctrine is easy for a Jew:  “There is one God.”  What else do you need to know?  A Jew is far more interested about getting the Sabbath right, or following precise rules to keep the food kosher.  Christians have quarreled over ethics as well, but our major conflicts and splits are over the correct understanding of the Trinity or the nature of Christ or the meaning of the Atonement or the sacraments or the details and timing of the Second Coming.

Byzantine, AD 324 – 638

The end of the Roman era and beginning of the Christian era from a Jewish perspective is not about the invasion of Goths or the last Roman emperor in 476, but the conversion of Constantine to the Christian faith (AD 313) and the legalization of Christianity.  In 324 Constantine transfers the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium, later named Constantinople, and now Istanbul.  The Roman empire would eventually fracture into east and west, with the eastern empire, centered in Turkey, more durable by far.

During this era when the Byzantines control Palestine, Jewish communities are small and mostly centered in Galilee.  The temple mount stands empty, except when the Emperor Julian gives permission for an abbreviated effort to rebuild the temple in AD 363, cut short both by Persian invaders and an earthquake.  Constantine’s mother, Helena, builds Christian churches and shrines in Palestine, some of which survive in some form today.

The Jews turn their attention to the next layer of their Oral Tradition, known as the Talmud (“study/learning”), while Christians in that era turn their political power against the Palestinian Jews in various pogroms.  Christians controlling Palestine are brutal in their oppression of Jewish people.

Persians successfully invade Palestine in AD 614, but the Byzantine emperor Heraclius retakes the city of Jerusalem 25 years later and massacre the Jews.  The same year Muhammad is taking control of Mecca, but we’ll get to him soon enough.

Where are the Jewish people during the Byzantine era?  Eighty percent of them are in Babylon, where they also are focused on learning and teaching the Torah and oral law, developing the Jewish calendar and their own Talmud.  They establish academies, the presidents of which are known by the singular Gaon or plural Gaonim.  These spiritual leaders wield enormous power, even the power to appoint the political leaders of the Jewish community, called Exilarchs.  When Jews refer to what “the rabbis” say, they are speaking of this cumulative tradition of Mishnah and Talmud from the centuries following the Second Commonwealth.

Muslim, AD 638 – 1099

I have often made the comment that the reason the Jews and Arabs cannot resolve their current conflict is because they have been fighting for 4000 years since the time of Abraham – the line of Isaac and Jacob vs. the lines that trace to Abraham’s other descendants.  That’s not true.  It is not even true that Jews and Muslims have been fighting since the inception of Islam.

What is true is that within decades of the life and death of the prophet Muhammad, Muslim armies move north, east, and west from the Arabian Peninsula, taking advantage of the crumbling Byzantine and Persian powers.  For Muslims, from the beginning conquest is about religion as well as land.  When they reach Palestine, they seize the empty Temple Mount and build a magnificent shrine around a rock that still had always penetrated a few feet into the temple platform – believed to be the place where Abraham had almost sacrificed Isaac (or Ishmael, according to the Quran).  This is also the site of an early miracle in Muslim tradition.

The Dome of the Rock is a shrine, more like the Jefferson Memorial than a place of worship.  The Muslims do add a mosque on the Temple Mount a couple of decades later, called the Al Aqsa Mosque.  The name means “the farthest mosque,” and represents Muhammad’s longest travel from his home.  From there according to Muslim tradition Muhammad ascends to heaven.

Through the centuries Muslims have in general coexisted better with Jews than Christians have with either.  Islam and Judaism see one another as monotheists, while Christians are seen as worshiping three gods – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For most of its history, Islam has raged more against Christianity and Christians, who in turn have been the bane of the Jews’ existence as we will see.

The temple mount does not look very different today than it did in the early 8th century, with the gold dome glistening on the northern end, the Al Aqsa Mosque on the southern end, and a small section of the Western Wall giving devout Jews their closest access to the place where their temple once stood.

So where are the Jewish people during the Muslim period? They are largely concentrated in Babylon, where they are still educating their young men in the Torah and Oral Law.  Occasionally new groups emerge, such as the Karaites in the 8th century – a Jewish sect in Babylon that rejects the Oral Law and focuses on a strict application of the Torah itself.

The driving force behind the great migration of Jews from Babylon in the 8th century and beyond is mostly economic.  There are no significant pogroms by the newly dominant Muslims.  In fact, the Jews essentially follow the Muslim conquest and settle places where Muslims are in control, especially North Africa and across the Strait of Magellan into the Iberian Peninsula – Spain and Portugal.  This migration is how the Jews become such a large part of European history in the second millennium AD.  The Jewish people develop two distinct groupings in Europe.

Sephardi Jews are so-named from the Hebrew word for Spain – “Sepharad.”  Jews settled in Spain and spoke Arabic and Spanish, eventually developing a Judeo-Spanish language called Ladino.

Some Jews migrate further north into Germany, however.  The Hebrew word for Germany is “Ashkenaz,” so these became known as Ashkenazi Jews.  The Ashkenazim (plural) migrate into Poland, Lithuania, and other countries north and east of Germany, eventually settling a large population in Russia.  They develod a hybrid language of German and Hebrew called “Yiddish.”  The Yiddish word for Jew is “Yid.”  Rabbi Wein says the Ashkenazi are neurotic, but as their story unfolds we can understand why.

The Jewish Diaspora is not what happened to the Lost Tribes in the 8th century BC, as I used to think.  It is a reference to the dispersion of the Jews across about 2000 years, but the greatest movement happens during the century or two immediately following the Muslim conquest when Jews make their way from Babylon to Europe.

Crusader, AD 1099 – 1260

“Christians are all crusaders,” David Tal told us when we were in Israel.  It’s not a compliment.

The Crusade period of Christian history is widely seen as a dark era by virtually everyone.  To be sure, like all historical eras, it is more layered and complex than most people see it.  Essentially it is a backlash against four centuries of Muslim aggression and territorial gain.  The primary objective is to retake the Holy Land, where Christian pilgrims had been banned, and to rebuild what for many had been Christianity’s most holy site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

So the armies gather and march from Europe to Palestine.  In their zeal for faith, power, and blood, the first Crusade sweeps first through the Rhineland in Germany to massacre, pillage, and/or forcibly convert a prosperous Jewish community living there.  Jews anywhere suffer from guilt-by-association if not cooperation with the Muslims precisely because Islam and Judaism have been historically more aligned than Christianity with either faith.

The Crusades have mixed success in Palestine itself, but the Christians hold Jerusalem for much of the following two centuries.  They place a cross on the Dome of the Rock, and turn Al Aqsa Mosque into a Christian church.  The founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty in Egypt, Saladin, turns the corner on Muslim losses against the Crusaders, and retakes Palestine in the late 12th century, but it would be another several decades before Christian control of Palestine finally ends.

So what about the Jewish people during this era?  They are still largely living where they had lived for centuries in North Africa, Spain, and Europe.  They are still studying and trying to live by the Torah.  Jewish history includes some intellectual and literary giants that are as well known to Jews as St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther are known to Christians.

Among these was Maimonides (1135-1204), a twelfth century Jewish physician and rabbi who is also known by the acronym “Rambam” – Rabbi Moses ben Maimon.  Born in Spain, his family migrates due to rising anti-Semitism, and he winds up as the leader of the Jewish community in Cairo, Egypt.  There he serves as a personal physician to the sultan, but he also writes what would be called a systematic theology in Christian tradition.  As we said earlier, however, for the Jews what you need to systematize is not doctrine but duty.  So he organizes the Talmud as a guidebook for Jews.  He also writes a significant defense of the Jewish faith called A Guide to the Perplexed.

In Jewish tradition, scrolls of Torah and other important religious documents like the Talmud are never discarded, and many Jewish synagogues have an attic called a geniza (hiding place) to preserve old scrolls.  In the late nineteenth century, a geniza in the Ezra synagogue of Cairo was opened, and more than 200,000 documents from the Medieval Jewish era are discovered – a much larger volume than the Dead Sea Scrolls, but less significant because they were copied a millennium later.  Still, this treasure of documents is an insightful guide to everyday Jewish life during the Rambam’s time period.

Another towering intellect of the Crusader era living outside Palestine is a Sephardic Jew with the acronym “Ramban” – Rabbi Moses ben Nahman.  Things are going south in Spain in terms of their relationship with Christians during the 13th century, and the Catholic church organizes debates between priests and rabbis with the purpose of making Judaism look foolish so Jews will convert.  This is a no-win situation for Jews, because if they lose the debate they should convert, but if they win the debate they face persecution.  The Ramban (also called Nahmanides), however, ostensibly secures permission to speak openly without fear of reprisal in a famous debate in Barcelona in 1263.  Nahmanides is eloquent and persuasive, arguing why Jesus did not fulfill Messianic prophecies of peace on earth.  His followers have been one of the big reasons this is so.  The king’s promises notwithstanding, the Ramban later emigrates to Palestine in fear for his life.

Mamluk, AD 1260 – 1517

In the 13th century a group of liberated slaves in Egypt distinguish themselves to the point of taking control of their empire.  Their dynasty endures until 1517.  The Mamluks finally end the era of the Crusades and fully regain control of Palestine for Muslims, a situation that endured until 1917.  Without the Christians in control, some Jews did begin to go back home.

This is a good place to summarize the history of the temple mount, since its situation has been unchanged since the Mamluk period.  People wonder today why the temple mount is still under Muslim control when the Jews are back.  Why did they not rebuild the temple?  The short answer is so they wouldn’t start World War III.  But let’s review the history.

Where the temple mount stands today is supposedly the same location where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac (Genesis 22), and where David’s prayer and sacrifices stopped the plague on the threshing floor he purchased from Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24).  This is one reason the site was chosen for the two Jewish temples, which stood on that location for about a thousand years.  But the temple mount was largely empty and neglected from the Roman destruction in AD 70 until the Muslims took advantage of the situation six centuries later.  Since that time, it has been a Muslim holy site except for the Crusader era.  Jews say they have no need to rebuild a temple until Messiah comes, and when he comes, he will take care of the political situation.  Sacrifices cannot resume anywhere until there is a Messiah and a temple.

What’s happening to the Jewish people during the Mamluk era?  In Catholic Europe, when given the opportunity, they prosper.  But anti-Semitism grows, including sadly and inexplicably from the Catholic Dominicans and Franciscans, whose mission it is to share Christ in word and deed.  The Jews continue to move further east in Europe.

Sephardic Jews prosper during what’s called their Golden Age in Spain, partnering with Muslims and building a strong culture of literature, science, math, commerce, and even politics.  But when the Christians come into power in Spain, things go downhill for the Jews, as we have seen.  In the late 15th century, Jews are given the threefold choice they had often been given by Christians: convert, leave, or die.  1492 is associated in American history with Christopher Columbus, but in Jewish history it is the harsh reality that repeats the cycle from Exodus.  Columbus’ crew includes “Christian” Jews who had been forced to convert.  And his departure is actually delayed because so many ships in the harbor were loading up with Jews headed back to the east around the Mediterranean basin, even back to Palestine.

Columbus’ diary includes this entry:  “In the same month in which their Majesties [Ferdinand and Isabella] issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.”

Ottoman, AD 1517 – 1917

The next era is not a change of religious control in Palestine, because the Mamluks were Muslim as well as the Turks.  But Muslims fight each other as well as non-Muslims, as is still happening today, and the Ottoman Empire’s “Great Expansion” in the sixteenth century ends the domination of the Mamluks in the region.

At the time there are only about 1000 Jewish families living in Palestine.  The standout name in the early Ottoman Empire was Suleiman the Magnificent.  David Tal said there’s something about controlling Palestine that creates big egos – Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, Suleiman the Magnificent.  His portraits ratify his self-image.  He rebuilds Jerusalem and refortifies the walls, which today are largely in the shape he left them.

A false Messiah comes to prominence during this era.  Something about the year 1666 on the calendar sounds apocalyptic.  Shabbetai Tzvi, promoted and aided by Nathan of Gaza, attracts a large following and not a small degree of hope for wresting the homeland from the Turks – sort of a Jewish crusade in the making.  But when Tzvi arrives in Palestine the sultan demands he either convert to Islam or die of torture.  He converts to Islam.

Otherwise during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Turks give little attention to Palestine, and the land suffers from poor administration and neglect.  By the time the 19th century rolls around, Jews are regaining interest in the land, and resettling there in larger numbers.  Economic growth begins to breed hope.

Where are most Jews living during this period?  The majority are still living in Europe.  In 1515, for the first time what would become known as a “ghetto” is established In Venice.  This idea of segregating Jews into their own neighborhoods with little opportunity to interact with or thrive from contact from non-Jews becomes a pattern of Jewish life.  Things look better in Poland during the 14th and 15th centuries as Jews are invited to live and prosper, but we know how that will end as well.

Martin Luther unfortunately becomes a prime articulator of anti-Semitism, a significant blot on his legacy of reform.  Only a few years after posting the Ninety-five Theses in 1517, he had tried to evangelize the Jews in his writings (1523) and blamed the church for alienating the Jews.  But when the Jews fail to convert Luther launches one of the strongest written anti-Jewish tirades ever (1546).  He advocates burning their synagogues, destroying their homes, confiscating their books, forbidding rabbis to teach, and more – even expulsion if none of this works.  Hitler would later use Luther’s words as justification for his actions.  As time went forward, the phrase “the Jewish problem” came into use.

The Renaissance in Europe affects all religion, because it gives non-religious explanations for reality.  It affects Jews as well, leading to secularization or assimilation (which meant conversion to Christianity, since they are still the dominant religion). In response, German Jews in the 19th century create Reform Judaism to give Jews a way to find middle ground between rigid Orthodoxy and abandonment of their faith.  Reform Judaism gives up its Messianic hope and longing for the homeland in Palestine.  Many distinctive behaviors of Jews, such as laws regarding Sabbath, food, and clothing are also changed or abandoned.

A parallel movement of Jews is known as “Haskalah” (enlightened Jews).  These Jews believe one can be a Jew on the inside, but not on the outside.  It was said during the 19th century that if you ask Muslim his religion he will say, “I’m a Muslim.”  If you ask a Catholic he will say, “I’m a Catholic.”  If you ask a Protestant, he will say, “I’m a Protestant.”  If you ask a Haskalah Jew, he will say, “I’m a human being.”  Moses Mendelssohn, for example, is a devout and likeable Jew, from a non-Jewish perspective.  But Jews say his attempt to be culturally relevant doesn’t work.  None of his children or grandchildren become practicing Jews.  His son Felix becomes a famous composer of Christian sacred music.

Another movement of this era is Hasidic Judaism.  We think of Hasidic Jews as basically Orthodox Jews, but they are actually progressive in the 18th century, parallel to the movement of Christian pietism or even the charismatic movement.  They recover Jewish mysticism (called kabbalah) and focus on personal holiness, prayer, and joyful singing as opposed to dry legalism.

To all these changes and reforms the Gaon of Vilna pushes back.  The formal title of “Gaon” refers to the Babylonian era, but Rabbi Elijah of Vilna is nicknamed “Gaon” because the word means genius.  He is the Jews’ Albert Einstein (who was also a Jew).  An avid student and ascetic, the Gaon of Vilna spends 18 hours a day almost every day of his life studying Jewish literature.  He is primarily known for his shunning and excommunication of those “radical” Hasidic Jews, saying that if he were able he would treat them like the prophet Elijah treated the prophets of Baal.

Rabbi Wein’s comment on the Enlightenment with all its variations and reactions is a word of warning:  “Today’s relevance is tomorrow’s obsolescence.”

The Ottoman period in Palestine also includes the impetus for the two massive migrations of Jews that define where the overwhelming number of Jews live today – in the United States and in Israel.

In the late nineteenth century, Russia turns against its Jews, inciting pogroms and persecutions that would probably rank as the worst in history had it not been for the Holocaust.  This leads to a massive migration from Russia, primarily to the United States.  In 1880 250,000 Jews lived in America.  By 1920 there were 4.5 million.  Ladies Home Journal recorded a number of predictions in 1900 about how the world would change by 2000.  One of them was that the number two language in the world would be Russian.  One wonders if this prediction might be related to the massive movement of Russian Jews to the States.

American Jews start a new branch of Judaism that is not as radically stagnant as Orthodox Judaism, but not as radically altered as Reform Judaism.  It is known as Conservative Judaism, and its goal is to fit Judaism into American life and culture.  One interesting invention is the Sunday School – not the Sabbath School.  Since American public life largely shuts down on Sundays, Jews see this as an opportunity to teach their own young about Judaism without conflicting against the public calendar.  In general, Jews in America are able to prosper in the land of capitalism, and are especially known for their leading role in the rapidly expanding film industry in the United States.

The other location the Jews land is back in Palestine.  Although the mass migration would not come until the latter part of the 20th century, the roots go back to the end of the Ottoman period, and the movement known as Zionism.  Jews begin returning home in the 19th century, and become the majority in Jerusalem by 1850.  But the numbers are still small.

Before we come to the Zionist movement itself, we should also mention the Rothschilds, who are the Rockefellers of Judaism in the 19th and 20th centuries – wealthy almost to mythic proportions.  This is significant not only for banking all across Europe, forming the largest banking conglomerate, but the Roshschilds also become primary financiers of the Zionist movement.  In England when Jews said, “The Lord will provide,” they were really thinking, “Lord Rothschild will provide.”

A young man named Theodore Herzl is the founder of Zionism, the movement to return Jews to their homeland.  Early in his life he had been a thoroughly assimilated Jew who once said, “The solution to the Jewish problem is for all the Jews to convert to Christianity.  And if the rabbis had any courage, they would lead them to the baptismal font.”  Herzl believed that if Jews just fit into the culture, they wouldn’t be thought of as a “problem.”

He decides he is wrong when as a reporter he attends the trial of Albert Dreyfus, who had been accused of spying in France.  The trial, the verdict, and the “Death to the Jews!” chants that followed the guilty verdict convince the assimilated Herzl that the Jews can only be safe if they can have a flag, borders, and a government like all the other nations have.  While there is some debate about whether that homeland should be Palestine, Herzl convenes the first Zionist congress in 1897.  He famously says, “I predict there will be a Jewish state in fifty years.”  He only missed by a year, but could not possibly have known how much would happen in that half-century.  Herzl dies young, but the annual Zionist congresses grow in momentum.

British Mandate, AD 1917 – 1948

Turkey makes an ill-fated decision (from their perspective) to join the Axis in World War I.  When the Allies win the war, the British occupy Palestine, giving control to non-Muslims for the first time since the Crusades.  Led by Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour, England declares its unequivocal support for the Zionist movement, and the Balfour Declaration is accepted by the League of Nations in 1922.  At the end of World War I there are 100,000 Jews in Palestine and 500,000 Arabs.

The Hebrew word Aliyah means “to go up,” and refers to any ascent to Jerusalem.  But it is also used of the massive immigration of Jews to Israel in the Twentieth Century.  This is what leads to tensions with Arabs, who realize what is happening.  Even today, Turks and other Muslims and Arabs insist say the British “stole” Palestine from the Muslims.  Widespread Arab unrest, even pogroms, lead the British to reverse their support for a Jewish state in an effort to calm the region.

My grandparents visited Palestine on their way back from India in the 1930s, and my grandmother’s journal notes signs everywhere urging returning immigrants to learn Hebrew.  The Jewish population is largely socialist during this era, establishing both Kibbutzim (communes) and Moshavot (settlements) across the land.  World War II erupts in Europe, and only at the end of the war does the world grasp what had happened to the Jewish people under the most horrific pogrom against the Jews or anyone else in history.  There were 17 million Jews living in Europe in 1939, and only 11 million remained in 1945.  The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem is sobering, including one section where the names of 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust are read slowly over the sound system.  It takes 3 ½ years to read the names.  The museum is called Yad Voshem, “Remember the Name,” and the focus is on remembering individual persons – not the Jews as a whole.

Berel Wein tells the story of a young boy seized by an SS soldier.  The boy says to the Nazi, “I am Jacob and you are Esau.  I know you’re going to kill me.  I would still rather be Jacob.”  There are also, to make the story complete, many non-Jews known as “Righteous Gentiles” who attempt to defend and hide Jews during World War II, sometimes at great risk and cost.

Jews really do not want to be defined by the Holocaust.  For one thing, although the Nazi atrocities dwarfed any previous pogrom, it was only one of hundreds of such massacres of innocent Jews in history.  Try Googling “Antisemitism” or “Jewish pogroms.”  The saddest day on the Jewish calendar is Tisha B’av (the Ninth day of the month Av), when the Jews remember their darkest days – the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC, the destruction of the second temple in AD 70, the expulsion from England in 1290, the expulsion from Spain in 1492.  The Spaniards and later the Nazis actually chose Tisha B’av deliberately for pogroms as sadistic reminders.

Berel Wein says, “Moses said, ‘You’re a stiff-necked and stubborn people.’  But it’s not all negative.  It’s also positive.  If we weren’t a tough people there wouldn’t be anybody left.”  The vast majority of Jews who died in the Holocaust were Ashkenazi.

Why all these pogroms and persecutions?  There are many reasons, I suppose.  One is envy.  As a race Jews are smart, and particularly shrewd about making money.  The Reformers had assailed them for usury, which is charging interest on loans, especially exorbitant interest.  The Jews have also always been a literate people, even if education was primarily focused on the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud.  But they learned to read, write, memorize, and reason – all skills that were useful in interacting with other cultures.  The Jews also seem to have more than their share of ingenuity – the innovation and cunning not only to survive but to thrive when they are allowed to do so.

Yet the Jews in Diaspora have rarely had power or even much autonomy.  Isolated in their ghettoes, they resist assimilation.  Powerlessness as a minority will lead to others abusing you.

A third factor is eccentricity.  In their isolation, Jews are commanded to be “holy” (separate) according to Torah.  To those outside their faith, practicing Jews have strange laws like not mixing meat and milk in the same meal, odd festivals like erecting booths for a week, and, in some cases, strange attire.  Jews by their own admission can also be stubborn – outspoken, determined, divisive.  This isn’t just how they behave toward the goyyim (Gentiles), but toward one another as well.

A final factor in pogroms may be Messianism as well – the hope that Messiah will come and make things right.  Until the last century, many Jews did not feel they needed to take things into their own hands.  They would wait for Messiah.

State of Israel, AD 1948 – Present

In the aftermath of World War II, a United Nations resolution in 1947 formally paves the way for the creation of the first sovereign state governed by Jews since before the time of Christ.  The Arabs immediately go to war, but that does not deter David Ben Gurion, with only a 6-4 vote of the Knesset, from proclaiming independence on May 14, 1948.  Massive immigration in the 1950s follows the creation of the Jewish state, but so do additional wars.  The Six Day War in 1967 significantly expands Israel’s borders, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 preserves them.  Israel has never lost a war in the modern era, and has established itself as the strongest military power in the Middle East.  But most of the Arab world still refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Now in its seventh decade, modern Israel still lives with what Paul Johnson (History, 88) calls “an inherent conflict between the religion and the state of Israel.”  Israel was established as a secular state, but tensions exist between those who want to practice and even enforce Jewish laws and ethnic Jews who do not.

Zionism was borne from the idealism of socialism, but modern Israel is quite capitalist, with even kibbutzim running for-profit enterprises.  The funding of the Jewish state’s emergence come from donations throughout the Diaspora, particularly the United States, war reparations from Germany, and American aid.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy with 34 political parties competing for power in a system that makes Washington’s polarization look tame.  But they also know how to cooperate for the security and the preservation of their people and land.  Of the 8 million population in Israel today, about 75% are Jews.

Building on Jewish history, education remains a top priority in Israel, with a 97% literacy rate and a 20% rate of achieving academic degrees.  Access to healthcare considered is a fundamental right, and the healthcare system is ranked fourth in the world for efficiency.  Despite a paucity of natural resources and a surge of immigration, the vibrant economy includes self-sustaining agriculture, manufacture and export of electronics and software, efficient production of alternative energy, and export of pharmaceuticals.  Israel remains high on optimism and low on hunger and malnutrition.

Theodore Herzl died believing if the Jews could have their own homeland anti-Semitism would stop.  Ben Gurion thought if the Jews ever had 5 million people in their nation, everyone would recognize their validity.  Neither has been the case.

Still, the emergence, stability, and vitality of Israel is a modern political miracle.  How did it happen?  It seems clear that it could not have happened without a wide array of factors –

  • Two thousand years of longing for a homeland
  • Turkish neglect of Palestine for two centuries, leading to depopulation
  • Zionism and a series of Aliyot resettling the land with Jews in the first half of the Twentieth century
  • Jewish prosperity in the Diaspora, particularly the Rothschilds in Europe and Jews in the United States, providing necessary financial backing
  • Russian pogroms which led to Jews being in the U.S. in the first place
  • World War I and the Balfour Declaration, even though Britain later reneged
  • World War II and the Holocaust, which in the minds of many was the key factor in turning the tide of world opinion sufficiently to create the Jewish state
  • The death of FDR in the U.S., because Harry Truman became the best friend the Jews ever had in the American White House
  • The defeat of Winston Churchill in parliamentary elections in Britain after World War II because the opposition Labour Party campaigned against restriction of Jewish immigration
  • Fundamentalism and evangelicalism in America

I have to admit that the last bullet is not one I have found in various sources and books I have read.  It may be my own historical bias.  But most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are pro-Israel and have little idea that historically it’s highly unusual to be Christian and not be anti-Semitic and anti-all things Israel.  Dispensationalism, the branch of Christian theology that specifically teaches a future for national Israel in a future “dispensation,” can probably claim credit for that reversal.   What happens in America, then, is that that Jews had (and still have, to a certain degree) support from both the religious right and the political left.  That coalition means that Jews have so far never had to question that the United States would be their best international friend.

Earlier this month I received an e-mail from Samuel Smadja of Sar-El Tours.  Commenting on the death of noted evangelical pastor Chuck Smith in 2013, Smadja said that former Prime Minister Menachem Begin referred to “people such as Pastor Chuck as ‘new Christians’ in contrast to the historical relationship between the Church and Israel.”  Mainline churches today, otherwise on the political left but obviously without the Jewish alliance, often take the Palestinian-Arab side of the conflict, but evangelical churches tend to side with Israel.  This is the heritage of more conservative American Christianity as it has reversed history and become Israel’s friend.

Palestine today is not fully in control of the state of Israel, but its official borders are not that different than those David and Solomon claimed.  As for the people of Israel, in the last few years there are finally again more Jews living in their promised land than in any other country in the world – perhaps the first time this can be said since end of the Second Commonwealth twenty centuries ago.  Almost an equal number live in the United States, and no other nation is even close.

I close with this quote from Rabbi Berel Wein, summarizing the Jewish perspective on their history:  “The only certainty about life is a continued and omnipresent uncertainty, perpetual social change and the eternity of Torah and the people of Israel” (Patterns, 71).

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