Roman rule was followed by centuries of domination by successive foreign powers: Byzantine, Arab, Crusaders, Mamluk, Ottoman and British.
TIMELINE | BIBLICAL TIMES | SECOND TEMPLE | FOREIGN DOMINATION | STATE OF ISRAEL | PEACE PROCESS | ISRAEL IN MAPS
The Arab conquest of the Land came four years after the death of Muhammad (632) and lasted more than four centuries, with caliphs ruling first from Damascus, then from Baghdad and Egypt. At the outset, Jewish settlement in Jerusalem resumed, and the Jewish community was granted the customary status of dhimmi (protected non-Muslims), which safeguarded their lives, property, and freedom of worship, in return for payment of special poll and land taxes.
However, subsequent restrictions against non-Muslims (717) affected the Jews’ public conduct as well as their religious observances and legal status. The imposition of heavy taxes on agricultural land compelled many to move from rural areas to towns, where their circumstances hardly improved, while increasing social and economic discrimination forced others to leave the country. By the end of the 11th century, the Jewish community in the Land had diminished considerably and had lost some of its organizational and religious cohesiveness.
7th century on the Temple Mount (Haram-esh-Sharif) in Jerusalem
For the next 200 years, the country was dominated by the Crusaders who, following an appeal by Pope Urban II, came from Europe to recover the Holy Land from the infidels. In July 1099, after a five-week siege, the knights of the First Crusade and their rabble army captured Jerusalem, massacring most of the city’s non-Christian inhabitants. Barricaded in their synagogues, the Jews defended their quarter, only to be burned to death or sold into slavery.
During the next few decades, the Crusaders extended their power over the rest of the country, partly through treaties and agreements, but mostly by bloody military victories. The Latin Kingdom of the Crusaders was that of a conquering minority confined mainly to fortified cities and castles.
When the Crusaders opened up transportation routes from Europe, pilgrimages to the Holy Land became popular and, at the same time, increasing numbers of Jews sought to return to their homeland. Documents of the period indicate that 300 Rabbis from France and England arrived in a group, some settling in Acre (Akko), others in Jerusalem.
Following the overthrow of the Crusaders by a Muslim army under Saladin (1187), the Jews were again accorded a certain measure of freedom, including the right to live in Jerusalem. Although the Crusaders regained a foothold in the country after Saladin’s death (1193), their presence was limited to a network of fortified castles.
Crusader authority in the Land ended after a final defeat (1291) by the Mamluks, a Muslim military class which had come to power in Egypt.
The Land under the Mamluks became a backwater province ruled from Damascus. Acre, Jaffa, and other ports were destroyed for fear of new crusades, and maritime as well as overland commerce was interrupted. By the end of the Middle Ages, the country’s towns were virtually in ruins, most of Jerusalem was abandoned, and the small Jewish community was poverty-stricken.
The period of Mamluk decline was darkened by political and economic upheavals, plagues, locusts, and devastating earthquakes.
Following the Ottoman conquest in 1517, the Land was divided into four districts, attached administratively to the province of Damascus and ruled from Istanbul. At the outset of the Ottoman era, some 1,000 Jewish families lived in the country, mainly in Jerusalem, Nablus (Shechem), Hebron, Gaza, Safed (Tzfat) and the villages of Galilee. The community was comprised of descendants of Jews who had always lived in the Land, as well as immigrants from North Africa and Europe.
Orderly government, until the death (1566) of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, brought improvements and stimulated Jewish immigration. Some newcomers settled in Jerusalem, but the majority went to Safed where, by the mid-16th century, the Jewish population had risen to about 10,000, and the town had become a thriving textile center as well as the focus of intense intellectual activity.
During this period, the study of Kabbala (Jewish mysticism) flourished, and contemporary clarifications of Jewish law, as codified in the Shulhan Arukh, spread throughout the Diaspora from the houses of study in Safed.
With a gradual decline in the quality of Ottoman rule, the country suffered widespread neglect. By the end of the 18th century, much of the Land was owned by absentee landlords and leased to impoverished tenant farmers, and taxation was as crippling as it was capricious. The great forests of Galilee and the Carmel mountain range were denuded of trees; swamp and desert encroached on agricultural land.
The 19th century saw medieval backwardness gradually give way to the first signs of progress, with various Western powers jockeying for position, often through missionary activities. British, French, and American scholars launched studies of biblical archeology; Britain, France, Russia, Austria, and the United States opened consulates in Jerusalem. Steamships began to ply regular routes to and from Europe; postal and telegraphic connections were installed; the first road connecting Jerusalem and Jaffa was built. The Land’s rebirth as a crossroads for commerce of three continents was accelerated by the opening of the Suez Canal.
Consequently, the situation of the country’s Jews slowly improved, and their numbers increased substantially. By mid-century, overcrowded conditions within the walled city of Jerusalem motivated the Jews to build the first neighborhood outside the walls (1860) and, in the next quarter century, to add seven more, forming the nucleus of the new city. By 1870, Jerusalem had an overall Jewish majority. Land for farming was purchased throughout the country; new rural settlements were established; and the Hebrew language, long restricted to liturgy and literature, was revived. The stage was set for the founding of the Zionist movement.
Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, derives its name from the word "Zion", the traditional synonym for Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. The idea of Zionism – the redemption of the
Jewish people in its ancestral homeland – is rooted in the continuous longing for and deep attachment to the Land of Israel, which have been an inherent part of Jewish existence in the Diaspora through the centuries.
Political Zionism emerged in response to continued oppression and persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe and increasing disillusionment with the emancipation in Western Europe, which had neither put an end to discrimination nor led to the integration of Jews into local societies. It found formal expression in the establishment of the Zionist Organization (1897) at the First Zionist Congress, convened by Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland. The Zionist movement’s program contained both ideological and practical elements aimed at promoting the return of Jews to the Land; facilitating the social, cultural, economic, and political revival of Jewish national life; and attaining an internationally recognized, legally secured home for the Jewish people in its historic homeland, where Jews would be free from persecution and able to develop their own lives and identity.
Inspired by Zionist ideology, two major influxes of Jews from Eastern Europe arrived in the country at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Resolved to restore their homeland by tilling the soil, these pioneers reclaimed barren fields, built new settlements and laid the foundations for what would become a thriving agricultural economy.
The new arrivals faced extremely harsh conditions: the attitude of the Ottoman administration was hostile and oppressive; communications and transportation were rudimentary and insecure; swamps bred deadly malaria; and the soil had suffered from centuries of neglect. Land purchases were restricted, and construction was banned without a special permit obtainable only in Istanbul. While these difficulties hampered the country’s development, they did not stop it. At the outbreak of World War I (1914), the Jewish population in the Land numbered 85,000, as compared to 5,000 in the early 1500s.
In December 1917, British forces under the command of General Allenby entered Jerusalem, ending 400 years of Ottoman rule. The Jewish Legion, with three battalions comprising thousands of Jewish volunteers, was an integral unit of the British army.
In July 1922, the League of Nations entrusted Great Britain with the Mandate for Palestine (the name by which the country was then known). Recognizing the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine, Great Britain was called upon to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine-Eretz Israel (Land of Israel). Two months later, in September 1922, the Council of the League of Nations and Great Britain decided that the provisions for setting up a Jewish national home would not apply to the area east of the Jordan River, which constituted three fourths of the territory included in the Mandate and eventually became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Motivated by Zionism and encouraged by British sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations, as communicated by Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour (1917), successive waves of immigrants arrived in the Land between 1919 and 1939, each contributing to different aspects of the developing Jewish community. Some 35,000 who came between 1919 and 1923, mainly from Russia, strongly influenced the community’s character and organization for years to come.
These pioneers laid the foundations of a comprehensive social and economic infrastructure, developed agriculture, established unique communal and cooperative forms of rural settlement – the kibbutz and moshav – and provided the labor force for building houses and roads.
The next influx of some 60,000, which arrived primarily from Poland between 1924 and 1932, was instrumental in developing and enriching urban life. These immigrants settled mainly in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, where they established small businesses, construction firms, and light industry.
The last major wave of immigration before World War II, comprising some 165,000, took place in the 1930s following Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. The newcomers, many of whom were professionals and academics, constituted the first large-scale influx from Western and Central Europe. Their education, skills, and experience raised business standards, improved urban and rural amenities, and broadened the community’s cultural life.
The British Mandate authorities granted the Jewish and Arab communities the right to run their own internal affairs. Utilizing this right, the Jewish community, known as the Yishuv, elected (1920) a self-governing body based on party representation, which met annually to review its activities and elect the National Council (Vaad Leumi) to implement its policies and programs. Financed by local resources and funds raised by world Jewry, a countrywide network of educational, religious, health, and social services was developed and maintained. In 1922, as stipulated in the Mandate, a ‘Jewish Agency’ was constituted to represent the Jewish people vis-a-vis the British authorities, foreign governments, and international organizations.
During the three decades of the Mandate, agriculture was expanded; factories were established; new roads were built throughout the country; the waters of the Jordan River were harnessed for production of electric power; and the mineral potential of the Dead Sea was tapped.
The Histadrut (General Federation of Labor) was founded (1920) to advance workers’ welfare and provide employment by setting up cooperatively-owned enterprises in the industrial sector as well as marketing services for the agricultural settlements.
Day by day, a cultural life was emerging which would become unique to the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. Art, music, and dance developed gradually with the establishment of professional schools and studios. Galleries and halls provided venues for exhibitions and performances attended by a discriminating public. The opening of a new play, the appearance of a new book, or a retrospective show by a local painter were immediately scrutinized by the press and became the subject of lively discussion in coffee houses and at social gatherings.
The Hebrew language was recognized as an official language of the country, alongside English and Arabic, and was used on documents, coins, and stamps, as well as for radio broadcasting. Publishing proliferated, and the country emerged as the world center of Hebrew literary activity. Theaters of various genres opened their doors to enthusiastic audiences, accompanied by first attempts to write original Hebrew plays.
Arab Opposition and British Restrictions
The Jewish national revival and the community’s efforts to rebuild the country were strongly opposed by Arab nationalists. Their resentment erupted in periods of intense violence (1920, 1921, 1929, 1936-39), when unprovoked attacks were launched against the Jewish population, including the Hebron Massacre of 1929, as well as the harassment of Jewish transport, and the burning of fields and forests. Attempts to reach a dialogue with the Arabs, undertaken early in the Zionist endeavor, were ultimately unsuccessful, polarizing Zionism and Arab nationalism into a potentially explosive situation.
Recognizing the opposing aims of the two national movements, the British recommended (1937) dividing the country into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, to be linked by an economic union. The Jewish leadership accepted the idea of partition and empowered the Jewish Agency to negotiate with the British government in an effort to reformulate various aspects of the proposal. The Arabs were uncompromisingly against any partition plan.
Continuing large-scale Arab anti-Jewish riots led Britain (May 1939) to issue a White Paper imposing drastic restrictions on Jewish immigration, despite its consequence of denying European Jewry a place of refuge from Nazi persecution.
The start of World War II soon after caused David Ben-Gurion, later Israel’s first prime minister, to declare: We will fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and the White Paper as if there were no war.
Three Jewish underground movements operated during the British Mandate period. The largest was the Haganah, founded in 1920 by the Jewish community as a defense militia to safeguard the security of the Jewish population. From the mid-1930s, it also retaliated following Arab attacks and responded to British restrictions on Jewish immigration with mass demonstrations and sabotage. The Etzel, organized in 1931, rejected the self-restraint of the Haganah and initiated independent actions against both Arab and British targets. The smallest and most militant group, the Lehi, was set up in 1940. The three organizations were disbanded with the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces in June 1948.
organization hiding rifles, 1947 (GPO/H.Pinn)
During World War II (1939-45), the Nazi regime deliberately carried out a systematic plan to liquidate the Jewish community of Europe, in the course of which some six million Jews, including 1.5 million children, were murdered. As the Nazi armies swept through Europe, Jews were savagely persecuted, subjected to torture and humiliation, and herded into ghettos, where attempts at armed resistance led to even harsher measures. From the ghettos they were transported to camps where a fortunate few were put to hard labor, but most were either shot in mass executions or put to death in gas chambers.
Not many managed to escape. Some fled to other countries, a few joined the partisans, and others were hidden by non-Jews who did so at risk of their own lives. Consequently, only one third, including those who had left Europe before the war, survived out of a population of almost nine million, which had once constituted the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the world.
After the war, Arab opposition led the British to intensify their restrictions on the number of Jews permitted to enter and settle in the Land. The Jewish community responded by instituting a wide network of "illegal immigration" activities to rescue Holocaust survivors. Between 1945 and 1948, some 85,000 Jews were brought to the Land by secret, often dangerous routes, in spite of a British naval blockade and border patrols set up to intercept the refugees before they reached the country. Those who were caught were interned in detention camps on the island of Cyprus, or returned to Europe.
Jewish volunteers in World War II: Over 26,000 men and women of the Jewish community in the Land volunteered to join the British forces in the fight against Nazi Germany and its Axis allies, serving in the army, air force, and navy. In September 1944, following a prolonged effort by the Jewish Agency in the country and the Zionist movement abroad to achieve recognition of the participation of the Jews of Palestine in the war effort, the Jewish Brigade was formed as an independent military unit of the British Army, with its own flag and emblem. Comprised of some 5,000 men, the brigade saw action in Egypt, northern Italy and northwest Europe.
After the Allied victory in Europe (1945), many of its members joined the "illegal immigration" efforts to bring Holocaust survivors to the Land of Israel.
Britain’s inability to reconcile the conflicting demands of the Jewish and Arab communities led the British government to request that the ‘Question of Palestine’ be placed on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly (April 1947). As a result, a special committee was constituted to draft proposals concerning the country’s future. On 29 November 1947, the Assembly voted to adopt the committee’s recommendation to partition the land into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jewish community accepted the plan; the Arabs rejected it.
Listen to UN vote
Following the UN vote, local Arab militants, aided by random volunteers from Arab countries, launched violent attacks against the Jewish community in an effort to frustrate the partition resolution and prevent the establishment of a Jewish state. After a number of setbacks, the Jewish defense organizations routed most of the attacking forces, taking hold of the entire area which had been allocated for the Jewish state.
On 14 May 1948, when the British Mandate came to an end, the Jewish population in the Land numbered some 650,000, comprising an organized community with well-developed political, social and economic institutions – in fact, a nation in every sense and a state in everything but name.