As Israel-Palestine strife escalates again, many are searching for answers to the question ‘Who does the land belong to?’ Like many things in history, there is no clear answer to the question.
While the Palestinian’s claim to the land is easy to establish — after all they were living on it when Jewish people started settling on it nearly 100 years ago — the claim of the Jewish population is harder to understand.
This claim is linked to two things — the history of the Jewish people, and the bitter experiences they suffered at the hands of various kings and host populations throughout history. As such, it would be useful, at this juncture, to look back at the history of the Jewish people through the millennia.
This history, as captured in the Bible and many other historical documents, stretches back over 3,000 years, and is filled with periods of sovereignty and subjugation, unity and dispersion, glory and tragedy. The Jewish people are one of the few groups whose history is tied up with those of most great empires and civilizations — including the Egyptian, the Mesopotamian, the Assyrian, the Persian, the Roman, the European, and finally, the American.
Egypt and Slavery
The origins of Jewish identity coalesced among the ancient Israelites between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE in the Land of Israel. The seminal event—the Exodus from Egypt—immortalized this period when the Israelites were liberated from enslavement and forged their covenant with God.
The Book of Genesis in the Bible recounts how the patriarch Jacob and his twelve sons settled in Egypt to escape famine in Canaan. As four centuries passed, these pastoral nomads multiplied rapidly. The Pharaohs grew alarmed and enslaved them as an underclass forced into hard labor. The Israelites toiled under harsh oppression building the monuments and cities of Egypt’s New Kingdom at sites like Pithom, Pi-Ramesses, and Heliopolis.
Moses was an Israelite who was adopted into the royal household in Egypt and later escaped into exile. At Mount Sinai, God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and commanded him to demand the Israelites’ freedom from Pharaoh Ramses II. According to the Bible, plagues of blood, frogs, locusts, and the death of first-born sons were unleashed upon Egypt for its refusal to release the hundreds of thousands of slaves. The Israelites painted lamb’s blood over their doorposts so the Angel of Death would ‘pass over’ their homes in an act memorialized by the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Finally Pharaoh relented and the Israelites fled into the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula towards Canaan. But Ramses II soon regretted releasing this vast slave workforce and dispatched his charioteers to pursue them. According to the Book of Exodus, when the Israelites reached the Red Sea they miraculously crossed the waters which then engulfed the Egyptian army, ensuring the liberation of God’s chosen people.
Scholars debate the literal accuracy of this religious narrative since archaeological evidence of a sudden Egyptian collapse is lacking. There are speculations that the Egyptian army may have been prevented from crossing over due to a rising tide.
Regardless, the Exodus story became a vital cultural memory. It underscored the concept of divine protection and the Israelites’ covenantal duty to uphold their faith. The epic delivered a people from bondage in Egypt to salvation in the Promised Land.
Autonomy & The First Temple
The Israelites were now a nation guided by Moses and forged by revelation. At Mount Sinai, Moses transmitted God’s Ten Commandments and 613 mitzvot laws while the Israelites pledged their obedience. 40 years of wandering the desert ensued as the generation of those who fled Egypt slowly perished before a new generation was ready to return to Canaan and fulfill their destiny.
Under Joshua, the tribes conquered Canaan and divided the territory among themselves. The era of Judges followed, where local chieftains ruled the loose confederation of tribes. To counter external threats, the Israelites gradually coalesced into the United Kingdom of Israel under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon around 1000 BCE. The kingdom split after Solomon but retained the cultural and religious heritage uniting Israelites as a people.
This “First Temple Period” marked the heyday of ancient Israelite power on the global stage. King David made Jerusalem his capital and the center of worship in the holy Temple. Solomon’s reign was marked by unprecedented wealth, prestige, and grand construction projects. Monotheistic Judaism developed into a central pillar of Israelite society encoded in law and ritual. But tribal fractures weakened the kingdom over time.
Babylonia and Exile
Around 850 BCE, Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, exiling ten of the twelve tribes in an event known as the “Ten Lost Tribes.” Then in 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon conquered the southern Kingdom of Judah, destroying the Temple and forcing the elite into exile in Mesopotamia. This seminal “Babylonian exile” marked the dawn of the Jewish Diaspora.
In Babylon’s cosmopolitan urban centers, exiled Judean scholars compiled and edited the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Rituals like reading of the Torah on the Sabbath and holidays fortified Jewish identity away from their lost homeland. The yearning to return to Zion became enmeshed in Judaism and its teachings.
Persia & The Second Temple
After Persia under Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, it allowed the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple as Persian subjects. Successive Persian kings supported Jewish restoration as an imperial policy to build their power base. Once back in their homeland, Jews concentrated on rebuilding Jerusalem and codifying belief and practice. The Second Temple period lasted until the Romans destroyed the rebuilt Temple in 70 CE following rebellion and suppression of the Jewish population by the Emperor Titus.
Scattered in disparate communities around the Mediterranean and beyond, Jews now persevered by adapting while upholding faith and identity. The longing for restoration of Israel’s glory became a continuous thread binding Jewish consciousness across centuries of dispersion and suffering. This dream has been a constant all through the Exodus from Egypt to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Each exile and adversity was woven into the collective narrative while strengthening resolve to remember Jerusalem.
Europe & The Holocaust
Wherever they settled around the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, Jews often formed influential minority populations contributing to intellectual, economic, and cultural flourishing while confronting periodic persecution as pariahs.
When the Romans adopted Christianity, Jews were derided as heretic killers of Christ. Forced conversion and mob violence instigated by bigoted Christian zealots occurred for centuries. Jews were falsely accused of murdering Christian children to use their blood in rituals, a vile fabrication that cost countless innocent lives.
Medieval Europe segregated Jews into urban ghettos and periodically expelled them en masse from England, France, Spain, and elsewhere. The Catholic Inquisition targeted Jews as heretics along with Muslims and other minorities. Crusaders pillaged Jewish quarters along their march to retake the Holy Land from Muslim rule.
Persecution punctuated periodic prosperity as Jewish bankers, physicians, and scholars made integral contributions to society.
By the 19th century, the Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation unleashed opportunity along with continued hatred in new ideological forms.
Second World War & Zionism
It is in this context that Zionism arose in 19th century as a response to increasing antisemitism across the continent. As a diverse movement, Zionists shared the belief that Jews constituted a nation deserving renewal of self-determination in their ancestral homeland of Israel.
After enduring segregation, massacres, and expulsions for two millennia climaxing in the Nazi-orchestrated industrial genocide of the Holocaust, Zionists demanded an urgent solution to the ‘Jewish question’ through statehood.
Religious and secular Jews alike gravitated to Zionism’s promise of normalcy, dignity, and security via Jewish majority sovereignty. In 1897, the First Zionist Congress galvanized the movement and sought international support to create a Jewish national home through incremental immigration, land purchase, and institution building in Ottoman Palestine. Under the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the British Empire endorsed this aim and captured Palestine from the Ottomans in WWI.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish immigration expanded Jewish communities in Palestine alongside escalating tensions with the indigenous Arab population.
Anti-colonial nationalism among Palestinian Arabs violently clashed with Zionist nation-building.
The British tried to balance conflicting demands with shifting policies opposed by both sides. Finally, the horrors of the Holocaust spurred international pressure to partition Palestine and enable its Jewish community to declare Israel’s independence in 1948.
But war with surrounding Arab states followed, beginning the enduring Arab-Israeli conflict. Armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon invaded the new nation but Israel repelled the attack. In the chaos of war, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled, becoming refugees that still demand the right of return.
For Palestinians, 1948 marked the Nakba or catastrophe. To Israelis, it represented redemption after centuries of statelessness and persecution. This clash of nationalisms still echoes today.
The Jewish homeland restored by Zionism after two millennia came at the cost of Palestinian displacement and served as a post-Holocaust refuge for Jews from the Middle East and Europe.
But to Palestinians, it was the usurpation of their land by European colonists abetted by Western powers. Israel’s 1967 conquest of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, and Sinai during the Six Day War brought over one million more Palestinians under Israeli control.
Attempts to reconcile competing claims on the same land have frustrated mediators and eluded resolution as intractable disputes over borders, settlements, refugees, security, water, and Jerusalem persist.
Peace remains elusive as both Israelis and Palestinians assert profound ties to the same holy land. Their intertwined history is overflowing with beauty and pain, great kings and prophets along with displacement and dislocation.
For over 3000 years, the Jewish story has navigated between the banks of sovereignty and statelessness, grandeur and persecution, justice and hatred.
Like the Israelites fleeing Pharaoh’s chariots, their path has stretched far through wilderness and promised lands alike. But in returning to Zion, salvation did not emerge alone. New complexities of politics, violence, and identity arose even as an age-old dream came to fruition. The verdict of history remains unwritten for the peoples destined to share this sacred, scarred land.