Israel Under Occupation - Reclaiming the Gap Years


A few days ago, I went for a walk in a Jewish Roman town in Northern Israel. That is to say, a town that maintained a Jewish majority and was a center of Jewish thought for at least 500 years under Roman (and then Byzantine) occupation. The experience was eye-opening. This place was undeniably both Roman and Jewish. It was filled with Roman style mosaics and columns and even an ampitheatre, but those mosaics contained obvious Jewish symbolism including menorahs, the seven species, and Hebrew writing. This is Tzippoori: the place where the Mishna was compiled and much of the "Jerusalem" Talmud as well. This town is one of the more important of many towns and villages in Northern Israel where Jews continued to live and even thrive under the centuries of foreign occupation of the Jewish homeland.

Sadly, few Jews today know about it, and fewer still have actually seen it. The site is not a stop on most Jewish-themed tours of Israel. It is more popular with Christian tourists, who believe the town was the birthplace of Mary. In fact, there seems to be a general disinterest by Israeli archeologists and tourism professionals to locating, identifying, preserving and promoting sites of post-Temple-Era Jewish life. This must change.

Jews have a gaping hole in their history, and we need to reclaim it. If you ask most Jews to summarize the history of the land of Israel, you will probably get a response involving some Biblical-Era stories ending in about 70 CE, followed by the founding of the modern state in 1947. In other words, they only know about the time period when Jews exercised autonomous self-rule. They know next to nothing about the 19 centuries of Jewish history in occupied Israel. This information is critical to countering Arab claims that Israelis are "colonialist" and that Arabs are the "true" indigenous people, such as those recently made by Palestinian official Ibrahim Khreisheh.

The history of Jews in the land of Israel did not end in 70 CE when the Temple was destroyed. It did not end in 135 CE when Bar Kochba was defeated. The Jews never left Israel, even under the most brutal oppressors. As Prime Minister Netanyahu has pointed out repeatedly (and correctly), there has been a continuous Jewish presence here for more than 3000 years. There are numerous Jewish archeological sites dating from throughout the Roman and Byzantine periods: the remains of synagogues have been found throughout the Gallilee, in Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria ("West Bank"), the central plain, and in Gaza. The Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem was first built in the ninth century, destroyed in 1099, rebuilt in 1187, and has been in continuous use since then. The Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem was established in 1267. The Abuhav, Ari Ashkenazi, and Ari Sephardi (Eliyahu Hanavi) synagogues were built in Tzfat in the 15th Century. Tzfat became famous as the center of Kabbalah mysticism in the 16 century. From the 16th to 18th Centuries, Jews in Acre worshipped at the Achav and Ramchal synagogues. These are just a few easily-identifiable points in time, and of course there are volumes more evidence of Jewish life in Israel during the 1900 years of occupation and colonization by foreigners,  including the various Arab and Muslim invaders . But even these small points demonstrate that Jews in Israel were an integral part of the same unbroken chain that Jews in the diaspora comprised.

Jews, and especially Jewish youth, need to know not only that we never left our land, but that we suffered great oppression under the various foreign occupiers: the destruction of synagogues, multiple rounds of slaughter and expulsion, prohibition or restrictions on rebuilding them, laws restricting or prohibiting public workship and/or the presence of Jews in Jerusalem, heavy taxation, requirements to wear certain identifying clothing, and restrictions on a plethora of other activities. All this suffering matches the suffering of Jews outside the land, and is entirely attributed to the fact that we were a colonized and oppressed people, dispossessed of our political autonomy and without the ability to control our own destiny, even in our indigenous homeland. (See generally, Moshe Gil's "History of Palestine 634-1099")
Jews must re-learn and re-claim this history. It is these 19 centuries of opression that justify Zionism, not our biblical kingdoms. Zionism expresses our right to live free, to self-rule, to defend ourselves from those who would subjugate or ethnically cleanse us, as we have suffered so many times throughout recorded history - not just in our wanderings but also for all those centuries in our own homeland. And when our enemies claim that we are occupiers or immigrants or that we should "go back to Germany", our children must know that this is a lie: the Arabs are the occupiers, as were the Romans and the Mamluks and the Byzantines and all the others who conquered and occupied our land during those nearly two millenia. Israel is our land. We belong here and have the right to our independence under the International Treaty on Indigenous Rights. Those who fight us are not seeking the freedom of an oppressed people, but rather, are seeking to re-subjugate and re-oppress our people: the Jewish people who have always been inextricably linked to the Land of Israel. 
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