Younger contestants in the Israeli version of the popular British quiz show, The Chaser, often surprise viewers with their range of general knowledge. But random quizzes, occasionally conducted in the street or the marketplace by Israeli television personalities, too often demonstrate appalling ignorance of the history of the Jewish people both in its ancestral homeland and in the Diaspora.
As far as is known, there was never a period following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE when there were no Jews in the Land of Israel. The Jewish community was very small, certainly in comparison to what it is today, but there were pockets of Jews in Jerusalem and in the Galilee, and possibly elsewhere. In addition, some of the pilgrims who came to the Holy Land over the centuries opted not to return to their countries of birth, but to make their permanent homes in the Land of Israel.
Others came with the explicit desire of returning to the ancestral home of their forefathers. Examples include the Meyuhas and Parnas families, who can trace their lineage in Jerusalem back to the period not long after the expulsion of the Jewish from Spain in 1492. The ancestors of Israel’s fifth president Yitzhak Navon came to Jerusalem from Turkey on his father’s side and Morocco on his mother’s side. His father’s family came in 1670 and his mother’s family in 1742. There were esteemed rabbis on both sides.
LONG BEFORE the advent of Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, who were all Ashkenazim, the Jewish population of the Land of Israel was largely composed of Sephardim. In the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews fled Spain and Portugal and settled in Tiberias.
In the 1560s, Portuguese-born businesswoman and philanthropist Beatrice Mendes, generally known as Doña Gracia Nasi, decided together with her nephew, Joseph Nasi, to establish a Jewish settlement in Tiberias, where Joseph Nasi managed to acquire a land grant from the Sultan of Turkey.
Doña Gracia, who was one of the most influential and powerful figures in the Sephardi world, wanted to provide a safe, self-sustaining haven for converso Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal, so that they could revert to their true religious identities. Having lived for several years as a crypto Jew, while openly practicing Catholicism, she and her family devoted a lot of her money and energy to helping other crypto Jews as she moved around Europe. Despite opposition by the indigenous Arab population in Tiberias, Doña Gracia was able to settle a large number of Jews in the area.
In Jerusalem, the Sephardi population were the elite, having for the most part come in the early to mid-19th century from Greece, Turkey, Georgia and what is now Bulgaria. They included in addition to the Meyuhas, Parnas and Navon families, the Valero, Kokia, Eliashar, Michaelshvili, Hakhmishvili, Matza, Chinaeo, Beveniste, Kastel, Mane families and more. Among them were bankers, rabbis, merchants, diplomats, teachers, writers and community leaders who collectively contributed to the spiritual, cultural and economic life of the city.
Although there is a common belief that migration from Yemen to Israel began in 1949 with Operation Magic Carpet, which continued to September 1950, some 2,500 Jews from Yemen came to Israel between 1881 and 1914, settling mainly in Jerusalem and Jaffa.
Of course, there were instances of Ashkenazi Jews arriving in the Land of Israel before the First Aliya between 1882 and 1903, but the First Aliya is acknowledged as the first of significant migratory trends from Eastern Europe to the Land of Israel for the purpose of agricultural settlement. It should be remembered that the First Aliya started well over a decade before the First Zionist Congress that took place in Basel, Switzerland, in August 1897.
Among the Ashkenazim who came to make their homes in the Holy Land prior to the First Aliya were members of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic movement, who initially settled in Safed, but between 1816-1823 moved to Hebron at the request of Rabbi Dovber Schneuri, the second chief spiritual leader in the seven-generation Lubavitcher Rebbe dynasty. His daughter, Menucha Rochel Slonim, and her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Kuli Slonim, who was a descendant of Rabbi Moses Isserles, the famous 16th century rabbi, settled in Hebron in 1845.
All this was before the coining of the words Zionist or Zionism.
A couple of years back, Rivka Ravitz, the ultra-Orthodox chief of staff in the office of President Reuven Rivlin, when asked in an interview whether she was a Zionist, replied that her parents had migrated to Zion (which is a synonym for Jerusalem). This was her way of evading a direct answer to a political question.
But whether as political Zionists, religious ideologists, or refugees from persecution and oppression, the Jews continued to come before and after the establishment of the state.
IN 1948, the total population, including Jews and non-Jews, numbered 872,000, of whom 716,700 were Jews. In 2020, the population reached 9,291,000, of whom 6,870,00 were Jews, 1,956,000 were Arab, and the remainder other minorities.
Menucha Rochel’s descendants became leading figures in Hebron until the Arab riots of 1929, when most of them were murdered, including Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Slonim, who was the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Hebron at the time of the riots. He was the grandfather of former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, whose mother, Rivka, was one of the few people who survived the massacre, as did her one-year-old nephew, Shlomo Slonim, whose Arabic-speaking father, Eliezer Dan Slonim, was a member of the Hebron city council and a director of the Anglo Palestine Bank, which evolved into Bank Leumi.
Eliezer Dan Slonim was among the Jews who were murdered in cold blood. Curiously, after serving in the Irgun Tzvai Leumi, the Hagana and the Israel Defense Forces, Shlomo Slonim went on to work at Bank Leumi for almost half a century.
In 1901, at the fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth L’Israel was founded with the aim of purchasing land in the Land of Israel “to be the eternal possession of the Jewish People.”
This, to some extent is proof of the frequently uttered contention by President Reuven Rivlin that the State of Israel was not created as a means of compensating for the Holocaust.
The stated intention in 1901 of land purchase for the eternal possession of the Jewish people is indicative of the goal of statehood. But even before that, the establishment in 1898 of the Jewish Colonial Trust, which in 1903 became the Anglo Palestine Bank, is yet another sign on the road to statehood.
The premature death in 1904 of Herzl, the founder and visionary of the Zionist movement, did not halt its progress. His successor in 1905 was Lithuanian businessman David Wolffsohn.
The year 1906 saw the beginnings of the Bezalel Academy of Arts, founded in Jerusalem by Boris Schatz, a prominent artist who was also from Lithuania.
Two years later, in 1908, Hatzvi, the first Hebrew daily newspaper, was published in Jerusalem.
Then 1909 was a particularly significant year for the state in the initiating of Hashomer, the Jewish defense organization dedicated to protecting Jewish settlement. Tel Aviv, the first modern Hebrew city was established near Jaffa in 1909, and the first kibbutz, Deganya Aleph, was founded by the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
IN 1912, the cornerstone was laid for the Haifa Technion – the Israel Institute of Technology, which has educated generations of engineers, architects and scientists. In 1924, it opened its doors to the first intake of students.
At the 11th Zionist Congress that was held in Vienna in 1913, a resolution was passed to establish the Hebrew University, which did not become a reality until 12 years later. Plans to lay the foundations were disrupted by the First World War, but in 1918, Sir Arthur Balfour, who was then the British foreign secretary, attended the laying of the foundation stone.
Three years later, in 1921, Winston Churchill, who was then colonial secretary, visited Jerusalem and planted a tree on Mount Scopus at the site of the future university. Balfour was again in Jerusalem for the inauguration of the university in 1925. By that time, he had been elevated to the peerage and was Lord Balfour. Other dignitaries attending the gala inauguration included Sir Herbert Samuel, Chaim Weizmann, Rabbi Yitzhak Hacohen Kook and Chaim Nachman Bialik, among many others from Israel and around the world. The concept of a university had initially been proposed in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress by Lithuanian-born Zvi Hermann Schapira, a rabbi who was also a professor of mathematics. The ticket for admission to the gala opening event was printed in English, Hebrew and Arabic. The university’s first board of governors comprised a group of intellectual giants that included Schapira, Weizmann, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Martin Buber.
In 1920, in the bloody battle between Jews and Arabs at Tel Hai in the Galilee resulted in the deaths of eight Jews and five Arabs, including Russian-born Josef Trumpeldor, who had served in the Tsarist army, had been decorated for gallantry, and had later been one of the organizers of the Zion Mule Corps.
The year 1920 was also the year of the San Remo Conference, which determined that Great Britain should receive the Mandate for Palestine.
In the same year, the Jewish community of what was then Palestine held elections for the Elected Assembly, which was equivalent to the shadow government, and, it in turn elected the National Council, which elected an executive to deal with political affairs, health, education, social welfare, etc. The Histadrut, the General Federation of Labor, was also founded in 1920 as was the Hagana, one of three clandestine Jewish Defense organizations which acted against both the Arabs and the British.
In that same year, Chaim Weizmann, who was destined to become the first president of Israel, was elected president of the World Zionist Organization.
THE FIRST British High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, was also appointed in 1920, three years after the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, which supported the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. Samuel, who was Jewish, had Zionist sympathies. His grandson David, who was born in Jerusalem and served in the British Army during the Second World War, was the only native-born Israeli to have a seat in the House of Lords.
In 1921, the British Mandate Authorities instituted the office of the Chief Rabbinate, with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook as the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and Rabbi Yaakov Meir as the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi, whose official title was Rishon Lezion and has since been transferred to every successive Sephardi Chief Rabbi.
The year 1921 was the beginning of the Moshav Movement at Nahalal in the Western Jezreel Valley. Some of its founders had been members of Kibbutz Deganya, but preferred to live within a cooperative rather than a communal framework. Among the Nahalal pioneers were members of the Dayan family, who in some respects are regarded as the Israeli Kennedys, now having five generations that lived or live in Israel, and whose members have been prominent in the army, national security, politics, social welfare, literature, fashion, the status of women, journalism, sculpture, film and theater.
In 1922, the League of Nations confirmed the British Mandate for Palestine, and the Council of the League of Nations, together with Great Britain, decided that the area east of the Jordan River, comprising three-quarters of the territory included in the Mandate would not be part of the Jewish National Home. Instead, in 1946, it became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
One of the most important events in 1922 was the creation of the Palestine Electric Company, which was founded at the initiative of Pinchas Rutenberg, a Russian-born engineer who came to Palestine in 1919, after playing an active role in the Russian Revolution, helped to found the Jewish Legion which served in the British Army. He received a concession to produce and distribute electric power, and in 1937, founded Palestine Airways. There are other reasons that merit his place in pre-state history. Modern-day Israel owes him a huge debt.
The year 1929, which as previously mentioned, was the year of the Hebron riots, and was also the year in which the Jewish Agency was constituted as the representative body of the Jewish community in dealings with the British authorities.
The Habimah Theater, which was founded in 1912 in Bialystok, which was then part of Russia, left the Soviet Union in 1926 and went on an international tour that included the United States, where some of the ensemble opted to stay. The rest arrived in Tel Aviv in 1928 and presented two plays before moving on to Germany for a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Fortunately, the company decided to return to Tel Aviv, arriving in 1931, and in 1945, built a theater in which it performed before the building was completed. Since 1958, it has been regarded as Israel’s National Theater.
In 1931, the Irgun Zevai Leumi, known by its acronym of Etzel, was founded. In contrast to the Haganah, which was basically a left-wing underground movement, Etzel was primarily right-wing, and most of its members identified as Revisionists.
In 1934, the Sieff Institute for Science was established in Rehovot. It has since mushroomed into the Weizmann Institute of Science.
In 1936, with the rise of antisemitism in Europe, Polish-born violinist Bronislaw Huberman created the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, which is now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In so doing, he saved the lives of numerous Jewish musicians by bringing them to Tel Aviv before Germany began invading the rest of Europe.
In 1937, the Peel Commission recommended portioning Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with a corridor to the sea, which would remain under British administration.
In the same year, the special night squads trained by Charles Orde Wingate were incorporated into British Army units to fight Arab marauders.
The notorious British White Paper calling for the establishment of an independent State of Palestine, while restricting immigration and the sale of land to Jews was introduced, and promptly rejected by the Zionists in the Land of Israel, with militant right-wing groups working toward getting rid of the British and establishing an independent Jewish state.
On a happier note, Hadassah-University Medical Center, financed by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1939 opened on Mount Scopus. Hadassah had sent a group of nurses to Jerusalem in 1913, and over the years, it continued to expand its medical services, and continues to do so today through its medical centers on Mount Scopus and in Ein Kerem.
A year later, Lehi, an acronym for Lohamei Herut Israel (Fighters for Israel’s freedom), was founded by Avraham Stern. A militant group that broke away from Etzel, Lehi was known for using terrorist tactics in its efforts to have the British retreat from the country.
THE YEAR 1940 was a very tragic year. The Patria, a French-built ocean liner carrying 1,800 Jewish refugees from Europe to Mandatory Palestine, was denied entry by the British Authorities on the grounds that the passengers did not have entry permits, and deported everyone on board to Mauritius. This greatly angered all the Zionist organizations, particularly the Palmach, which was the strike force of the Hagana, who sabotaged the operation to prevent the boat from leaving Haifa. A bomb meant to disable the ship, so that it would be forced to stay in port, was too effective, and the boat sank within 16 minutes, trapping hundreds of people in the hold. Some 267 people were killed and 172 injured.
Traumatized by a tragedy of such proportions, the British, in a humanitarian gesture allowed the survivors to remain in Palestine.
Lehi leader Avraham Stern was on the British hit list. Posters advertising that he was a wanted man appeared all over the country, forcing Stern to go into hiding. He fled from one safe house to another in Tel Aviv. His last hiding place was an apartment being rented by Lehi members Moshe and Tova Svorai. Moshe was caught, shot and arrested in another apartment, and then hospitalized. The mother of another Lehi member inadvertently provided the British with a clue as to Stern’s whereabouts. Three armed British policemen entered the apartment. Tova Svorai was led away, so she was unable to testify as to the exact circumstances that led to Stern’s death. Only he and the policemen remained in the apartment. Their version was that Stern had bent to tie his shoe laces and had then leapt for the window. The police were afraid that he was about to set off an explosive device, so they shot him.
In 1946, a year after the end of the Second World War, Lehi, Etzel and Hagana joined forces to blow up bridges linking Palestine with neighboring Arab countries.
Etzel also blew up the South Wing of the King David Hotel, where the Mandate Government was headquartered. Menachem Begin, who was then the head of Etzel, claimed that he had given orders for the British to be warned. The British denied having received any warning. The upshot was that 49 people were injured and 91 killed, including a lot of hotel staff as well as 17 Jews, 41 Arabs, 28 British citizens and a handful of other foreign nationals.
In 1947, 4,500 refugee Holocaust survivors who arrived on the Exodus, were not permitted to land, and the ship was turned back. But there was also good news in that year. American soprano Edis de Philippe founded the Israel Opera Company two years after her arrival in the country.
On November 29 of that year, in a vote of 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions, the United Nations voted on the partition of Palestine. The pragmatic David Ben-Gurion accepted whatever he could get.
On May 14, 1948, just a few hours before the British Mandate was due to end, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the creation of the independent State of Israel. On the following day, the War of Independence erupted.
On June 30, 1948, the last British troop ship left Haifa, and the Union Jack was lowered for the last time over Haifa Port. It was quickly replaced by the blue-and-white national flag of Israel.
Space does not permit the inclusion of so many historic milestones that have been omitted, but the idea behind this article was to show that Israel did not emerge out of nothing.