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Jewish history
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Jewish history

Jewish history is the history of the Jewish people, faith and culture.

Ancient Israelites

For the first two periods the history of the Jews is mainly that of Palestine. It begins among those peoples which occupied the area lying between the Nile river on the one side and the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers on the other. Surrounded by ancient seats of culture in Egypt and Babylonia, by the deserts of Arabia, and by the highlands of Asia Minor, the land of Canaan (later Judea, then Palestine, then Israel) was a meeting place of civilizations. The land was traversed by old-established trade routes and possessed important harbors on the Gulf of Akaba and on the Mediterranean coast, the latter exposing it to the influence of other cultures of the Fertile Crescent.

Traditionally Jews around the world claim descendance mostly from the ancient Israelites (also known as Hebrews), who settled in the land of Israel. The Israelites traced their common lineage to the biblical patriarch Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. Jewish tradition holds that the Israelites were the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons (one of which was named Judah), who settled in Egypt. Their direct descendants respectively divided into twelve tribes, who were enslaved under the rule of pharaoh Ramses II. In the Jewish faith, the emigration of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan (the Exodus), led by the prophet Moses, marks the formation of the Israelites as a people.

Jewish tradition has it that after forty years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites arrived to Canaan and conquered it under the command of Joshua, dividing the land among the twelve tribes. After a period of rule by rulers named Judges, a kingdom was established under Saul and continued under King David and Solomon. King David conquered Jerusalem (first a Canaanite, then a Jebusite town) and made it his capital. After Solomon's reign the nation split into two kingdoms, Israel (in the north) and Judah (in the south). Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V in the 8th century BC. The kingdom of Judah was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BC. The Judahite elite was exiled to Babylon, but later at least a part of them returned to their homeland, led by prophets Ezra and Nehemiah, after the subsequent conquest of Babylonia by the Persians. Already at this point the extreme fragmentation among the Israelites was apparent, with the formation of political-religious factions, the most important of which would later be called Sadduccees and Pharisees.

The Hasmonean Kingdom

After the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, his demise, and the division of Alexander's empire among his generals, the Seleucid Kingdom was formed. A deterioration of relations between hellenized Jews and religious Jews led the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to impose decrees banning certain Jewish religious rites and traditions. Consequently, the orthodox Jews revolted under the leadership of the Hasmonean family, (also known as the Maccabees). This revolt eventually led to the formation of an independent Jewish kingdom, known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty, which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually disintegrated as a result of civil war between the sons of Salome Alexandra, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The people, who did not want to be governed by a king but by theocratic clergy, made appeals in this spirit to the Roman authorities. A Roman campaign of conquest and annexation, led by Pompey, soon followed.

Judea under Roman rule was at first an independent Jewish kingdom, but gradually the rule over Judea became less and less Jewish, until it became under the direct rule of Roman administration (and renamed the province of Judaea), which was often callous and brutal in its treatment of its Judean subjects. In 66 CE, Judeans began to revolt against the Roman rulers of Judea. The revolt was defeated by the Roman emperors Vesesapian and Titus Flavius. The Romans destroyed much of the Temple in Jerusalem and, according to some accounts, stole artifacts from the temple, such as the Menorah. Judeans continued to live in their land in significant numbers, and were allowed to practice their religion, until the 2nd century when Julius Severus ravaged Judea while putting down the bar Kokhba revolt. After 135, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem, although this ban must have been at least partially lifted, since at the destruction of the rebuilt city by the Persians in the 7th century, Jews are said to have lived there.

The Diaspora

Many of the Judaean Jews were sold into slavery while others became citizens of other parts of the Roman Empire. This is the traditional explanation to the diaspora. However, a majority of the Jews in Antiquity were most likely descendants of convertites in the cities of the Hellenistic-Roman world, especially in Alexandria and Asia Minor, and were only affected by the diaspora in its spiritual sense, as the sense of loss and homelessness which became a cornerstone of the Jewish creed, much supported by persecutions in various parts of the world. The policy of conversion, which spread the Jewish religion throughout the Hellenistic civilization, seems to have ended with the wars against the Romans and the following reconstruction of Jewish values for the post-Temple era.

Mishnah, Talmud

Medieval and Renaissance Jewry

Jewish Communities of Medieval Spain, France, Germany. The Expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492) and other countries. Emergence of Enlightenment and Hassidism movements.


There is no evidence of Jews residing in England before the Norman Conquest. The few references in the Anglo-Saxon Church laws either relate to Jewish practises about Easter or apply to passing visitors, the Gallo-Jewish slave-traders, who imported English slaves to the Roman market and thus brought about the Christianizing of England. William of Malmesbury ("Gesta Rerum Anglorum," ed. Duffy, p. 500) states that William the Conqueror brought the Jews from Rouen to England. William the Conqueror's object may be inferred. From Domesday it is clear that his policy was to get the feudal dues paid to the royal treasury in coin rather than in kind, and for this purpose it was necessary to have a body of men scattered through the country that would supply quantities of coin.

After the experience in Jewish legislation which Edward I. had from 1269 onward, there was only one answer he could give as a true son of the Church tothese demands: If the Jews were not to have intercourse with their fellow citizens as artisans, merchants, or farmers, and were not to be allowed to take usury, the only alternative was for them to leave the country. He immediately expelled the Jews from Gascony, a province still held by England and in which he was traveling at the time; and on his return to England (July 18, 1290) he issued writs to the sheriffs of all the English counties ordering them to enforce a decree to the effect that all Jews should leave England before All Saints' Day of that year. They were allowed to carry their portable property; but their houses escheated to the king, except in the case of a few favored persons who were allowed to sell theirs before they left.

Some of them were robbed by the captains who undertook to transport them to Witsand; others were drowned on their way to France. Of the 16,000 who left, about one-tenth went to Flanders, their passage being paid by the king; and a number are found a short time later in the Paris Jewry. The king's booty was not of great amount, for the total rental of the houses which fell into his hands was not more than £130, and the debts owed to the Jews, of which he could collect only the principal, did not exceed £9,000. Parliament was said to have voted one-tenth of the tithes and one-fifteenth of the personal property in gratitude for the expulsion, but this merely represents contemporary prejudice. Edward's act was not an act of grace to the nation; as has been seen, no alternative was left to him. The Church would not allow the Jews to become an integral part of the English nation, and they therefore had to leave the country.

During the two hundred and twenty years of their stay the position of the Jews had steadily grown worse. At first, treated with special favor and allowed to amass considerable wealth, they had formed a necessary part of the royal organization. Two or three of them are mentioned as physicians, and several monks are said to have been converted to Judaism. They collected books and built themselves palatial residences; but after the massacres under Richard I. and the exactions of John they gradually became serfs of the king—mere chattels which he from time to time sold to the highest bidder. Their relations to their neighbors, which were at first friendly, became more and more embittered, though occasionally they are found joining with Christians in hunting.

See a fuller treatment of this subject in History of the Jews in England.

Jews in the 19th Century

Emancipation, Reform and Conservative Movements, Dreyfuss Trial, Herzl and Zionism.

Jews in the 20th Century

Jewish involvement in World War I. Jews in the Weimar Republic and other countries between the World Wars. World War II and the Holocaust. The Establishment of the State of Israel.

See Also

Judaism, List of noted Jews