Around the time the French-Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason in the late 19th century, Zionist forerunner Theodor Herzl concluded that the only escape from rampant European anti-Semitism was the establishment of a national Jewish homeland.
Together with British Colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain, the founder of the World Zionist Organization even entertained the idea of a Jewish autonomous region in Uganda. He greatly influenced other prominent Zionist leaders such as the Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, and catapulted the Zionist movement that would lead to the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Three decades later, with a horrific genocide of Jews in between, a UN resolution created the state of Israel. However, there are few other historical figures—Jews and non-Jews alike—who contributed to the idea of a Jewish homeland long before modern political Zionism of the 19th century took hold. As Israel celebrates its 64th birthday, here are their stories:
Cyrus the Great (ruled 550-530 B.C.)
When Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon conquered Judah and destroyed the First Temple, thousands of Jews were forced to leave the land of Israel into the Babylonian exile in 597 BC. But in 539 BC, the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Cyrus the Great was known for many conquests and military campaigns, but also for religious tolerance. The Cyrus Cylinder, currently held at the British Museum in London, describes the Persian conquest of Babylon and Cyrus’ subsequent policy of relieving religious persecution by restoring temples and allowing ethnic groups held captive by the previous rulers to return to their homelands. It is often referred to as the “first charter of human rights.”
As part of this, Cyrus passed a decree that allowed approximately 50,000 Jews to return to the land of Israel sometime around 538 BC. The Jewish return did not signal a full reestablishment of a Jewish monarchy, as Cyrus installed Zerubbabel, a descendant of King David, as governor of the province of Judah. Still, the returning exiles did get some autonomy and the freedom to practice their religion. Zerubbabel is credited with laying the foundation for the Second Temple.
Judah Halevi (1075-1141)
Judah ben Samuel Halevi was a physician and renowned Spanish-Jewish poet of the Middle Ages. In his youth he enjoyed years of serious study in subjects ranging from theology and literature to philosophy and medicine. Halevi also wrote around 800 poems, which became increasingly agitated as Jewish life in Spain began to lose stability. In 1066 Muslims massacred more than 4,000 Jews in Granada. The Christian army of Alfonso VI took the city of Toledo in 1085, and a Muslim army invaded in 1090. Halevi began to feel increasingly insecure and many of his poems reflect great yearning to return to Zion, the land of Israel. As lines from his famous poem, “My Heart is in the East,” read: “My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west…How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet Zion lieth beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains?”
By 1140, the middle-aged Halevi decided to immigrate to the Holy Land himself. It is known that he arrived in Egypt and may have attempted to reach Israel from there, although it is uncertain if he ever did. He died in 1141. By the 20th century, Halevi’s poetry became increasingly symbolic to modern Zionists.
Dona Gracia Nasi (1510-1569)
Dona Gracia Nasi was born into a family that had been expelled from Spain in 1492. Nasi’s family had fled to Portugal to escape forced conversion to Catholicism. By the time she was born in 1510 under the name of Beatrice de Luna, the Portuguese authorities had also forced Portuguese Jews and Spanish-Jewish exiles to convert. She was baptized and became a New Christian.
Nasi eventually became a wealthy widow and this allowed her to continue her husband’s business along with her brother-in-law as the partner, mainly selling textiles and spices. She and several family members left Portugal in 1536, the year of the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition. She settled in various regions including Venice, Italy, where she was arrested on suspicion of secretly practicing Judaism. Her business skills and connections secured her release and allowed her to move to Constantinople (modern Istanbul), then part of the Ottoman Empire, where she began to live openly as a Jew.
In the 1550s, Nasi tried to organize a boycott of the port of Ancona in Italy after 26 Portguese New Christians who were living openly as Jews were burned in that city. By the end of that decade, Nasi secured permission from the Sultan to establish a permanent Jewish settlement in Tiberias, a city near the Sea of Galilee in the north of the Holy Land, now modern Israel. She had a vision of an independent settlement with its own industry and was financing its reconstruction, even sending soldiers to guard it. The settlement was ultimately unsuccessful because she passed away before arriving.
David Cohen Nassy (1612-1685)
Another Portuguese New Christian, Nassy was also known as Christovão de Távora and Joseph Nunes da Fonseca. He was a colonizer who founded settlements for Sephardic Jews and New Christians in Guiana and Surinam. The Surinam settlement became known as Jodensavanne, an autonomous village where residents openly practiced the Jewish religion. According to the Jodensavanne Foundation, the settlement was one of the only examples of such Jewish autonomy prior to the founding of the State of Israel. The community even had its own Jewish army and civil guard. By 1694 nearly 600 Jews lived in Jodensavanne, including by then some Ashkenazi Jews. However, the wealth of the community came from sugar plantations worked on by 9,000 slaves. Escaped slaves were in constant combat with the Jewish militia. By the mid 18th century, many Jews began to leave the area. In the 19th century a fire destroyed nearly the entire village, and after slavery was abolished, the community practically disappeared.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
Napoleon Bonaparte is arguably one of the greatest European military leaders. As Emperor of France from 1804 to 1815, he conquered the majority of the European continent. It is likely less known that the when the famous general retreated from Egypt and prepared to attack the Holy Land city of Acre in 1799, he issued a proclamation calling the Jews “the rightful heirs of Palestine.”
While scholars say Napoleon may have held anti-Semitic views and that his proclamation was probably influenced by his need to gather support from local Jews against Ottoman rulers, this public acknowledgment of the need to restore Jews to their ancient homeland makes Napoleon unique among European statesmen in his time.
Information was used in this report from Prof. Renee Levine Melammed (Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem), Jewish Virtual Library, Boston University, Yale University, Stanford University, Britishmuseum.org, the Jewish Agency, the Jodensavanne Foundation, American Jewish Acrhives, the Jerusalem Post, and History of a Metaphor: Christian Zionism and the Politics of Apocalypse.