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September 30, 2020 5:42 am

Historical Proof of Jewish Continuity in Israel

avatar by Jacob Sivak and Norm Finkelberg


Worshipers pray in distance from each other at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, amid coronavirus restrictions, March 26, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad.

The continuous Jewish presence in the Land of Israel may not be obvious to many Jews or non-Jews, particularly with respect to indigeneity. In a July 2020 Tikkun magazine article, “The Third Promise,” David Mevorach Seidenberg notes that “It was the Roman Empire’s conquest that caused the Jewish people’s separation from the land,” and “If Judaism was once indigenous, can it again become indigenous?” Similarly, in a 2018 Canadian Jewish News article, David Weinfeld asks whether too much time has elapsed after 2,000 years for the Jewish return to Israel to count as a return.

Ironically, some indigenous rights activists have made the connection between continuous Jewish habitation in Israel and indigenous rights. Ryan Bellerose is a Canadian indigenous activist, a Métis, from northern Alberta; while Nan Greer (who is not of aboriginal ancestry) is an indigenous rights activist from California. Both have noted, in articles and interviews, that Jews have a common ancestry, a common culture (including religion), a common language, and that they have continuously occupied ancestral lands. These are the essential criteria for indigeneity established by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Bellerose adds: “Palestinian Arabs also hold a claim to the land of Israel. … This does not trump the indigenous status of Jewish people.”

While it is common to speak of 20 centuries of Jewish exile, the truth is that the Jews never did completely leave the land. It is estimated that the number of Jews in the Roman Empire during the early part of the Common Era (CE) was substantial, ranging from five to six million, or about 10% of the Empire. Moreover, until at least the fifth or sixth century CE, and even after three unsuccessful Jewish revolts against Roman rule in Palestine, Jews constituted a significant portion, if not a majority, of the population of Palestine.

The early centuries of the Common Era were periods of considerable Jewish autonomy and literary activity in Palestine, highlighted by the existence of the Sanhedrin and the writing of the Jerusalem Talmud. In Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll notes that a Roman-recognized Jewish patriarchate based in Palestine existed until 429 CE.

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The Christian historian Eusebius reported on the existence of a significant Jewish population in Palestine in the early Common Era, and the evidence is clear from the extensive archeological sites visible today, such as those at Beit Alpha, Beit She’arim, Tzippori (Sepphoris),  Baram, and many others. Joe Yudin noted in the Jerusalem Post that when he first saw the Baram ruins he was shocked: “As a young American fresh out of college, I was under the impression that the Jews were thrown out of Israel in the first century CE and never came back until the Zionist movement began in the 19th century.”

Jewish autonomy and numbers in Palestine diminished once Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. During Byzantine rule in the fifth century, a majority of the population were Christians; Jews were unable to hold public office and Jewish access to Jerusalem was restricted. Nevertheless, the mosaic floor of the Beit Alpha synagogue includes a dedication indicating that it was built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justin I (518-527 CE), well after the patriarchate was abolished, while letters written by Jewish travelers indicate that the Baram synagogue was in use until at least the 13th century.

The article by Yudin on Baram also notes that while today Kibbutz Baram is located on the remains of a Palestinian village whose residents fled during the fighting that established Israel’s independence in 1948, the Arab village itself was located on the ruins of an earlier Jewish community.

This brings to mind the often-cited 1939 letter written by Martin Buber to Mahatma Gandhi, particularly with regard to the Ghandi’s view that Palestine belongs to the Arabs, not the Jews. Buber asks “by what means did the Arabs attain the right of ownership in Palestine? Surely by conquest and, in fact, a conquest by settlement.” In India’s Israel Policy, PR Kumaraswamy notes that Gandhi, perhaps influenced by the Holocaust, later changed his mind and told the American journalist Louis Fischer that the Jews have a good case in Palestine.

In Twenty Centuries of Jewish Life in the Holy Land-The Forgotten Generations, a 64-page illustrated volume published in 1975 and 1976 by the Israel Economist, Dan Bahat (the Israeli archeologist who excavated the Western Wall tunnels) highlights the continual and active Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. He notes “even if a majority were forced from one exile to another, many Jews stayed on, reinforced from time to time by returning exiles.”

Bahat cites the Cairo Genizah and the writings of the Spanish-Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela to note that Jews continued to inhabit a number of towns, including at times Jerusalem, during the Arab conquest and even during Crusader rule. The Jewish population waxed and waned in relation to immigration, natural disasters, and disease. For example, the expulsions from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497) led to the establishment of a sizable Jewish community and center for Jewish scholarship in Tzfat (Safed) that included Joseph Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, and the Kabbalist Isaac Luria.

The Swedish naturalist Frederick Hasselquist reported that in 1751, the year of his visit, 4,000 Jews immigrated to the Holy Land, but the English diplomat William Turner, who visited in 1815, learned that 3,000 Jews had died from plague.

An earthquake destroyed the entire Jewish Quarter of Tzfat and part of Tiberius in 1837, and thousands of Jews died. Nevertheless, substantial numbers of Jews continued to inhabit other centers, and the French diplomat and historian Cesar Famin reported that in 1853, Jews constituted a majority of the population of Jerusalem.

An article published in 2020 in the Toronto Sun by Tarek Fatah, a Canadian journalist of Pakistani origin, provides a succinct description of the issue. Fatah writes, “Reading James Michener’s The Source in the late 1960s made me realize that far from being European occupiers of Palestine, as we were told, the Jews had been living around Jerusalem and the Levant for more than a millennium. In fact, it was the Arabs under Umar Al Khattab who first occupied the lands of Palestine.”

Fatah notes: “How can two people who both have truth on their side be such mortal enemies? The Israelis have a right to a Jewish state, but my brothers, the Palestinians, also need a state of their own.”

Seidenberg’s article in Tikkun makes the point that “Evaluated independently from Judaism and Jewish peoplehood and historical context, Zionism is barely distinguishable from settler colonialism,” suggesting that Judaism (and Jewish history) and modern Zionism are mutually exclusive. In fact, they are a continuum, as noted by Ben Halpern in Zionism and the Creation of a New Society.

The First Aliyah (1881-1903), often described as the starting point of modern Zionism, was the first of five waves of immigration that led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. In fact, the First Aliyah preceded the First Zionist Congress held in 1897. And Zionism is not a European invention; for while most of those in the First Aliyah were European Jews, a substantial number were from Yemen.

The First Aliyah was anything but the first. It was continuous with both the yearning in Judaism to return to Zion (exemplified by the daily Amidah prayer recited by Jews) and the evidence on the ground of continuous habitation over the millennia.

Jacob (Jake) Sivak, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2002, is a retired professor in the School of Optometry, University of Waterloo, where he continues his research interests as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus. He has a lifelong interest in the history of the Jewish people.

Norm Finkelberg is a member and lay leader at Temple Shalom in Waterloo, Ontario. His areas of study include late Second Temple Judaism, diaspora Judaism, and interfaith dialogue.

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