Jewish History Proves Jews Are Indigenous to Israel
Jewish history is long, tortuous, and difficult to grasp in its entirety. Moreover, there is the history of the Jews, and then there is the history of Judaism; and while these two histories overlap considerably, they are not the same, a point made by Adam Kirsch in his 2018 The New Yorker article on “Why Jewish History Is So Hard to Write.”
The unsuccessful Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire from 66 to 73 CE, ending with the fall of Masada, is a prime example. Thanks, in part, to the writings of Josephus, the historical details have been widely publicized. As the common narrative puts it, the failure of the revolt led to the dispersion of the Jews, the loss of their homeland, and nearly 2,000 years of wandering, highlighted by a variety of restrictions, expulsions, and pogroms. Ironically, the same war also led to the destruction of the Temple, the ascendancy of Rabbinic Judaism, and the writing of the Talmud and Midrash.
Yet the struggle between the Jews and the Romans in the Holy Land did not end in 73 CE, and Jews continued to live in significant numbers in “Palestine” (the name given to the land by the Romans after the first revolt) for a considerable time afterward. Jews formed a majority of the population of Palestine until at least the fifth century CE, and an autonomous Roman-recognized Jewish patriarchate in Palestine existed until 429 CE.
The first revolt was the first of four efforts by the Jews of Palestine to throw off the Roman yoke. The second revolt, known as the Bar Kochba Revolt, began in 132 CE and ended with the fall of the fortress of Betar in 136 CE. The Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin notes in Bar-Kokhba (1971) that other than occasional references to coins minted in this period, references to this revolt in the Talmud and Midrash are scant and vague. Non-Jewish sources provide more information, especially the Roman historian Cassius Dio, who noted that the Romans paid a heavy price in casualties for their victory. It was the discovery of letters between Bar Kochba and his military subordinates in the early 1960s that established the historical provenance of this event.
After the destruction of the Temple, the center of Jewish life in Palestine shifted from Jerusalem and its surroundings, to the Galilee. This is clear from the large number of impressive synagogue ruins in evidence today at sites such as Beit Alpha, Bar-am, and Capernaum, but above all, the extensive ruins and mosaics that have been uncovered in recent decades at Tzippori (the Roman Sepphoris).
I learned only recently that there were two additional revolts by Jews in Palestine against Roman rule. In both, the rebels tried to take advantage of Roman preoccupation with disturbances elsewhere in the Empire.
The Gallus Revolt, directed against the rule of Constantine Gallus, brother-in-law of the Roman emperor Constantine II, took place from 351 to 352 CE. The revolt may have been a reaction to Christian proselytism, although according to Hebrew University historian Shmuel Safrai, Gallus’ corrupt rule was the cause. The focal points of the revolt were at Tzippori and Tiberius, but a 1996 discovery of a trove of related coins indicates that it extended as far south as Lod (Lydda). Ursicinus, a senior Roman commander, put down the revolt; thousands of rebels died, and towns such as Tzippori and Tiberius were destroyed. (Both towns were rebuilt shortly thereafter.)
The last Jewish effort to gain autonomy in Palestine before modern times, the revolt against Heraclius, emperor of Byzantine (the Eastern Roman Empire), broke out in 614 CE, in the midst of a broader conflict between the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian (Persian) Empire. Estimates indicate that 20-26,000 Jewish men fought in this campaign, with heavy losses on both sides. Initial Jewish successes, including a Jewish takeover of Jerusalem, came to naught in 617 CE, when the Sasanians reneged on their support for the Jews.
Each of these four revolts failed, and some have questioned the wisdom of taking on the powerful Roman Empire at what seems to have been impossible odds. Each loss resulted in a further reduction in the number of Jews living in the Holy Land.
But while it is true that from the seventh century CE until modern times Jews formed a minority of the population of Palestine, their numbers were still appreciable throughout this period, even though they fluctuated because of immigration, epidemics, and earthquakes. To say that the Jews left the Land of Israel for 2,000 years after the fall of Masada is incorrect. It encourages the view that the modern State of Israel is nothing more than a colonial enterprise, without any historical connection to the land or evidence of a continuous Jewish presence.
Former US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, along with many others, have warned that Jewish literacy is critical for the future of the Jewish people. While there may be no consensus as to the definition of Jewish literacy, surely a basic knowledge of Jewish history should be a part of it.
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.