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October 24, 2022 10:58 am

An Inconvenient Truth: The Jewish People Never Left the Land of Israel

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avatar by Jacob Sivak


A general view shows the plaza of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, amid the coronavirus pandemic, May 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

I just finished reading former US Ambassador David Friedman’s recent article, in which he makes the point that Judaism and Zionism are inseparable. It is a fine article and I agree with him, but I wonder if it places too much emphasis on the return of the Jewish people to their homeland after a lengthy absence. I have the same concern with an upbeat review of Israel’s achievements in a recent article by David Weinberg, which refers to two millennia of Jewish dispersion.

To imply that the Jews left the Land of Israel for 2,000 years, after the fall of Masada, is not accurate. It feeds into the view that the modern state of Israel is a European colonial enterprise with no historical connection to the land. What’s more, the Jewish return did not originate with the modern Zionist movement in the early 1880s. Aliyah has been continuous throughout the ages.

The Jewish people never really left the Holy Land. Certainly, many were killed or expelled at the time of Masada and later, but many Jews continued to live in “Palestine” (the name given by the Romans after the Bar Kochba revolt, 132-135 CE) for a considerable time afterward. 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. 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.

Archeological ruins point to the establishment of more than 80 synagogues, particularly in the Galilee, during the six centuries after the destruction of the Temple. After Masada, the Jewish population was substantial enough for three serious revolts against Roman or Byzantine rule to occur; the last one, against the Emperor Heraclius, was in the seventh century.

Evidence from the Cairo Genizah, and the writings of the Spanish-Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, indicate that Jews continued to inhabit a number of towns, including Jerusalem, after the Byzantine defeat by the Arabs under Omar Ibn Al Khattab in 637, and even during Crusader rule. In fact, the 12th century witnessed an upsurge in Jewish immigration from Europe; 300 rabbis from England and France, including a number of prominent Tosafists, immigrated to the Holy land in 1211, while the noted Spanish rabbi and philosopher Nachmanides (the Ramban) made aliyah in 1267.

The Jewish population increased and decreased as a function of immigration, natural disasters, and disease. The expulsions from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497) led to the establishment of a sizable 16th century Jewish community in Tzfat (Safed), one that became a major Judaic center, as well as an important focus for the wool trade and the textile industry.

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, such as Hebron and Jerusalem.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, well before the onset of the First Aliyah in 1881, significant numbers of Hasidic Jews, as well as their rivals — the followers of the Vilna Gaon — made aliyah. By the mid 1800s, Jews constituted a majority of the population of Jerusalem.

Others have made the same observation I am  making here. Bari Weiss refers to an inconvenient truth — that there has been a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel since the destruction of the Temple.

Tarek Fatah, a Canadian journalist of Pakistani origin, was even more explicit in an article in the Toronto Sun (2020). Fatah writes, “…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.”

Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor, School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo.

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