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Jewish history is the history of the Jews, and their religion and culture, as it developed and interacted with other peoples, religions and cultures. Jewish history is over 4000 years long and includes hundreds of different populations.
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The history of the early Jews, and their neighbors, is mainly that of the Fertile Crescent and east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It begins among those people who occupied the area lying between the Nile, Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. 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 (roughly corresponding to modern-day Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Lebanon) 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.
According to the Jewish sacred writings, which became the Hebrew Bible, Jews are descended from the ancient people of Israel who settled in the land of Canaan, located between the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River (1451 BCE). The Children of Israel shared a lineage through their common ancestors, Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac's son Jacob, Hebrews whose nomadic travels centered around Hebron somewhere between 1991 and 1706 BCE, apparently leading to the establishment of the Cave of the Patriarchs as their burial site in Hebron. The Children of Israel consisted of twelve tribes, each descended from one of Jacob's twelve sons, Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissachar, Zevulun, Dan, Gad, Naftali, Asher, Yosef, and Benyamin. Jacob and his twelve sons, or so the Bible asserts, left Canaan during a severe famine and settled in Goshen of northern Egypt. While in Egypt their descendants were enslaved by the Egyptian government led by the Pharaoh. After 400 years of slavery, YHWH, the God of Israel, sent the Hebrew prophet Moses, a man from the tribe of Levi, to release the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. According to the Bible, the Hebrews miraculously emigrated out of Egypt (an event known as the Exodus), and returned to their ancestral homeland in Canaan. This event marks the formation of Israel as a political nation in Canaan, in 1400 BCE.
However, archaeology reveals a different tale of the origins of the Jewish people: they did not necessarily leave the Levant. The archaeological evidence of the largely indigenous origins of Israel, in Canaan, not Egypt, is "overwhelming," and leaves "no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness", according to Biblical minimalists.  For this reason, many archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit." A century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists has arguably found no evidence which can be directly related to the Exodus narrative of an Egyptian captivity and the escape and travels through the wilderness, leading to the suggestion that Iron Age Israel—the kingdoms of Judah and Israel—has its origins in Canaan, not Egypt: the culture of the earliest Israelite settlements is Canaanite, their cult-objects are those of the Canaanite god El, the pottery remains in the local Canaanite tradition, and the alphabet used is early Canaanite. Almost the sole marker distinguishing the "Israelite" villages from Canaanite sites is an absence of pig bones, although whether this can be taken as an ethnic marker or is due to other factors remains a matter of dispute.
According to the Bible, after their emancipation from Egyptian slavery, the people of Israel wandered around and lived in the Sinai desert for a span of forty years before conquering Canaan in 1400 BCE under the command of Joshua. While living in the desert, according to the Biblical writings, the nation of Israel received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai from YHWH, carried by Moses. This marked a beginning for normative Judaism, and contributed to the formation of the first Abrahamic religion. After entering Canaan, portions of the land were given to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. For several hundred years, the Land of Israel was organized into a confederacy of twelve tribes ruled by a series of Judges. After that, notes the Bible, came the Israelite monarchy. In 1000 BCE, the monarchy was established under Saul, and continued under King David and his son, Solomon. During the reign of David, the already existing city of Jerusalem became the national and spiritual capital of Israel. Solomon built the First Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. However, the tribes were fracturing politically. Upon his death, a civil war erupted between the ten northern Israelite tribes, and the tribes of Judah (Simeon was absorbed into Judah) and Benjamin in the south. The nation split into the Kingdom of Israel in the north, and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V in the 8th century BCE. There is no commonly accepted historical record of the fate of the ten northern tribes, which are sometimes referred to as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, although speculation abounds.
After revolting against the new dominant power and an ensuing siege, the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian army in 587 BCE. The elite of the kingdom and many of their people were exiled to Babylon, where the religion developed outside their traditional temple.
After a few generations and with the conquest of Babylonia by the Persian Empire, some adherents led by prophets Ezra and Nehemiah, returned to their homeland and traditional practices. Other Jews did not permanently return and remained in exile and developed somewhat independently outside of the Land of Israel, especially following the Muslim conquests of the Middle East in the 7th century CE.
Following their return to Jerusalem and with Persian approval and financing, construction of the Second Temple in 516 BCE was completed under the leadership of the last three Jewish Prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.
Hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean world was, at the time, shifting to the classical civilizations and away from the Egyptians, Syrians, and Persians. Some Canaanites had already become Phoenicians and colonized areas of the southern Mediterranean, and they went on to found the Carthaginian Empire. Greeks, meanwhile, were beginning to probe eastwards.
After the death of the last Jewish prophet and while still under Persian rule, the leadership of the Jewish people passed into the hands of five successive generations of zugot ("pairs of") leaders. They flourished first under the Persians and then under the Greeks. As a result the Pharisees and Sadduccees were formed. Under the Persians then under the Greeks, Jewish coins were minted in Judea as Yehud coinage.
Greek culture was spread eastwards by the Alexandrian conquests. The Levant was not immune to this cultural spread. During this time, currents of Judaism were influenced by Hellenistic philosophy developed from the 3rd century BCE, notably the Jewish diaspora in Alexandria, culminating in the compilation of the Septuagint. An important advocate of the symbiosis of Jewish theology and Hellenistic thought is Philo.
A deterioration of relations between hellenized Jews and orthodox 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 had been an independent Jewish kingdom under the Hasmoneans, but was conquered by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BCE and reorganized as a client state. (Roman expansion was going on in other areas as well, and would continue for more than a hundred and fifty years.) Later, Herod the Great was appointed "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate, supplanting the Hasmonean dynasty. Some of his offspring held various positions after him, known as the Herodian dynasty. Briefly, from 4 BCE to 6 CE, Herod Archelaus ruled the tetrarchy of Judea as ethnarch, the Romans denying him the title of King. After the Census of Quirinius in 6, the Roman province of Judaea was formed as a satellite of Roman Syria under the rule of a prefect (as was Roman Egypt) until 41, then procurators after 44. The empire was often callous and brutal in its treatment of its Jewish subjects, see Anti-Judaism in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. In 66 CE, the Jews began to revolt against the Roman rulers of Judea. The revolt was defeated by the future Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus. In the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed much of the Temple in Jerusalem and, according to some accounts, plundered artifacts from the temple, such as the Menorah. Jews continued to live in their land in significant numbers, the Kitos War of 115-117 CE nothwithstanding, until Julius Severus ravaged Judea while putting down the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136 CE. 985 villages were destroyed and most of the Jewish population of central Judaea was essentially wiped out, killed, sold into slavery, or forced to flee. Banished from Jerusalem, the Jewish population now centred on Galilee. Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina and Judea was renamed Syria Palestina, to spite the Jews by naming it after their ancient enemies, the Philistines. Jews were only allowed to visit Aelia Capitolina on the day of Tisha B'Av.
Many of the Judaean Jews were sold into slavery while others became citizens of other parts of the Roman Empire. The book of Acts in the New Testament, as well as other Pauline texts, make frequent reference to the large populations of Hellenised Jews in the cities of the Roman world. These Hellenised Jews were only affected by the diaspora in its spiritual sense, absorbing the feeling of loss and homelessness which became a cornerstone of the Jewish creed, much supported by persecutions in various parts of the world. The policy towards proselytism and conversion to Judaism, which spread the Jewish religion throughout the Hellenistic civilization, seems to have subsided with the wars against the Romans.
Of critical importance to the reshaping of Jewish tradition from the Temple-based religion to the traditions of the Diaspora, was the development of the interpretations of the Torah found in the Mishnah and Talmud.
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In spite of the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, some Jews remained in the Land of Israel. The Jews who remained there went through numerous experiences and armed conflicts against consecutive foreign occupiers. Some of the most famous and important Jewish texts were composed in Israeli cities at this time. The Jerusalem Talmud, the completion of the Mishnah and the system of niqqud are examples.
In this period the tannaim and amoraim were active, rabbis who organized and debated the Jewish oral law. The decisions and opinions of the tannaim are contained in the Mishnah, Beraita, Tosefta, and various Midrash compilations. The Mishnah was completed shortly after 200 CE, probably by Judah haNasi. The commentaries of the amoraim upon the Mishnah are compiled in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was completed around 400 CE, probably in Tiberias.
In 351 CE, the Jewish population in Sepphoris, under the leadership of Patricius, started a revolt against the rule of Constantius Gallus, brother-in-law of Emperor Constantius II. The revolt was eventually subdued by Gallus' general, Ursicinus.
According to tradition[who?], in 359 CE Hillel II created the Hebrew calendar based on the lunar year. Until then, the entire Jewish community outside the land of Israel depended on the calendar sanctioned by the Sanhedrin; this was necessary for the proper observance of the Jewish holy days. However, danger threatened the participants in that sanction and the messengers who communicated their decisions to distant communities. As the religious persecutions continued, Hillel determined to provide an authorized calendar for all time to come.
In 363, shortly before launching his campaign against the Sassanid Empire, the last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian II, allowed the Jews to return to "holy Jerusalem which you have for many years longed to see rebuilt" and to rebuild the Temple. However, Julian's campaign against the Persians failed and he was killed in battle on 26 June 363. The Temple was not rebuilt.
Jews were widespread throughout the Roman Empire, and this carried on to a lesser extent in the period of Byzantine rule in the central and eastern Mediterranean. The militant and exclusive Christianity and caesaropapism of the Byzantine Empire did not treat Jews well, and the condition and influence of diaspora Jews in the Empire declined dramatically.
It was official Christian policy to convert Jews to Christianity and the Christian leadership used the official power of Rome in their attempts. In 351 CE the Jews revolted against the added pressures of their Governor, one named Gallus. Gallus put down the revolt and destroyed the major cities in the Galilee area where the revolt had started. Tzippori and Lydda (site of two of the major legal academies) never recovered.
Nonetheless it is in this period that the Nasi in Tiberias, Hillel II created an official calendar which needed no monthly sightings of the moon. The months were set, and the calendar needed no further authority from Judea. At about the same time, the Jewish academy at Tiberius began to collate the combined Mishnah, braitot, explanations, and interpretations developed by generations of scholars who studied after the death of Judah HaNasi. The text was organized according to the order of the Mishna: each paragraph of Mishnah was followed by a compilation of all of the interpretations, stories, and responses associated with that Mishnah. This text is called the Jerusalem Talmud.
The Jews of Judea received a brief respite from official persecution during the rule of the Emperor Julian the Apostate. Julian's policy was to return the kingdom to Hellenism and he encouraged the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem. Julian's rule lasted only from 361 to 363, so there was no chance to carry out this promise before Christian rule was restored over the Empire. Beginning in 398 with the consecration of St. John Chrysostom as Patriarch, the Christian rhetoric against Jews continued to rise with a series of sermons such as "Against the Jews" and "On the Statues, Homily 17" where John preaches against "the Jewish sickness". Such heated language would build a climate of distrust and hate of the large Jewish settlements, such as those in Antioch and Constantinople.
In the beginning of the 5th century, the Emperor Theodosius issued a set of decrees which established official prosecution against Jews. Jews were not allowed to own slaves, build new synagogues, hold public office or try cases between a Jew and a non-Jew. Intermarriage between Jew and non-Jew was made a capital offense as was a Christian converting to Judaism. Theodosius, furthermore, did away with the Sanhedrin and abolished the post of Nasi. Under the Emperor Justinian the authorities restricted the civil rights of Jews, and threatened their religious privileges. The emperor also interfered in the internal affairs of the synagogue, and forbade, for instance, the use of the Hebrew language in divine worship. The recalcitrant were menaced with corporal penalties, exile, and loss of property. The Jews at Borium, not far from Syrtis Major, who resisted the Byzantine General Belisarius in his campaign against the Vandals, were forced to embrace Christianity and their synagogue was converted to a church.
Justinian and his successors of course had concerns outside the province of Judea, and there were insufficient troops to enforce these regulations. As a result, ironically, the 5th century saw a wave of new synagogues built with beautiful mosaic floors. Jews assimilated into their lives the rich art forms of the Byzantine culture. There exist mosaics showing people, animals, menorahs, zodiacs, and Biblical characters. Excellent examples of these synagogue floors have been found at Beit Alpha (which includes the scene of Abraham sacrificing a ram instead of his son Isaac along with a gorgeous zodiac), Tiberius, Beit Shean, and Tzippori.
The precarious existence of Jews under Byzantine rule did not long endure, largely for the explosion of the Muslim religion out of the remote Arabian peninsula (where large populations of Jews resided, see History of the Jews under Muslim Rule for more). The Muslim Caliphate ejected the Byzantines from the Holy Land (or the Levant, defined as modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) within a few years of their victory at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636. A testament of the cruelty of the Byzantines towards the Jews can be noted in the great number of Jews who fled remaining Byzantine territories in favour of residence in the Caliphate over the subsequent centuries.
Yet, the size of the Jewish community in the Byzantine Empire was not affected by attempts by some emperors (most notably Justinian) to forcibly convert the Jews of Anatolia to Christianity, as these attempts met with very little success. The exact picture of the status of the Jews in Asian Minor during the Byzantine rule is still being researched by historians (for a sample of views, see, for instance, J. Starr "The Jews in the Byzantine Empire, 641-1204", S. Bowman, "The Jews of Byzantium", R. Jenkins "Byzantium", Averil Cameron, "Byzantines and Jews: Recent Work on Early Byzantium," Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 20). Although there is some evidence of occasional hostility by the Byzantine populations and authorities, no systematic persecution of the type endemic at that time in Western Europe (pogroms, the stake, mass expulsions etc.) has been recorded in Byzantium. Much of the Jewish population of Constantinople remained in place after the conquest of the city by Mehmet II.
Sometime in the 7th or 8th century, the Khazars, a Turkic tribe in what is now the Ukraine, seems to have converted to Judaism. The completeness of this conversion is unclear, but certainly there had been a Jewish population in the Crimea since the Hellenistic era, and these may have been reinforced by Jews leaving the fickle Byzantine governance. Influenced and threatened as they were by both Islam and the Byzantine Empire, and receiving much tangible benefit from their Jewish population, it is speculated that Khazar rulers converted to Judaism in an effort to remain neutral as a safeguard to their independence.
Mosaic pavement of a synagogue at Beit Alpha (5th century)
Mosaic in the Tzippori Synagogue (5th century)
Mosaic pavement recovered from the Hamat Gader synagogue (5th or 6th century)
In 638 CE the Byzantine Empire lost control of the Levant. The Arab Islamic Empire under Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem and the lands of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Under the various regimes the Jews suffered massacres and were forced to flee the inland villages towards the coast. They were subsequently induced to return inland after the coastal towns had been destroyed. Nevertheless, the Jews still controlled much of the commerce in Palestine. According to Arab geographer Al-Muqaddasi, the Jews worked as "the assayers of coins, the dyers, the tanners and the bankers in the community." During the Fatimid period, many Jewish officials served in the regime. Professor Moshe Gil documents that at the time of the Arab conquest in 7th century CE, the majority of the population was Jewish.
In 1099, Jews helped to defend Jerusalem against the Crusaders. When the city fell, the Crusaders gathered them in a synagogue and set it alight. In Haifa, the Jews almost single-handedly defended the town against the Crusaders, holding out for a whole month, (June–July 1099). At this time there were Jewish communities scattered all over the country, including Jerusalem, Tiberias, Ramleh, Ashkelon, Caesarea, and Gaza. Jews were not allowed to hold land in the Crusader period and concentrated their efforts on commerce in the coastal towns during times of quiescence. Most of them were artisans: glassblowers in Sidon, furriers and dyers in Jerusalem.
During this period, the Masoretes of Tiberias established the Hebrew language orthography, or niqqud, a system of diacritical vowel points used in the Hebrew alphabet. A large volume of piyutim and midrashim originated in Palestine at this time.
Maimonides wrote that in 1165 he visited Jerusalem and went up on to the Temple Mount and prayed in the "great, holy house". Maimonides established a yearly holiday for himself and his sons, the 6th of Cheshvan, commemorating the day he went up to pray on the Temple Mount, and another, the 9th of Cheshvan, commemorating the day he merited to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
In 1141 Yehuda Halevi issued a call to the Jews to emigrate to the land of Israel and took on the long journey himself. After a stormy passage from Córdoba, he arrived in Egyptian Alexandria, where he was enthusiastically greeted by friends and admirers. At Damietta, he had to struggle against the promptings of his own heart, and the pleadings of his friend Ḥalfon ha-Levi, that he remain in Egypt; and free from intolerant oppression. He started on the tedious land route, trodden of old by the Israelite wanderers in the desert. Again he is met with, worn-out, with broken heart and whitened hair, in Tyre and Damascus. Jewish legend relates that as he came near Jerusalem, over-powered by the sight of the Holy City, he sang his most beautiful elegy, the celebrated "Zionide," "Zion ha-lo Tish'ali." At that instant, he was ridden down and killed by an Arab, who dashed forth from a gate.
In the years 1260-1516, the land of Israel was part of the Empire of the Mamluks who ruled first from Turkey, then from Egypt. War, uprisings, bloodshed and destruction followed the Maimonides. Jews suffered persecution and humiliation, but the surviving records cite at least 30 Jewish urban and rural communities at the opening of the 16th century.
A notable event during the period was the settlement of Nachmanides in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1267, since which time a continuous Jewish presence existed in Jerusalem until the modern day occupation of Jordan in 1948. Nahmanides then settled at Acre, where he was very active in spreading Jewish learning, which was at that time very much neglected in the Holy Land. He gathered a circle of pupils around him, and people came in crowds, even from the district of the Euphrates, to hear him. Karaites were said to have attended his lectures, among them being Aaron ben Joseph the Elder, who later became one of the greatest Karaite authorities. Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem he addressed a letter to his son Nahman, in which he described the desolation of the Holy City, where there were at that time only two Jewish inhabitants — two brothers, dyers by trade. In a later letter from Acre he counsels his son to cultivate humility, which he considers to be the first of virtues. In another, addressed to his second son, who occupied an official position at the Castilian court, Nahmanides recommends the recitation of the daily prayers and warns above all against immorality. Nahmanides died after having passed the age of seventy-six, and his remains were interred at Haifa, by the grave of Yechiel of Paris. Yechiel emigrated to Acre in 1260, along with his son and a large group of followers. There he established the Tamudic academy Midrash haGadol d'Paris. He is believed to have died there between 1265 and 1268.
During the Middle Ages, Jews were generally better treated by Islamic rulers than Christian ones. Despite second-class citizenship, Jews played prominent roles in Muslim courts, and experienced a "Golden Age" in Moorish Spain about 900-1100, though the situation deteriorated after that time. Riots resulting in the deaths of Jews did however occur in North Africa through the centuries and especially in Morocco, Libya and Algeria where eventually Jews were forced to live in ghettos.
The 11th century saw Muslim pogroms against Jews in Spain; those occurred in Cordoba in 1011 and in Granada in 1066. Decrees ordering the destruction of synagogues were enacted in the Middle Ages in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Jews were also forced to convert to Islam or face death in some parts of Yemen, Morocco and Baghdad at certain times. The Almohads, who had taken control of much of Islamic Iberia by 1172, far surpassed the Almoravides in fundamentalist outlook, and they treated the dhimmis harshly. Jews and Christians were expelled from Morocco and Islamic Spain. Faced with the choice of either death or conversion, many Jews emigrated. Some, such as the family of Maimonides, fled south and east to the more tolerant Muslim lands, while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms.
According to James Carroll, "Jews accounted for 10% of the total population of the Roman Empire. By that ratio, if other factors had not intervened, there would be 200 million Jews in the world today, instead of something like 13 million."
Jewish populations had existed in Europe, especially in the area of the former Roman Empire, from very early times, with converts to Judaism joined by traders and later by member of the exodus. There are records of Jewish communities in France (see History of the Jews in France) and Germany (see History of the Jews in Germany) from the 4th century, and substantial Jewish communities in Spain even earlier.
Norman Cantor and other twentieth century historians dispute the conventional idea that the Middle Ages was a uniformly difficult time for Jews. Early medieval society, before the Church became fully organized, was tolerant. Between 800 and 1100 there were 1.5 million Jews in Christian Europe. Not being Christian, they were not included as a division of the feudal system with clergy, knights and serfs; thus they were not included in the oppressive demands for labor and military conscription that made life miserable for most Christian commoners. In relations with the Christian society, they were protected by kings, princes and bishops, because of the crucial services they provided in three areas: financial, administrative and as doctors. Christian scholars interested in the Bible would even consult with Talmudic rabbis. All this changed with the reforms and strengthening of the Roman Catholic Church, especially the creations of the Franciscan and Dominican preaching monks, and the rise of envious and competitive middle-class, town-dwelling Christians. By 1300 the friars and local priests were using the Passion Plays at Easter time, which depicted Jews in contemporary dress killing Christ, to teach the general populace to hate and murder Jews. It was at this point that persecution and exile became endemic. Finally around 1500, Jews found security and a renewal of prosperity in Poland.
By and large, Jews were heavily persecuted in Christian Europe after 1300. Since they were the only people allowed to lend money for interest (forbidden to Catholics by the church), some Jews became prominent moneylenders. Christian rulers gradually saw the advantage of having a class of men like the Jews who could supply capital for their use without being liable to excommunication, and the money trade of western Europe by this means fell into the hands of the Jews. However, in almost every instance where large amounts were acquired by Jews through banking transactions the property thus acquired fell either during their life or upon their death into the hands of the king. Jews thus became imperial "servi cameræ," the property of the King, who might present them and their possessions to princes or cities.
Jews were frequently massacred and exiled from various European countries. The persecution hit its first peak during the Crusades. In the First Crusade (1096) flourishing communities on the Rhine and the Danube were utterly destroyed; see German Crusade, 1096. In the Second Crusade (1147) the Jews in France were subject to frequent massacres. The Jews were also subjected to attacks by the Shepherds' Crusades of 1251 and 1320. The Crusades were followed by expulsions, including in, 1290, the banishing of all English Jews; in 1396, 100,000 Jews were expelled from France; and, in 1421, thousands were expelled from Austria. Over this time many Jews of Europe, either fleeing or being expelled, migrated to Poland, where they prospered into another Golden Age.
Historians who study modern Jewry have identified four different paths by which European Jews were "modernized" and thus integrated into the mainstream of European society. A common approach has been to view the process through the lens of the European Enlightenment as Jews faced the promise and the challenges posed by political emancipation. Scholars that use this approach have focused on two social types as paradigms for the decline of Jewish tradition and as agents of the sea changes in Jewish culture that led to the collapse of the ghetto. The first of these two social types is the Court Jew who is portrayed as a forerunner of the modern Jew, having achieved integration with and participation in the proto-capitalist economy and court society of central European states such as the Habsburg Empire. In contrast to the cosmopolitan Court Jew, the second social type presented by historians of modern Jewry is the maskil, a proponent of Haskalah. This narrative sees the maskil's pursuit of secular scholarship and his rationalistic critiques of rabbinic tradition as laying a durable intellectual foundation for the secularization of Jewish society and culture. The established paradigm has been one in which Ashkenazic Jews entered modernity through a self-conscious process of westernization led by "highly atypical, Germanized Jewish intellectuals". Haskalah gave birth to the Reform and Conservative movements and planted the seeds of Zionism while at the same time encouraging cultural assimilation into the countries in which Jews resided. At around the same time that Haskalah was developing, Hasidic Judaism was spreading as a movement that preached a world view almost the opposite of Haskalah.
In the 1990s, the concept of the "Port Jew" has been suggested as an "alternate path to modernity" that was distinct from the European Haskalah. In contrast to the focus on Ashkenazic Germanized Jews, the concept of the Port Jew focused on the Sephardi conversos who fled the Inquisition and resettled in European port towns on the coast of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Eastern seaboard of the United States.
Court Jews were Jewish bankers or businessmen who lent money and handled the finances of some of the Christian European noble houses. A corresponding historical term is Jewish Bailiff. See also shtadlan.
Examples of what would be later called court Jews emerged when local rulers used services of Jewish bankers for short-term loans. They lent money to nobles and in the process gained social influence. Noble patrons of court Jews employed them as financiers, suppliers, diplomats and trade delegates. Court Jews could use their family connections, and connections between each other, to provision their sponsors with, among other things, food, arms, ammunition and precious metals. In return for their services, court Jews gained social privileges, including up to noble status for themselves, and could live outside the Jewish ghettos. Some nobles wanted to keep their bankers in their own courts. And because they were under noble protection, they were exempted from rabbinical jurisdiction.
From medieval times, court Jews could amass personal fortunes and gained political and social influence. Sometimes they were also prominent people in the local Jewish community and could use their influence to protect and influence their brethren. Sometimes they were the only Jews who could interact with the local high society and present petitions of the Jews to the ruler. However, the court Jew had social connections and influence in the Christian world mainly through his Christian patrons. Due to the precarious position of Jews, some nobles could just ignore their debts. If the sponsoring noble died, his Jewish financier could face exile or execution.
During the European Renaissance, the worst of the expulsions occurred following the reconquista of Andalus, as the Moorish or Arab Islamic government of Spain was known. With the ejection of the last Muslim rulers from Grenada in 1492, the Spanish Inquisition followed and the entire Spanish population of around 200,000 Sephardic Jews were expelled. This was followed by expulsions in 1493 in Sicily (37,000 Jews) and Portugal in 1496. The expelled Spanish Jews fled mainly to the Ottoman Empire, Holland, and North Africa, others migrating to Southern Europe and the Middle East.
The Port Jew concept is a social type that describes Jews who were involved in the seafaring and maritime economy of Europe, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Helen Fry suggests that they could be considered to have been "the earliest modern Jews." According to Fry, Port Jews often arrived as "refugees from the Inquisition" and the expulsion of Jews from Iberia. They were allowed to settle in port cities as merchants granted permission to trade in ports such as Amsterdam, London, Trieste and Hamburg. Fry notes that their connections with the Jewish Diaspora and their expertise in maritime trade made them of particular interest to the mercantilist governments of Europe. Lois Dubin describes Port Jews as Jewish merchants who were "valued for their engagement in the international maritime trade upon which such cities thrived". Sorkin and others have characterized the socio-cultural profile of these men as marked by a flexibility towards religion and a "reluctant cosmopolitanism that was alien to both traditional and "enlightened" Jewish identities."
During the Classical Ottoman period (1300–1600), the Jews, together with most other communities of the empire, enjoyed a certain level of prosperity. Compared with other Ottoman subjects, they were the predominant power in commerce and trade as well in diplomacy and other high offices. In the 16th century especially, the Jews were the most prominent under the millets, the apogee of Jewish influence could arguably be the appointment of Joseph Nasi to Sanjak-bey (governor, a rank usually only bestowed upon Muslims) of the island of Naxos.
At the time of the Battle of Yarmuk when the Levant passed under Muslim Rule, thirty Jewish communities existed in Haifa, Sh’chem, Hebron, Ramleh, Gaza, Jerusalem, and many in the north. Safed became a spiritual centre for the Jews and the Shulchan Aruch was compiled there as well as many Kabbalistic texts. The first Hebrew printing press, and the first printing in Western Asia began in 1577.
Jews lived in the geographic area of Asia Minor (modern Turkey, but more geographically either Anatolia or Asia Minor) for more than 2,400 years. Initial prosperity in Hellenistic times had faded under Christian Byzantine rule, but recovered somewhat under the rule of the various Muslim governments which displaced and succeeded rule from Constantinople. For much of the Ottoman period, Turkey was a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution, and it continues to have a small Jewish population today. The situation where Jews both enjoyed cultural and economical prosperity at times but were widely persecuted at other times was summarised by G.E. Von Grunebaum :
"It would not be difficult to put together the names of a very sizeable number of Jewish subjects or citizens of the Islamic area who have attained to high rank, to power, to great financial influence, to significant and recognized intellectual attainment; and the same could be done for Christians. But it would again not be difficult to compile a lengthy list of persecutions, arbitrary confiscations, attempted forced conversions, or pogroms."
In the 17th century, almost no Jews lived in Western Europe. The relatively tolerant Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, but the calm situation for the Jews there ended when Polish and Lithuanian Jews were slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands by the cossacks during Chmielnicki uprising (1648) and by the Swedish wars (1655). Driven by these and other persecutions, Jews moved back to Western Europe in the 17th century. The last ban on Jews (by the English) was revoked in 1654, but periodic expulsions from individual cities still occurred, and Jews were often restricted from land ownership, or forced to live in ghettos.
During the period of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, significant changes occurred within the Jewish community. The Haskalah movement paralleled the wider Enlightenment, as Jews began in the 18th century to campaign for emancipation from restrictive laws and integration into the wider European society. Secular and scientific education was added to the traditional religious instruction received by students, and interest in a national Jewish identity, including a revival in the study of Jewish history and Hebrew, started to grow. Haskalah gave birth to the Reform and Conservative movements and planted the seeds of Zionism while at the same time encouraging cultural assimilation into the countries in which Jews resided. At around the same time another movement was born, one preaching almost the opposite of Haskalah, Hasidic Judaism. Hasidic Judaism began in the 18th century by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, and quickly gained a following with its more exuberant, mystical approach to religion. These two movements, and the traditional orthodox approach to Judaism from which they spring, formed the basis for the modern divisions within Jewish observance.
At the same time, the outside world was changing, and debates began over the potential emancipation of the Jews (granting them equal rights). The first country to do so was France, during the French Revolution in 1789. Even so, Jews were expected to integrate, not continue their traditions. This ambivalence is demonstrated in the famous speech of Clermont-Tonnerre before the National Assembly in 1789:
"We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals. We must withdraw recognition from their judges; they should only have our judges. We must refuse legal protection to the maintenance of the so-called laws of their Judaic organization; they should not be allowed to form in the state either a political body or an order. They must be citizens individually. But, some will say to me, they do not want to be citizens. Well then! If they do not want to be citizens, they should say so, and then, we should banish them. It is repugnant to have in the state an association of non-citizens, and a nation within the nation..."
Hasidic Judaism is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that promotes spirituality and joy through the popularisation and internalisation of Jewish mysticism as the fundamental aspects of the Jewish faith. Hasidism comprises part of contemporary Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, alongside the previous Talmudic Lithuanian-Yeshiva approach and the Oriental Sephardi tradition.
It was founded in 18th century Eastern Europe by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov as a reaction against overly legalistic Judaism. Opposite to this, Hasidic teachings cherished the sincerity and concealed holiness of the unlettered common folk, and their equality with the scholarly elite. The emphasis on the Immanent Divine presence in everything gave new value to prayer and deeds of kindness, alongside Rabbinic supremacy of study, and replaced historical mystical (kabbalistic) and ethical (musar) asceticism and admonishment with optimism, encouragement, and dailyfervour. This populist emotional revival accompanied the elite ideal of nullification to paradoxical Divine Panentheism, through intellectual articulation of inner dimensions of mystical thought. The adjustment of Jewish values sought to add to required standards of ritual observance, while relaxing others where inspiration predominated. Its communal gatherings celebrate soulful song and storytelling as forms of mystical devotion.
Though persecution still existed, emancipation spread throughout Europe in the 19th century. Napoleon invited Jews to leave the Jewish ghettos in Europe and seek refuge in the newly created tolerant political regimes that offered equality under Napoleonic Law (see Napoleon and the Jews). By 1871, with Germany’s emancipation of Jews, every European country except Russia had emancipated its Jews.
Despite increasing integration of the Jews with secular society, a new form of anti-Semitism emerged, based on the ideas of race and nationhood rather than the religious hatred of the Middle Ages. This form of anti-Semitism held that Jews were a separate and inferior race from the Aryan people of Western Europe, and led to the emergence of political parties in France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary that campaigned on a platform of rolling back emancipation. This form of anti-Semitism emerged frequently in European culture, most famously in the Dreyfus Trial in France. These persecutions, along with state-sponsored pogroms in Russia in the late 19th century, led a number of Jews to believe that they would only be safe in their own nation. See Theodor Herzl and History of Zionism.
During this period, Jewish migration to the United States (see American Jews) created a large new community mostly freed of the restrictions of Europe. Over 2 million Jews arrived in the United States between 1890 and 1924, most from Russia and Eastern Europe.
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During the 1870s and 1880s the Jewish population in Europe began to more actively discuss immigration back to Israel and the re-establishment of the Jewish Nation in its national homeland, fulfilling the biblical prophecies relating to Shivat Tzion. In 1882 the first Zionist settlement—Rishon LeZion—was founded by immigrants who belonged to the "Hovevei Zion" movement. Later on, the "Bilu" movement established many other settlements in the land of Israel.
The Zionist movement was founded officially after the Kattowitz convention (1884) and the World Zionist Congress (1897), and it was Theodor Herzl who began the struggle to establish a state for the Jews.
After the First World War, it seemed that the conditions to establish such a state had arrived: The United Kingdom captured Palestine from the Ottoman Empire, and the Jews received the promise of a "National Home" from the British in the form of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, given to Chaim Weizmann.
In 1920 the British Mandate of Palestine began and the pro-Jewish Herbert Samuel was appointed High Commissioner in Palestine, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was established and several big Jewish immigration waves to Palestine occurred. The Arab inhabitants of Palestine were not fond of the increasing Jewish immigration however, and began to oppose Jewish settlement and the pro-Jewish policy of the British government by violent means.
Arab gangs began performing violent acts and murders on convoys and on the Jewish population. After the 1920 Arab riots and 1921 Jaffa riots, the Jewish leadership in Palestine believed that the British had no desire to confront local Arab gangs over their attacks on Palestinian Jews. Realising that they could not rely on the British administration for protection from these gangs, the Jewish leadership created the Haganah organization to protect their farms and Kibbutzim.
Due to the increasing violence the United Kingdom gradually started to backtrack from the original idea of a Jewish state and to speculate on a binational solution or an Arab state that would have a Jewish minority.
Meanwhile, the Jews of Europe and the United States gained success in the fields of the science, culture and the economy. Among those generally considered the most famous were scientist Albert Einstein and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. A disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners at this time were Jewish, as is still the case. In the Soviet Union, many Jews were involved in the October Revolution and belonged to the communist party.
In 1933, with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany, the Jewish situation became more severe. Economic crises, racial anti-Semitic laws, and a fear of an upcoming war led many Jews to flee from Europe to Palestine, to the United States and to the Soviet Union.
In 1939 World War II began and until 1941 Hitler occupied almost all of Europe, including Poland—where millions of Jews were living at that time—and France. In 1941, following the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Final Solution began, an extensive organized operation on an unprecedented scale, aimed at the annihilation of the Jews of Europe and French North Africa. This genocide, in which approximately six million Jews were murdered methodically and with horrifying cruelty, is known as The Holocaust or Shoah (Hebrew term). In Poland, more than one million Jews were murdered in gas chambers at the Auschwitz concentration camp alone.
The massive scale of the Holocaust, and the horrors which happened during it, heavily affected the Jewish nation and world public opinion, which only understood the dimensions of the Holocaust after the war. After the war, efforts were increased to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.
In 1945 the Jewish resistance organizations in Palestine unified and established the Jewish Resistance Movement. The movement began attacking the British authority. Following the King David Hotel bombing, Chaim Weizmann, president of the WZO appealed to the movement to cease all further military activity until a decision would be reached by the Jewish Agency. The Jewish Agency backed Weizmann's recommendation to cease activities, a decision reluctantly accepted by the Haganah, but not by the Irgun and the Lehi. The JRM was dismantled and each of the founding groups continued operating according to their own policy.
The Jewish leadership decided to center the struggle in the illegal immigration to Palestine and began organizing massive amount of Jewish war refugees from Europe, without the approval of the British authorities. This immigration contributed a great deal to the Jewish settlements in Israel in the world public opinion and the British authorities decided to let the United Nations decide upon the fate of Palestine.
On November 29, 1947 the United Nations decided on dividing the country into two states: A Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jewish leadership accepted the decision but the Arab League and the leadership of Palestinian Arabs opposed it. Following a period of civil war the 1948 Arab–Israeli War started.
In the middle of the war, after the last soldiers of the British mandate left Palestine, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed in 1948 the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel. In 1949 the war ended and the state of Israel started building the state and absorbing massive waves of hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world.
Since 1948, Israel has been involved in a series of major military conflicts, including the 1956 Suez War, 1967 Six-Day War, 1973 Yom Kippur War, 1982 Lebanon War, and 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, as well as a nearly constant series of ongoing minor conflicts.
Since 1977, an ongoing and largely unsuccessful series of diplomatic efforts have been initiated by Israel, Palestinian organisations, their neighbours, and other parties, including the United States and the European Union, to bring about a peace process to resolve conflicts between Israel and its neighbors, mostly over the fate of the Palestinian people.
Today (2012), Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a population of over 7.5 million people, of whom about 5.6 million are Jewish. The largest Jewish communities are in Israel and the United States, with major communities in France, Argentina, Russia, England, and Canada. For statistics related to modern Jewish demographics see the article Jewish population.
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast, created during the Soviet period, continues to be an autonomous oblast of the Russian state. The Chief Rabbi of Birobidzhan, Mordechai Scheiner, says there are 4,000 Jews in the capital city. Governor Nikolay Mikhaylovich Volkov has stated that he intends to, "support every valuable initiative maintained by our local Jewish organizations." The Birobidzhan Synagogue opened in 2004 on the 70th anniversary of the region's founding in 1934.
For historical and contemporary Jewish populations by country, see Jews by country.
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