HEBREWS, ISRAELITES, AND JEWS
The Jewish People are an ethnoreligious group and one of the oldest tribes in the world, originating in the region of modern-day Israel/Palestine.
But how old is our tribe, exactly? And what is the difference between the Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews?
4000-5000 YEARS AGO
The Hebrews were an ancient Semitic ethnic group in Canaan (the region of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon). They spoke Hebrew, which is the only Canaanite language (Northwest Semitic) still being spoken today.
3000 YEARS AGO
The Israelites were a confederation of tribes descended from the Hebrews. They united to form the Kingdom of Israel (1000 BCE). Eventually the southern portion of the kingdom split to become the Kingdom of Judah (later known as Judea, which is where the word “Jew” comes from).
Jews are the descendants of the ancient Israelites and Hebrews. Samaritans, for example, are descended from Hebrews and Israelites but are not Jews. The DNA of Jews and Samaritans is nearly identical, indicating a common Hebrew and Israelite ancestry.
The Torah tells the “origin story” of the Jewish People (think Greek mythology or Native American origin stories, for example). Many of our holidays — such as Hanukkah and Purim — are not mentioned in the Torah, as the events of said holidays hadn’t happened yet.
The story of Judea — the land of the Jewish People — is one of conquest, imperialism, and colonization.
ASSYRIAN CAPTIVITY - 740 BCE
Thousands of Israelites were captured and taken to the Assyrian Empire.
BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY - 597 BCE, 587/586 BCE, 582/581 BCE
Following the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, 25% of the Judean population was deported to Babylon. After the fall of Babylon, Judeans were permitted to return to their homeland, but most didn’t. Many Iraqi, Iranian, and Georgian Jews can trace their ancestry to these Judeans.
ROMAN EXILE - 66-136 CE
Following several unsuccessful Jewish revolts against the Roman imperialists, the Romans captured Jerusalem, destroyed the holy Temple, and enslaved and deported Jews to Rome.
Following the Bar Kohkba revolt in 132-136 CE, the Romans killed nearly 600,000 Jews in an act of genocide and enslaved and deported hundreds of thousands of Jewish men to Rome.
Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews are the descendants of these Judean slaves.
Additionally, Jews were later exiled by Crusaders and the Byzantine Empire. However, it’s important to remember that many Jews never left.
The Jewish diaspora — the first diaspora in the world — resulted in Jewish sub-ethnic divisions. Though it’s impossible to cover them all in just one slide — the Jewish diaspora has spread far and wide, from China to Mexico — the three main groups are the following:
Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry can be traced back to a group of just 300 Jews that settled in Central Europe after the Jews “bought” their freedom from their Roman slave owners.
Ashkenazi Jewish DNA is strikingly close to Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian DNA. Ashkenazi Jews have no Central, Western, or Eastern European genetic markers.
Sephardic Jews are the descendants of Jews who settled in the Iberian Peninsula after buying their freedom from the Romans. Following the Spanish Inquisition, many fled to North Africa, back to Israel/Palestine, other regions of Europe, and even the Americas.
Mizrahi Jews are the descendants of Jews that remained in Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and North Africa throughout the diaspora.
All ethnic Jews are genetically and culturally related to each other.
THE MIDDLE AGES
Following the fall of the Roman Empire and the Christianization of Europe, Jews suffered some of the harshest periods in history. While initially the Catholic Church “protected” Jews from mandatory conversion to Christianity, in practice, things were very different. Much of the antisemitic tropes and stereotypes that we see today — for example, the claim that Jews are rich or greedy — have their origins in the Middle Ages and the Catholic Church.
For Jews, the history of the Middle Ages is one stained with pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres), forced conversions, scapegoating, ethnic cleansing, and more. For example, Jews were blamed for the Bubonic Plague and murdered en masse as a result. Jews were expelled from nearly every country in Europe at one point or another, often multiple times, such as England, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, and more.
During the Crusades, Crusaders ravaged and destroyed several hundreds of Jewish communities in Europe, modern-day Israel/Palestine, Southwest Asia, and North Africa.
THE SPANISH INQUISITION
The Spanish Inquisition was a massive turning point in the history of world Jewry and the Jewish diaspora. Prior to the Spanish Inquisition, the Jewish communities of Spain and Portugal were among the most well-established, flourishing Jewish communities in all of Europe. Starting in 1481, Jews were harassed, persecuted, arrested, and burned at the stake en masse; sometimes up to 700 Jews were burned at a time.
Even Conversos (Jews that converted to Christianity to avoid persecution) and Marranos (Jews that converted to Christianity to avoid persecution but still practiced Judaism in secret) were targeted. Over 13,000 Conversos were put on trial during the first 12 years of the Inquisition.
In 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain. Many fled to North Africa, other parts of Europe, modern-day Israel/Palestine and other parts of Southwest Asia (the Middle East), India, and even the Americas.
In 1496 Portugal also expelled its Jews. Thousands of those Jews were actually Jews who’d fled to Portugal from Spain just a few years prior.
Unfortunately, the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions were extended to the colonies in the Americas and Asia. Jews were targeted in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, the Canary Islands, and more.
Though the Spanish Inquisition is generally associated with the late 1400s and early 1500s, the Inquisition wasn’t abolished until 1808.
ARABIZATION AND ISLAMIZATION
The Arabization and Islamization of Southwest Asia (Middle East) and North Africa in the sixth and seventh centuries brought about significant changes for the local Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish communities.
Because Jews had been violently persecuted and repressed during Byzantine rule, Islamic rule was a vast improvement. Nevertheless, Jews were considered dhimmis — “protected peoples” — which technically sounded good but instead offered Jews second-class citizenship. For example, Jews were subject to extra taxes and public humiliations, such as being forbidden to ride horses, as they were not allowed to stand taller than Muslims.
Additionally, Jews were subject to regular massacres and forced conversions to Islam.
The bad treatment was such that in some countries in North Africa (such as Algeria), the Jews welcomed European colonialists in the 18th and 19th centuries with a sigh of relief. This resulted in even more tensions between the local Jews and Arabs of the region.
For more information, please read my post ANTISEMITISM IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA.
THE 19TH CENTURY
The 19th century was a period of serious change for Jewish communities around the world, particularly in Europe. The French Revolution (1789-1799) had finally emancipated the Jews of France, and conflict arose between the Jews that wanted to assimilate into French society and those that wished to preserve their ancient traditions.
Ultimately assimilation proved impossible, as Jews were still persecuted and targeted for their Jewishness.
The Haskalah, also known as the “Jewish Enlightenment,” took place during this period.
As a response to violent antisemitism in Europe and Central Asia, Zionism had a rebirth as a political movement*.
In the Middle East and North Africa, Arab nationalism resulted in violence against Jews.
Additionally, Jews in the Russian Empire experienced a wave of pogroms (massacres), prompting many to emigrate to the United States.
*Zionism is 2000 years old, a longing for self-determination (self-governance) in our ancestral land. Its definition has nothing to do with Palestinians.
The Holocaust — or as we Jews call it, the “Shoah” — was the systematic genocide of 6 million Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1941-1945*. Additionally, the Holocaust extended to North Africa, where Jews were taken to work camps and forced to work on the trans-Saharan railway. In the Middle East, copycat Nazi massacres, such as the Farhud in Iraq, also took place.
Prior to the Holocaust, there had only been 9.5 million Jews in Europe. That means that 2/3s of Jews in Europe were murdered in just a few short years. In Poland, which had the largest Jewish population in all of Europe, 90% of Jews were murdered. To this day, the total Jewish population around the globe hasn’t recovered.
The Holocaust wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration of regular civilians in Nazi-occupied nations — Lithuanians and Ukrainians, for example — and the ambivalence of the Allies, including the United States. Please read my post READ THIS BEFORE YOU COMPARE ANYTHING TO THE HOLOCAUST for more information.
*the Roma were the only other group targeted for complete extermination by the Nazis. They call the Holocaust the “Porajmos”
Unfortunately, the Holocaust was not the only major antisemitic incident to take place in the 20th century.
While the Soviet Union initially promised equality to its Jewish citizens, by 1917, pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) became common once again across the Soviet republics. After WWII, as antisemitism became associated with Nazi Germany (the USSR’s enemy), the Soviets engaged in “anti-Zionist” propaganda campaigns instead. Prominent Jews were arrested and tortured, the practice of Judaism was forbidden, and Stalin even planned an outright genocide of the Jewish People, which, due to his sudden death, never came to fruition. The repression of Jews in the USSR continued well into the 1970s and 80s.
Between the 1940s-1970s, a massive ethnic cleansing of nearly a million Jews took place across the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Their Jewish populations once stood in the hundreds of thousands; by the 70s, less than a few hundred remained in most countries. The majority of the Israeli population today are the descendants of these Jews.
In the 1970s and 80s, “anti-Zionist” violence in Ethiopia prompted the majority of the Jewish population to flee to Israel.
Since the early 20th century, much of Palestinian political violence* — both in Israel and abroad — has targeted Jewish civilians. An example is the 1929 Hebron massacre, when 67-69 Jews were murdered and their ancient community was decimated. Another example is the 1972 Munich Massacre, when the Palestinian group Black September murdered 5 Israeli athletes and 6 Israeli coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
*I’m well aware that Israelis have murdered Palestinians but this post isn’t about that. I’ve said a million times that I support Palestinian liberation and self-determination, so if you feel the need to derail this post then you’re just being an antisemite.