Zionism before Zionism
THE BEGINNING: RETURN TO ZION
In 587/586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem. In 597 BCE, 587/586 BCE, and 582/581 BCE, the Jews of Jerusalem were mass deported (i.e. ethnic cleansing) out of the Land of Israel and into Babylon. This deportation — estimated to have consisted of about 25 percent of the Jewish population of the Kingdom of Judah — and the destruction of Jerusalem are thoroughly corroborated by archeological record.
In 539 BCE, the Jews exiled to Babylon were permitted to return to the Land of Israel. Though many stayed, others went back home. This event is known as the “Return to Zion” and is actually where the term “Zionism” comes from. Remember, this happened in 539 BCE — 2436 years before the First Zionist Congress.
Tehillim (Psalms) 137 is a poem written during the period of exile in Babylon. It describes the pain and sadness of exile and the desire to return to and exercise sovereignty in the Land of Israel:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. / We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. / For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. / How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land. / If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [her cunning]. / If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. / Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. / O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. / Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
The Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE) was a Jewish revolt against the foreign rule of the Greek Seleucid Empire, which Jews to this day commemorate every year during the festival of Hanukkah.
In 198 BCE, the Seleucid Empire conquered Judea from the (Macedonian Greek) Ptolemaic Kingdom. In 168 BCE, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes launched an oppressive campaign against his Jewish subjects, outlawing Jewish practice and implementing Pagan worship in the holy Jewish Temple. This triggered a rebellion, led by Judah Maccabeus (Judah the Maccabee) and his family.
Initially the revolt started as guerilla warfare targeting Greek government and military officials, but eventually the Maccabees were able organize an army. The revolt was successful, and in 164 BCE, Judah the Maccabee entered Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple to the Israelite God. Nevertheless, the civil war persisted for decades.
In 141 BCE, Simon Thassi, Judah’s brother, established the Hasmonean dynasty. By 110 BCE, the Hasmonean dynasty ruled over a semi-autonomous Jewish kingdom, known as the Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea. This was the last time — save for a brief period in the early seventh century — that Jews had any sovereignty over our ancestral land until 1948.
The Hasmonean Kingdom, however, was short-lived, ceasing to exist in 63 BCE, when Judea fell into the hands of the Roman Republic, after decades of infighting among the Hasmoneans and civil unrest. In 37 BCE, Herod the Great defeated the last Hasmonean king and Judea fell under the complete control of the Roman Empire.
FIRST JEWISH REVOLT
Between 66-73 CE, the Jews in Judea revolted against Roman rule for the first time. The revolt ended in disaster, with Jewish towns decimated, tens of thousands massacred, and the Second Temple destroyed.
For years, tensions between the Romans and Jews had been simmering in Judea. Following anti-taxation protests, the Roman governor plundered the Jewish Temple, raided Jerusalem, and arrested prominent Jewish leaders. This escalated the violence, with Jewish rebels initially making significant advances.
In 70 CE, the Romans circled Jerusalem but were unable to breach its walls, so they set up camp around the city and began building trenches around the circumference of the walls. Anyone caught in the trenches attempting to flee the city was crucified; at one point, the Romans were crucifying 500 Jews a day.
For seven months, the Romans sieged Jerusalem, until the summer of 70 CE, when they were finally able to breach the city walls. Records of the time indicate that all of the besieged Jews — men, women, even children — fought to the death, preferring to die for the cause of sovereignty over survival if survival meant that the Romans would exile them from their homeland. Ultimately, the Romans ransacked and burnt the entire city. The Second Temple was destroyed once again on July 29 or 30 of 70 CE, which also fell on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av.
The Romans pillaged the temple, taking with them its spoils to Rome. The looted Jewish treasures remained in Rome until the year 455, when vandals raided the city. After that, their whereabouts become murky. It’s likely that they were long melted down or used to construct any number of churches. There has long been a baseless conspiracy theory that the items, including the menorah, are hidden away in a Vatican basement.
The First Jewish-Roman War ended with the Roman siege of Masada in 73-74 CE. In total, nearly 100,000 Jewish rebels were killed. According to first century Jewish historian Josephus, over one million Jewish civilians were killed; historians today think the number is closer to 300,000, as Judea couldn’t support a population large enough to produce such death tolls.
BAR KOKHBA REVOLT
The Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE) was the third of the Jewish-Roman Wars when Jewish rebels revolted against the rule of the Roman Empire.
The revolt broke out due to tensions left over from the First Jewish-Roman War, economic changes in Judea, the suppression of Jewish revolts elsewhere in the Roman Empire, and the Roman construction of a new city over the ruins of Jerusalem, as well as the construction of a temple dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter over the remains of the holy Jewish Temple.
The revolt was led by Simon Bar Kokhba, who sought to expel the Roman occupiers, rebuild the Temple, and even revive Hebrew, the Indigenous language of the Jewish People, as an everyday spoken tongue. Unfortunately, the revolt was unsuccessful.
In a retaliatory act of genocide, the Roman emperor Hadrian massacred some 600,000 Jews and razed over 1000 towns and villages. Some ~400,000 more Jews died due to famine and disease. The Hadrianic Genocide was the biggest calamity to befall the Jewish People until the Holocaust nearly 2000 years later.
Following the Jewish defeat, Hadrian dissolved the Roman province of Judea and established another province, Syria-Palestina in its stead. Most historians agree that he did so to erase the Jewish ties to the land. The Romans established a colony, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem. Jews were banned from the city, only permitted to enter on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, to commemorate the destruction of the Temples.
REVOLT AGAINST GALLUS
Following the Bar Kokhba Revolt and Hadrian’s successive ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Jewish People, the Jewish population of the Land of Israel had been all but decimated. Nevertheless, in 351-352, the fledgling Jewish community once again revolted against the occupation of the Roman Empire.
Under Emperor Constantine II, the Jews of Palestine were seriously persecuted. For example, synagogues were ransacked by mobs, not unlike pogroms. Resentment grew among the Jewish population: first, the Romans had taken away their political independence, and now, their entire culture and religion was suppressed.
In 350, the Romans pursued a military campaign against the Sasanians to the East. In the midst of this unrest, the Jews in Palestine revolted. The revolt was led by Isaac of Diocaesarea and began with an attack on the Roman garrison.
Eventually the Jewish rebels gained control of Tiberias and Diospolis (Lod), but the Romans quickly crushed the revolt and razed the cities to the ground. Several thousand Jewish rebels were killed, though the exact number is unknown.
REVOLT AGAINST HERACLIUS
The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, reigned the region today known as Israel-Palestine during almost the entirety of the period between 324-636. During this time, it was Christian policy to convert Jews to Christianity, with nearly half of the Indigenous Jewish and Samaritan populations ultimately adopting the Christian religion.
During this period, Jews still formed the majority of the population in Palestine. Jews faced severe restrictions during Byzantine rule. It was illegal to become Jewish, and Jews who harassed Christians in any way faced capital punishment. The Byzantines humiliated Jews in any way that they could, severely crushing freedoms, which resulted in the loss of social and cultural life.
The Roman Empire — and later, the Byzantine Empire — fought periodic wars against the Persians from 53 BCE to 628 CE, right before the Muslim conquest of Persia. Between 602-628, war broke out once again between the Persians and Byzantines. The Persian king, Khosrau II, hoped to reach as far west as possible, to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. To do so, he knew that he needed to pass through Palestine. Perhaps to reward the Jews for their loyalty, he agreed to assign the conquest of Palestine to Jewish troops.
The Jews in Palestine enthusiastically welcomed the Persian Jewish troops and allied with them. The Persian Jewish troops were led by Nehemiah Ben Hushiel. Within Palestine, the Jewish rebellion was led by Benjamin of Tiberias, a wealthy Jew who invested his money into the rebellion. In 614, following a short siege, Jerusalem fell into Persian hands. After the Persians conquered Jerusalem, as well as the rest of Palestine, they moved on to the rest of their conquests; only the Jews — Persian and local — remained, with Jerusalem now in their hands for the first time since the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
Despite the Jews’ loyalty to the Persians, King Khosrau II quickly switched allegiances by 617, replacing the Jewish governor of Jerusalem with a Christian, who prohibited more Jews from settling in Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, in 628, the Byzantines recaptured Jerusalem from the Persians, once again crushing the Jewish population with their oppressive rule.
IN THE MIDDLE AGES
Thanks to the discovery of the Cairo Geniza in 1896, historians can now trace numerous attempts from Jews to resettle in the Land of Israel during the early Arab colonization period in the seventh and sixth centuries. For example, there are records of Babylonian Jews migrating to Palestine during this time. Due to the harsh policies of Arabization and economic marginalization, however, Jews also left Palestine, and many of these attempts were unsuccessful.
A very significant attempt to resettle autonomously in the Land of Israel took place in the ninth and tenth centuries, when a large number of Karaite Jews established a major community in Jerusalem.
As mentioned, few of these attempts were successful in any capacity because of the harsh conditions imposed on Jews at the time. Letters between the Jews of Jerusalem and the Jews of Cairo during the period of the Arab Empires indicate that the taxes imposed upon the Jewish population of Palestine were especially crippling. When Jews in Jerusalem failed to pay their taxes, they were subject to various punishments, including imprisonment, torture, and even death. Additionally, centuries of colonization had devastated the land, which was now barren and riddled with disease.
We know very little about some of these “Zionist” attempts. For example, in 1210, “three hundred rabbis” migrated to the Land of Israel, but what happened to them is uncertain. Following the expulsions of Jews from England, Spain, Portugal, France, and Austria, many Jews resettled in Palestine.
One of the most notable “Zionist” leaders from this period was Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi, a Crypto-Jew born in Portugal in 1510 who accumulated a fortune and ardently supported Jewish migration and community-building in Palestine, establishing successful, self-sufficient communities. During her lifetime, Palestine was under the occupation of the Ottoman Empire. Nasi fostered a close relationship with the Ottoman court, determined to establish a “safe homeland” for Jews in Palestine — exactly as the modern political Zionists envisioned a few centuries later.
Other significant migrations were made by Jews fleeing Ukraine in the seventeenth century.
18TH & 19TH CENTURIES
The First (Zionist) Aliyah is dated to 1881-1903, but large numbers of Jews tried to (re) establish the Jewish community in the Land of Israel long before that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like the political Zionists a little bit later, they faced fierce opposition from the local Arab population and struggled under difficult conditions.
In 1700, Rabbi Yehuda Hehasid moved his group of followers to Jerusalem. Jewish residents of Jerusalem enthusiastically built homes and a synagogue in anticipation for their arrival. In 1720, local Arabs broke into the synagogue, destroyed it, and expelled all Ashkenazi Jews from the city. Ashkenazi Jews did not return to Jerusalem until 1812, after being banished for almost 100 years by the Arab residents.
Between 1740 and 1750, thousands of Jews immigrated to Palestine. In 1740, the Ottoman authorities invited Rabbi Haim Abulafia to restore the ancient city of Tiberias, one of the four sacred cities in Judaism, which had been abandoned for 70 years thanks to the harsh economic and environmental conditions resulting from centuries of colonialism. Rabbi Abulafia breathed new life into the city, which many Jews considered a sign that the Messiah was soon to come.
Hasidic groups began re-settling in masses in the Land of Israel in 1742, building new synagogues and other infrastructure, primarily in the four sacred cities: Hebron, Tiberias, Safed, and Jerusalem.
Like the modern political Zionists that came later, the followers of Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna purchased the first lands for agricultural development in 1810. In 1811, 80 Jewish families coming from Hungary attempted to migrate to work in agriculture, but they were attacked on their way and had to return back home.
In the 1830s, more Jewish agricultural communities were established and many Jews from the Diaspora were encouraged to migrate. In 1839, Moses Montefiore tried to come to an agreement with the ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, to establish Jewish agricultural communities in the Land of Israel. However, an antisemitic incident in Damascus ruined the agreement, so Montefiore started to disguise his Zionist projects as philanthropy.
In 1860, a number of prominent rabbis founded the Jewish Company for the Settlement of the Holy Land. I’m the 1860s and 1870s, dozens of prominent rabbis expressed their support for Zionism, especially in light of the persecution of Jews in Europe. Finally, in 1873, Rabbi Akiva Schlesinger wrote a plan for the development of an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel based on democratic — not religious — principles.
It’s important to note that these events of the nineteenth century differed very little from the activities of the modern political Zionists just a few decades later; the main difference was that these earlier activities were predominantly spiritually-motivated, whereas the Zionists that came later were largely secular and predominantly socialist.
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