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History of Israel

WARNING: Terrorist threats continue in Israel, please read this travel warning before going!

People have lived in the region of modern day Israel for longer than nearly any other place on earth as the earliest people from Africa spread throughout the world via the Middle East and this region was one of their first stops well over a million years ago.

The first Israelites, as an ethnicity, formed sometime before 1200 BC, as by then there were records of the people. These earliest Israelites were most probably a combination of Canaanites and Semites. The people developed a working civilization as writing and farming were common.

In about 930 BC the Israeli state was divided between Judah and Israel. These kingdoms maintain sovereignty despite Assyrian dominance and pressure to the east until 750 BC when they were overtaken. The Assyrians expelled many of the people of Israel, creating the "Lost Tribes of Israel" when the survivors later took on the name Samaritans. Despite this takeover, the Israelis fought for independence intermittently until and through the 700s. During this time Judah maintained its independence.

In 612 BC the Assyrians were overthrown by the Medes of Persia and the Babylonians based in modern day Iraq. However, the new rulers didn't give Israel freedom and Babylon king, Nebuchadnezzar took both Israel and Judah in 586 BC. It was at this time that Nebuchadnezzar exiled many of the wealthier Jews to Babylon and destroyed Solomon's Temple.

The wars in Israel continued in 538 BC when Cyrus the Great of Persia took the Babylonian Empire and hence Israel. However Cyrus granted the Israelis (and all of his subjects) the freedom to practice the religion of their choice. Over the next century numerous Jews returned to Judah and Israel. The region remained under Persian rule until the 300s BC.

In 333 BC the Greeks took the region under the leadership of Alexander the Great. After his death the land fell under the rule of the Seleucid Empire. Under this rule Judaism was again fought as Greek religions and customs were encouraged. The people strongly fought his and Judas Maccabeus led a revolt in the 100s BC to maintain their religious freedoms, a victory now celebrated by the festival of Hanukkah. These events are described in the Bible in the Book of the Maccabees.

After this time the region was primarily ruled by the Pharisees and others under religious direction and education. This Israeli and Judaism freedom only lasted until 64 BC when the region was taken over by the Roman's General Pompey. Julius Caesar though found favor with the Jews and gave control over the region of Judea to the local people, the Herodian Dynasty, under greater Roman rule. From this dynasty came Herod the Great and great growth and building in Judea. The kings in the region had such strong favor with Rome, they didn't have to put a statue of the emperor in front of Herod the Great's Temple and the Jewish citizens only had to pay taxes to the temple.

It was here in Israel and Judea that Jesus of Nazareth was born and founded the Christian faith. Christians today believe Jesus was the son of God, who was sent to earth to die for our sins. His death began this new religion, which essentially formed out of Judaism as Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah, while Jews believe that the Messiah is yet to come.

The Roman rulers didn't maintain this lax policy forever and soon began taxing the people and requiring that which all occupied lands required. This led to Jewish revolts in 66 AD when the people took the region and named it Israel. The Romans soon sieged Jerusalem and the city fell in 70 AD. During this time most of the Christians left the city and the region as a whole, soon after prophesizing the new religion throughout the Roman Empire.

Conflicts between the Romans and Jews continued over the next couple centuries. Emperor Hadrian, in 131 AD banned Jews from living in Jerusalem and renamed the territory Palaestina. This led to another Jewish revolt, which didn't succeed. Further Roman suppression encouraged more Jews to leave the region, most of whom went to the Persian Sassanid Empire.

In the 300s the Byzantium Empire rose to prominence and they took control of the region of Israel. Also in this century they adopted Christianity as the official language, turning the region of Israel into a Christian stronghold. Jews were still banned from living in Jerusalem, but were again allowed to visit the city.

As a part of the Byzantium Empire the region of Israel was heavily Christianized as Jews continued to leave the region. Although the empire allowed Judaism to exist they were limited in freedoms and the Samaritans regularly revolted.

In 614 Israel and Jerusalem fell to the Sassanid Persians and the Jews again took control of the city, however their rule only lasted until 617 when the Byzantines took the region once more. This led to a massive flood of Jews leaving and moving primarily to eastern and northeastern Europe.

In 620 the Prophet Mohammed visited the Temple Mount in the region, which is still sacred in the Muslim faith. Jerusalem is still considered one of the holiest cities in Islam due to the Prophet ascending to heaven from the city at the time of his death. In 636 the Arabs took the region and allowed the Jews to again live in Jerusalem. This also began a slow conversion and migration of people as the Muslims slowly overtook the Christians as the majority.

From 636 the region was ruled by various people, but all Muslim Caliphs. It was during these rules that the Dome of the Rock was built, a holy site to the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. From the 600s until the 1100s the Muslims and Jews lived together fairly peacefully as the Muslim held a substantial majority in the region.

In the 1100s the Christian kingdoms of Europe decided to undergo a series of wars to retake the Holy Land, called the Crusades. During this time many Jews were taken and sold into slavery by the Christian Crusaders and the region shifted hands from the Christians to the Muslims during the 1100s and 1200s.

These wars escalated in the late 1200s when the Mongols arrived as did the Mamluks. The Mamluk Muslims though held the region successfully, fending off the invading people and securing Jerusalem and the region in 1291. These Egyptians Muslims secured the city and held control of it until 1517.

Another result of the Crusades was an increasing tension and racism toward Jews in Europe as numerous countries banned Jews from the country, including England, France, and Spain (two centuries later). This led to a massive immigration of Jews eastward in the early 1300s. The Poles and Russians both welcomed the Jews, leading to large bulges in their populations in these regions.

Meanwhile, in the region of Israel the Mamluks fell from power in 1517 and the Ottomans in Syria took power, maintaining this power until the mid-1800s. At first, the Ottoman rulers were good to the Jews and they prospered, but by the mid-1600s this power and influence was declining. At this same time many Jews were continuously being persecuted as many fled to the "New World" (the Americas) or continued to move to Jewish-friendly countries, like Poland and Russia.

In 1831 the Egyptians, led by Muhammad Ali, overtook the Ottomans in Syria. This rule led to incredible movements of people in order to try to maintain power and control over both the Jews and Arabs. The Egyptians send thousands of loyal Egyptians to the region of modern day Israel when the Jews revolted and were put down. However, this movement of people also allowed many Jews to return to Jerusalem and by the mid-1800s the city's largest ethnic group was the Jews.

In 1864 the region moved back to Syrian control, while in Europe many Jews were being persecuted simply for being Jewish. Of the surviving victims, many Jews fled to the United States, while a much smaller group returned to Israel, again boosting the percentage of Jews in the region compared to other groups, but still a small minority in the entire region. These immigrations led to the Jewish population being the majority in Jerusalem by 1890.

In the early 1900s this migration to Israel continued, most commonly from Russia, which was persecuting the Jews during this time. With World War I, most Jews supported Germany due to recent Russian persecutions. At the end of the war the British gained control over the region of Palestine/Israel. This new British region included modern day Israel and Jordan (Jordan was removed during World War II).

Through the 1920s and 1930s the British encouraged Jewish settlement in Israel and numerous Jews arrived from Europe and Syria. This however led to great tension among the Arab majority and conflicts between the two groups began almost immediately. This led to the Jews forming armed soldiers to protect their new towns, but also led to over population and few jobs, encouraging many of these newly arrived Jews to soon leave.

In 1936 the Arabs fought British control over the region. This led to discussions on how to divide the land between the two groups, but no solution seemed acceptable to either side.

In 1939 World War II (WWII) began as did the Holocaust. This event, led by Nazi German was intended to kill every Jew in the world. This was undertaken by massive death camps, which killed thousands of Jews every day at the peak of the Holocaust. In total, the Nazis killed about 6 million Jews with no distinguishing between men, women, or children. This also led to a shift in the center of the culturally Jewish world from Poland to both New York, United States and Jerusalem.

After the war, numerous Jews moved to the present country of Israel and soon after began a war with the United Kingdom to gain independence. In 1947 the British turned the situation over to the United Nations to solve. The UN decided to create an Arab state, a Jewish state, and the city of Jerusalem which would fall under the direct supervision of the UN. In 1948 Britain withdrew from the region.

This resolution and Britain's withdrawal led to fighting between the two groups. This led to international division as the United States supported the Jewish population and the UN resolution, while the United Kingdom began to support the annexation of the Arab region into the country of Jordan.

In 1948 the Jews formally declared an independent state as the war with the Arabs escalated. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq didn't accept the UN resolution and assisted the Arabs in the region in fighting the Jews. After initial Arab victories, the Israelis fought back and defeated the Egyptians in early 1949, shortly after which the war ended.

In the 1950s mass immigration expanded the Jewish population as hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled the region and settled in neighboring areas, including Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. Many of the Jewish immigrants credit their move to Israel to "Zionism," which is the essentially the vision of creating a Jewish state in Israel. This vision encouraged Jews from all nations and all parts of the world to immigrate to Israel despite the violence and conflict. On the international stage, both the United States and the Soviet Union supported the new state and sought their allegiance in the Cold War, to which the Israelis essentially chose the United States.

In 1956 another war with Egypt broke out over the use of the Suez Canal, which the Egyptians had banned Israel from using. This led to an Israeli attack and western intervention. In the 1960s Israel's militarization continued and in 1967 they attacked Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. This gave Israel control over the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.

Tensions continued when, in 1972 at the Munich Summer Olympics, eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists and all hostages were later killed. The following year the Egyptians and Syrians launched an attack on Israel on Yom Kippur. At first the Israeli forces were pushed back, but they later took back most of their losses. Small wars, battles, and hostage situations regularly occurred from this point until 1977.

In 1977 the Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat visited Israel upon the government's request, which began a thawing in relations between the two nations and between Israel and the Arab world. This peace was finalized in 1982 when the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt. It was at this time that Egypt recognized Israel's right to exist. However this only settled conflict with Egypt; the Lebanese and Syrians were still at war as Egypt was removed from the Arab League.

The 1980s were still filled with war, first with Lebanon, but also with small Arab groups. The 1990s saw renewed peace as Iraq attacked the country, but the Israelis failed to fight back. Additionally, they guaranteed the safety of both Jews and Arabs during the war. In 1993 Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed a peace treaty, with each side recognizing the other. This led to greater communication, but also a magnification of extreme Arab groups seeking independence.

Since the mid-1990s Israel's relations with recognized governments has greatly improved, although numerous Arab terrorist organizations continue to exist (primarily in Syria), including Hamas, and continue to fight Israel, primarily in the form of suicide bombers and other small attacks. However, since 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took power in Iran, relations with that nation have been severely strained as Ahmadinejad has sworn to remove Israel from the map.

This page was last updated: March, 2016