“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” says the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence. “Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
This history, of course, is related in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and, as even many Jews would acknowledge, in the New Testament. However, a new phase of Jewish life — a long and difficult one — commenced after the close of the Bible.
The First Jewish Revolt against Rome (A.D. 66-70) culminated in the fall of Jerusalem and the catastrophic destruction of the center of Jewish religious life, its temple — although Roman troops required three more years to subdue the spectacular fortress of Masada, beside the Dead Sea. The Jewish historian Josephus, a participant in the revolt and an eyewitness, recorded that Jerusalem "was so thoroughly razed to the ground by those that demolished it to its foundations, that nothing was left that could ever persuade visitors that it had once been a place of habitation."
The Bar Kokhba Revolt (A.D. 132-135), named after its leader Simon Bar Kokhba, provoked the Emperor Hadrian to combine the province of Judea with adjacent provinces under the title of “Syria Palaestina” — thus effectively abolishing Judah’s memory and, instead, honoring the Hebrews’ ancient enemies, the Philistines (from whom the names “Palaestina” and “Palestine” are derived). Hadrian also rebuilt Jerusalem, but in Roman style and — in honor of his own family name (“Aelius”) and of the chief Roman god, Jupiter, whose principal temple sat on the Capitoline Hill in Rome — under the name of “Aelia Capitolina.” Further, Hadrian constructed a temple to Jupiter on the site of the former Jewish temple and, under penalty of death, banned Jews from entering his new city — except on “Tisha B’Av,” the ninth day of the month of Av, which falls in either July or August. The saddest date on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av is dedicated to lamenting both the Babylonians’ destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Romans’ razing of the Second Temple.
Large Jewish populations already existed in major cities of the ancient world such as Alexandria and Rome. Now, gradually and by degrees, the residents of historic Judea itself joined them in exile or, as it is often called, the “Jewish diaspora.”
In the next words of the Israeli Declaration, “After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.”
Since the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, formal petitions for the construction of a Third Temple have been a mandatory part of thrice-daily Jewish prayer services. Since at least the 15th century, the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem" has been included in Jewish services on Passover (which falls in March or April) and on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur (in September or October).
“Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment,” continues the Israeli Declaration, “Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades, they returned in their masses.”
Although, clearly, the dream of returning to the territory of their biblical ancestors never entirely died, it was generally sublimated into a far distant future until modern Zionism arose in the mid-to-late 19th century. The Israeli Declaration of Independence officially describes the Austrian journalist and Zionist activist Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) as “the spiritual father of the Jewish State.”
Herzl didn’t live to see his dream realized of an independent Jewish state centered in Jerusalem. But it’s not clear that his dream has been achieved even now.3 comments on this story
“The Jews who will it shall achieve their State,” he had predicted. “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind.”
Peace still eludes Israeli Jews, and the biblical prophecy that Israel would be “a light to the Gentiles” or “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) — a prophecy beloved of many Zionists since the 19th century — remains, at least in part, to be fulfilled.
See also this previous column “Theodor Herzl, from integration to segregation,” online at deseretnews.com.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.