All nations are proud of the language, history, tradition, and beauty of their country. After all, these characteristics make a land different from the others. However, what makes the Jewish nation so distinctive is its religion. Belonging to the Jewish people presupposes belonging to Judaism. Without Judaism, it is impossible to understand the Jewish tradition and its vibrant history.
According to biblical tradition, all Jews descended from Abraham, who came from Mesopotamia to Canaan and covenant with God. Abraham was promised to become the father of a great nation, that his descendants would inherit the Promised Land and have God’s blessing and guidance. In return, Abraham and his descendants had to obey God and keep the covenant. Biblical descriptions of Abraham, his contemporaries, and customs suggest a very ancient past. Therefore, Abraham probably lived at the beginning or the middle of the second millennium BC.
Due to prolonged famine, Abraham’s descendants settled in Egypt, where their number increased significantly, forming twelve tribes. Over time, they became oppressed and left Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Moses is also associated with the Ten Commandments of God and the formation of Jewish law. The Bible also describes decades of wandering in the wilderness and fight to win the Promised Land inhabited by Canaanites. The exodus from Egypt was a critical event for forming the Jewish national consciousness. They viewed deliverance from Egypt as the work of God’s grace and interference with human history – God saved his people from slavery. From the beginning, there was one significant difference between the religion of the Jews and the surrounding pagan nations. While others associated their deities with nature and natural occurrences, Jews believed that God reveals Himself to His people through history and historical events. Therefore, the Jewish people especially took care of their history, tradition, and identity to maintain their connection with God.
During the 11th century BC, Jewish tribes established a kingdom with Saul, David, and Solomon as their first rulers. During King Solomon’s reign, Jerusalem became the capital, and the Temple of Jerusalem was built as the center of the Jewish religion. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom became split into two states: the Kingdom of Israel on the north and the Kingdom of Judea on the south. Both Jewish kingdoms fought to preserve their independence, surrounded by powerful neighbors such as Egypt, Assyria, and numerous desert tribes. The Assyrian Kingdom destroyed the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC while the Kingdom of Judea continued to exist. However, the rise of Babylon in the east brought an end to Jewish independence. In 586 BC, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Kingdom of Judea, conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and much Jewish elite was taken into Babylon. Babylonian rulers used to relocate the population from conquered areas to prevent rebellions and assimilate them. However, the Jews in Babylon preserved their identity and, after Persian King Cyrus the Great defeated Babylon in 539, they were allowed to return and re-establish the Temple of Jerusalem.
Although they were allowed to return to their homeland and had individual religious and national freedoms under Persian rule, the Jewish people could not renew an independent state. The changes came with the conquests of Alexander the Great and the establishment of Hellenistic states. The Hellenistic rulers of the Seleucid Dynasty (who held Northern Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran) fought over Israel with the rulers of the Egyptian Ptolemaic Dynasty. Finally, in 198 BC, Israel came under the rule of the Seleucid Dynasty. The Seleucid kings attempted forcible Hellenization of the Jews, especially under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175 – 164 BC), who persecuted Jewish people because of their monotheism. The persecution caused the uprising of the Jews and the establishment of a new Jewish state under the rule of the Hasmonean dynasty. This new state lasted as fully independent between 110 BC until 63 BC, until Roman general Pompey the Great invaded Jerusalem and turned the land of Judea into a client state. During the Hellenistic period, trade was specially developed, which enabled Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean region.
The Roman rule over the Jews was ruthless, with Roman governors committing numerous abuses. All this provoked a rebellion of the Jews against the Romans. However, in 70 AD, the Romans severely punished the rebellion by destroying Jerusalem. Roman general Titus, who was in charge of the siege, killed or enslaved all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. After another unsuccessful rebellion in the second century AD, Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina and rebuild as a Roman town. At the same time, Jews were expelled and forbidden to live in it. However, despite great suffering, the Jewish people managed to survive thanks to their extensive and developed network. Since the Temple in Jerusalem did not exist anymore, synagogues in local communities became essential for preserving the Jewish nation and religious identity.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the status of Jews varied, and it was mostly conditioned by the opinion of the masses, rulers, and church authorities. Christian rulers often used the services of Jewish merchants. However, there were already numerous stereotypes about Jews as blasphemers and descendants of crucified Christ. They were often portrayed as bloodthirsty and greedy loan sharks. These kinds of rumors and stereotypes led to killings, pogroms, and the destruction of Jewish property. Jews were often segregated and restricted from living in ghettos. The term “ghetto” originated in 16th century Italy, and it was initially used to describe the part of Venice where Jews had to live.
In Europe, the change of attitude towards Jewish people came with the French Revolution, but the emancipation of the Jews was far from accepted in most European countries. The whole 19th century, together with the emancipation movement, also strengthened nationalist movements, anti-Semitism, and racial theories. However, these conflicts were merely an introduction to 20th-century events. As soon as the Nazis came to power in Germany, their rights were reduced, and soon came the Holocaust, an attempt to destroy all the Jews in the territories ruled or occupied by Nazi Germany and its allies. The extermination of the Jews was carried out in Nazi concentration camps. It is estimated that Nazis killed between 5 and 6 million Jews in Europe. After WWII was over, the public worldwide became aware of the Nazi concentration camps and the extent of inhumanity towards Jews. The Holocaust provoked empathy for people who had been persecuted for so long without any real guilt.
With the efforts of the surviving Jews, the State of Israel was established and declared in 1948. Soon, Jews scattered around the world began to settle in Israel and renewing the state they had been dreaming about for over 2000 years.