According to the Torah, the Israelites, after fleeing Egypt, entered into the promised land, much of which is Israel/Palestine of today. Some Old Testament scholars say they were already there and were formed as a nation by overcoming the other inhabitants. Their high point as a nation came during the reigns of David and Solomon when the country was united for about 100 years.
In 597 B.C.E. (Before Christian Era) the Babylonians conquered the territory of Judah and took the inhabitants into exile in Babylon. Although many came back, and the story of Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem is the story of the return, many continued to stay in the diaspora, scattering throughout the eastern Mediterranean area.. During these years and even into Jesus' day, worship was centered in the Temple in Jerusalem with its rituals of animal sacrifice. Jews were expected to visit the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year -- at Passover, Rosh Hashona, and Shavuot. More Jews, though, remained in the diaspora than lived in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus.
After a series of conquests by strong empires, the Jews were conquered in 63 B.C.E. by the Romans. Just after the time of Jesus, in 66 C. E., Jewish Zealots revolted and captured Jerusalem. In 70 C. E. the Romans reoccupied the city, destroyed the Temple and laid waste to Jerusalem. The remaining Jews were forced into diaspora along with those already there.
Rabbinic Judaism was developing at the same time as Christianity with the concept of the community as the New Temple and no need for animal sacrifice. This helped the Jews to maintain their religion and relationships now that there was no Temple to be the center of worship. For a period of time Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism were "competing" sects of the same religion. Having been a highly respected religion in the Roman Empire, Judaism became a smaller minority throughout the centuries.
There were periods, though, of a golden age, especially during the time of Maimonides (12th and 13th century) in Spain when scholarship and science flourished for Christians, Jews and Muslims. (The Christian idea that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ also led to areas and periods of persecution.) In 1492 the Jews and the Muslims, were expelled from Spain. By the 18th century most of the world's Jews were living in Europe and many had developed a liberal approach to living in modern society.
It was in the late 1800s that Theodor Hertzl published The Jewish State, insisting that assimilation was impossible and that the Jews needed a state of their own. Hertzl was made president of the Zionist World Congress and the modern Zionist movement to make a national Jewish homeland in Palestine was begun.
Founding a normal national state would protect Jews from anti-Semitism, according to Zionist ideology. In 1917 England's Lord Balfour wrote a letter saying, "His Majesty's Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people...it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
It should be noted that the founding of the State of Israel was largely funded by Jews in the United States and England, especially Conservative and Reformed Jews as well as the U.S. government. The State of Israel was declared in 1948 after the British pulled out of Palestine.
Living in Today's Israel
For many Jews, living in Israel is a very special experience. They are the majority and the schedule of living--weekly, monthly and yearly-- follows the Jewish calendar. Jewish holidays, not normally celebrated outside the synagogue in the West, are observed publicly there and they are celebrated with more intensity. The school year revolves around the holidays so that school does not begin in the fall until after Succoth. Daylight savings time (known as summertime) ends early in September so as not to interfere with Rosh HaShona (The New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). In addition, Jews who wish to pray at the designated times of day meet no prejudice.
In addition, national holidays take on a religious or spiritual aspect. On Remembrance Day, the siren blows, pedestrians stand at attention and those in cars get out to join them. On Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, a day of fasting and repentance, no cars, buses, taxis, or other vehicles are allowed on the roads.
On the Sabbath, Ultra-Orthodox areas do not permit cars on their streets and there are sirens to mark the beginning and end of the Sabbath. Other religious Jews observe the Sabbath (Shabbat) as a time for turning off material and work-related issues. For six days the Jews are expected to work on perfecting the world and on the seventh, they are to celebrate the creation just as it is.
In today's Israel there are a number of divisions within Judaism itself. The first is among different branches of Judaism. The official religion of the State is Orthodox Judaism, and an overwhelming majority of Jews in Israel are Orthodox. Other branches include Reformed and Conservative Judaism.
Another way to categorize the Jewish population is based on their heritage - the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. The Ashkenazi Jews come from Europe, especially Eastern Europe and were the dominant Jews to come to Israel in the early years of Zionism and the founders of the kibbutz movement. The Sephardic Jews are a mixture but they basically come from Arab lands. The word means Spanish and referred originally to the Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition in 1492. The Ashkenazim and the Sephardim each have a chief rabbi in Israel who form the Chief Rabbinate. There are now more Sephardic Jews in Israel than Ashkenazic Jews but there are power struggles noticeable in where people live, how good the schools are, and what political parties they belong to.
Wesley G. Pippert in Land of Promise Land of Strife says that the Ashkenazi Jews were Europeans and Israel was considered a Western nation from the beginning. The Sephardim, coming from Middle Eastern countries brought their own customs so now, "Modern Israel, in short, is a western-styled nation that acts in an eastern manner, and the result is often chaotic."(page 155)
Some areas at issue
- The Sabbath. Although streets where ultra-Orthodox live are closed on the Sabbath, the neighborhoods have been expanding along with the demand for more street closings. Stores, that used to be closed on the Sabbath, have been opening and cinemas and restaurants are sometimes open. Jewish businesses in Jerusalem are more likely to close, but Tel Aviv is more open.
- Conversion. The only conversions recognized are those by Orthodox rabbis if done in Israel. Although conversions by Reform and Conservative rabbis completed outside Israel are recognized, the Reform and Conservative movements want state recognition for conversions inside Israel.
- Yeshiva students are deferred from the draft and given a stipend because it is felt that religious learning is a patriotic act. The study of the Torah is considered to be of supreme value in the defense of the State. The number of students has ballooned and Israelis who serve in the army and their families feel this is unfair since over 30,000 have deferments.
- Other areas of contention include the marriage laws that require a ceremony by an Orthodox rabbi; adoption laws that require the parents to bring the child up as an Orthodox Jew; and the make-up of local religious councils.