The Historical Presence of Jews in the Land of Israel


Jews have lived in the land of Israel for nearly 4000 years, going back to the period of the Biblical patriarchs (c.1900 BCE). The story of the Jewish people, Israel, its capital, Jerusalem, and the Jewish Temple there, has been one of exile, destruction and rebirth. In its 3000 years of history Jerusalem has been destroyed 17 times and 18 times reborn. There has always remained a Jewish presence in the land of Israel and in Jerusalem, and the Jewish people as a whole always dreamt of returning to and rebuilding it.

The concluding words of Israel’s national anthem, ‘HaTikvah’ (‘The Hope’) summarise that aim:

“The hope of 2000 years:/ To live as a free people/ In our own land,/ The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Biblical Times to 70CE

The story of Jewish life in ancient Israel is recorded in detail in the Hebrew Bible (called the “Old Testament” by Christians). According to the Bible, the history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham, and the story of Abraham begins when G-d tells him to leave his homeland, promising Abraham and his descendants a new home in the land of Canaan. (Gen. 12). Canaan was later renamed Israel, after Abraham’s grandson, Jacob/Israel. The land is also often referred to as the Promised Land because of G-d’s repeated promise (Gen. 12:7, 13:15, 15:18, 17:8) to give it to the descendants of Abraham.

When Jacob/Israel encountered the site on Mount Moriah where centuries later the Temple would stand, he said: “How awe-inspiring is this place! It is the House of God! It is the gate to heaven!” (Gen. 28:17). He was told Jerusalem was “the site that the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes, as a place established in His name. It is there that you shall go to seek His presence” (Deut. 12:3).

Jerusalem began to fulfil the function of a spiritual and national capital for the Jews in the 10th century BCE when King David conquered it. He made Jerusalem his seat of judgment and took the Ark of the Covenant to rest there. It was David who conceived the idea of building a Temple there as a permanent house of God, a plan eventually fulfilled by his son Solomon.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish religion and life from the time of Solomon to its eventual destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. It was the one and only place where sacrifices and certain other religious rituals were performed. When the Babylonians destroyed the city in 586 BCE, they also partially destroyed the Temple. The Jews, sent into exile by this event, pledged that they would never forget their beloved Jerusalem or its Temple:

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept, when we remembered Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy” (Psalms 137:1-6).

In 165 BCE the Temple was rededicated after Jewish soldiers succeeded in recapturing Jerusalem. The Romans destroyed this Second Temple in 70 CE, for them a victory of such significance that they commemorated it by erecting the triumphal Arch of Titus, which still dominates the Roman Forum. Jerusalem’s famous Wailing Wall is the remains of the western retaining wall of the Temple, and it is as close to the site of the original Sanctuary as Jews can go today. A Muslim Mosque called the Dome of the Rock currently occupies the site of the Temple.

When the Emperor Hadrian began planning to replace the destroyed Second Temple with a shrine to Jupiter, a Jewish revolt known as the Bar Kochba Rebellion broke out. In a subsequent revolt in 135 CE some 580,000 Jewish soldiers were killed; and following that revolt the Emperor Hadrian decreed that “Syria Palestina” – Philistine Syria or “Palestine”, should replace the name “Judea”.

In the years following the destruction of the Second Temple, the greater part of the Jewish population went into exile as captives, slaves and refugees, although Galilee remained a centre of Jewish institutions and learning until the sixth century CE.

The Jewish Presence in Jerusalem

There has been a Jewish presence in the city of Jerusalem over the centuries, despite the massacres and deprivation brought about by its ruling powers and invading armies. The only times Jews did not live in the city were in the period immediately after the Roman destruction and for a short time during the Crusades, which was also the only period when Jerusalem was a capital city for a non-Jewish group: from 1099 with the founding of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The city has always been the designated national capital of the Jews. It was home to the Jewish kings, the Sanhedrin and the High Priests. In 1948 it automatically became the capital of the State of Israel.

By contrast, Jerusalem was never the capital city of any of its Muslim rulers. It was not the capital for the Umayyad, Abbasid or Fatamid caliphates that ruled for 400 years. Nor was it the capital for the Mamluks (1260-1516), Ottomans (1516-1917) or the Jordanians who ruled East Jerusalem. It is interesting to note that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO’s) founding document, the Palestinian National Covenant of 1964, does not mention Jerusalem even once.

Under Jordanian rule, from 1948-1967, East Jerusalem was the provincial capital of “Muhafazat el Quds”, the Jerusalem Region. Yet its mayor was not elected by the 12 city councillors, but rather appointed by the Minister of Interior in Amman irrespective of the number of votes he received in elections. Furthermore, no ministry had its seat in East Jerusalem. The Jordanian parliament and senate, and the headquarters of all public institutions and banks, were situated in Amman. The Jordanian authorities regarded East Jerusalem as a semi-municipal area, with services far below the minimum normal standards for municipalities.

Since 1967, Israel has restored and repopulated areas in East Jerusalem. As a result of the efforts of Teddy Kollek, Mayor of Jerusalem from 1965-1993, facilities were provided for Arabs in East Jerusalem beyond anything introduced under Jordanian rule, including sewage, a piped water system, clinics, parks and gardens. Jerusalem’s Arabs can work freely in Israel and are entitled to health insurance, hospital access, and other benefits enjoyed by Israeli citizens.

The Jewish Presence and Freedom of Religion in Israel

Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises that the State of Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions…”

Under Israel, freedom of religion has been guaranteed for all faiths in Israel and particularly in Jerusalem. By contrast, between 1948 and 1967, under the rule of Jordan in East Jerusalem, fifty-four synagogues were destroyed in the Old City; gravestones from the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives were used as paving stones; and Jews were expelled from the sector. Under Article 8 of the Israeli-Jordanian Armistice agreement of April 1949, free access to the Western Wall and Mount Scopus was supposed to be guaranteed to the Jews, but the Jordanians never allowed it.

Immediately after the Israeli reunification of Jerusalem, the Knesset passed the Protection of Holy Places Law on 22 June 1967, guaranteeing the sanctity of all holy sites. This law imposes prison sentences of up to seven years on those who desecrate such places. The 1980 Basic Law on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel reaffirmed the principle of free access to the holy sites of all religions.

Israel permits Christians and Muslims to administer their own holy places and institutions. Jordan still administers the Muslim holy sites in the city. In 1988 King Hussein exempted Jerusalem when he ended his administrative ties with the West Bank, and the October 1994 Israel-Jordanian peace treaty agrees on respecting “the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem”.

C. Witton Davies, Archdeacon of Oxford, wrote after a visit to Jerusalem: “From my own personal conversations and observations, I testify that Jerusalem has never been so fairly administered, or made accessible to adherents of all three monotheisms, as well as to the general tourist sightseer or visitor.”

Former US President Jimmy Carter, a devout Southern Baptist and an outspoken exponent of human rights, has acknowledged the freedom of religion in East Jerusalem under Israeli rule: “There is unimpeded access today. There wasn’t from 1948-1967.”

In April 1990, the chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Dante Fascell, noted on the floor of Congress “since Israel gained control of the (Old) City in 1967, it has been open to worshippers of all faiths”.

Israeli rule has not been perfect, yet it has effectively safeguarded the religious freedom of Christians, Muslims and Jews and their holy places. Under Israel the infrastructure in East Jerusalem has been greatly improved and the Arab population of the city has grown rapidly. In 1967 there were 68,600 Arabs living in Jerusalem, whereas in 1995 there were 174,400, a rise of 154 per cent. While the demographic growth has been great, crowding has actually decreased.

The Historic Jewish Capital of the Historical Jewish Land

In October 1995, the US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which recognised Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel and authorised the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The then US Senate majority leader, Robert Dole, stated: “Yesterday’s vote to relocate the American Embassy to Jerusalem was truly a bipartisan effort … No other city on earth represents the same capital of the same country inhabited by the same people, speaking the same language and worshipping the same God as it did 3000 years ago.”

For 3000 years Jews have turned towards Jerusalem for spiritual, cultural, and national inspiration. After the destruction of the city, by the Romans almost 2000 years ago, foreign powers ruled the city vanquishing its inner beauty. Today the beauty has returned to the city. Jerusalem has once again truly become the centre of the Jewish people.

Through the centuries of exile, the hope for redemption of Jerusalem and the land of Israel remained a focal point of the Jewish religion and national identity. Today there are about 14 million Jews in the world, of whom over five million live in Israel, almost half a million in Jerusalem.

Below is an excerpt from an address by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, given at the inauguration of the Jerusalem 3000 festivities on 4 September 1995 – two months before his assassination.

“Three thousand years of history look down upon us today, as do the dreams which cover the hyssop of the Western Wall and the silent graves of the Mount of Olives and Mount Herzl; the hush of the footsteps of the pilgrims and the thunder of the nailed boots of the ruthless conquerors; whose walls resonate with the prayers of the children and the pleas of the praying; where the exultation of victory mingled with the tears of the paratroopers next to the remnants of the Temple, liberated from the yoke of strangers.

Three thousand years of dreams and prayers today wrap Jerusalem in love and bring close Jews of every generation – from the fires of the Inquisition to the ovens of Auschwitz, and from all corners of the earth – from Yemen to Poland.

Three thousand years of Jerusalem are for us, now and forever, a message for tolerance between religions, of love between peoples, of understanding between the nations, of the penetrating awareness that there is no State of Israel without Jerusalem, and no peace without Jerusalem united – the City of Peace. On the day that the government offices were moved to Jerusalem, on 13 December 1949, the first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, said, ‘The State of Israel has, and will have, only one capital, Eternal Jerusalem. So it was 3000 years ago and so it will be, as we believe, for eternity’.”