The destruction of both the First and Second Temples were catastrophic events in Jewish history, in which thousands of Jews were killed and exiled, and which led to the existence of Jewish communities around the world. But even after the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a continuous presence of Jews in Israel. Throughout the centuries, major Jewish cultural achievements were made by Jews who lived there. These include the compilation of the Jerusalem Talmud, dating to the 4th century, and the establishment of Tzfat as a centre for the development of the Jewish mystical tradition in the 16th century.
Jews around the world made remembering the Temple in Jerusalem and the hope for an eventual return to the land of Israel – also referred to as ‘Zion’ – central to all aspects of their religious worship and liturgy. Jewish prayers are always conducted facing towards Jerusalem. For most Jews through the ages, travelling to Israel was an impossible dream. In their prayers, traditions, poetry and scriptures, Jews from around the world expressed their yearning and longing to return.
Jerusalem also has special significance to Christians. According to the Gospels, Jesus preached and performed miracles in the city and in and around the Temple. Jesus’s birthplace, Bethlehem, is also close to the city. In the New Testament, the capture, trial and crucifixion of Jesus also took place in Jerusalem. As a result, Jerusalem is rich in sites of pilgrimage for Christians. These include the ‘Via Dolorosa’, the path taken by Jesus on the way to his crucifixion; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus’s body is believed to have been placed before his resurrection; and the Chapel of the Ascension, from where he was believed to have ascended to heaven.
Jerusalem’s importance to Muslims dates to the earliest days of Islam. Initially Mohammed had his followers pray in the direction of Jerusalem to associate the faith of Islam with the monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity that preceded it. Whilst Mohammed later shifted the focus of the Islamic faith towards Mecca, Islam retained a connection to Jerusalem. The city came under Islamic control in 638 CE, and the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque were built on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple. In Islamic tradition, Jerusalem came to be associated with a miraculous night journey made by Mohammed from Mecca that is described in the Qur’an. The al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in the world for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina.
Today Jerusalem is the thriving, modern capital of Israel with a population of over 800,000. The walled Old City of Jerusalem has four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian. Members of all faiths have access to their holy sites, and each faith is authorised by the Israeli government to administer and control its own holy places.
Historically, Zionism as a political movement emerged as part of the growth of national movements in the last quarter of the 19th century. Jews aspired to establish an independent and sovereign entity in the land of their ancestors. Zionist leaders, most notably the Hungarian-born Theodor Herzl, hoped that the fulfilment of such aspirations would end centuries of anti-Jewish persecution in Europe and allow for the renewal of Jewish culture, language and traditions.
The persecution of Jews was a constant of European life in the medieval period. Jews were demonised as the killers of Christ, banned from most professions, frequently confined to ghettos, periodically subjected to pogroms and expelled from one country after another. Many Jews hoped the onset of modernity, which led to emancipation for Jews in many countries, would bring about an end to anti-Jewish prejudice in Europe. However, in the modern period anti-Semitism did not disappear. It took on new forms, such as the belief that Jews were racially inferior, or involved in a global conspiracy. Jews in Europe were subject to waves of pogroms and persecution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herzl himself was driven to found the Zionist movement after witnessing anti-Semitism in France. In a famous case in 1894, a Jewish captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely convicted of treason. Dreyfus was publicly disgraced at a ceremony in Paris, where crowds of onlookers chanted ‘Death to the Jews’, only later to be acquitted.
Herzl was the first to bring the Jewish need for an independent sovereign state to the world’s attention. He turned the historical Jewish dream of returning to Israel into a modern political movement. He convened the first World Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. As a democratic movement from its inception, the broad umbrella of Zionism included secular and religious Jews, as well as those subscribing to political views from across the spectrum. Threads of the wide range of views within Zionism can still be seen today in the complex party political structure within the State of Israel.
The establishment of Israel in 1948 marked the realisation of Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state in their historical homeland, where Jews would be free from persecution and able to develop their national identity. Zionism retains its relevance today as the Jewish state still seeks to build a national home that is at peace with its neighbours and able to fulfil its potential as a cultural and spiritual beacon for the Jewish people. Most Jews around the world consider themselves supporters of Zionism, in that they support the existence and development of Israel as the state and homeland for the Jewish people.
At various times, certain groups have tried to delegitimise Zionism by falsely smearing it as a racist ideology, or inaccurately characterising it as a colonial movement. One of the premises of Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people –who have a shared language, culture, history and historical homeland – constitute a nation. As such, they have equal rights to other nations, including the right to self-determination. To describe Zionism as a form of racism is to discriminate against Jews by uniquely denying their rights to national self-determination.
Zionists sought to end the status of Jews as a persecuted minority, by re-establishing a Jewish-majority state in Palestine through immigration, settlement and peaceful coexistence with the local Arabs. Most of the Jews who moved to Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel came not as colonisers, but as refugees, fleeing persecution from various parts of Europe. Jews did not seek to subjugate the local population, but hoped that the lives of all the residents of the land would be improved by the influx of Jewish immigration. The early Zionists believed that there was ample room in Palestine to support Jewish immigration, without compromising the interests and rights of the local Arab population. The area was a relatively small and underdeveloped part of the Ottoman Empire, with no independent government or unified political structure. Jews did not enter Palestine by force, but purchased land and built new communities.
Mainstream Zionists have always believed that a non-Jewish minority would live alongside the Jewish people as citizens with full and equal rights. This principle was enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promised Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel ‘full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.’ Today that vision is expressed in Israel. Non-Jewish residents of the State of Israel have citizenship by right and approximately 20 per cent of the citizens of Israel are Arabs or other minorities. The spouses and children of Israeli citizens, whatever their faith, are also entitled to citizenship.
In order to fulfil its goal of being a homeland and refuge for the Jewish people, Israel grants citizenship to any Jew who wishes to live in Israel. This right is extended to the children and grandchildren of Jews and their spouses, even if they themselves are not Jewish. In some cases, it is also possible to become a citizen of Israel through naturalisation.
As the Second World War drew closer, the British government, fearing the loss of allies in the Arab and Muslim world, moved away from supporting Jewish immigration to Palestine. In 1939, as the threat to the Jews of Europe reached new heights, Britain issued the MacDonald White Paper, in which Jewish immigration was severely restricted.
The Holocaust and its aftermath
Between 1939 and 1945, the German Nazi Party, with its allies throughout Europe, murdered approximately six million of Europe’s 11 million Jews. The Holocaust was a genocide carried out with ruthless efficiency on an industrial scale throughout Europe. Palestinian Arab leaders welcomed the Nazis’ rise to power, believing that in opposition to the British and the Jews, they shared common interests. The most senior Palestinian leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, cooperated with the Nazis, and in November 1941, met personally with Hitler in an attempt to forge an alliance. Meanwhile, 30,000 Palestinian Jews joined the British army to fight against the Nazis, despite the restrictions of the White Paper preventing Jewish immigration to Palestine.
After the war, many thousands of Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust were in refugee camps in Europe. Having been robbed of all property and rights, most were unable and unwilling to return to their countries of origin. Many who tried to return after the war were subjected to further attacks. Most of the refugees expressed their desire to move to Palestine.
In this climate the Jewish Agency, which represented the Jewish community in Palestine, with American political support, called for 100,000 Jews to be allowed to enter Palestine. The British government refused to agree. This led to illegal Jewish immigration and a direct confrontation between the British government and the Jews of Palestine. Some Jewish extremist groups, the Irgun and Lehi, began to attack British military targets. The British forcefully suppressed all acts of Jewish resistance, at one stage arresting 3,000 people. Over 50,000 Jews who had survived the Holocaust and attempted to enter Palestine were forcibly interned in British camps in Cyprus. In 1946, the leader of the Jews in Palestine, David Ben-Gurion, attempted to unite Jewish resistance forces. The agreement broke down after the Irgun undertook its most notorious act, the bombing of the British headquarters at the King David Hotel. The majority of Palestine’s Jews denounced this act.
The UN Partition Plan and the end of the Mandate
In 1947, the British turned the question of the future of Palestine over to the United Nations, which established the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to determine its future. The UN recommended partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem under international control. The plan would have created a Jewish state with a Jewish majority on the Mediterranean coast, western Galilee and Negev Desert. On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of Resolution 181, to approve the UNSCOP plan, by 33 votes to 13. The Jewish Agency, representing the Jews of Palestine, accepted the plan, but the Arab Higher Committee, the Palestinian Arabs’ political representatives, rejected it. As the British Mandate formally ended, on 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel in line with the UN resolution.
In 1920, 1921 and 1929, Arabs rioted and attacked Jewish communities, including the massacre of 60 men, women and children in Hebron in 1929. Arabs were also killed in the violence, mainly by British troops trying to maintain law and order and in Jewish retaliatory attacks.
The influx of Jews fleeing Nazism brought new concerns to the Palestinian Arab leadership. They became increasingly strident in their demands for a halt to both Jewish immigration and land sales to Jews. They called for a general strike in April 1936, sparking the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, during which Arab groups attacked Jewish farms, communities and property all over Palestine. Britain was forced to send 20,000 extra troops to Palestine to maintain law and order.
Responding to the Arab riots, the British established a royal commission in 1937 under the chairmanship of Lord Peel. The commission proposed the creation of a Jewish state on only a small fraction of British Mandate Palestine, with the rest of the territory allocated for a separate Arab state, except for the area around and including Jerusalem that would stay under British control. The mainstream Zionist movement accepted the principle of partition but rejected the specific border proposals. Arab representatives rejected the compromise out of hand, leading to its collapse.
Israel’s leaders felt that settlements in certain key strategic locations were vital for Israel’s future security. As Arab states refused to recognise Israel prior to the Six Day War, permanent borders were never fixed. For this reason, Israel’s borders remained the temporary ceasefire lines of 1949. These borders made Israel highly vulnerable to a military attack that could divide the country in two. At its narrowest point, the State of Israel between the Green Line (the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan) and the Mediterranean Sea is just nine miles wide. Before the Six Day War, the Jordanian military held artillery positions overlooking Israel’s densely populated coastal plain. In addition, Jerusalem was isolated and vulnerable to being cut off, as happened during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
Most of the settlers in the West Bank went to a small number of large settlement blocs, which are located along the Green Line and around Jerusalem. Some were built on areas from which Jews had been forced out after the Jordanian invasion in 1948.
After Arafat’s death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was elected as the president of the PA. In February 2006, elections for the PLC produced an unexpected victory for Hamas – an armed, radical Islamist Palestinian faction. They formed a government with Ismail Haniyeh as Prime Minister. The international community largely refused to have contact with Hamas because of its refusal to meet the conditions set by the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and UN) to renounce violence, recognise Israel and to accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. The West Bank and Gaza Strip became marred by increasingly bloody infighting between Fatah and Hamas. In March 2007, Fatah and Hamas attempted to form a unity government. This collapsed in June 2007, after Hamas carried out a violent coup against its Fatah rivals in the Gaza Strip. PA President Mahmoud Abbas then dismissed the Hamas-led government and appointed an administration under his own leadership in the West Bank. This administration remains in control of the West Bank, whilst Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip. Repeated attempts to broker an agreement between Hamas and Fatah to reunite the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under a single authority and hold new elections have failed.
The PLO claims the West Bank and the Gaza Strip within pre-1967 borders for their state. Israel has accepted in principle the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel but is not willing to return to those borders, which it considers military indefensible.
There is a broad consensus in Israel that the larger settlement blocs around Jerusalem, and on key strategic points protecting Israel’s narrow coastal plain, should remain part of Israel. The Clinton Parameters in 2000 accepted this principle and suggested some form of land swap, whereby the new Palestinian state would receive other territory from Israel in return for the settlement blocs. The Palestinians also want territory within Israel to build a transport link that connects Gaza and the West Bank, and this could form part of an exchange deal. In 2008, under the Annapolis process, Israel and the Palestinian Authority conducted negotiations along these lines, though there were gaps between the sides on how much land would be exchanged.
Israel’s recent experience of withdrawing from territory in the hope that it will bring peace has been negative. After Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, and from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel was subsequently attacked from both locations, in particular by rockets. Any deal to bring about Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will have to address Israel’s legitimate security fears. Israel will not be willing to allow the establishment of a military force in the West Bank or Gaza that could threaten Israel, and expects a future Palestinian state to be demilitarised. It will further expect a future Palestinian state to act decisively to prevent attacks on Israel originating from within its territory. Israel will also want to retain a military presence in the Jordan Valley after the creation of a Palestinian state to prevent arms smuggling into the West Bank. The Palestinians are opposed to an Israeli military presence, and have proposed a third party international presence instead.
The Palestinians claim the right of return for the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war to return to Israel. Israel does not believe it is responsible for resettling the refugees, believing their plight to be the responsibility of the Arab states that rejected the 1947 Partition Plan, started the war, and then refused to resettle the refugees created by that war in their own territory. In any case, no Israeli government will accept a solution that would allow millions of Palestinians to settle in Israel. This would effectively spell the end of the Jewish majority and the viability of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. In 2000 the Clinton Parameters proposed that most of the refugees be resettled either in the new Palestinian state, in their country of residence, or in a third country. This is the principle of two-states for two peoples.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have very strong cultural, religious, historical and political attachments to Jerusalem and both claim it to be their capital. Particularly sensitive are the Old City and its religious sites. If Palestinian demands to return to pre-1967 borders were taken literally, it would result in the re-division of Jerusalem and the loss of Israeli sovereignty over the Old City, which is something that most Israelis would not be willing to contemplate. The Clinton Parameters proposed a solution whereby Arab neighbourhoods would come under Palestinian sovereignty and Jewish neighbourhoods would stay under Israeli sovereignty. Previous negotiations have also proposed a special regime for the Old City.
There are a host of other issues that will need to be resolved in order to make the two-state solution a functioning reality. These include water use and management, the passage regime between a future Palestinian state and its neighbours, Israeli-Palestinian economic, trade and legal relations, infrastructure, the fate of Gaza (for as long as it is under Hamas control), and the process of transition to Palestinian statehood. Previous negotiation efforts have produced progress on some of these issues.
Water is a particularly sensitive issue. The region has limited water resources and Israel currently depends on the West Bank for part of its water supply. Any peace deal will have to address both the allocation and management of water from the Jordan River and the underground aquifers in the West Bank. In 2006, Israel began operating the largest desalination plant of its kind in the world on its Mediterranean coast and is building several more to address its water needs. This may make a solution to the question of water easier to address in future negotiations.
Israel extended its sovereignty over East Jerusalem but not to the West Bank, which it considers disputed territory, the fate of which should be determined in negotiations. In the absence of a peace agreement, Israelis established settlements in the West Bank, which holds both great historical and religious significance for Jews, as well as strategic importance. Today there are close to 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and approximately 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The Oslo process that began in 1993 resulted in the creation of Palestinian self-rule over Palestinian population centres in the West Bank. The West Bank is now divided into three types of administration. Seventeen per cent is designated as Area A, under Palestinian administrative and security control. Twenty-four per cent is Area B, which is under Palestinian civilian administration and Israeli security control. The remainder is Area C, which is under full Israeli control. Ninety-six per cent of Palestinians live under Palestinian Authority administration in areas A and B. There is day-to-day coordination between the Israeli military authorities and the Palestinian Authority on the administration of the West Bank.
Figures released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics showed that 8% of Israel’s Jewish population defines itself as Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), 12% as religious, 13% as traditional-religious, 25% as traditional and 42% as secular. ‘Traditional’ indicates participation in Jewish traditions but not observance of the strictures of Halakha (Jewish law). Haredi Jews observe very stringent interpretations of Halakha and live very conservative lifestyles within relatively closed communities.
Arab-Israelis comprise about 20% of the general population. Over 80% are Muslims, and the rest are Christians or Druze. The Druze minority has its own distinct identity. Whilst most Arabs are not conscripted to national service, Druze have a close identification with the state and are conscripted. Bedouin Arabs, who live mainly in the south of the country, also form a distinct group, and generally have closer identification with the state than other Israeli-Arabs. Bedouin are not drafted to national service but some volunteer each year.
Until now, ultra-Orthodox Jews have also been exempt from military conscription, and ultra-Orthodox men have not generally entered the workforce, dedicating their lives instead to religious study. This has become a source of resentment among other sectors of society and an economic burden. In 2013 the newly elected Israeli government proposed new legislation to govern the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men into national service.
The vision of Israel’s founders was of an open and democratic state with a Jewish majority in which non-Jews would enjoy full and equal rights. The principle of equality for all citizens was enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and is protected by Israel’s Supreme Court. There are many successes in this regard. All democratic freedoms familiar to a Western democracy are present in Israel. The country has a vigorous and diverse free press, a very well developed and active civil society and a highly respected judicial system protecting individual rights. This is affirmed by the international freedom and democracy watchdog Freedom House.
In Israel, women have achieved substantial parity at almost all levels of society. In 2008 the president of the Supreme Court, the foreign minister and the speaker of the parliament were women.
Representatives of Arab and other minorities play a full and active role in the state, including as ministers in the government, justices of the Supreme Court, members of parliament, senior academics, ambassadors, members of the civil service, and in the military. In 2007, Raleb Majadele, a member of the Labour party, became the first Arab to sit as a minister in the Israeli cabinet.
However, as in other societies, minority groups still suffer from inequalities, including discrepancies in the allocation of resources and access to public sector jobs. The Arab-Israeli conflict makes particularly difficult the relationship between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority, and between Israeli Arabs and the state. There are ongoing efforts by governmental and non-governmental agencies to overcome inequalities between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society.
When Israel was founded, the Arab world refused to recognise it and enforced a strict economic boycott. But since the late 1970s, some Arab states have recognised Israel and built political ties with it. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, concluding a peace treaty in 1979. The PLO recognised Israel in 1993 as part of the Oslo peace process. This paved the way for the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1994. With the development of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, more Arab states began to establish ties with Israel. Israel opened trade representation and interest offices in Oman, Qatar, Morocco and Tunisia. The economic boycott was relaxed somewhat during this time. In 1999, the West African state of Mauritania became the third Arab state to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.
The outbreak of the Second Intifada caused Morocco, Oman and Tunisia to break off their ties, but contacts have been maintained in some areas. In 2002, the Arab League proposed to normalise relations with Israel in the context of the creation of a Palestinian state.
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