HISTORICAL BACKGROUND 70 CE-1917
70 CE1 The Destruction of the Temple and the Jewish Dispersion
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 Jewish life in ancient Israel is recorded in detail in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian "Old Testament").
The dispersion of the Jewish people is traditionally dated from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, an event considered by the Romans to be a victory of such significance that they commemorated it by erecting the triumphal Arch of Titus, which still dominates the Roman Forum. The Roman historian Cassius Dio records that in a subsequent revolt in 135 CE some 580,000 Jewish soldiers were killed; and following that revolt the Emperor Hadrian decreed that the name "Judea"2 should be replaced by "Syria Palestina" - Philistine Syria or "Palestine"3.
Detail from the Arch of Titus- Spoils from the Jerusalem Temple
Source Wikipedia. Photo in public domain.
In the ensuing years 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.
As strangers and outsiders in the countries of their dispersion, the Jews were subjected to discriminatory laws and taxes and, particularly with the rise of Christianity, to humiliation and active persecution. However, through the centuries of exile, the hope for redemption of the land of Israel remained a focal point of the Jewish religion and national identity.
622 The Birth of Islam
The Hijra, the "migration" of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina, marked the establishment of the Islamic religion in Arabia. At the height of its power during the next hundred years, Islamic rule extended from India to southern France. A highly sophisticated Arabic culture was developed, renowned for its science and philosophy, and its literature, art and architecture.
638 The Arab conquest of Palestine
In the seventh century Palestine was predominantly Christian and Greek speaking, ruled from Constantinople ("Byzantium") as a part of the Byzantine Empire, the successor of the eastern Roman Empire.
In 638 the Islamic Caliph Omar I completed the Arab conquest of Palestine with the capture of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. Omar built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the Temple, and henceforth Jerusalem was proclaimed the third most holy site of Islam.
From 638 to 1099 Palestine was part of the empires successively ruled by the Arab dynasties centred in Damascus and Baghdad. The result was an entrenchment of the Arabic language and culture and the dominance of Islam, although a significant proportion of the population remained Christian. Like most of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, the people of Palestine thus came to describe themselves as "Arabs".
1099 The Crusaders establish the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.
1187 Saladin, the Kurdish ruler of Egypt defeats the Crusaders.
1516 Suleiman the Magnificent of Turkey takes Jerusalem
Under Turkish Muslim rule Palestine was governed from Constantinople for the next four hundred years, ending with the defeat of Turkey as an ally of Germany in the First World War in 1917.
By the 19th century the population of Turkish Palestine had been reduced to less than 500,000, including about 25,000 Jews. The only fertile areas were in the narrow central plain. The north consisted of rocky hills and of valleys in which large regions had degenerated into malaria-ridden swampland, while the south was mostly desert.
1882 The Jews of Russia and the origins of modern Zionism
Meanwhile, some five million Jews lived in Russia. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and the succession of the more repressive Alexander III, anti-Jewish laws were re-introduced. Boys of twelve were conscripted for twenty-five years in the army; Jews were allowed to live only in restricted areas and "pogroms" (violent attacks on Jewish villages and neighbourhoods) swept through Russia.
The overwhelming response was emigration to America. Another was Zionism, the political movement aimed at restoring a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1882 the first of the modern Zionist waves of immigration (the “First Aliyah” = “ascent”) began, with the establishment of agricultural settlements under Turkish rule, in harsh and often malarial conditions, and generally dependent on the support of Jewish philanthropists. A second wave of immigration came in 1904 after another outbreak of pogroms in Russia. By 1914 the Jewish population was approximately 85,000 in a total population of approximately 650,000.
1897 Theodore Herzl calls the First Zionist Congress
As a journalist in Paris representing a Viennese newspaper, Herzl witnessed the anti-semitic outbreaks at the beginning of the "Dreyfus Affair".4
Shocked by the anti-semitism in France, the land of liberty and emancipation, he concluded that Jewish freedom and dignity could only be achieved with the restoration of a Jewish national homeland, and in 1896 he wrote "Der Judenstaat", a program for the establishment of a Jewish state. He forecast that a state would come into existence within 50 years. "If you will it", he said, "it is no dream".
In 1897 he convened the first Zionist Congress at Basle in Switzerland, comprising 204 representatives of Jewish communities, which created the World Zionist Organisation. The official statement of the Zionist aims, the Basle Program, was adopted by the First Zionist Congress on 31 August 1897.
After a series of pogroms in Russia, culminating in a massacre at Kishinev in 1903, there was great pressure in Britain to take Jewish immigration. The British government first offered to the Zionist organisation the enclave of El Arish, on the coast of the Sinai desert, and then seriously offered Uganda (then known as "East Africa") as a Jewish homeland and place of refuge.
1914-1918 The First World War
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Palestine was a part of the Turkish Empire, which also included Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and western Arabia. Turkey came into the war on the side of Germany and Austria, shortly after the war had commenced.
The major British concern at that time was the protection of the British sea route to India and the British Empire east of Suez, including Australia. There was also the possibility of a British-controlled railway from Baghdad to the port of Haifa in Palestine.
On 25 April 1915 the British launched a massive naval invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli. The British expected a rapid victory, which would be followed by an overland march to Istanbul and the collapse of the Turkish Empire. Even while the Gallipoli campaign was still in its planning stages, the British cabinet debated its “war aims”, in effect the future carve-up of Turkey’s Middle Eastern possessions between the Allied powers.
Once it became clear that the Gallipoli campaign would fail, an alternative strategy was developed, which involved an approach to Istanbul from the south, through Palestine and Syria. Britain therefore sought an alliance with the Arab subjects of the Turkish Empire.
In 1915 Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, opened a correspondence with the Sherif of Mecca, who claimed descent from Mohammed as the leader of the Hashemite dynasty which ruled the Hejaz in Western Arabia. The British government promised military support for an Arab revolt against the Turks, and British recognition of Arab independence after a successful uprising. The area of Arab rule was ambiguously described, and the British Government later denied any promise that Arab independence would extend to Palestine.5 (See text and map).
The Arab uprising took the form of a march of Bedouin tribes through the Arabian Peninsula, which then joined the Allied force in Egypt which eventually took Transjordan and reached Damascus. (Colonel T.E. Lawrence - "Lawrence of Arabia" - was one of several officers seconded to the Arab forces). Meanwhile, many Jewish settlers who had been expelled from Palestine by the Turks, joined either the "Zion Mule Corps" which fought at Gallipoli, or the Jewish Legion, a regiment of the British Fusiliers, which fought with the Allied Forces in the Middle East.
Australian forces also fought in Palestine, and the famous charge of the Australian Light Horsemen which resulted in the capture of Beersheba, was a turning point in the campaign.
1. “Common Era” – a non-religious alternative to “AD”.
2. The name “Judea” originally described the territory allocated to the tribe of Judah, one of the twelve tribes descended from Jacob. This area is now the southern half of the “West Bank”. The Romans extended the use of the name to the whole of the province, and its inhabitants were described as “Judaei” or “Jews”. The term “Judaism” hence describes the monotheistic religion and the ethnic culture of the Jewish people.
3. In this outline the name “Palestine” will be used as the description of the whole geographical area of the Mandate up to 1948.
4. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was convicted of treason on the basis of documents which were subsequently found to have been forged, but was not released after the forgery was discovered.
5. Hence the appellation “the twice promised land”, arguably even thrice promised, given the draft Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916 defining British and French interests in a post-war Middle East which included an allocation of part of Palestine to joint British, French and Russian protection.
A map based on the McMahon letter
© Martin Gilbert, from Atlas of the Arab-Israel Conflict.
back to top