Headlines on the October 6th attack of Israel are absolutely heart wrenching! They are also hard to understand. While I can’t make full sense of this unfolding tragedy, I can provide some historical context. (In fact, I’ve been asked by readers of my early volumes to “fill in” with history from my last volume.) If you don’t know me, I’m Linda Lacour Hobar, the author of The Mystery of History, a world history curriculum for all ages, written from a biblical worldview. My stories are from The Mystery of History Volume IV (spanning 1708 to 2014). They are:
- Part 1—The Formation of Israel (1948)
- Part 2—Ayatollah Khomeini Forms the Islamic Republic of Iran (1979)
- Part 3—The Assassination of Anwar Sadat (1981)
These history lessons are longer than a typical blog, so I’ll divide them into three posts. And, for expediency, I’ll leave out the photos. (If you’re interested, there are color photos in all of our volumes.) Please keep in mind these lessons were written years ago for middle school and high school students. They won’t address everything going on today, nor are they supposed to. But I do hope this pertinent background information will help families as they pray for the Middle East!
Part 1—The Formation of Israel (1948)
On May 14, 1948, members of the Jewish People’s Council met in the city of Tel Aviv to declare Israel a “state.” Serious problems have existed in the Middle East ever since! Before delving into the formation of Israel in 1948, or the conflicts surrounding it, I need to define three terms and review some important Bible and political history.
Terms and History
First, I need to define “Palestine.” Palestine is one of many names given to the original land of Canaan, also called the Holy Land. According to some traditions, Palestine is derived from the ancient Roman province, Syria Palaestina. But according to Herodotus, an ancient historian, the name Palestine is a derivative of Philistine. You probably know the Philistines — they were one of several groups that occupied and fought for the land of Canaan in Bible times. To the Hebrew descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Canaan was the “Promised Land.” As you may know, the Promised Land was conquered by the ancient Israelites after the Exodus, settled by the 12 tribes of Israel (the sons of Jacob), and so named “Israel.” After the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon, Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The Northern Kingdom kept the name Israel. The Southern Kingdom went by Judah (Endnote 1) named for the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
According to the Bible, the Lord allowed the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom to be conquered and deported to Assyria because of their numerous sins. (See 2 Kings 18:11–12.) That deportation occurred in 721 B.C. As a result of it, Israel went “off the map,” so to speak. “Jews” continued to live in Judah, the Southern Kingdom, until taken captive to Babylon in 605 B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar, one of the most famous kings of Babylonia. We call the fall of Judah to Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian Captivity. That may sound familiar. The Babylonian Captivity lasted 70 years, as was prophesied in Scripture by Jeremiah. (See Jer. 25:8–11 and 2 Chron. 36:21.)
What I want you to know is that Palestine was the name most commonly used for the Holy Land after the Babylonian Captivity. (Though under much debate, you will see that most atlases use the term “Palestine” for the Holy Land after the Babylonian Captivity.) Following the Babylonian Captivity, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and then they ruled over Palestine. As an example of Persian rule, you may remember from Bible stories that Nehemiah had to get permission from the king of Persia to rebuild the walls in Jerusalem. In summary, when the Jewish exiles returned “home” from Babylon, they returned to Judah as a “district of Palestine” under Persian rule. Where was Israel? It was off the map. Where was Judah? It was a district of Palestine.
Now, the powers ruling over Palestine changed hands several times after the return of the Jewish exiles, meaning that in and of itself, Palestine was not an established nation. (By this, I mean that Palestine did not have its own government, its own ruler, its own currency, its own language, and so on.) To fully grasp the disarray of Palestine, let’s examine closely who possessed it after the Persians.
Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the Persians and took Palestine in 332 B.C. He kept “friendly” relations with the Jews and was not oppressive toward them. His successors were not so kind! For example, Antiochus Epiphanes, of the later Seleucid dynasty, defiled the Jewish Temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar.
In the Maccabean Revolt, the Jewish Hasmoneans gained control over the Seleucids, and Jews ruled Palestine from 140 B.C. to 37 B.C., more than 100 years. (The miracle of Hanukkah took place during the Maccabean Revolt.)
The Romans, who were great in size and power, gained control of Palestine prior to the birth of Christ and held on to it through Christ’s death and resurrection. The Romans allowed the Jews to practice Judaism but were otherwise oppressive. Jews rebelled against the Romans in the First Jewish Revolt. They lost that revolt, and the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70. At this pivotal time in history, most Jews fled Palestine to all parts of the world in what has been called the Diaspora.
Among the Jews who stayed behind in Palestine, a man named Bar-Kokhba arose as the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt. Bar-Kokhba and his loyal army of Jewish soldiers conquered the Romans in the second century and for a brief time established a Jewish state in Palestine. (See Volume II of this series.) However, the Romans killed Bar-Kokhba in battle and Palestine fell back under Roman rule.
In A.D. 313, Roman Emperor Constantine I declared the Roman Empire “Christian.” Palestine was part of the Roman Empire and considered Christian, too. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) oversaw Palestine. The Byzantine Empire was “Eastern Orthodox,” and so Palestine was considered Eastern Orthodox, too.
Palestine remained a Christian empire until 638 when Muslim Arabs invaded. They held Palestine off and on for 1,300 years — battling “Christian” crusaders throughout the Middle Ages to maintain their presence in the Holy Land.
The Ottoman Turks, another Muslim group, conquered the Holy Land in 1517. The Ottoman Turks governed Palestine for about 400 years, until the end of World War I. Though thousands of Jews still lived in Palestine during this era, only Muslims were permitted to hold land.
After the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the close of World War I, Great Britain acquired Palestine in 1922 under the League of Nations. We call this acquisition of Palestine the British Mandate of Palestine. I realize that all of this is a lot of information! But it brings us up to the date of our lesson (1948), at which time we find “Palestine” under British rule.
With that in mind, my second term to define is “Palestinian.” Now, you might naturally assume that Palestinians are the people of Palestine, but since Palestine was not an “established nation” through all the history I just listed, the naming of its people is tricky. For centuries, a clear identity for the Palestinians was lost due to the changing hands of leadership over Palestine and the diverse blend of cultures living there.
Let’s pick up the definition of a Palestinian with the period of time during which Palestine was under the British Mandate. At that time, the term “Palestinian” was commonly used as an adjective. Thus, Jews in Palestine were called “Palestinian Jews,” Arabs in Palestine were called“Palestinian Arabs,” and Christians in Palestine were called“Palestinian Christians.”
This terminology would change, however, in 1948 when Israel declared its statehood, which is what our lesson is all about! Palestinian Jews, upon making their own state, would begin to call themselves “Israelis.” Palestinian Arabs would by and large identify themselves as “Palestinians”; they continue to use that name today. (Endnote 2) Palestinian Christians would keep the name“Palestinian Christians,” but we don’t hear that term very often since they make up only 4 percent of Israel’s population. Let’s move on.
Our third and final term to define is “Zionism.” Zionism comes from the word “Zion,” which is a hill in southeast Jerusalem and a biblical nickname for the holy city. By a broad definition, Zionism was a political movement (also called the Zionist movement) aimed at returning Jews to their ancient homeland. It originated in Russia, where Jews were oppressed for decades under Vladimir Lenin and Jospeh Stalin. But it was Theodor Herzl of Austria-Hungary who made Zionism a popular term in the nineteenth century. He wrote a book in 1896 proposing that the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine would ease the tension of anti-Semitism found all over the world. [Endnote 3] (Anti-Semitism is hostility toward Jews.) Herzl was writing about the need for a Jewish homeland before the Holocaust of World War II. He had no idea how anti-Semitism was going to worsen under Adolf Hitler! Ironically, one of the larger headquarters of the Zionist movement was located in Berlin, Germany. Obviously, it was there before Hitler!
The Zionist Movement
With those terms and some Bible history behind us, let’s look more closely at the Zionist movement, which promoted the formation of Israel as a state. The Zionist movement, which had a large base in London, started slowly after World War I. In 1917, Arthur Balfour (the foreign secretary of Great Britain) wrote in a short letter called the Balfour Declaration that the British supported the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. (The featured image of this post is Arthur Balfour and his declaration.) There was one condition, though. The British would support Israel only if nothing would hurt the people already living there (referring primarily to the Palestinian Arabs).
In exact words, the Balfour Declaration said that a Jewish state should not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” (Endnote 4) This meant that the rights of 400,000 to 500,000 Palestinian Arabs living in Palestine at that time were clearly acknowledged. As a matter of fact, in support of Palestinian Arabs, the British appointed a “Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.” This position, originally created by the Ottoman Turks, allowed a Sunni Muslim cleric to oversee Islamic holy places in Jerusalem.
With protection for Palestinian Arabs specified, and a Grand Mufti in place over Jerusalem, Winston Churchill lifted a ban in 1922 (before World War II) that had previously stopped Jews from immigrating to Palestine. With the ban lifted, at least 100,000 Jews made their way to Palestine. There appeared to be room for Jews and Arabs alike across the land (which then included much of Jordan). In fact, within a decade after the ban was lifted, the Nazis encouraged Jews to immigrate to Palestine. Yes, years before the ghettos and the death camps of the Holocaust, the Nazis supported a migration of German Jews to Palestine.
As you likely know, though, the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe grew exponentially during the Holocaust. As more Jews fled for their lives, literally, their numbers dramatically increased in Palestine. In fact, by 1939, there were 500,000 Jews living in Palestine. (Endnote 5) Because of this rapid growth, Great Britain reconsidered its position on immigration and shut it down. Turning against the Jews, the British changed their open-immigration policy and made it nearly impossible for Jews to enter Palestine. So strict were the new immigration laws that ships en route to Palestine, with hundreds of Jewish immigrants aboard, were left stranded in harbors with nowhere to go. (Endnote 6)
The situation in Palestine was problematic, and tension naturally flared up between Palestinian Arabs (under the guidance of the Grand Mufti), Palestinian Jews (who had no single leader of their own), the British (who led from afar under the British Mandate), and Zionists (growing in numbers all over the world). Hurting the Zionist cause was the fact that Zionists were divided into“secular” Jews and“religious” Jews, with each group holding different values. Let me elaborate on that.
Secular Jews were interested in establishing a national home for Israel that was not necessarily religious. They were not looking to resurrect the ancient theocracy of Israel. They were looking to create a secular political state in the form of a democracy that would protect the Jewish people from persecution. They certainly had seen enough persecution from the Holocaust of World War II! In fact, one of their leaders, Menachem Begin (Meh KNOCK’HM BAYgeen), had spent time in a prison camp in the Arctic Circle after seeing his family shot by the Nazis and his hometown in Russia destroyed. (Endnote 7) Because of his painful experiences, and those of other Holocaust victims, he wanted the Zionist movement to be militant in nature with a strong army.
On the other end of the spectrum, religious Jews did not want Zionists to be militant at all. They wanted to see the hand of God alone in restoring Israel through the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. Blurring the matter, religious Jews debated among themselves over the boundaries of the Promised Land. Would a modern state of Israel be based on King David’s kingdom, King Solomon’s territories, or the lands of the divided kingdoms? These were serious questions with life-or-death answers for those who would battle over the frontier.
The State of Israel
Now, even though the Zionist movement was divided by values, it was persistent in putting pressure on Great Britain for political freedom. As a result of all the tension, Great Britain offered to create two states in Palestine — giving about 80 percent to the Arabs and 20 percent to the Jews. The Arabs refused the offer. Seeing no solution in sight, Great Britain abandoned its interest in keeping Palestine under the British Mandate. In 1947, the British voted to turn Palestine and all its problems over to the United Nations. Now, something very important to know is this: In 1947, after studying the situation in Palestine, a special committee of the United Nations also proposed that Palestine be divided into two states — one Arab and one Jewish — with the city of Jerusalem remaining neutral.
To many people, the two-state plan proposed by the United Nations was a feasible way to meet the needs of everyone in Palestine. Others warned against it, saying, “. . . a Jewish state in Palestine will mean a permanent danger to a lasting peace in the Near East.” (Endnote 8) For the second time, Palestinian Arabs (growing in their own sense of nationalism) violently rejected the idea of two states in Palestine! For economic, political, and spiritual reasons, they did not (and do not) want the state of Israel to exist. Though Israel was founded as a secular democracy, Arabs claim the Zionist state is completely religious in nature and has no place in the Islamic Middle East.
Compounding the struggle is a dispute over possession of the Temple site, also called the Temple Mount. As you may know, religious Jews consider Jerusalem a sacred city because it is home to the former Jewish Temple and is the place where they await the Messiah. (See 2 Chron. 7:16–18.) Though not mentioned once in the Koran, Jerusalem is also considered a holy city by Muslims. They claim that Mohammed ascended to heaven from the site of the Temple. Memorializing that claim, an Islamic shrine called the Dome of the Rock stands at the Temple Mount today.
Getting back to our story line: On the same day that Great Britain officially dissolved the British Mandate over Palestine, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion declared Israel a secular state in Palestine. That day was May 14, 1948, as mentioned at the very beginning of this lesson. The declaration stated:
“By virtue of our national and intrinsic right, and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, we hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, which shall be known as the State of Israel.” (Endnote 9)
In this declaration, the borders of Israel were left vague and Jews freely migrated back to their ancient homeland.
In reaction, Arab armies from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq attacked the newly formed state of Israel one day after Ben-Gurion’s declaration of statehood! Called the First Arab- Israeli War, it saw Arab nations join ranks under the leadership of King Abdullah I of Jordan. In this war, which spanned May 15, 1948, to March 10, 1949, Arabs seized control of the Gaza Strip (a small strip of land on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea) and the Old City of Jerusalem, which was home to the Temple Mount. Needless to say, religious Jews were especially brokenhearted to lose access to the site of the former Temple. (As of this writing, Palestinian Arabs still have control over the Temple Mount and restrict Jews from this site except to allow prayers and pilgrimages to the Western Wall, the last remaining wall of Herod’s Temple built in 19 B.C.) Despite some losses in the First Arab-Israeli War, Israel maintained its statehood. A parliamentary democracy was put in place to unite Israelis, with Chaim Weizmann serving as the first president of Israel. To further unite Jewish immigrants, who came from all corners of the globe, the ancient language of Hebrew was resurrected to become the national language of Israel.
With Israel holding fast to its statehood, two problems continued to develop in the Middle East — borders and refugees. As mentioned previously, the borders of Israel were vague when Israel first declared its statehood, and the situation has not greatly improved. And as Israel grew quickly in population, industry, and agriculture, approximately 400,000 to 500,000 Palestinian Arabs were displaced. (According to the United Nations General Assembly, in 2013 that number grew to five million, who lived in 59 designated refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.) [Endnote 10] Israel made efforts to compensate the refugees and offered citizenship in Israel. These offers were rejected. The Arab states surrounding Israel chose then and now not to absorb the majority of these refugees into their own borders.
Some would say these refugees have been “used” by the Arab world to draw world sympathy and bolster the Arab agenda to eliminate the state of Israel. In the words of Joseph Farah, an Arab American and founder of the news website WorldNetDaily, “The suffering of millions of Arabs [Palestinians] is perpetuated only for political purposes by the Arab states. They are merely pawns in the war to destroy Israel.” [Endnote 11] (Word is in brackets in the source.) By and large, Palestinian Arabs disagree and continue to fight against the “occupation” of their land.
As a matter of fact, three major places on the map are in dispute today. The West Bank (lands west of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip (mentioned earlier) are presently under Palestinian authority and called by some “Palestinian territories.” Israel prefers to call them “disputed territories.” The news media often describe these regions as “occupied territories” of Israel. Golan Heights (a rocky plateau overlooking southern Syria) is occupied and governed by Israel, but “claimed” by Syria.
Whatever you call these territories, they make the headlines today with car bombings, shootings, and other acts of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The Gaza Strip sees some of the worst violence because it is governed by Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, just so you know, Hamas is defined by the United States and many other nations as a terrorist group because of its violent tactics. The United Nations, as well as Russia, Turkey, and other Arab nations, does not define Hamas as a terrorist group. As a result, world powers disagree on what’s going on inside Israel and how to respond to it.
Furthermore, there are problems at the northern border of Palestine. Violence flares up on a regular basis along Israel’s border with Lebanon. Guarding this border is a Shiite Muslim organization called Hezbollah (HEZZ bow lah), which seeks the destruction of Israel. I do mean that literally. Hezbollah joins Hamas and several nations in the Middle East in wanting to eliminate Israel altogether. In the words of the late Yasser Arafat (a former Palestinian leader with mixed views toward Israel) in 1996:
“Peace for us means the destruction of Israel. We are preparing for an all-out war which will last for generations. . . . We shall not rest until the day when we return to our home, and until we destroy Israel.” (Endnote 12)
More than 60 years have passed since Israel declared its statehood. Many a politician has tried to solve the issues that were created and many a politician has failed. Though peace is desirable, many believe the problems of the Middle East are as spiritual in nature as they are political, and therefore they cannot be solved apart from the hand of the Lord. Some Christians (most of those holding to “Dispensationalism”) believe that Israel will be restored both spiritually and physically in the end times; other Christians (those holding to “Replacement Theology”) disagree and believe the church has replaced Israel regarding the plan, purpose, and promises of God. It’s a thought-provoking subject that you may want to study further under the guidance of the spiritual authorities in your life.
When studying and considering the Middle East situation, I have personally found great comfort in a conversation recorded in Acts 1:6–7. Consider this: After Christ rose from the dead and spent 40 days among his followers, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” The Lord heard their concerns and His reply was,“It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.”
After this, Jesus then gave the disciples a mission that they could know and that applies to all His followers. He said, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) My Christian friends, according to these verses, God’s plan for Israel, past, present, or future, is ultimately under His authority. What He wants of us now is to be witnesses for Him and to wait for His return!
For more understanding of the Middle East, don’t miss my next two posts:
- Part 2—Ayatollah Khomeini Forms the Islamic Republic of Iran (1979)
- Part 3—The Assassination of Anwar Sadat (1981)
- The Greeks and Romans would call Judah Judea.
- Some would say that the Arabs did not adopt the term “Palestinian” until the 1970s when the Palestine Liberation Organization (the PLO) emerged and consolidated to eliminate Israel.
- Theodor Herzl’s book was titled Der Judenstaat, which means “The Jewish State.” In his writings, Herzl did not anticipate conflict between Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
- “Balfour Declaration: Text of the Declaration.” Accessed on the Web site of the Jewish Virtual Library: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/balfour.html.
- Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews. (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 445.
- Ibid., 440.
- Menachem Begin would later serve Israel as its sixth prime minister.
- A History of the Jews, 436.
- Ibid., 527.
- Palestine Refugee Camps.” Accessed on the Web site of Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestine_refugee_camps.
- Randall Price, Fast Facts on the Middle East Conflict. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2003), 84.
- Ibid., 152.