The Jewish connection to the Land of Israel did not begin in the wake of the Holocaust or with Zionism in the late 19th century.
The Jewish people have lived in the Land of Israel for 3,000 years. If one does not want to accept the Bible as a source for that reality, archaeology has proven this fact.
And while most of the Jewish people were ruthlessly exiled by the Romans, Jews in exile have said for 2,000 years, “Next year in Jerusalem” at the two holiest moments of the Jewish calendar – on the Day of Atonement and on Passover – praying to be reunited once again with the Jews who remained in Israel.
Wherever Jews are in the world, they face Jerusalem three times a day when it came time for prayer.
And throughout the exile, Jews often put themselves at great risk to return to the Land of Israel.
The Jewish people rebuilt their lives and thrived in Babylonia (modern day Iraq) following the Roman Exile. But despite this, the Jerusalem Talmud and Babylonian Talmud relate that between 200 CE – 500 CE, high numbers of leading rabbis gave up their comfortable and secure lives and chose to move to Israel which was filled with chaos and insecurity.
• In 1211, a group of three hundred rabbis from France and England immigrated to Israel. They moved with absolutely no financial support and no prospects for earning a living in the Holy Land. Most of them were murdered by the Crusaders, who arrived there just eight years later. The few survivors were permitted to live in the city of Acre. The Mamluks conquered Acre in 1291 and killed its entire Jewish population, including women and children, with many of the men slaughtered while in synagogue.
• Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, one of the leading rabbinic sages in 15th century Italy made a herculean effort to move to Israel during a time when many who attempted the journey from Italy and Sicily drowned in the Mediterranean. It took him three years of effort with many setbacks along the way, but in 1488, Rabbi Ovadiah arrived in the Land of Israel and made it his home.
• Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was a disciple of the famed Rabbi of Mezhrich, who was the primary disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement. In 1777, he left Galatz, Romania, with a few hundred others, all in small boats. They sailed first for Constantinople and then on to Acre in the Land of Israel. The relatively short distance in the Mediterranean Sea took them four months, and the convoy endured terrible hardships on the voyage, including pirates who murdered passengers or sold them into slavery. One ship sank along the way. The group experienced great challenges once arriving in Israel, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel had to send emissaries to Russia to raise funds to sustain them.
More recent examples.
And even once the State of Israel was being established and was actually established, Jews went through great difficulty to make it to the Holy Land. Just a few examples:
• In mid-1947, Moshe Frumin, age six, Yaaakov Schwartz, age five, one-year-old Margalit Fried-Weinberg, and eight-month-old Yaffa Levy joined fifty others left Austria by foot to walk through the Alps, across the Italian border, to a waiting ship that would take them to the port of Haifa in the land of Israel. Schwartz recalls,“Most of the time my father carried me on his shoulders.” Frumin had no father and walked with his mother and grandmother. Levy’s mother told her how she had to cover young Yaffa’s mouth lest her cries be heard and the group discovered. They left the Saalfelden Displaced Persons camp at around ten o’clock at night, traveling in sealed trucks, trying to prevent detection by the authorities, a nd headed for Krimml, arriving at around two o’clock in the morning. There, they got out of the trucks and walked for another full day through the treacherous mountains to the Krimml Pass.
Almost every night from April to October 1947, a few dozen trucks left the camp and sent Jews on their way. In all, approximately five thousand Jews made this trek.
Near midnight on January 10, 1961, the ship Egoz set sail from the port of Al Hoceima in Morocco to Israel with forty-four Jews on board, nearly half of them children. This was the boat’s twelfth voyage, after having transported 334 Jews from Morocco to Gibraltar and then to Israel. At 3:00 a.m. the ship sank, and all the passengers on board perished.
- Daniel Sahalo was five years old in the mid-1980s when he and his parents left their home in northern Ethiopia in the middle of the night. They walked until dawn to reach the Sudanese border and then walked for nine weeks in the deserts of Sudan. “I heard people talking about going to Jerusalem,” he recalls. Along the way, Daniel’s sister died of malaria. “We buried her and kept on walking.” Twelve thousand people made this trek and about four thousand people died on the way to Sudan. After more than two months of walking, the family reached a refugee camp where they lived for nine months. Daniel was so malnourished there that his belly swelled up. They were then flown to Brussels and subsequently to Israel. Some eight thousand Ethiopian Jews survived this walk, wait, and flight.
Why take the risks?
These stories raise a lot of questions.
- Why were Jewish families willing to risk the perils of robbers, deserts and mountains to reach Israel?
- Why would a rabbi lead his students into small boats and expose them to pirates in order to move to Israel?
- Why would one of the greatest scholars of his time waste three years of his life trying to get to the Land of Israel?
- Why did these rabbis in Babylonia and Europe leave their communities for a life with no livelihood and limited security in Israel?
The answer to these questions was captured by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion in 1936, 12 years before the State of Israel was born. At that time, the land was called Palestine – based on a Greek name which the Romans used to describe the entire area of Israel after destroying the Temple and exiling the Jews – and all of the land’s inhabitants, including Jews, were called “Palestinians.” Arabs were becoming increasingly violent and the British established the Peel Commission to investigate the violence and to better understand the Arab-Jewish tension. Ben-Gurion, a secular Jew, testified before the committee and declared:
Our right to the Land of Israel is not given by the British government or the Balfour Declaration; it is much older. The Bible is our mandate to the land.
When analyzing and trying to understand the Israeli-Arab conflict one cannot ignore this dimension. The Bible is filled with hundreds of references to Israel and Jerusalem – including descriptions of geographic borders – as places which God has given the Jewish people. And even if others don’t believe this, the Jewish people do. That is why for thousands of years they prayed and yearned to return to this land, and this is why they risked their lives and lost their lives to return to Israel.
This stands in stark contrast to any claim from the Muslim faith to Israel. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The Quran doesn’t mention Jerusalem even once.
Qanta Ahmed, M.D., an Associate Professor of Medicine, State University of New York, and Honorary Professor at Glasgow Caledonian University School of Public Health, writes:
But as a believing Muslim observing Islam, I am compelled by the Quran to support Israel’s sole claim to the Holy Land; the Quran says it is so.
The 80,000-word document 1.6 billion Muslims accept as the revealed word of God, the Quran, is categorical about the destiny of Israel and the people who can claim its ownership . . . .
Nowhere does the Quran make mention of the Muslims’ claim to the Holy Land. Instead, God reveals in the Quran that The Holy Land is designated for the followers of Moses…the Promised Land is theirs according to the Quran.
This is why there is zero evidence of Muslims risking their lives to live in Israel. Or why the Quran never suggests the land of Israel as the focus of their religion. When Muslims pray while in Israel — and even in Jerusalem — they face towards Mecca which is the holiest place in their faith. On the Temple Mount, they prostrate with their backs to the location of the Temple.
Of course, solutions must be found for the Palestinians who seek their own state within in the boundaries of Israel as well. But when addressing the conflict in the Holy Land, perspective regarding the four millennia of Jewish physical and spiritual connection to the land of Israel not only cannot be ignored, but must be at the forefront of the discussion and consideration when trying to solve the conflict.