History and Faith

The Fertile Crescent

Palestine and Israel mark the western limit of the ‘cradle of civilization’ that gave birth to hydrology-based hierarchies – central control over irrigation systems – which eventually became the seeds of the modern state with all its autocratic flaws. In the early years this area was home to a number of wandering tribes including first the Caananites and later the Israelites. This harsh desert climate also fostered a series of monotheistic ‘sky god’ religions that are the root of modern Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They tended towards fairly harsh codes of conduct that blurred distinctions between political and religious authority.

The revolt against Rome

These events represent a deep root of Jewish nationalism. The first revolt dates from the period just after Christ’s death and was marked by the burning of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, selective assassination of Roman officials and Jewish collaborators, and the last stand of the Zealots against the Roman legions at the desert fortress at Masada. The Jews were expelled from Jerusalem in 135.

Arab Palestine

This period is usually dated from just after the Prophet Mohammed’s death (632). Abu Bakr, the first caliph and successor to Mohammed, and Omar, who followed him, together engineered the capture of the Holy Land from Christian Byzantine authorities. Several of the local tribes were ready converts to Islam. This period of Islamic rule saw the construction of the Dome of the Rock mosque (Islam’s third-holiest site) on land in Old Jerusalem where the first and second Jewish temples had once stood. This early period of Islamic rule was marked by an unusually high level of tolerance for the civil and religious rights of the remaining Christian and Jewish communities.

The Crusades

A hotly disputed historical topic between Christians and Muslims. There were eight crusades (1099-1291) of European warriors trying to capture the Holy Land. The first and most successful resulted in the slaughter of both Muslims and Jews who were living together in peace in Jerusalem. Other crusades were less successful due to fierce resistance, crusader infighting and outright banditry. For Muslims the crusades mark a barbaric assault, while for some Christians the word retains the positive connotations of a noble cause.

The Jews in exile

After the failure of the revolt against Rome, Jewish refugees established communities from Spain to Ethiopia to Kerala in southern India. They were generally treated more hospitably by non-Christians than in the Christian world, where the dominant Catholic Church actively promoted anti-Semitism. They flourished particularly in Moorish Spain until its invasion by Christian armies, after which they were victimized in the Inquisition. Russia and eastern Europe were particularly bad, with bloody pogroms that killed thousands. Despite notable intellectual and economic achievements, a history of discrimination (and much worse) led to a widespread Jewish desire for a homeland.

New Internationalist issue 348 magazine cover This article is from the August 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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