Jewish History

Jewish History

The History of the Jewish People

From ancient times to the present day, the Jewish people have experienced countless stirring historical events, persecutions, migrations and splits, and yet they have maintained their identity as well as a continuity of their cultural, spiritual and creative life. The survival of the Jewish people, despite their dispersal among the nations of the world, has drawn the interest of many scholars who have studied the roots of Jewish existence and its development over the centuries. Moreover, the return of a people to their land and the establishment of an independent state after such a long period of exile is a rare achievement in human history.

It may very well be the case that the unique characteristics of the Jewish people have helped in charting their path, chief among them the merging of the religious element and the Jewish faith with the national element and the ancient connection to the Land of Israel. Although Jews in many diasporas became involved in their surrounding environments, a certain degree of separation was often maintained thanks to independent community frameworks in the fields of education, religion, society, and culture. In addition, many see the great importance attached in Jewish heritage to the written word, to learning and to education as a unique trait that has greatly contributed to the continuity of the people. This common history, culture, faith and tradition served as something of a protective shell for the Jewish people.


Major Events in Jewish History

The history of the Jewish people has always been directly linked to surrounding historical developments: from the very formation of the Jewish people as a nation and their settlement in the Land of Israel, through the periods of the two Temples and the exile, to the awakening of Zionism and the founding of a new Jewish state. In the history of the people, horrible disasters sit alongside periods of wondrous cultural growth, waves of antisemitism and thriving golden ages, traditions and transformations, as well as crises and victories. In Jewish heritage, however, the hardships and difficulties have been emphasized over the years, and these have been enshrined in customs, days of remembrance, historical compositions, prayers and both sacred and secular songs.

One of the most traumatic events in the history of the Jewish people was the expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Jews of Spain were required to convert to Christianity, while those who refused were expelled, migrating to other countries. In 1497, the Jews of Portugal were also expelled. Many of the descendants of these Iberian Jews preserved their Sephardic heritage and greatly influenced the countries in which they settled.

About 400 years later, the Dreyfus Affair, accompanied by waves of antisemitism, shocked much of the world. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was convicted in 1894 of treason and sentenced to life in prison. He was humiliated and imprisoned, and only after a 12-year public and legal campaign was his name cleared, with the conviction proven to have been based on forged documents.

The Holocaust is considered the greatest national disaster in Jewish history. About six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their aides, as part of a deliberate policy aimed at exterminating the Jewish people. The Holocaust took place during World War II (1939-1945), primarily in Europe, but also reached other areas controlled by the Nazis or their allies, including North Africa and Iraq. The horrors of the Holocaust and the plight of many Holocaust refugees, who were still scattered across Europe in the aftermath of the war, strengthened the recognition of the need for a Jewish state, both among Jews and in world public opinion. Three years after the Holocaust ended, the State of Israel was established.

The National Library of Israel preserves a wealth of material relating to various aspects of the history of the Jewish people. In accordance with its duty to collect, preserve and cultivate the treasures of knowledge, heritage and culture of the Jewish people, the Library has collected a wide range of items in various formats and from different periods. Among other things, these include books, manuscripts, community documents, articles, recordings, photos, letters and archives of individual persons as well as organizations. Many of the items are rare, including for example the acquittal documents from the Dreyfus affair, which can be viewed on the Library website.