The Jewish people are not only a national and political unit. Since their first appearance on the stage of history they have been the personification of a moral will and the bearers of a historic vision which they inherited from the prophets of Israel. It is impossible to understand the history of the Jewish people and their struggle for existence—both when they were a nation rooted in their own soil and more or less controlling their own destiny, and when they were a wandering people, exiled and dispersed—unless we bear in mind the unique idea which their history embodies, and the stubborn opposition, not only physical, political, and military, but also spiritual, moral, and intellectual, which the Jews have always confronted.
In ancient times, our most important neighbors were Egypt and Babylon. The struggle with these mighty neighbors was political and military as well as cultural and spiritual. Israel's prophets spoke out against the spiritual influence of these neighbors on Israel's religio-moral concepts and social patterns. They advocated faith in one God, the unity of the human race, and the dominion of justice. Today, the Jewish people, having held their own, appear again in the same area in which they evolved. The entire environment in this region has been completely transformed since Bible days. The languages, religions, civilizations, and the very names of the ancient Middle Eastern peoples have disappeared. Yet Israel, though largely uprooted for two millenniums, continues its ancient traditions of language, faith, and culture—as it were, uninterruptedly.
Little is known about the history of our people during the period of the Persian rule. The Hellenistic era initiated by the conquest of the East by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. led to a desperate struggle between Judaism and the superb Hellenistic culture. The struggle was not only that of a downtrodden people fighting foreign oppressors. In the main, it was a cultural contest of great drama between two unique peoples utterly at variance in material, political, and philosophical terms, but alike in spiritual grandeur.
The Jewish people's most difficult test came, however, after the birth of Christianity. Unlike the cultures of Egypt and Babylon, Greece and Rome, Christianity was not foreign to Judaism. It stemmed from the Jewish people; its inspiration was from a Jew whose ideas belonged within the framework of the Jewish concepts of his day. The new faith was given its direction away from Judaism by Saul of Tarsus. Called Paul, he was the son of a Jewish citizen of Rome living in Syria. He was brought up in the spirit of Judaism and was a zealous Pharisee, but as a Diaspora Jew he had absorbed something of Hellenistic culture. Once a fanatical opponent of the Christians, he "saw the light," came to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, and gave new direction to the sect. His mission, he believed, was to the Gentiles, and he created a church opposed to Judaism. In the name of Jesus, we find it said, "I am not come to destroy [the law] but to fulfill." Paul, however, was determined to root out the law.
About five hundred years after the defeat of Bar Kochba in 135 A.D., the land of Israel was conquered by the Arabs. Unlike most of the preceding conquerors, these invaders were not merely a military force; they were armed with a new faith, Islam. This religion, though not an outgrowth of the land of Israel, showed clear signs of Jewish influence. The conquests of Mohammed and his disciples were more rapid and remarkable than those of Christianity. All the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa succumbed to the new religion. Only the Jewish people withstood it.
A new ideological trend against the Jewish people's survival arose with the great revolutions of modern times, in France and Russia. The French Revolution, inspired by "Liberty, egalite, fraternity," had powerful effects throughout Europe: it undermined monarchy and feudalism; it gave the Jews the first impetus to emancipation and equality of rights. But this revolution demanded of Jewry the obliteration of its national character. Many Western Jews willingly succumbed, and an assimilationist movement arose which threatened to overwhelm the Jewish people.
The Jewish historic will withstood even this powerful challenge. Emancipation instead led to new expressions of its national character and Messianic yearnings. Much of Jewry divested itself of its theocratic garb and adopted a secular outlook, but its attachment to its historic origins and its homeland became stronger; its ancient language awoke to new life; a secular Hebrew literature was created; and there arose the movements of Chibbat Zion ("Love of Zion") and Zionism. The emancipation which came from without was transformed into self-emancipation—a movement of liberation from the bonds of dependence on others and life in foreign lands—and the first foundations were laid for the resuscitation of the national independence in the ancient homeland.
Like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution also aroused—and continues to arouse—repercussions throughout the world. Once again the Jewish people were confronted with an ideological struggle and a historic test, no less grave and difficult than all those that had gone before.
In 1917 the Balfour Declaration was issued; for the first time since the Destruction of the Temple, the Jews were recognized by a world power as a separate nation, and they were promised the right to return to their land. The League of Nations, established at the end of World War I, gave international confirmation to the Balfour Declaration and recognized the historic connection of the Jewish people with their ancient homeland.