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Near East Kingdoms

Levantine States


Ashkenazi Jews (Israel)

Today's Israel and Palestine are irrevocably linked in terms of their history. The former was carved out of a large proportion of the already-expanded latter from 1948. Prior to that lies four thousand years of history, sometimes recorded, sometimes alluded to, and sometimes a complete mystery. Unpicking it to establish a relatively stable story has been the work of decades, and even today there are differences of opinion regarding many of the details.

The region in which both names came to be created was Canaan, which consisted of the long Mediterranean coastal strip between ancient Syria and Egypt. Today the northern part of this is known as the Levant. Various Semitic-speaking groups formed states in this region from around 3000 BC onwards. During climate-induced social collapse in the late thirteenth century BC, both a state known as Israel and a region known as Palestine emerged, giving both terms similar founding dates (very approximately), with the Phoenicians emerging to the immediate north during the same period.

Then came the beginnings of the Jewish Diaspora and the age of great empires in the form of the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Eastern Romans, Islam, and the Ottomans, until the twentieth century saw the most recent phase of empire-building come to an end and individual sovereign states emerge. Until that happened both Judea and Palestine remained occupied territories.

By the time independence was regained, Jewish groups had been emigrating to and from Israel and Palestine for two thousand years and more, spreading them far and wide across the Old World in a number of generalised groupings. Despite these groupings being joined across those centuries by converted regional locals, most modern Jews still carry a marked Near Eastern heritage in their DNA. Connections between the separate groups have also helped to maintain elements of unified practice in synagogues.

Ashkenazi Jews from an early period - which probably pre-dates the Islamic conquest of Palestine - had ended up in Roman Italy and other areas along the Mediterranean coast. From there they entered late Roman Gaul and Germania (no doubt as merchants initially), with their numbers increasing during the early Middle Ages as Gaul became France and the kingdom of Germany crystallised out of its tribal beginnings. Early Jewish merchant movements were probably following the Roman legions during their conquests and postings, but the majority were migrants, either voluntary or captive.

Those Jewish communities which they formed gradually spread out across Central Europe during the Middle Ages, and then into Eastern Europe as a result of persecution. By the height of the Polish Commonwealth they had already been heavily integrated into the region thanks to migrations during the Crusades.

The later 'Pale of Settlement' was formed as a result of the Russian conquest of much of the commonwealth. The latter's intolerance of Jewish groups directly resulted in large-scale migration back into Mütesarrif and Mandate Palestine, as well as into the USA. Ashkenazi Jews form by far the largest grouping of modern Jews, possibly between seventy and eighty percent of the worldwide total, with the USA being home to a very large number of them.

The Arch of Titus

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas, and Jewish Encyclopaedia, and The Rouen Chronicles (View from the Left Bank).)

AD 68 - 73

Marcus Antonius Julianus, the last Roman procurator of Judea, fails to prevent serious disturbances across the province from devolving into all-out warfare. Instead Vespasian (Titus Flavius Vespasianus) is appointed as overall commander, of senatorial rank.

He besieges Jerusalem until the 'Year of the Four Emperors' provides a distraction. With popular support from across the eastern regions, he becomes the first Flavian emperor in AD 69, leaving his son, Titus Caesar Vespasianus to complete the siege. Jerusalem and the Second Temple are destroyed in AD 70, and many Jews are taken as captives to Rome, either to be executed or to be used as gladiatorial sacrifices.

Rome during the height of the empire was by now complete with its famous forum, circus, and winding viaducts

The development since the Hasmonaean period of an oral teaching tradition known as the tanna becomes the means by which the Judaic faith is able to survive the fall of the Second Temple, becoming central to Judaic prayer which replaces sacrifice. It leads directly to, and through, the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism. The age of Judaic sectarianism is over.

Only two major groups remain standing: Christians and Pharisees. The early Catholic Christian faith is still largely indivisible from Judaic practice, but it is Christians who will gradually gain dominance in Judea, and then across the Roman world. The Pharisees and their Pharisaic Judaism will gradually mutate between the second and fourth centuries AD into Rabbinic Judaism.

The basis of the future Ashkenazi Jews is probably also laid down at this time (while the Mizrahi Jews are probably also bolstered). Over the previous century, and even more so now, the first elements of a migrant community are being built up in Roman Italy and along the southern Mediterranean coast.

From there this Jewish Diaspora enters late Roman Gaul and Germania (likely to be merchants in the earliest instances). Their numbers increase during the early Middle Ages as the Carolingian empire divides into recognisable medieval kingdoms of France and Germany.

The Roman destruction of Jerusalem
Jerusalem was besieged for two years, with starvation, disease, and murder being the order of the day for the increasingly desperate inhabitants


Harold II of England is narrowly defeated by William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings (actually Senlac Hill, on 14 October). The English Prince Edgar contests William's claim, but is ultimately unsuccessful.

William invites the Jews of Rouen to enter the country so that feudal dues can efficiently be collected - this is England's first large-scale influx of members of the Jewish Diaspora. Initial Jewish settlement is in London alone, although Oxford sees settlement from about 1075. Given Rouen's long history of Jewish habitation since the Roman period, these are likely to be Ashkenazi Jews.


Nicæa in western Anatolia is the first Islamic town to fall to the Crusaders, who cross the Bosphorus alongside the forces of the Eastern Roman Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. The Christian soldiers briefly besiege the town before it falls.

Islam is divided and in conflict with itself, and neither the ruling Seljuq Turks or the more local Seljuqs of Rum who actually control Nicæa are in any position to offer immediate retaliation. Palestine is soon taken, where the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem is formed.

The coming of the Crusaders occurred at a time at which the Islamic world was deeply involved in factional in-fighting, and at first they were dismissed as being a mere Byzantine raid

This event triggers a large-scale migration of Ashkenazi Jews from territories in Western Europe into the duchy of Poland. They are welcomed by the tolerant King Wladyslaw, being allowed to settle without any restrictions.

This migration of the Jewish Diaspora forms the beginnings of what will become the nineteenth century's 'Pale of Settlement', which is when the descendents of the same Jewish settlers beginning to migrate away from the region from 1881.


The Edict of Expulsion is issued by King Edward I of England on 18 July 1290 which serves to expel all Jews from England (probably Ashkenazi Jews for the most part, descendants of William of Normandy's initial Rouen colony of Jews). The edict is the culmination of up to two centuries of increasing anti-Semitism on the part of the country's Anglo-Norman overlords.

1648 - 1657

The Cossack-Polish War or Khmelnytsky Uprising sees a Cossack rebellion in the eastern parts of the Polish-Lithuanian voivodeship of Kyiv. Fighting against Polish domination of the region, the bloody and brutal war results in the creation of the Cossack Hetmanate. It also sees a massacre of around ten thousand members of the Jewish Diaspora (consisting of Ashkenazi Jews), triggering a low-yield migration to Palestine.

Early modern Zhytomyr
Legendarily founded in 884 by Zhytomyr, a prince of the Drevlians, the city which bears his name is first mentioned in 1240, became the Polish capital of its half of Ukraine in 1667, and even today houses the country's largest Polish community


One benefit of the creation of a 'Commonwealth of Britain' is that, in 1657, Oliver Cromwell rescinds the 'Edict of Expulsion' of 1290, ending the national banning of members of the Jewish Diaspora (which had probably involved Ashkenazi Jews). The majority of initial resettlement most likely involves Sephardi Jews, expelled from Castile-dominated Iberia in 1492.

1703 - 1705

The Naqib al-Ashraf Revolt (or uprising) sees the general population of Jerusalem rebel against the Ottoman authorities. Between May 1703 and October 1705 the revolt is led by Muhammad ibn Mustafa al-Husayni al-Wafa'i. An Ottoman siege results in al-Husayni and his chief followers fleeing the city, later to be captured and executed.

This event follows on very closely from the arrival from Europe in 1700 of between five hundred to a thousand members of the Jewish Diaspora (although any potential connection between the two events is unclear). They join a very poor and downtrodden Jewish community of around two hundred Ashkenazi Jews and a thousand Sephardi Jews.


The new Jewish arrivals in Jerusalem have incurred heavy debts in their quest to build the Hurva Synagogue. Having so far failed to repay those debts, their creditors break into the synagogue and start a fire. The Ottoman authorities hold both the new arrivals and the existing community of Ashkenazi Jews responsible, so they expel the latter from the city.

Jerusalem about 1900
Jerusalem in the mid-seventeenth century witnessed a tug-of-war in terms of control, with the Ottomans becoming more determined to stamp their direct authority over the region (shown here is a colourised photographic print of Jerusalem from about 1900)


Russia begins to administer an area known as the Pale of Settlement. Initially this is small, but it increases greatly from 1793 and the Second Partition of the former Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. By the mid-nineteenth century it incorporates modern Belarus (eastern Poland at the time), eastern Latvia, Lithuania, the province of Bessarabia (modern Moldova), and western Ukraine.

Having formerly been citizens of the defunct commonwealth, the Jewish Diaspora population of the 'Pale' (mainly Ashkenazi Jews) is restricted from moving eastwards into Russia proper. This and the prevailing anti-Jewish sentiment being offered by the Russian authorities leads to a steady drip of Ashkenazi migration into Palestine, which gradually builds up the Jewish population there until it becomes substantial.


The Second Partition of Polish-Lithuania is carried out on 23 January. Great Poland and parts of Mazovia go to Prussia while Russia gains Podolia (which is attached to Ukraine), Volhynia, and more of Lithuania. From 1791, Russia has operated an area known as the 'Pale of Settlement'. Initially this had been small, but it increases greatly from 1793.

Royal Castle in Mazovia
The first royal castle in Mazovia was built as a wooden fortress in the fourteenth century but this was replaced by the present building by later kings of Poland


The first modern-era wave of Jewish Diaspora migrations back to Palestine begins with an event known as the First Aliyah. These Ashkenazi Jews are fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, most notably in the territories of the Russian empire and the 'Pale of Settlement' which are under Alexander III and his imposition of anti-liberalisation reforms. These may be partially the result of the Polish-Lithuanian January Uprising of 1863.

At this point the Jewish population of Palestine consists largely of Sephardi Jews who had arrived during the restored Islamic Palestine period and the subsequent early Ottoman Palestine period.

Also included are inter-marriage relationships with Arabised Jewish families which had remained in the region since the Herodite period (if not always in Jerusalem itself), and Mizrahi Jews who have migrated from eastern parts such as the ancient city of Babylon. Mixed into this are a small number of Ashkenazi Jews who are mainly made up of strictly orthodox groups such as the Haredi.

Damascus Gate in 1860
This view of the Damascus Gate in 1860 shows that Jerusalem was still confined behind the Old City walls, afraid to develop outside due to the high levels of banditry

1903 - 1914

The Second Aliyah to Palestine is triggered in 1903 by an anti-Jewish riot in the city of Kishinev (modern Chişinău), the capital of the province of Bessarabia (modern Moldova), part of the Russian empire. Something like forty thousand Jews settle in Palestine (mainly Ashkenazi Jews), although only half remain permanently.

Many others, evicted from their settlements in the 'Pale' head towards western Poland or America (something which is dramatically highlighted, if with a touch of artistic licence, in the film musical, Fiddler on the Roof, 1971. which has its final scenes set in 1905).

1939 - 1945

Nazi Germany invades Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939, replacing its republic with the German 'Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia'. Slovakia is separated as the Slovak republic. On the day of the invasion, Sub-Carpathian Rus declares independence as Carpatho-Ukraine. Within three days it is occupied by its old master, Hungary, and remains so until Germany itself occupies Hungary in 1944.

Until then Hungary fights on the side of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, losing a large part of its army in Soviet Russia. The Germans occupy Hungary after the latter seeks an armistice. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and gypsies are deported to death camps in this period.

Miklós Horthy
Rear-Admiral Miklós Horthy was Hungary's governor (referred to as the regent) during the inter-war years and across much of the Second World War, where he saw an alliance with Nazi Germany as the country's only immediately viable option in the war's early years

After some internal strife, the fascists rule Rumania as part of the Axis Alliance with Nazi Germany. The country is governed by its pro-German dictator, with the king powerless. Antonescu's rule is marked by anti-Semitic atrocities, including racially discriminatory laws, deportations, and pogroms (although Queen Helen, mother of the king, does manage to have many anti-Jewish measures and orders rescinded).

Jews are seen by Germany's Adolf Hitler as racial pollutants. They are used by him and his followers as an excuse for all of the country's ills since the defeat of the First World War. The result is the 'Holocaust' (or 'Catastrophe', the term preferred by modern Israel).

To Hitler it is the 'final solution' in which six million Jews (not to mention hundreds of thousands of other Europeans, mostly Balts and Slavs) are systematically exterminated, generally in organised camps which are set up in occupied Poland and other eastern territories after 1939, but often too in ad hoc arrangements such as mass shootings in front of hastily-dug trenches.

German troops enter Poland on 1 September 1939
Nazi-led German troops are shown here progressing in good order through a Polish town on the first day of the invasion, 1 September 1939

Ashkenazi Jews, the predominant grouping in central and Eastern Europe, form by far the largest percentage of Jews killed. The Romaniote Jews of Greece are also heavily decimated by the Nazi purge.

The true horrors of the Holocaust, while gradually coming to light for politicians and military leaders during the course of the Second World War, are generally unknown by the world until the camps are liberated in 1945.


David Ben-Gurion makes his proclamation of the creation of the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, the last day of British Mandate Palestine. British troops are already pulling out, aware that the region is about to erupt into violence.

On the following day the neighbouring Arab states of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria attack Israel, prompting the start of the Arab-Israeli War. Saudi Arabia sends its own military contingent to support the Egyptians. The war lasts for a year before a ceasefire is agreed.

Official declaration of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948
The white-haired, sixty-two year-old David Ben-Gurion proclaims the declaration of the creation of the state of Israel, doing so in the small art museum on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv in 1948

The modern state of Israel has been established. It offers a home for Jews of all groups, whatever their part in the diaspora and whatever their history across the two millennia or more since their ancestors had departed the region. Ashkenazi Jews have already returned in large numbers whilst also entering the USA in equally sizeable numbers.

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