When the Lord directed Abraham to the chosen land, he also promised him that through his countless seed, all nations and families of the earth would be blessed. Abraham may have asked himself whether all the nations and families would come to his descendants and receive these blessings or whether his descendants would have to be dispersed among these peoples. One thousand years would pass before this question was answered.
The scriptures tell us that the descendants of most of Abraham’s twenty-one grandsons remained in the lands near Palestine. Twelve of these grandsons were the sorts of Ishmael, to whom the Arabs look as their ancestor. Seven of the grandsons descended from the six sons of Abraham’s third wife, Keturah, and we are told practically nothing of them. The remaining two grandsons were Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob (or Israel).
Esau was the progenitor of the Edomites, who dwelt south of the Dead Sea and who were often at odds with the Israelites. Jacob (Israel) had twelve sons, whose descendants were known as the twelve tribes or the house of Israel. The literal twelve tribes were named after these sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. However, when Canaan was divided among the house of Israel, the tribe of Levi was scattered among the people to assist in the priestly functions. The tribes of Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, therefore acquired the land inheritance of the Levites and of their father, Joseph.
In 721 B.C., the kingdom of Israel, comprising ten tribes, was led north by the Assyrians. There remained in the kingdom of Judah the tribe of Judah, half of the tribe of Judah, half of the tribe of Benjamin, a number of Levites, and fragments of the other tribes. All of these Israelites became known as Jews, after the predominant tribe of Judah. So when we speak of Jews, we do not mean the whole house of Israel or even just the whole tribe of Judah, but the tribe of Judah along with small numbers of other tribes, especially Benjamin and Levi.
After Babylonia replaced Assyria as the political power in the Near East, prophets warned the people that their kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, would also fall unless they returned to God. The Lord directed one of these prophets, Lehi, to take his family from Jerusalem to another promised land that we know as America. The Book of Mormon relates how the family of this descendant of Joseph and Manasseh became two great nations in America.
Lehi’s family was not the only group to leave Jerusalem before its fall. Egypt had established nominal control over Judah after defeating King Josiah. Many Jews went to Egypt and some of them settled on the island of Elephantine in the Nile River, where they guarded the Pharaoh’s southern boundary. They built their own temple and maintained contact with the Jerusalem community.
Babylonia became Judah’s new master in 601 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar’s army defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish. He then sought to punish Judah when it showed signs of rebelling. In 597 B.C., Jerusalem was plundered and the leading citizens were taken to Babylon. Even without her warriors, artisans, craftsmen, and nobles, Judah still rebelled.
When Zedekiah ceased to pay tribute, Nebuchadnezzar sought to destroy the kingdom of Judah. He besieged Jerusalem for a year and a half, and many Jews perished from hunger and pestilence. Many sought to escape from the city, but few were successful. These few joined many Jews from the surrounding areas who fled to Egypt. Others scattered to the lands east and south of Judah, where they were often persecuted by longtime enemies.
Zedekiah himself was fleeing east as the city fell, but he was captured near Jericho, and after witnessing the slaying of his captured sons and other Jewish leaders, he was blinded and led captive to Babylon. Meanwhile, the temple was razed and Jerusalem destroyed. A second greater exodus of Jews to Babylon began.
Unknown to most of the world, one small group led by Mulek, a son of Zedekiah, successfully fled from the Babylonians. We are not told of his group’s route or means of travel except that they journeyed in the wilderness and were led by the Lord across the great waters to America. Over 400 years later their descendants were discovered by Mosiah, a descendant of Lehi. The Mulekites had forgotten their religion and language, while Lehi’s people had maintained theirs because of the records they had brought with them.
A weak remnant of Jews remained in Judah. Gedaliah, a respected Jew, was appointed their royal governor by Nebuchadnezzar. Fugitives from the surrounding lands joined these Jews and sought to establish a new way of life. When fanatics assassinated Gedaliah within a few months, hordes of refugees, fearful of the consequences of this latest defiance, fled to Egypt, taking with them the aged prophet Jeremiah.
Thus ended the last vestige of David’s and Solomon’s empire. The Jewish population had shrunk to approximately 125,000, of which only a feeble remnant remained in Palestine. The rest were scattered in three continents around the world, where their descendants would remain until today. The largest numbers of these children of Abraham and Moses settled in the Euphrates and Nile river valleys, whence these two leaders had once come.
Abraham had first journeyed to the Holy Land over a dozen centuries earlier. Moses had led the house of Israel back to the chosen land seven centuries earlier. But now the story of the children of Israel seemed to have come to an end. They had no government, no land, and they were scattered around the world.
Numerous other peoples, including the ten tribes, have become lost to history. Why are the Jews still with us today?
The children of Israel probably would have lost their identity if it were not for the Jews of Babylonia. Here the wealthiest and most cultured Jewish classes lived. Here also Ezekiel and Daniel had visions of a glorious new age for the house of Israel. Without their temple and its sacrifices, the Jews gathered in small groups for study and prayer. They soon erected special houses for these meetings, and thus the synagogue was created.
Here, as in America, the importance of having written copies of the scriptures became evident. Perhaps for the first time they grasped the full significance of the words of the prophets. Many people recognized the consequences of their past unrighteousness, and they longed for another chance in the Promised Land.
This chance came in 538 B.C. when Cyrus, the Median-Persian king, allowed their return. They rebuilt Jerusalem and constructed a second temple which would last 500 years, a century longer than its predecessor. Priests replaced kings as the rulers, and Judea, a small state of perhaps only twenty square miles, became a theocratic republic. Ezra the scribe convoked a “Great Council” of elders, which later developed into the Sanhedrin. He also stressed a puritan observance of Mosaic law as contained in the Torah (the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Old Testament).
The adherents to Mosaic law experienced their strongest challenge after Alexander the Great introduced the Hellenistic culture to eastern Asia. The Greek culture attracted many Jews, especially in Alexandria, where they translated the scriptures into a Greek version known as the Septuagint. Even in Judea, Greek schools, sports, fashions, speech, and philosophy became popular, particularly among the young. But Greek philosophy was not easily reconciled with the Hebrew spirit. Soon the puritans and the Hellenists quarreled, as friends were separated and families divided. In the long run, victory seemed assured to the Hellenists, comprised of the ambitious, the young, the aristocrats, and even some of the priests. However, the Seleucid ruler of the Greco-Syrian state to which Judea was annexed did not want to wait.
In 169 B.C., Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to Hellenize all Jews by force. They united under the Maccabees, who directed a surprisingly successful rebellion against the Seleucids. For the first time since the Babylonian exodus, national independence was restored to Judea. Judaism also found new life as the Jews spread their teachings to neighboring peoples in one of the rare proselytizing periods of Jewish history. This political freedom and missionary zeal would be short-lived as a new European power was expanding from its origin on the Tiber River toward Asia.
The Jews were familiar with Rome through their colonies in the larger Greek cities. They probably also had a community in Rome before Judea came under her power in 63 B.C. Roman rule, however mild, was bitter to the Jews after they had tasted freedom. They often harassed the Romans, who sought increasingly more stringent means of suppressing the rebellions in this petty Judean state. The Jews in Rome were also persecuted as the writer Apion, a Hellene from Alexandria, spread rumors about supposed Jewish customs.
One tale was that each year the Jews fattened a Greek captive in their temple before killing him with special rites and curses against the Greeks. (This ritual-murder type of slander was used throughout the Middle Ages and even in modern Russian and Arab history as a pretext for anti-Jewish persecutions.) Tiberius ordered four thousand Roman Jews expelled to Sardinia and their synagogue stripped of cult utensils. This was the first of innumerable persecutions for the Jews in Europe.
At this same time, Christ was living in Galilee. As Christianity grew after his sojourn on earth, a group of Jewish zealots, centered in Galilee, rebelled against Rome. They captured Masada, Jerusalem, and territory in Judea and Galilee. Only after Nero dispatched Vespasian, a successful general in Germany and Britain, did the Romans regain control. He first captured Galilee, which had been under the command of Josephus, who then retired to write his Jewish history. After Vespasian became emperor, his son Titus completed the conquest, and in A.D. 70 Jerusalem and her temple were again destroyed.
A new Judaism emerged from the ruins. The Jews no longer had a home, a temple, nor kings and priests, so they now turned to the teachers of the Mosaic law, the scholars. Schools in Mesopotamia became prominent, especially after the communities in Palestine and Egypt were weakened in later anti-Roman rebellions. These academies brought forth the Talmud (the Torah, along with numerous commentaries), which became the basis for religious and social life among the Jews. The rabbi became the spiritual head of each community as he interpreted and taught the Mosaic law. Jewish communities soon appeared all over Europe as the Jews followed the Roman conquests. The Jews in Europe later became a distinct and underprivileged minority after Christianity had united all the other peoples.
The Jews were never so singled out in Asia and Africa, where numerous Christian sects along with other religions were practiced. Even after the rise of Islam, Judaism was but one of many religious minorities, each of which retained many social and religious privileges. Under the tolerant Moslem shield, Jewish philosophy and science reached its zenith in Spain during the Middle Ages. By A.D. 1050, Spain had replaced Mesopotamia as the Jewish cultural center. Although more Jews lived in Asia and Africa, the European Jews were richer and had better schools.
The Spanish-Jewish culture extended into Provence in southern France and into the Rhine River valley, with smaller communities in the rest of Europe and England. The European Christian tradition prohibited the Jews from owning land and restricted their vocations and civil rights. Although petty rulers and fanatics incited periodic persecutions, they lived in comparative peace.
The crusades dispelled this peaceful image, as “Christian” armies destroyed whole Jewish communities by killing all their inhabitants and burning their homes and synagogues. Those jealous of Jewish wealth and fiery evangelists easily convinced the army bands that the blasphemous enemy was not only in the Holy Land, but also within their own midst. The close ties between the Jews and their cultural center in Moslem-controlled Spain added further proof that the Jews were only spies of the infidel.
In 1096, 12,000 Jews perished in Germany and others died in Bohemia and Hungary as the crusaders swept toward Constantinople and then Palestine. Three years later they conquered Jerusalem and drove all its Jews into a synagogue, where they burned them alive. Jewish communities throughout Europe suffered before the crusades ended. Popes, kings, and nobles often sought to protect the Jews, but they were usually helpless before the mobs and marauding armies.
England remained peaceful during the first and second crusades. As Richard the Lion-hearted was crowned in 1189, the first anti-Jewish persecutions broke out. It began when the fanatical Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that the king should not accept coronation gifts from the Jews and that they should be expelled from the palace because of their religion. The rumor soon spread through London that the king desired the humiliation and destruction of the Jews, which many citizens then initiated, resulting in murders and the burning of a part of the city. Richard restored order, but the scenes were repeated throughout England after he went to France to begin the third crusade. The religious zeal of the crusaders and citizens, along with an envy for the Jewish properties, resulted in a total expulsion of all Jews in 1290. They would not return to England until 1657.
The Holy Roman Empire, France, and other European countries soon followed this pattern, although later rulers would sometimes rescind earlier expulsion orders. As Europe expelled her Jews, new havens became available in Poland and Turkey, where their artisan and middle-class skills were valued and sought for. Spain particularly missed these skills after she expelled her Jews in 1492. Eastern Europe now became the center of Jewish life. These Eastern European Jews, or Ashkenazim, as they were called, soon developed distinct traditions and a new language that separated them from the Spanish Jews elsewhere. The language was a High German-Hebrew-Slavic dialect written in Hebrew characters and known as Yiddish. The Spanish or Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, a Spanish-Hebrew dialect.
Most of the Ashkenazim lived in ghettos that had existed as early as the eleventh century. The Jews first developed their own ghettos out of a desire to live among their own people. Later, state laws segregated them into certain city sections, where they enjoyed an autonomous life in a medieval atmosphere. Not until the eighteenth century would there be such men as the mystic Baal Shem Tov, the scholar Elijah of Vilna, and the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who together would break the chains of the Jewish Middle Ages hundreds of years after Christian Europe had already emerged from its dark age.
By 1750, one-half of the world Jewish population of three million lived in Europe. Large concentrations also lived in Lithuania, the Balkans, Asiatic Turkey (especially Constantinople), Egypt, and the Austrian and German provinces. Smaller communities existed in Africa, Asia, Italy, France, Holland, and England. Fewer than 2,000 Jews lived in the North American British colonies in the decade before their revolution. In Rhode Island, their small numbers enjoyed more religious freedom than anywhere else in the world.
The French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe promised new freedoms to Jews everywhere. However, the reactionary leaders after Napoleon repealed the newly granted civil rights, and old restrictions and ghettos were reestablished in Germany and Austria. Having tasted freedom, many German Jews migrated to the United States. Others followed when towns established limits on the number of Jewish marriages and households during the population explosion of the industrial revolution.
In America, these German Jews followed the general migration across the country as they settled in the Midwest and California. They reformed their religious practices and were well along the way to absorption within the American Christian community when a vast horde of Russian Jews descended upon New York and the eastern industrial cities, following the Russian pogroms of the 1880s. A U.S. Jewish population of 250,000 in 1870 grew to one million before 1900. More pogroms sent whole communities to the U.S., and in the single year of 1906, over 150,000 Jews entered America. Three million Jews lived in the United States on the eve of World War I, more than in any other nation. The war slowed down the immigration, but it picked up during the postwar Polish and Russian harassments; the United States established strict immigration quotas in 1924 and 1927. A last minor Jewish influx occurred during the 1930s, when a number of skilled German Jews were allowed to escape Nazi restrictions.
After the Nazis reduced the world Jewish population by one-third (from 18 million to 12 million), the U.S. Jews assumed the role of world Jewish leadership. The state of Israel would soon challenge this role. Her Jewish population had grown from 650,000, when she became a nation in 1948, to double that number within three years due to the influx of refugees from Nazi concentration camps along with Jews from all over the world. This growth slowed down when Communist countries began restricting emigration. Most of the later immigrants were poor, untrained refugees from Arab and Oriental countries.
Israel has become a strong state, but it is a long way from being the spokesman for world Jewry, for it is still weak not only politically but also financially and numerically. The modern world Jewish population is concentrated in three main areas: approximately one-half in the United States, one-fourth in Russia, and one-fourth in Israel. In fact, as many Jews live in New York City (two and one-half million) as in the whole state of Israel. Significant Jewish communities also live in England, Argentina, France, Canada, Romania, and Morocco.
The center of Jewish life has shifted in many directions since it left Jerusalem over 2,500 years ago. Perhaps only two major Jewish migrations remain: the release of Russian Jews to Israel, and increased emigration of American Jews to Israel (who thus far have moved only in small numbers). Unless the status of American Jews changes drastically, it appears that future Jews will look in two directions for leadership: Zion (albeit New York City rather than Jackson County, Missouri) and Jerusalem.