Nicole Levin
Historic Preservation Lawyer

A Brief History of Israel

I’ve come across a narrative presented by Palestinians, suggesting that Israelis are colonizers. They claim that until 1948, the land now known as Israel belonged to them. They argue that the Jews stole their land and labeled them as colonizers. They even argue that the violence that occurred on October 7, 2023, was justified as an act of “decolonization.” They contend that the suffering of babies, children, mothers, fathers, and elderly people – including slaughter, butchery, torture, rape, and burning – is the fate of colonizers.

I pose the following question: Is this narrative true? Are Israelis indeed colonizers who seized Arab land?

The answer is an unequivocal and resounding NO. Here’s why:

From Rome to the British Mandate over Palestine

The Land of Israel has witnessed numerous conquests over the past two thousand years. I won’t delve into scientific debates, such as those among archaeologists, regarding the historical accuracy of the Bible. Nevertheless, recent archaeological findings indicate the Bible’s veracity. Therefore, we can begin with the Romans. While other empires had previously conquered the land (including the Assyrian, Egyptian, and Hellenistic empires), the major challenges faced by the Jews started with the Romans.

In 70 C.E., the Romans defeated the Jewish kingdom of Judea, destroyed the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and exiled many of its inhabitants. The Jews were dispersed across the globe, and the absence of the Holy Temple forced the Jewish religion to adapt through the laws of the Talmud.

Where did the Jews go?

Many were captured, taken to Rome, and sold into slavery. Many fled to the Arabian Peninsula and regions that are now modern-day Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and India. Others migrated to Europe, while some Jews remained in Judea.

After the suppression of the second Jewish revolt (known as the “Bar Kokhba Revolt”) in 135 C.E., the Romans renamed the region “Syria Palestina” to erase any Jewish connection to the land and to retaliate against the Jews, who had become a nuisance. Nevertheless, Jews continued to reside in Judea.

Here is a list of the empires and nations that conquered the Land of Israel during this time:

– Byzantium – 313 C.E. to 636 C.E.

– The Arabs – 636 C.E. to 1100 C.E.

– The Crusaders – 1099 C.E. to 1291 C.E.

– The Mamelukes – 1291 C.E. to 1516 C.E.

– The Ottomans – 1517 C.E. to 1917 C.E. (in 1799, Napoleon conquered the land of Israel and besieged Acre but failed to capture it. In 1830, the Egyptian wing of the Ottomans ruled the Land of Israel for about 10 years, after which the land returned to the Ottomans.)

– The British Mandate – 1917 B.C. to 1948 C.E.

– Israel – 1948 C.E. to the present day (and forever)

Throughout this time, Jews resided in the Land of Israel, which they called the “Land of Israel,” the “Promised Land,” and the “Holy Land.” It was not Palestine, a name bestowed upon the region by an invading, colonizing people.

What Happened to the Jews After the Expulsion?

The Jews were indeed scattered far and wide. Many of those who fled eastward to the Arabian Peninsula were coerced into converting to Islam. Those who sought refuge in Europe often faced pressure to convert to Christianity. Nevertheless, when left undisturbed, Jews thrived and contributed significantly to the various countries they inhabited.

As mentioned earlier, many Jews chose to remain in the Land of Israel throughout this period. I have personally met descendants of these Jews who never left. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, numerous Jews immigrated to the Land of Israel, which was under Ottoman rule. By 1880, there were 27,000 Jews residing in the Land of Israel. Historians refer to this period as the “Yishuv Hayashan” (the old settlement). The majority of these Jews were ultra-orthodox and primarily lived in the four holy cities: Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed, and Hebron. The existence of Jews is documented in the travel diaries of both Jewish and non-Jewish travelers who visited the Holy Land during the Ottoman rule. These Jews primarily relied on charity collected from Jewish diaspora communities, which was sent to the Holy Land and distributed among the local Jewish population.

Tensions escalated in the 19th century as violent incidents, such as “Pogroms,” became widespread in Europe, leaving the state of Jews in Europe dire. A solution was urgently needed.

The Rise of Modern Zionism

The Hebrew word “Zion” is synonymous with Jerusalem and the Land of Israel as a whole, appearing in Jewish prayers and songs. In the first half of the 19th century, several Rabbis, such as Rabbi Zvi Kalisher, Rabbi Yehuda Bibas, and Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai, urged their followers to immigrate to the Land of Israel. Many Jews answered this call, including a significant number from North Africa who left their homes as entire families, yeshiva students, and businessmen, traveling by ship to the Holy Land.

Many believed that establishing agricultural settlements was the way to go. Consequently, many Jewish agricultural settlements, known as “Moshavot” (singular “Moshava”), were created. Groups of settlers would band together, purchase land, and establish private farms. Today, these initial settlements have evolved into major Israeli cities, including Petach Tikvah, referred to as the “Mother of all Moshavot” because it was the first. Other notable examples include Rishon Le’Zion, Rehovot, Zichron Yaakov, Gadera, Hadera, Rosh Pina, Mazkeret Batya, and many more.

In 1884, a large group of Zionists met in Katowitz, part of Poland at the time. These Jewish leaders were part of a large Zionist organization called “Chovevay Zion” (lovers of Zion) from Russia, Romania, Germany, and France. The true goals of the meeting needed to be kept secret since Zionist activity was outlawed in Russia. The goals were to strengthen the Chovevay Zion movement and find a way to promote immigration to the Land of Israel and the settlement of Jews there. This they did by enlightening the Jews about Zionism and raising money to help purchase land in the Land of Israel.

This same organization participated in the first World Zionist Organization in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, established by Theodore Herzl.

Theodore Herzl is the founder of political Zionism. He lobbied for the establishment of an autonomous Jewish State in the Land of Israel. To that end, he traveled to Constantinople to meet with the Ottoman Sultan and later sought out the German Kaiser to try to convince him to speak to the Sultan on behalf of the Jews.

Redemption of the Land of Israel for the Jews

One of the decisions made at the first Convention of the World Zionist Organization in Basel was the decision to establish the Jewish National Fund (JNF) (Keren Kayemet Le’Israel in Hebrew). The Jewish National Fund was indeed established as a British company in 1901. The purpose of this company was to raise money for the purchase of land in the Land of Israel. The JNF joined the efforts of Chovevay Zion and others to redeem the land of Israel for the Jews. The word Redemption was used because they believed that they were redeeming their own land as opposed to buying something that never belonged to them.

Let us remember, the Landd of Israel was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled in a semi-feudalistic manner. Any Ottoman governor or official who ruled in the area was often granted land which he could rent out to local farmers. Often, this governor held onto the land after he ceased to rule. Much of the land was owned by wealthy Arab families (Christians and Muslims) who lived in mansions in Damascus or Beirut. The Jewish redeemers of the land would approach these wealthy owners and negotiate for the purchase of the land. In this manner, the land for the Moshavot, mentioned above and later the kibbutzim as well , was purchased. Other companies whose sole purpose was to purchase land were established. Examples of such companies are Hachsharat Hayishuv (which still exists today), Hachevra Hachadasha (which means “the new society”) and Geula (which means “Redemption”).

In this manner the lands for the first neighborhoods outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem were purchased (Nachalat Hashiva, Yemin Moshe and others). Wealthy Jewish businessmen in Jaffa, such as Aaron Chelouche and Zerach Baranet, and others purchased lands adjacent to Jaffa. On these lands the first Jewish neighborhoods outside the old city of Jaffa were built (Neve Shalom in 1890 and Neve Zedek in 1887). Indeed, the lands of Tel Aviv were purchased in this manner in 1906. The Redemption of land, the purchase of their own land back by the Jews went on even during the time of the British mandate. In this manner, the well-known land redeemer, Yehoshua Chenkin, was able to facilitate the purchase of large tracts of land in the Jezreel Valley, Jordan Valley, and Bet Shean Valley.

A few years before World War I, companies were established in countries across the globe. The goal was to raise money for the purchase of land and to establish farms that would be ready for Jews around the world investing in these companies when they immigrated to Israel. After World War I, these purchases continued, and land was acquired for different types of settlements, such as kibbutzim and moshavim, as well as private farms. This became a race against time to purchase land and establish settlements, whether agricultural or urban.

The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement

On November 2, 1917, the UK’s foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring the British government’s support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. This declaration came after the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement in May 1916, which attempted to set boundaries for the Land of Israel. This agreement aimed to divide the land between Jews on the western side of the Jordan River and Arabs on the eastern side of the Jordan River (now the area known as Jordan). One could say that this agreement was only partially fulfilled. On one hand, the Arab “Palestinians” were given Jordan, but on the other hand, the Jewish state had to fight for every inch of land on the western side of the Jordan River, in present-day Israel. Since then, the boundaries have been changed many times by international agreements, often disregarding the actual civilian settlements in existence (Allenby’s plan, San Remo Agreement, the UN partition plan – the list is endless).

World War II and the Holocaust

During World War I, the Ottomans deported any Jew who did not have Ottoman citizenship. The Jewish inhabitants of Tel Aviv were evacuated from their homes toward the end of the war and were only able to return to their homes after the British captured Palestine. Many people died of starvation during the war, and the Jews lived under the fear that the Ottomans would perpetuate genocide on them, as they had done against the Armenians. The British Mandate in Palestine began right after World War I. The Ottoman rulers were gone, and Palestine became part of the British Empire. In the wake of the Balfour Declaration, the Jews felt that they were close to statehood.

During the 1920s, many Jews made aliyah.  However, a change in government in Britain, as well as Arab riots in Palestine, brought a change in policies regarding Palestine. The 1930’s saw the aliyah of German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. However, at the beginning of the Second World War, the British limited the aliyah of Jewish immigrants while allowing 500,000 Arabs to immigrate to Palestine from neighboring countries.

In summary, the Jews are indigenous to the Land of Israel, while the Palestinians are not.

The name Palestine was given to the area by the Romans as a punishment for their rebellions. There never was a country called Palestine and never a people called the Palestinians. Documents from the British mandate were written in English, Hebrew and Arabic, showing that the Jews were a part of the mandate territory. Indeed, the newspaper “The Palestine Post” became “the Jerusalem Post”.

In the late 19th century, the Land of Israel was an empty backwater.

The journals of travelers like Mark Twain attest to this fact. The journals of travelers prove the presence of Jews in the region for hundreds of years.

Many Arabs moved to Palestine during the 18th century when the Egyptians ruled for 10 years and then again, during the first half of the 20th century under the British. The Jews, through various means, bought back their land. Evidence of these transactions is found in the Ottoman and British Land registry offices.

When you see the four maps below and hear the false narrative that up until 1948, everything belonged to the “Palestinians,” know that this is a bold-faced lie perpetuated against Israel in an effort to delegitimize it.

Maps used for Palestinian prpoganda

Photo credit

Etan J. Tal, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author
Nicole is one of very few real estate lawyers in Israel who specializes in the restoration and preservation of historic buildings. For over thirty years, she has supported clients in Israel and abroad in complex real estate projects that include property transactions of all types; development and planning; investment and tax issues; and project management. Her expertise in historic restoration enables her to advise entrepreneurs and investors in all aspects of conservation and preservation, such as legislation, economic incentives, modern building preservation technologies, and legal processes and documentation. She has an LL. B from Bar Ilan University and passed the Israeli bar exam in 1983. In addition, she earned a B.A. in Conservation Studies from the Western Galilee College in Akko and an M.A. in Preservation and Development of Landscape and Cultural Assets from the Bar Ilan University.