Unlike the neighboring Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians, the Israelites did not adopt seafaring as a major lifeway over the course of their storied history, despite possessing the Mediterranean Sea as the western border of the Land of Israel.
Why the Israelites as a people never found their sea legs is a fascinating historical curiosity whose answer combines several discrete factors:
- From their earliest origins, Israelites were land-based, and their initial lifeway was that of pastoral herders in the highlands, then of agrarian farmers in the plains.
- Although the Mediterranean Sea served as the western border for most of the Land of Israel, the mostly straight course of the Mediterranean shoreline (with few indentations or true bays) is unfavorable to the construction of anchorages and ports and discourages seafaring and fisheries.
- As a people repatriating to their ancestral homeland, the Israelites encountered on its northern coast Phoenicians (coastal Canaanites), and soon thereafter, during the era of the Judges (c. 1228–1020 BCE), the Neo-Philistines (Cretans) invaded the southern coast circa 1175 BCE; thus the Israelites were deprived of natural harbors and/or commercial ports of their own along the Coastal Plain, apart from Jaffa in the tribal territory of Dan, and even seafaring from Jaffa was precarious due to its proximity to neighboring Philistia, whose inimical inhabitants could readily intercept seagoing vessels, embargo maritime routes, and blockade the Israelite port.
- In the interior, the Salt Sea (Dead Sea), although a large lake, has no marine life for fishing, a significant deterrent to navigation thereof.
- As the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) evidences, the Israelites preferred to partner with experienced Phoenicians—neighbors and allies who were already expert seafarers—for maritime trade, and thus, instead of seagoing mariners, Israelites became fishermen content to ply the relatively tame waters of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
- Finally, in light of the sea monster Leviathan (mentioned in Job, Psalms, and Isaiah, variously in the Talmud, and in the aggadic Midrash Yalkut Shimoni), and of the biblical book of Jonah, there seems to have been a deep-seated, mythological-psychological inhibition impeding the development of Israelite seafaring.
In March of 1948 the first significant Jewish maritime force was founded as the naval branch of the armed forces of what would soon become the State of Israel. Marine Captain Gershon Zak commanded the branch and his first recruits included sailors, fishermen, port workers, coastal residents, British Navy volunteers, etc. Today the Israeli Navy, headquartered in Tel Aviv, has bases in Haifa, Atlit, Ashdod, and Eilat, and operates primarily in the Mediterranean Sea theater as well as in the Gulf of Eilat and the Red Sea theater.
Nowadays, the overwhelming majority of Israel’s global trade is conducted by sea and the key commercial ports (in Haifa, Ashdod, and Eilat) handle 98 percent of the nation’s import and export volume. Companies such as Israel Shipyards manufacture state-of-the-art seagoing vessels (incl. merchant ships, tugboats, service boats, as well as floating docks) for several countries and ZIM Integrated Shipping Services, a pioneer in the container shipping business, has grown to become one of the world’s leading shipping companies, operating in every part of the globe: it features a fleet of approximately 80 vessels and services 180 ports of call throughout the world (with 10 strategically located hubs), and maintains regional headquarters in Haifa, Norfolk (USA), Liverpool (UK), Hamburg (Germany), and Hong Kong (China).
In sum, when it comes to sailing the high seas…Jewry has come a long way.