General information about jews The Jews are a people who trace their descent from the biblical Israelites and who are united by the religion called Judaism. They are not a race; Jewish identity is a mixture of ethnic, national, and religious elements. An individual may become part of the Jewish people by conversion to Judaism; but a born Jew who rejects Judaism or adopts another religion does not entirely lose his or her Jewish identity. The word Jew is derived from the kingdom of Judah, which included 2 of the 12 Israelite tribes. The name Israel referred to the people as a whole and especially to the northern kingdom of 10 tribes. Today it is used as a collective name for all Jewry and since 1948 for the Jewish state. (Citizens of the state of Israel are called Israelis; not all of them are Jews.) In the Bible, Hebrew is used by foreign peoples as a name for the Israelites; today it is applied only to the Hebrew Language.
Biblical Period The origin of the Jews is recounted in the Hebrew Bible (called the "Old Testament" by Christians). Despite legendary and miraculous elements in its early narratives, most scholars believe that the biblical account is based on historic realities. According to the Book of Genesis God ordered the patriarch Abraham to leave his home in Mesopotamia and travel to a new land, which he promised to Abraham's descendants as a perpetual inheritance. Although the historicity of Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob is uncertain, the Israelite tribes certainly came to Canaan (later Palestine) from Mesopotamia. Later they, or some of them, settled in Egypt, where they were reduced to slavery; they finally fled to freedom under the leadership of an extraordinary man named Moses, probably about 1200 BC. After a period of desert wandering, the tribes invaded Canaan at different points, and over a lengthy period of time they gained control over parts of the country. (It is uncertain if there is any connection between the Hebrews and the Habiru mentioned in 14th century BC Egyptian documents found at Tell el - Amarna.)
Formation of a National Kingdom For a century or more the tribes, loosely united and sometimes feuding among themselves, were hard pressed by Canaanite forces based in fortified strongholds and by marauders from outside. At critical moments tribal chieftains (traditionally called judges) rose to lead the people in battle. But when the Philistines threatened the very existence of the Israelites, the tribes formed a kingdom under the rule (1020 - 1000 BC) of Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin. Saul died fighting the Philistines, and was succeeded by David of the tribe of Judah. David crushed the Philistine power and established a modest empire. He conquered the fortress city of Jerusalem, which up to that time had been controlled by a Canaanite tribe, and made it his capital. His son Solomon assumed the trappings of a potentate and erected the Temple in Jerusalem, which became the central sanctuary of the distinctive monotheistic Israelite religion and ultimately the spiritual center of world Jewry.
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Division, Conquest, and Exile The national union effected by David was shaky. The economically and culturally advanced tribes of the north resented the rule of kings from pastoral Judah, and after Solomon's death the kingdom was divided. The larger and richer northern kingdom was known as Israel; Judah, with Benjamin, remained loyal to the family of David. Israel experienced many dynastic changes and palace revolutions. Both Israel and Judah, located between the empires of Egypt and Assyria, were caught in the struggle between the two great powers. Assyria was the dominant empire during the period of the divided kingdom. When Israel, with Egyptian encouragement, tried to throw off Assyrian rule, it was destroyed and a large number of its inhabitants were deported (722 BC). Judah managed to outlive the Assyrian Empire (destroyed c. 610), but the Chaldean (Neo Babylonian) Empire that replaced it also insisted on control of Judah. When a new revolt broke out under Egyptian influence, the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple (587 or 586 BC); the royalty, nobility, and skilled craftsmen were deported to Babylonia. Loss of state and Temple, however, did not lead to the disappearance of the Judeans, as it did in the northern kingdom. The peasantry that remained on the land, the refugees in Egypt, and the exiles in Babylonia retained a strong faith in their God and the hope of ultimate restoration. This was largely due to the influence of the great Prophets. Their warnings of doom had been fulfilled; therefore, the hopeful message they began to preach was believed. The universal prophetic teaching assured Jews that they could still worship their God on alien soil and without a temple. Henceforth the Jewish people and religion could take root in the dispersion (Diaspora) as well as in the homeland.
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Return to Palestine Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia in 536 BC. Subsequently he permitted the exiles to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple. (Many chose, however, to remain in Mesopotamia, where the Jewish community existed without interruption for more than 2,500 years until the virtual elimination of Jewish presence in Iraq after World War II.) Leadership of the reviving Judean center was provided largely by returning exiles - notably Nehemiah, an important official of the Persian court, and Ezra, a learned priest. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and consolidated spiritual life by a public ceremony of allegiance to the Torah (Law of Moses) and by stringent rules against mixed marriage. In the following centuries leadership was provided mainly by priests, who claimed descent from Moses' brother Aaron; the high priest usually represented the people in dealings with the foreign powers that successively ruled the land.
Hellenistic and Roman Periods The available information about the Persian period is meager. Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in 322; his successors, the Macedonian rulers of Egypt (the Ptolemies) and Syria (the Seleucids) vied for control of this strategically important area; eventually the Syrians won. Hellenistic influences penetrated Jewish life deeply, but when the Seleucid king Antiochus IV tried to impose the worship of Greek gods upon the Jews, a rebellion ensued (168 BC).
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The Maccabees The popular revolt was led by the Maccabees, a provincial priestly family (also called Hasmoneans). By 165 they recaptured the Temple, which had been converted into a pagan shrine, and rededicated it to the God of Israel. Hostilities with Syria continued; but Simon, the last of the Maccabean brothers, consolidated his power and was formally recognized in 131 BC as ruler and high priest. His successors took the title of king and for about a century ruled an independent commonwealth. Dynastic quarrels, however, gave the Roman general Pompey the Great an excuse to intervene and make himself master of the country in 63 BC.
In subsequent decades a family of Idumaean adventurers ingratiated themselves with the successive Roman dictators; with Roman help, Herod the Great made himself ruler of Judea, eventually (37 BC) with the title of king. Able but ruthless, he was hated by the people, although he rebuilt the Temple with great magnificence. The Romans allowed Herod's sons less authority and in 6 BC put the country formally under the control of their own officials, known as procurators. New spiritual forces emerged during the Maccabean and Herodian periods. The leadership of hereditary priests was contested by laymen distinguished for their learning and piety, who won the respect and support of the people. The priestly conservatives came to be known as Sadducees, the more progressive lay party as the Pharisees. The latter came to dominate the Sanhedrin, which was the highest religious and legal authority of the nation. Burdened by excessive taxation and outraged by acts of brutality, the Judeans became more and more restive under Roman rule, all the more because they were confident that God would ultimately vindicate them. Revolutionary groups such as the Zealots emerged calling for armed revolt. The Sadducees were inclined to collaborate with the Romans; the Pharisees advocated passive resistance but sought to avoid open war. The Herodians