7 Wonders of Jewish History
Over 300 years ago, King Louis XIV of France asked Blaise Pascal, the great Christian philosopher, to give him proof of God. Pascal answered, “Why the Jews, your Majesty, the Jews!”
That the Jewish nation—such a tiny group of people—survived two thousand years of exile and persecution was nothing short of a supernatural phenomenon. Pascal wasn’t the only one who was so amazed by the survival of the Jewish people. Other thinkers, philosophers and historians have noticed something unusual about the Jews.
Mark Twain, an agnostic and self-acknowledged skeptic, penned this in 1899 in Harper’s Magazine:
“The Egyptian, Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. The Greek and Roman followed, made a vast noise and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up, and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
Why were Pascal, Mark Twain and many others so amazed by the survival of the Jews against all odds?
The Seven Wonders of Jewish History
1) Eternal Nation
2) Exile and Dispersion
3) Few In Number
5) Light to the Nations
6) The Interdependency of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel
7) The Return of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel
1) Eternal Nation(TOP)
It has been prophesied in the Torah that Jews would be an eternal nation:
“And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and your descendants after you, throughout the generations. An eternal covenant to be your God, and the God of your descendants after you” (Genesis 17-7).
This promise is repeated many times throughout the Torah (Leviticus 26:43, Deuteronomy 4:26-27, Deut. 28:63-64). And it has come true. Even though Jews did not have a homeland, a common language or a shared history (the factors that historians use to define a nation), they have remained a distinct people.
2) Exile and Dispersion
It has been prophesied in the Torah that Jews would be exiled and dispersed:
“And you, I will scatter among the nations, at the point of My drawn sword, leaving your country desolate and your cities in ruins” (Leviticus 26:33).
Jews have remained a people despite exile and dispersion. In all of human history, there have been less than ten exiles of an entire people out of their country. It’s a highly unusual phenomenon to take a whole people and throw them out of their country.
Multiple exiles are unheard of, since after the first one the people generally disappear—they simply become assimilated among other peoples. In human history, multiple exiles and dispersion are unique only to the Jewish people.
The dispersion of the Jewish People to the four corners of the globe is a completely unique phenomenon in human history. Jews have wandered and settled in almost every land on earth -while somehow managing to maintain their distinct national identity.
The Jewish people were exiled from Israel by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. They survived, returned to Israel after 70 years, and then built the Second Temple. Then in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, causing the Jews to go into exile once again.
Therefore, we see two different uniquenesses:
A. The only nation exiled twice from their own land
B. The only nation to ever survive and return from a previous exile
The Torah goes on to spell out one final uniqueness within this phenomenon—amongst these nations within which the Jews will be scattered, there will be a continual wandering. Immediately after Deuteronomy 28:64 (“And G-d shall scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other…”), the prophesy continues—“Among those nations you shall find no repose, not a foot of ground to stand upon, for there the L-rd will give you an anguished heart and wasted eyes and a dismayed spirit.” (Deuteronomy 28:65).
This prophesy of the “Wandering Jew” has remarkably not only characterized our ancient history, it continues to identify us as a unique people right up until and including the present day.
When we scan the diaspora of Jewry over the entire globe and throughout the entire civilized world, we are surprised to see that this Nation, which is almost the most ancient in the world, is in truth the youngest in terms of the land under its feet and the sky above its head. As a result of the relentless persecutions and forced expulsions, most Jews are but recent new-comers to their respective lands of residence. Ninety percent of the Jewish people have lived in their new homes for no more than 50 or 60 years! (The Jewish People) are dispersed throughout over 100 lands on all five continents.
- Leschzinsky, “The Jewish Dispersion”, pg. 9 (Heb.)
3) Few In Number
It has been prophesied in the Torah that Jews will survive as an eternal nation despite dispersion and being few in number:
“God will then scatter you among the nations, and only a small number will remain among the nations where God shall lead you” (Deuteronomy 4:27).
To every other people, a small population spells extinction. We know from the records that the Romans kept about 2,000 years ago, there were between 8-10 million Jews living in the world. How many Jews do demographers say should be in the world today?
If in the same period of time, the Chinese went from a population of 30 million to over 1 billion people, there should be approximately 500 million Jews alive in the world today. After the Chinese and the Indians, the third largest ethnic group on the planet earth should be the Jews! But there are only 14 million Jews alive today.
There are virtually no more Jews in the world today than there were 2,000 years ago and yet throughout all this time, the Jews remained a distinct people.
The term “anti-Semitism” itself is very curious. Why not refer to the hatred and persecution of Jews by more generic terms like religious bigotry, xenophobia, or racism? The Jews are the only group in the world with a unique term for their persecution. Why? The world seems to realize that anti-Semitism isn’t simply one more unfortunate example of hatred in the world, but is instead a phenomenon specific to the Jews.
There are four different aspects to anti-Semitism which characterize it as being a hatred like no other:
The universal scope of anti-Semitism can be seen in the fact that Jews have been expelled from virtually every country in which they have resided. Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and 1394, Hungary in 1349 and 1360, Austria in 1421, from various places in Germany throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, from Lithuania in 1445 and 1495, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1497, and from Bohemia and Moravia in 1744-45. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, Jews were not permitted to enter Russia, and when they were finally admitted, they were restricted to one area, the Pale of Settlement.
Parallel to these atrocities in Europe were various levels of anti-Semitism at the hands of the Arabs. From Islam’s inception in the 7th century, the Jews living in Arab countries were constantly made to feel like second-class citizens. Violent outbreaks sporadically occurred throughout the following 1300 years and reached a climax during the years 1948 and 1967. During that period, almost all of the Jews living in Aden, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, over 500,000 in all, were forced to flee, fearing for their lives, in the wake of pogroms, assaults and massacres.
Even as far away as Ethiopia, where a small community of Jews were cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for over 2000 years, we find evidence of persecution from the neighboring peoples. There has even been evidence of anti-Semitism in Japan—a country where virtually no Jews ever lived!
Jewish Persecution Timeline
The ultimate example is the Holocaust (acknowledged throughout the world as the ultimate manifestation of evil in all of history)—the only time an entire people (i.e., men, women and children) had a campaign of complete annihilation waged against them.
Most of the world’s great powers, even those with only a small percentage of Jews among them, regarded the Jews as a central enemy. This phenomenon began as early as the Greek persecutions of Jews during the Second Temple period. It continued with the late Roman Empire, the Arabs, and the Christian world for over 15 centuries (most notably with the frequent occurrence of blood libels all throughout the Middle Ages) and more recently with the Nazis and the Soviet Union, as well as the Arabs today.
FULL LIST OF EMPIRES AGAINST THE JEWS:
Ottoman Turkish Empire,
We are the only people ever accused of “deicide” (killing a god)—this has been claimed as one of the major causes of anti-Semitism for almost 2000 years. Despite the fact that eating blood is as strong a prohibition as that against eating pork, Jews were constantly persecuted throughout the Middle Ages through blood libels, the charge that we drank the blood of non-Jewish children. We were attacked in pogroms for well-poisoning and once even for air-poisoning.
The Jews in Germany were accused of having brought Socialism and Communism to Germany, of being responsible for Germany losing World War I, and of causing the economic problems of the 1920’s. This paranoia existed in spite of the fact that the percentage of Jews in Germany at the time was only 0.8%. Many nations have even hurt themselves with their persecution of the Jews, most notably Spain (economically) and Germany (with science, culture, military, etc.).
A forgery purporting to be the conspiratorial discussions of Jewish elders plotting to take over the world, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was, next to the Bible, the best-selling book in the world during the 1920’s. It has since been printed in numerous languages. Since 1987 it is being widely distributed in Japan…
Of all the extreme fanaticism that plays havoc in man’s nature, there is none as irrational as anti-Semitism. The Jews cannot vindicate themselves in the eyes of these fanatics. If the Jews are rich, they are victims of theft and extortion. If they are poor, they are victims of ridicule. If they take sides in a war, it is because they wish to gain advantage from the spilling of non-Jewish blood. If they espouse peace, it is because they are scared and anxious by nature or traitors to their country. If the Jew dwells in a foreign land he is persecuted and expelled. If he wishes to return to his own land, he is prevented from doing so. - Lloyd George, 1923
Whatever we do, that is precisely what is cited as the reason for the hatred against us. At the same time that Jews in America were accused of being communists, Jews in Russia were being labeled as capitalists. The more one studies anti-Semitism, the more obvious it becomes that the innumerable “explanations” offered throughout the various societies in which Jews have resided are not reasons at all (i.e. whose absence would necessarily result in no more persecutions), but rather excuses.
But as my research into Jewish history progressed, I was surprised, depressed, and to some extent overwhelmed by the perpetual and irrational violence which pursued the Jews in every country and to almost every corner of the globe. If, therefore, persecution, expulsion, torture, humiliation, and mass murder haunt these pages, it is because they also haunt the Jewish story.
- Martin Gilbert, “Jewish History Atlas” Oxford 1985
It has been prophesied in the Torah that Jews will be persecuted:
“Among those nations you shall find no respite, no rest for your foot. There God will make you cowardly, destroying your outlook and making life hopeless. You will live in constant suspense. Day and night, you will be terrified, never sure of your existence. In the morning you will say, ‘If only it were night,’ and in the evening you will say, ‘If only it were morning!’ Such will be the dread that your heart will feel and the sights that your eyes will see” (Deut. 28:65-67).
No other form of racial hatred comes close to anti-Semitism in its virulence, its intensity and its irrationality.
As Professor Michael Curtis of Rutgers University put it:
“The uniqueness of anti-Semitism lies in the fact that no other people in the world have ever been charged simultaneously with alienation from society and with cosmopolitanism, with being capitalistic exploiters and also revolutionary communist advocators. The Jews were accused of having an imperious mentality, at the same time they’re a people of the book. They’re accused of being militant aggressors, at the same time as being cowardly pacifists. With being a chosen people, and also having an inferior human nature. With both arrogance and timidity. With both extreme individualism and community adherence. With being guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus and at the same time held to account for the invention of Christianity.” (Colloquium on anti-Semitism, 1987)
If we look at the history of anti-Semitism, we see one unceasing chain of slaughter, pogroms, pillaging, expulsion, etc. There are horrendous levels of violence that lead up to the worst thing that can be done to a hated people: Genocide. Most nations in history have not been subjected to even one genocide. But in almost every generation there’s an attempted Jewish genocide somewhere in the world on a macrocosmic or microcosmic scale.
Jewish Persecution Timeline
5) Light to the Nations
It has been prophesied in the Torah that Jews would be a light unto the nations,
“I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You shall become a blessing. And I will bless those who bless
Now, if you obey Me and keep my covenant, then you shall be My special treasure among all the nations for all the world is Mine. And you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to Me… (Exodus 19:5-6)
The prophet Isaiah (42:6) states,
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand and keep you. And I will establish you as a covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations.”
Despite our small numbers, the Jewish People seem to occupy a disproportionate place as a focus of world attention.
As Mark Twain wrote of the Jew:
“He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning, are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.”
How could we imagine a small group having such a profound impact on the world all around it? The two approaches which seem to have some precedent to them are:
1) Conquest (like in the case of Greece and Rome), or
2) Proselytization (as with Christianity and Islam).
The difficulty, however, is that during the past almost 2,000 years, the Jewish people have rarely had an army, and have always shied away from conversions.
Despite being the most hated people, few in number and dispersed across the globe, Jews are the most influential people the world has known. Jews are responsible for the idea of ethical monotheism and the absolute moral standard that comes from a belief in one God.
Before the Jews, the ancient world thought that infanticide was morally correct (even Aristotle wrote in favor of it.) Before the Jews came along, the world thought that “might was right.”
It was the Jewish people that gave the world the ideas of respect for life, peace, equality, justice, love of neighbor, social responsibility, and holiness of human purpose.
Approximately three billion people (almost half the world) believes in some form of monotheism, and all agree that they got it from us (i.e. from Abraham). This is the clear prerequisite to both morality and civilization in the world.
All throughout the world, many of the major concepts within Judaism have been widely accepted:
- We are all “children of one G-d”, therefore we have a fundamental social responsibility towards others. This leads directly to “love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18)—a Jewish, not a Christian idea.
- Society must be committed to truth, justice, fair trials, etc.
- All people have free will and unlimited potential for greatness. “All men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence). This may be why the Talmud mandated universal education about 2,000 years ago, while the rest of the world has only incorporated this into their society within the last 100 years.
- We should seek peace, not war. Today, on the wall outside the United Nations, the hope of the world is emblazoned, using the words of the Jewish prophet Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nations shall not lift up sword against nations. Neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) (click here for picture)
One might ask, “Aren’t these ideas intuitively obvious? How can we take credit for them? Didn’t other societies also have them?” The point being made is the following—we are the only society which doesn’t merely posses the ideas, but has a complete system for implementing them. Our society, in fact, was the only one until very recently which even attempted to actually put them into practice. It is very significant to note that many of these ideas were only accepted recently by the Western world—where our influence has been strongest, and are still not accepted in many areas of the rest of the world—where our influence has been more minimal.
A very fundamental question could be asked on everything which has been said within this prophecy until now: The prophecy is that the Jewish people will be a light unto the nations; all that has been shown until now, however, could be viewed as merely showing that the Torah alone has been a light unto the nations. Where do we have any indication that the Jewish people themselves, independent from Judaism, have an intrinsic ability to strongly impact the world? In other words, maybe there is nothing particularly distinctive about Jews themselves. Perhaps, it is only because the Jews have been in possession of such an extraordinary book, the Torah, that their impact upon the world has been so profound!
The difficulty with attempting to answer this question is that all throughout history, Jews have been so intrinsically connected with the Torah. It would seem that the only way to evaluate this would be to do an experiment in which we separated Jews from Judaism. We could then determine if Jews continued behaving in an extraordinary manner (although not necessarily in accordance with Torah guidelines) or simply faded into the background and acted like all other people.
This experiment has already been performed for us. Over the past 150 years, for the first time in all of Jewish history, we have Jews entirely disconnected from Judaism. What then do we find when we study the behavior of these first truly secular Jews?
The Wall Street Journal ran a 3-part series a few years ago on the three individuals that in their view had the greatest impact on the entire 20th century. Who do you think they selected? Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Karl Marx. How likely is it that all three would turn out to be Jewish? Considering that the Jews have never (in recent times) exceeded 1/2 of 1% of the world population, that means that for every Jew that lived within the previous 150 years, there were over 200 non-Jews. Therefore the odds against the first of these three occupying this position of ultimate influence on the world were 200 to 1, the second joining him were 40,000 to 1, and the third being there as well, were 8,000,000 to 1.
Remarkably, Jews have received almost one-fifth of all Nobel prizes awarded since 1901. This is all the more striking when one considers that it was as recently as the middle of the 19th century that Jews were first given the ability to attend universities and enter many different professions, especially in the various sciences!
Jews continue to be exceptionally committed to education. In America, they are twice as likely to attend college as non-Jews. At Ivy League schools, about 23% of students are Jewish, even though Jews comprise just 2% of the U.S. population, according to Hillel. In numerous top colleges, Jews comprise in excess of 30% of the student population. At least 35% of Washington students and about 30% of Emory students are Jewish, even though these are in the south, with traditionally low Jewish student populations. In 2002, the Wall Street Journal reported that many colleges were actively recruiting Jews to their ranks. This encluded Vanderbilt where Jewish enrollment had gone up from 2% in the 70’s to 4% in the 2000s. Princeton in the 1980s cultivated ties with predominantly Jewish high schools by offering merit scholarships to their graduates. One third of the University of Pennsylvania’s student body is Jewish.
Jews are prominently in the forefront pushing for social change:
1) Many of the top leaders of both the Russian and Hungarian revolutions were Jewish.
2) Approximately 60% of the members of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society)—the major student activist organization of the 1960’s, were Jews. The two most well-known student activists of the 1960’s, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were both Jews. In fact, a survey by the American Council of Education in 1966-7 stated that “the best single predictor of campus protest (during the 1960’s) was the presence of a substantial number of students from Jewish backgrounds.”
3) In 1967, 40% of all Peace Corps volunteers were Jewish.
4) In careers: Jews in the USA are over represented in proportion to the general population by 231% in medicine, 233% in mathematics, 265% in law, 300% in dentistry, and 479% in psychiatry.
5) In income: Jews in the USA have the highest income of any ethnic group, 72% above the average and 40% higher than the second highest group, the Japanese.
The Gemara says that Jews are more driven for meaning than non-Jews. It is this extraordinary drive for meaning which seems to be the common denominator for all of these many differences in the behavior of even secular Jews. Whether meaning is understood in terms of science, education, desire for social change, idealism, a prestigious profession, or just money—Jews are clearly more determined and able to achieve a remarkable level of success than the general non-Jewish population around them. One thing which is abundantly clear—this phenomenon of uniqueness is just as much a function and a statement of the Jewish people themselves as it is about the Torah.
6) The Interdependency of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel
It has been prophesied in the Torah that the land of Israel was rich and fertile while the Jews were living there:
“I have come down to rescue them from Egypt’s power. I will bring them out of that land, to a good, spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey…”
Even up until the time of Josephus (i.e. approximately 1300 years later), it was still very prosperous and fertile.
For the whole area is excellent for crops or pasturage and rich in trees of every kind, so that by its fertility it invites even those least inclined to work on the land. In fact, every inch of it has been cultivated by the inhabitants and not a parcel goes to waste. It is thickly covered with towns, and thanks to the natural abundance of the soil, the many villages are so densely populated that the smallest of them has more than fifteen thousand inhabitants.
(Josephus, The Jewish Wars; Book III 3:2 Penguin edition, p. 192)
And when they were exiled, it would become barren and desolate:
“So devastated will I leave the land that your enemies who live there will be astonished… Your land will remain desolate, and your cities in ruins.”
During the two thousand years of Israel’s exile from its Land, numerous empires have conquered the Land and countless wars were fought for its possession. And yet, astonishingly, no conqueror ever succeeded in permanently settling the Land or causing the deserts to blossom.
Mark Twain, who visited Israel in 1867, describes the Land of Israel:
“We traversed some miles of desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given wholly to weeds - A silent, mournful expanse… A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action . The further we went the hotter the sun got and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became.”
(“The Innocents Abroad” Vol. II)
Others make similar observations:
Outside the walls of Jerusalem however we saw no living being, heard no living voice. We encountered that desolation and that deadly silence which we would have expected to find at the ruined gates of Pompey… A total eternal dread spell envelopes the city, the highways and the villages… the burial grounds of an entire people.
Alfons de Lamartine, “Recollections of the East” Volume I London (1845) pg. 238 (Hebrew-French)
Until today no people has succeeded in establishing national dominion in the land of Israel… No national unity or spirit of nationalism has acquired any hold there. The mixed multitude of itinerant tribes that managed to settle there did so on lease, as temporary residents. It seems that they await the return of the permanent residents of the land.
Professor Sir John William Dosson in “Modern Science in Bible Lands” London (1888) Pp. 449-450
The Ramban comments on Leviticus 26:32
Similarly, that which He stated here, and your enemies that shall dwell therein shall be desolate in it, constitutes a good tiding, proclaiming that during all our exiles, our Land will not accept our enemies. This also is a great proof and assurance to us, for in the whole inhabited part of the world one cannot find such a good and large Land which was always lived in and yet is as ruined as it is [today], for since the time that we left it, it has not accepted any nation or people, they all try to settle it, but to no avail.
The “land of milk and honey” turning into a desert, is a phenomenon unique in the annals of history.
7) The Return of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel
It has been prophesied in the Torah that Jews would be exiled from the land and that they would return to the land:
And it shall come to pass when these things shall come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have placed before you, you will take it to heart amongst all of the nations where God has scattered you; you will return to the Lord your God and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you today, you and your children with all of your heart and with all of your soul. Then the Almighty will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you; and He will return and gather you from among all of the nations where he has dispersed you. If your dispersed ones will be even at the ends of the heavens, from there God Almighty will gather you and from there He will take you. And God your Lord will bring you to the land that your fathers inherited and you shall inherit it and He will do good for you and make you more numerous than your forefathers. (Deuteronomy 30:1-5)
No other people has ever gone into exile and survived for thousands of years to come back to re-establish a national homeland. The return of the Jews from exile to the land of Israel was nothing short of a miracle.
However, not only was the physical return of the Jewish people prophesied, the re-blossoming of the land was as well.
As for you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is close at hand. For behold, I am with you and I shall turn to you; then you shall be tilled and sown. And I will multiply men upon you, the entire family of Israel… Then I will multiply men and animals upon you, and they shall increase and be fruitful. I shall cause you to be inhabited as in your former times and I will make you even more bountiful than you were in your beginnings. You shall know that I am G-d.
As long as Israel does not dwell on its Land, the Land does not give of her produce as she is accustomed. When she will begin to reflourish, however, and give of her fruits in abundance, this is a clear sign that the end—the time of Redemption—is approaching, when all Israel will return to their Land.
Maharsha, R. Shmuel Eliezer Aidels (1555-1631)
Just as after the 1300 years of prosperity from when the Jewish people first entered Israel from Egypt, we’d have expected this fertility to have continued, after almost 2000 years of desolation, we’d certainly expect this to continue as well. Either—even a good land would be ruined by then, OR—if the land was still good, wouldn’t we figure that someone else would have been able to have made it work before almost 2,000 years had gone by?!
When we look at Jewish history, we see a history where the Jewish people have defied the laws of nature and the laws of history! We have survived and impacted this world though we have been thrown out of our land not once, but twice! We have impacted the world perhaps more than any other people in history—the concepts of the value of human life, universal education, justice and equality, the importance of and goal of world peace (as opposed to glorifying war), the importance of a strong stable family as a basis for a moral foundation for society, individual and national responsibility for the world—though we were beaten, killed and exiled from one nation to the other. Though few in number and spread to the four corners of the earth, we survived as a people, never assimilating into anonymity. Even our land, the Land of Israel, defied the laws of nature, only fertile when the Jewish people inhabited it.
Coincidence? Good luck? A roll of the dice? Perhaps—except that each and every phenomena was prophesied and predicted in the Torah hundreds and thousands of years before the events. Does it make you think that perhaps something is going on here? That perhaps there is a special relationship between the Almighty and the Jewish people?
The Almighty, the Jewish people and the Torah are intertwined. In the past 3,300 years there have been effort after effort—from within as well as from without—to redefine and redirect our people. Each and every one has failed. If you wonder why, then perhaps the time has come to read the Torah and find out. The Torah is not only our heritage, it is the game plan for the Jewish people and the world.