Israel is the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.
Having thrived on their land from the time of the Bible around 1200 BCE, most Jews were exiled after the Judean Kingdom was occupied and destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. The Land of Israel was later conquered by various empires, from the Byzantine through the Ottoman to the British empires, yet throughout the centuries, Jewish communities were a constant presence in the land. Indeed, Jews are the only people who have maintained a continuous presence in the land of Israel since antiquity.
Meanwhile, the descendants of those Jews who had been exiled in ancient times, whether they had eventually made their homes in Morocco, Poland, Yemen or Germany, all yearned and prayed to return to their ancestral homeland.
The onset of the industrial revolution and the attendant improvement in economic conditions and the possibilities of travel in the 19th century, allowed a growing number of Jews from the Muslim and Christian world, individually or as organised groups, to realize these aspirations and join their brethren in the Holy Land.
Many of the returning Jews chose to live in existing centres such as Jerusalem and Tzfat (Safed). By 1844, the Jews had become the largest population group in Jerusalem (7,120, compared to 5,000 Muslims and 3,390 Christians), a demographic plurality that has remained unchanged ever since.
Other returnees were committed to working the land as their forefathers had, and began replanting fields and orchards, cultivating new vineyards, creating new villages and developing agriculture.
On 29-31 August 1897, the first Zionist Congress was convened by visionary leader Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland. This was a decisive milestone in transforming what until then had been simply a popular endeavour into a full-fledged political movement with the aim of establishing a modern state based on the right of self-determination for the Jewish people in their historic homeland. In fact, the Zionist movement derived its name from the longing for Zion, one of the ancient biblical names of Jerusalem.
Official recognition from the international community was not long in coming. On 2 November 1917, the British foreign secretary, Lord Arthur James Balfour, wrote an official declaration acknowledging the Jewish people’s national rights in the Land of Israel, which was to come under British rule the following month.
The movement for Jewish self-determination gained full international legitimacy, on 24 July 1922, when the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) adopted the Balfour declaration and recognised the “historic connection of the Jewish people” to the Land of Israel, while appointing Great Britain as responsible for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
On 29 November 1947, after Britain had announced its desire to end its Mandate, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of Resolution 181, calling for the Mandate territory to be partitioned into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jewish community accepted the plan, while the Arab side rejected it.
On 14 May 1948, Israel proclaimed its independence, declaring that the new state would grant all its inhabitants “complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of religion, race or sex” as well as “freedom of religion, conscience, language and culture.” It would be open for Jewish immigration and “the in-gathering of the Exiles”. The dream of reviving the Jewish people’s sovereignty in its ancestral homeland had become reality.
On 11 May 1949, Israel was accepted as a member of the United Nations. However, the war of annihilation launched by five Arab states on the nascent State of Israel as soon as it declared independence took a heavy toll. Jerusalem was divided; Jews were expelled from its eastern part and denied access to the Old City and to their ancestral holy sites.
On 7 June 1967, Jerusalem was reunified after Egypt, Syria and Jordan forced a war upon Israel that led to an Israeli victory in only six days. Israel immediately committed itself to freedom of religion and freedom of access to the holy sites for members of all faiths, a promise it has kept for fifty years. This was the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD that the Old City, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall had been unified under Jewish sovereignty, and the first time in history that members of all three monotheistic faiths could pray freely at their holy sites.
On 19 November 1977, the cycle of Arab rejection of Israel’s appeals for peace was broken with the historic visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem. This led to the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, followed fifteen years later by the peace treaty with Jordan.
The State of Israel
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Peace and security
Like every other state, Israel has a right to defend itself against any acts of aggression that threaten its citizens.
A negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution is the only legitimate, just and viable way to provide for a lasting peace.
The nascent Palestinian state should respect the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. A Palestinian state can only be founded if it respects Israel’s right to exist in security.
Initiatives that enable the Palestinians to advance economically and socially should be supported as a means of stabilising the peace process.
Israel’s defence force engages in operations along the Gaza Strip solely to protect southern Israeli towns and farming communities from waves of terror. Israel completely withdrew from Gaza in August 2005. Within weeks, Palestinian terrorist groups and militias began launching rockets and mortars into Israel. These terrorist groups are linked to Hamas (which currently rules Gaza) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Israel also faces threats to it’s existence from the north – including from Hezbollah in Lebanon and various sources within Syria.
However, the gravest threat to Israel comes from Iran.
Israel’s international relations
Israel is not treated like any other state. It does not have diplomatic relations with a number of states and is often singled out for criticism by international organisations such as the UN, which imposes double standards across its bodies and agencies.
Governments must apply the same standards to Israel when judging its actions compared with those of other countries.
Israel should not be singled out for criticism by countries which do not themselves adhere to the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Israel and the Australian Jewish diaspora
For Jewish people around the world, Israel is a special place and is integral to Jewish life.
Australia’s Jewish population has a high percentage of people with strong emotional and familial connections to Israel. In NSW, there are numerous zionist organisations that foster this relationship.
Australia and Israel have special relationship originating from the very United Nations resolution that endorsed the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.