Gaza – A Jewish Historical Perspective

Let’s refresh ourselves on the history of Gaza and realize that Gaza has a long Jewish history.

Gaza has a long Jewish history. It’s an odd history, however. The Jews never had it easy in Gaza. It’s always been an area of conflict and an arena for confrontation between Jews and hostile neighbors. In fact, Isaac, one of the three Patriarchs of the Jewish people, was born somewhere between Beersheba and Gaza, precisely in the area that is suffering the most from rocket attacks from Hamas. So, too, both Abraham and his son Isaac had problems with the local rulers. (Genesis 20:1-3, 11-12, 26:1, 7)

The known history of Gaza spans over 4,000 years. It was ruled, destroyed and repopulated by various dynasties, empires and peoples.  It was originally a Canaanite settlement and came under the control of the ancient Egyptians for roughly 350 years before being conquered by the Philistines, who made it one of their principal cities in the 12th century BCE. King David conquered Gaza in about 1000 BCE.

Gaza Allotted to Tribe of Judah

Gaza is referenced in a number of books in the Bible, most prominently in the Book of Judges and the Book of Joshua. According to the Bible, the area was allotted to the tribe of Judah, but the Jews never quite secured it. After the Biblical Exodus, during the period of the Judges, the territory fell under Philistine control. The Philistines were an Aegean people, meaning they came from the area of modern Greece. In ancient Egyptian writings, they are described as one of the “Sea Peoples” that attempted to invade Egypt and conquer the entire area.

Anyone familiar with the Bible will have heard of the “Philistines.” Every reference to the “Philistines,” especially in reference to land and territory, almost always refers to the Gaza area. The most infamous Philistine was the warrior Goliath who was famously defeated by King David. The story of Samson and Delilah, the evil mistress of Samson who seduced him into revealing the secret of his strength, which led to his downfall, took place in Gaza. The prophets Amos and Zephaniah prophesized that Gaza would be deserted. The Philistines exited from history in 722 BCE, when they were taken into captivity by the Assyrians.

Maccabees: Gaza is ‘Inheritance of our Fathers’

After the Philistines disappeared, the area came under the control of various empires, such as the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. The Maccabees (Of Chanuka and dreidel fame) conquered Gaza, as it says in the Book of Maccabees 1:15:

“Not a strange land have we conquered, and not over the possessions of strangers have we ruled, but of the inheritance of our Fathers that was in the hands of the enemy and conquered by them unlawfully. And as for us, when we had the chance, we returned to ourselves the inheritance of our Fathers.”

Gaza Jewish Community Flourished

After the great Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire in 67 CE and in 132 CE that ended Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, Gaza again played a role in Jewish history. For example, King Titus passed through Gaza on his march toward to Jerusalem, and again on his return. Gaza also served as the main marketplace for Jewish slaves into the Roman Empire.

In the fourth century, the Jews returned and the Jewish community flourished. Gaza was the main port for Jewish commerce in the Holy Land. It also served as a center of Talmudic and Kabbalistic (Jewish mysticism) studies. By the time the Arabs arrived in the seventh century CE, Jews had been in Gaza for over 2000 years. In 1929, when the area was under British control, British forces evacuated the entire Jewish community of Gaza for fear of a massive pogrom after the Jews of Hebron were massacred by the local Arab population.

Christian Cathedral Became Great Mosque of Gaza

The arrival of the Muslim Arabs brought drastic changes to Gaza. Its churches were transformed into mosques, including the Cathedral of John the Baptist, which became the Great Mosque of Gaza. The population adopted Islam as their religion, and Arabic became the official language. The Christian population was reduced to an insignificant minority, and the Samaritan residents deposited their property with their high priest and fled the city eastwards upon the Muslim conquest

Gaza was briefly occupied by the French Army under Napoleon, who in 1799 referred to it as “the outpost of Africa, the door to Asia.” American scholar Edward Robinson visited Gaza in 1838, describing it as a “thickly populated” town larger than Jerusalem, with its Old City lying upon a hilltop, while its suburbs laid on the nearby plain. He said that its soil was rich and supported groves of “delicious and abundant” apricots and mulberries. Robinson noted that virtually all of Gaza’s vestiges of ancient history and antiquity had disappeared due to the constant conflict and occupation.

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin