With everything that’s going on, it’s easy to forget that Gaza has a long Jewish history. It’s an odd history, however. The fact is that Gaza has never sat right with the Jewish people. Isaac, one of the three Biblical forefathers, was born somewhere between Beer Sheba and Gaza, precisely in the area that is suffering the most rocket attacks from Hamas. Both Abraham and his son Isaac had problems with the local rulers. (Genesis 20:1-3,11-12, 26:1,7)
Biblically, the area was allotted to the tribe of Judah, but the Jews never quite secured it. It’s always been an area of conflict, an arena for confrontation between Jews and hostile neighbors.
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 whole area.
Even if you think you’ve never heard of the Philistines, you have. The most infamous Philistines are the warrior Goliath, who was famously defeated by King David as a youth and Delilah, the biblical hottie that seduced the Israelite strongman Samson and brought about his downfall.
The Philistines exited from history in 722 BCE, when they were taken into captivity by the Assyrians.
After the Philistines disappeared, the area came under the control of various empires, e.g. the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. The only common denominator was the Jews. For example, in 145 BCE Gaza came under Maccabean control (you remember the Maccabees, their victories are still celebrated during Hanukkah). This is what the Book of Maccabees (1:15) has to say about Gaza:
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.
It might seem strange today to call Gaza the “inheritance of our [Jewish] fathers”, but there it is.
After the great Jewish revolts against the Roman empire in 67 CE and again in 132 CE, with the destruction of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, Gaza again played a strange role in Jewish history: it served as the main marketplace for Jewish slaves into the Roman empire. Nonetheless, the Jews returned, and by the 4th century, the Jewish community flourished. Gaza was the main port for Jewish commerce in the Holy Land. More than this, over the next few centuries, Gaza served as a center of Talmudic and Kabbalistic (Jewish mysticism) studies. But even here, things went off track. In 1665 the Kabbalist Nathan of Gaza became a key “prophet” of the false messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi. Tzvi created a messianic stir in the Jewish world until he was forcibly converted to Islam. This sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish diaspora, which took decades to recover from “the messiah’s” apostasy.
By the time the Arabs arrived in the 7th century CE/AD, Jews had been in Gaza for over 2000 years. In 1929, when the area was under British control, after the Jews of Hebron were massacred by the local Arab population, British forces evacuated the entire Jewish community of Gaza for fear of a massive pogrom.
Archaeologically speaking, several important finds have been uncovered. First, a 6th century synagogue. More dramatically, in 1965 Egyptian archaeologists discovered a mosaic image of King David playing a harp. This mosaic had once graced this 6th century synagogue. What happened to the archaeology? When it came to King David, locals promptly gouged out his face for fear that it demonstrates a connection between Jews and Gaza. When the Israel Defense Forces conquered the area during the 1967 war, Israeli archaeologists removed what was left of the mosaic and, using a photograph, restored the face. It is now on permanent display at the Israel Museum.
The Great Mosque of Gaza was originally a Crusader church. But one of the upper columns in this magnificent structure originated in an ancient synagogue: Near the top of the column a menorah was engraved. The menorah was encircled by a wreath. On the right of it was a shofar, the ram’s horn sounded on Rosh Hashanah, and on its left was a lulav, a palm branch used during the fall festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles). The inscription below, in Hebrew and Greek, reads “Hananiah, Son of Jacob”. He probably sculpted this engraving, or it was dedicated to him.