Judea and Israel

Judea Until 70 CE

The Varsano Family is Jewish and has its origins in the Land of Israel. “Ancient Israelites originated roughly in the territory of modern Israel, also known as the ancient Levant or ancient Canaan, sometime before 1000 BCE. These people were united by a sense of shared ancestry, myth, ritual and history. Ancient Israelites believed that they were descendants of three people: Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Jacob himself is renamed “Israel” in the Bible, which suggests that Israelites had a shared memory of a name change as part of their history,” according to Mika Ahuvia, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Comparative Religion at the University of Washington.

The story of Exodus that is recited during the Passover Seder every year is a drought in Canaan forced the Israelites to seek greener pastures in Egypt, but the Pharoh eventually  enslaved the Israelites. God imposed the plagues on the Egyptians and they were freed from slavery. Moses led a harrowing journey through the desert but ultimately made it to the “Promised Land” of Israel. The Israelites remained in this land for many years where they enjoyed a so called “Golden Age.”

King David and King Solomon ruled from 1010 – 931 BCE. During this period, the city of Jerusalem was founded and King Solomon constructed the first great Temple in 957 BCE. Ancient Israelite society was divided between 12 tribes, but it is unknown which tribe the predecessors to the Varsano family belonged to. In 722 BCE, the 10 tribes of northern Israel were conquered by the ancient Assyrian Empire, and only the tribes of the south, in the tiny kingdom of Judea, remained as their own self-ruling political units.

In the sixth century BCE,  the Empire of Babylonia conquered the tiny kingdom of Judea. Professor Ahuvia explains “This conquest could have ended Jewish history, because when the Babylonians conquered ancient peoples, they not only destroyed buildings and plundered wealth, but they exiled the people who were most responsible for creating and maintaining the local culture. So, in 586 and 587 BCE, some (mostly elite) Jews were exiled to Babylonia. Some Jews also fled to Egypt. This time could be considered the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, a term that comes from the word “dispersion,” meaning the spreading out of Jews across the Middle East, and eventually, the world.”

After a mere 70 years of rule, in 539 BCE, the Babylonians were conquered by the Persian Empire. The Persians had a much more permissive policy regarding conquered peoples, they believed that the best way to ensure peace was to restore people to their homelands and help them to live according to their ancestral laws, even giving them money to rebuild their temples. The Persian Emperor Cyrus allowed Israelites to return to the province of Judea. From then on, we find the Israelites called Judeans , and subsequently Jews. During Cyrus the King of Kings era, the Torah was written down for the first time, which was previously passed down orally.

In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered most of the civilized world including the entire Middle East.  According to Professor Ahuvia “..the spread of the Hellenic (Greek) Empire throughout the region of the Middle East, accelerated Jewish habitation in other locales. Jews ended up joining Alexander the Great’s armies, serving in the armies, and traveling with him to other parts of the world…Many Jews ended up traveling as mercenaries in Alexander’s army and relocating to Alexandria in Egypt.

By the first century CE, Jews seem to have hybrid identities as Jewish and Alexandrian, Jewish and Roman, Jewish and Asian, Jewish and Syrian, Jewish and Macedonian. In 30 BCE Rome conquered Eqypt and treated its new territories much less inclusively then the Greek’s did.  According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the total population of Roman Egypt was 8 million, with 6.5 million native Egyptians, 1.5 million Greek immigrants and 300,000 Jews, over half of whom lived in the city of Alexandria. Professor Avuvia states that “When the Romans conquered ancient Egypt, they restructured society. At first, the Romans wanted to deprive all the Greek immigrants of the special privileges they had had before — privileges like special access to education, the ability to participate in politics and athletic competitions, and exemptions from certain taxes. The Greeks protested, because they didn’t want to lose these special privileges. The compromise that the Romans created was that the Greeks could maintain some of these privileges, and some Jews could too, if they lived in the city of Alexandria itself. But anyone who lived in rural territory was reclassified as a foreigner and lost all of their special privileges. The Alexandrian Greeks reacted by asserting that this wasn’t fair, that actually all Jews should be classified as foreigners. At the time of the Roman conquest, there was a marked increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric.”

Throughout the first century CE, there were spontaneous attacks, mobs, and riots in the Jewish Quarter of Alexandria in Egypt. In 66 CE, a report from the Jewish historian Josephus states that 50,000 Jews were slaughtered by Greeks. But in 115 CE, matters got much worse.

Professor Avuvia continues” Only the writings of the victors were preserved, and of course they blame the Jews for rebelling, but it’s also possible that Jews of the city were attacked without any justification. From the evidence, it seems like the entire Jewish population of Egypt, both within Alexandria and in the countryside, was annihilated. Surviving tax records from ancient Egypt show that the Roman Treasury confiscated Jewish property and land. And for at least a century after this genocide, Egyptians actually celebrated a day of victory against the Jews. Anti-Jewish rhetoric was very powerful, and even after the Jews were eliminated from Egypt, later Greek and Roman writers continued to invoke suspicion of Jews. There were political, economic and cultural, religious aspects to the anti-Judaism of this time.”

In 66 CE, the Jews of Judea rose in revolt against Rome, which started the First Jewish–Roman War. The Jews seized control of Judea and named their new kingdom “Israel”  The events were described by the Jewish historian Josephus, including the desperate defense of Jotapata, the siege of Jerusalem (69–70 CE), the  last stand at Gamla, where 9,000 died, and Masada (72–73 CE).

The revolt was crushed by the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus. The Romans destroyed much of the Temple in Jerusalem and took as punitive tribute the Menorah and other Temple artefacts back to Rome. Josephus writes that 1,100,000 Jews perished during the revolt, while a further 97,000 were taken captive. The Fiscus Judaicus was instituted by the Empire as part of reparations.

It was during this period that the split of early Christianity and Judaism occurred. The Pharisee movement, led by Yochanan ben Zakai, made peace with Rome and survived. Judeans continued to live in their land in significant numbers, and were allowed to practice their religion. An estimated 2/3 of the population in the Galilee and 1/3 of the coastal region were Jewish.

Many Jews left Judea and went to Rome. The predecessors of the Varsano Family may have relocated to Rome or stayed in Israel, there are no records to confirm their whereabouts during this time period. Their presence in Rome or somewhere on the Italian Peninsula is definitely possible since the origin of the family name is believed to be from the Vars region of Provence. Provence is a short journey by land from the northern Italian Peninsula and a short journey by boat from the southern region. Continue to Italy (Roman Empire).


Israel 20th Century to Present

There was a continuous Jewish presence in Israel, in very limited numbers, from biblical times until the 20th Century. During the Zionist Movement of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, many Jews immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, or the Land of Israel. A few members of the Varsano Family arrived back at their ancestral homeland prior to 1948, but most of the greater Varsano Family made Aliya after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.


The problems of Palestine intensified when the UN voted to partition the country with a small portion for the Israeli Jews and the remainder for the Palestinian Arabs. After the Partition Plan became official, Britain offered little help to make a smooth transition for the UN commission.  The British mostly despised the Israelis because Jewish “terrorist” groups had been harassing them for years. The Irgun Zvi Leumi, (National Military Organization) attacked British police stations, offices, and headquarters. They seized weapons and replenished their arsenals. The Irgun and later the Stern Gang—led by Avraham Stern—employed paramilitary tactics against the Arabs, which provided relief for the settlers, but also hampered the political creditability of the Jewish Agency. The British responded by making mass arrests and many Irgun fighters were driven into hiding. The Hagannah kidnapped several of the Irgun’s members and handed them over to the British.

After the tragedy of the Holocaust, Jewish unity was strengthened as the Irgun, the Hagannah, and the Stern Group combined to fight the British who were unwilling to combat Arab terrorism against Jews—which is a support that Israelis still lack today. The Irgun in a sensational attack blew up the wing of the King David hotel in Jerusalem which housed the British Palestine Command. Warnings went unheeded and ninety-one lives were lost. The British carried out mass arrests and the fighting intensified with the British authorities resorting to public floggings, deportations, arrests and hangings. When the British hung three Irgun members, the Irgun captured three British soldiers and hung them in retaliation.

Despite the bloodshed, the British authorities were trying to posture themselves as neutral. However, they did not want to appear publicly sympathetic to the Jews in any way and thus anger the Arab nations.  The British believed that the Arabs would be victorious in a military confrontation with the Jews because of a superior number of soldiers.  If the Arabs did win, the British believed that the former colonial power would still play an important role in Palestine.  To achieve this goal, the British aided the Arab militaries and restricted the Jews in every legal way possible with intentional bureaucratic delays and totally ignoring the necessities of the new settlers. When news of the British treatment of the Jewish immigrants spread to Bulgaria, my father began to develop a certain level of resentment towards the British, even though they weren’t officially enemies.


Arab nations responded to the Partition Plan by persecuting Jewish citizens within their own borders and voting for a military intervention with an Arab Liberation Army.  On May 14, 1948, the nation of Israel declared its independence and was invaded by Egypt, Transjordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.  A cycle of violence began in Palestine that still exists today.  The country became divided into war fronts and battle zones. While the battles raged, my family was trying to liquidate what little possessions they still had in Bulgaria in order to afford the uncertain Aliyah to the troubled land of Israel.

During the British mandate, the various Jewish military factions were independently operated with often conflicting agendas. The Irgun were determined to use military force to clear the Arabs and the British out of Israel while the Jewish Agency tried to appeal to the world’s political forces to be sympathetic towards the Zionist cause. For the War of Independence to be successful, it was crucial that the separate military factions unify into a cohesive and powerful unit.  Two weeks after independence was declared, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), or Zvah Haganah Le Yisrael (Zahal) in Hebrew, was formed by Ben Gurion.  The Jewish opposition group Irgun—led  by Menachim Begin who had been follower of Jabotinsky and Revisionist Zionism that stressed the need for a strong military—challenged  Ben Gurion’s proclamation. Although there was a brief confrontation between the two military units, the common cause of establishing a viable Jewish state trumped any other opposing philosophies and the IDF became the only military power representing the Jewish people. Rather than resort to violent resistance, Begin eventually turned his opposition into the political realm with the formation of the Herut Party, or Freedom Movement while most of the Irgun leaders eventually ended up in the Likud party The Jewish Agency and its followers splinter into other groups that ultimately morphed into the Labor Party. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leaders have yet been unable to make the transition from freedom fighter to legitimate political rulers.

The Haganah, the underground military organization of pre-state Israel and the Palmach, an elite Jewish army unit of post WWII Palestine, were replaced by the IDF.  By July of 1948, Israel had set up an Air Force, Navy, and Tank Battalion.  A couple of years later, my father would be conscripted into their recently formed ranks. The newly unified IDF acquired most of the weapons from Czechoslovakia and the US black market. Israel received WWII surplus weapons broken down into pieces and shipped separately disguised as official import products such as textile and agricultural machinery.

After several months of warfare, Israel defeated the invading Arab nations and expanded its borders beyond the UN partition plan.  Israel had lost 6,000 lives representing 1% of the total Jewish population.  The Arabs suffered far more causalities, but they represented a much smaller percentage of the total Arab population.  In February of 1949, Egypt signed an armistice with Israel but refused to recognize it as a nation.  Similar agreements followed with Lebanon in March, Transjordan in April, and Syria in July. Iraqi forces simply withdrew and did not sign any agreement.

. My grandfather, with a strong conviction to establish a secure Jewish homeland, joined the Zionist Liberal Party that would later merge with the Likud Political Party in Israel. As my father and my aunt learned more about the political dynamics in Israel, they considered themselves idealists. They didn’t pledge allegiance to one party or another because their main objective was to survive in a hostile land. The political platforms were untested in a new country, so it was hard to find a basis to form a strong opinion either way. They agreed with the party whose system was effective and ensured them the best quality of life in a secure homeland.

On November 5, 1948, my father, grandfather, grandmother, and aunt, boarded a freight train in Sofia and embarked on the long journey to Israel. After an almost 500 year presence in Bulgaria, the Varsano family left the region in as unorthodox manner as they had arrived there so many years ago. They came as victims of the Spanish Inquisition and departed as survivors of fascism and unwilling subjects of communism. From all of their days on the Iberian Peninsula to their last moment in Sofia, they were always outsiders, the Jewish minority. Finally, they were going to live in a country that would fully accept them as a mainstream member of society, but it would be no easy task.

Although the Bulgarian government allowed Jews to go to Israel, a brewing civil war in Greece and antagonistic Arab neighbors accounted for the circuitous route my family dared to venture. The train was not designed for passenger travel, but it would get them where they needed to go. The train had no facilities and was reminiscent of the cattle trains that transported concentration camp victims. Shortly after the beginning of the journey, my family stopped in Pirot, where just five years earlier Jews under the control of the Bulgarian authorities were sent to the death camps in Poland.

For nine long days, my family suffered through an uncomfortable exodus through almost the entire country of Yugoslavia. Finally, they arrived at the port of Bakar in northwestern Yugoslavia, near Rijeka. Unfortunately, the accommodations would get even worse when they boarded the ship to Israel. An old Greek boat named “Kefalos” would be their home for another nine days. The boat, like the train, was not built to carry passengers. The desperate Jews—anxious to immigrate to Israel—improvised to create makeshift seating. My family sat on wooden stools on the lowest level. The boat was rickety and the seas were choppy, which resulted in rampant sea sickness amongst the travelers. For nine days, they bathed with salt water and drank strictly rationed purified water. They were constantly nauseous from the choppy waters and terribly nervous about what to expect once they landed in the unstable environment of Israel, but they possessed a war hardened resolve that gave them the strength to manage a situation that I would have found unbearable.

On November 23, 1948, the Varsano family arrived in Haifa, Israel where it was cold and raining. With queasy stomachs and a cold wet heads, the Promised Land was not what they had imagined in their Zionist dreams, but their goal had been achieved. Their fantasy was almost always better than their reality because their vivid imagination as hopeful immigrants constructed an image of their destination that was wishful rather plausible. The staff of the Jewish Agency, or Sochnout, that orchestrated the journey with the consent of the Bulgarian authorities, took them to the immigrant’s camp in “Pardess-Hana”, and placed them in a big tent with a few more families. The first night they heard what they thought was a baby crying, but in reality it was jackals around the tent looking for food.

The next day, my grandfather took a trip to Jaffa, where he had relatives that helped him look for a house. Jaffa—a largely Arab inhabited port town—was considered disputed land under the UN Partition Agreement of 1947.  The Arabs had protested that they wanted Jaffa under a Palestine Committee. After the War of Independence started, most of the Arab families fled the town and the ancient port became the new capital for Bulgarian immigrants.  The new bright eyed settlers lived in abandoned Arab dwellings, primitive shacks, and tents.

When the new immigrants arrived in Jaffa, the Israeli authorities told them to inhabit any dwelling they found vacant. Officially, the Tel Aviv Absorption Department and IDF army units were in charge of accounting for the goods confiscated and apartments acquired from the Arab homes. Housing in Jaffa was supposed to be selected by a committee determining the qualifications for residents.

However, the reality was that the massive influx of Israeli Jews caused the displacement of many Arab families. It was an unfortunate byproduct of the political reshuffling that occurred around the globe in the aftermath of WWII. There were millions of people displaced around the globe during the 1940s. Many were Jews and many were Arabs. If a Jewish family could occupy an apartment by having their bed in a room it was considered to be in their possession.  Some Arabs were removed at gun point to accommodate the tens of thousands of new immigrants that settled in Jaffa.  Some Israelis looted abandoned Arab homes and boarded up shops in Jaffa.