Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Jacob De Haas’s Monumental History of the Land of Zion

July 1, 1934
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Palestine: The Last Two Thousand Years. By Jacob de Haas. The Macmillan Co, $3.50.

He who sets himself to write the history of Palestine undertakes in effect a miniature history of Western civilization. For the story of the Holy Land is not the tale of one people or culture. In its telling are involved, in varying degrees, the records of all the nations of the Occident. Its historian then must be a cosmopolitan, familiar with the tongues and ways of all these impigning peoples, if he is to describe the land itself.

Nor does this extraordinary circumstance exhaust the difficulties which confront the would-be chronicler. He must reckon with the fact that the earliest history of Palestine is lost in the confusion of myth—a confusion further confounded by archaeological findings. He must grapple with recurrent “Dark Ages” in which the materials from which history is written are fragmentary or lacking altogether and must survey a vast secondary literature. In the light of all these considerations, it is easy to understand why no adequate general history of Palestine existed until Mr. de Haas published his work.


Mr. de Haas is to be congratulated on his achievement. He has done successfully what no one has dared attempt before him. Equipped for scholarship, he has devoted thirty years of painstaking research to the study of a huge and bewilderingly variegated literature. The result is a monumental, authoritative history of Palestine from 63 B.C.E., when Pompey subjected the Jews to Roman domination, to the issuance of the Churchill White Paper in 1922. The choice of the points of departure and conclusion are a bit arbitrary. In his preface Mr. de Haas explains his reluctance to treat with either Biblical or immediately contemporary events. He wisely argues the difficulties which are implicit in both these extreme limits. It is regrettable, however, that in the interests of completeness Mr. de Haas did not open his narrative three centuries earlier with Alexander the Great.

The major emphasis of the book is on political movements but, wherever information is available, accounts of economic and social developments are included. The text is carefully documented throughout and is supported by references to a diversified bibliography. This book should prove to be the definite history of Palestine. It should take its place alongside of those authoritative texts which serve as standard books of reference.


Mr. de Haas, however, is no pedant and his work is no dull table of facts. He approaches his subject with all the intensity of a life-long “lover of Zion.” He is acutely aware of the romance implicit in his material. He speaks of “the glamorous thread which easily obscures the duller reality.” He closes his text with the assertion: “The lure of Palestine has not waned, it waxeth.”

In consequence, the book is aglow with life, lucid and graceful in style and animated by a sense of drama and poetry. It intrigues as much as it instructs—and it is richly informative. The accounts of the Roman Era, of the Crusaders and the Latin Kingdom, and of the international polities centering about Palestine during the World War make fascinating reading. Even his best informed readers have much to learn from Mr. de Haas, especially when he treats of obscure and neglected periods such as the Ommayad and Abbaside Caliphates and that long stretch of confusion from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In brief, Mr. de Haas has compiled an encyclopedia of rare and unfamiliar information, which is also a saga.


This is not to say that “Palestine: The Last Two Thousand Years” does not suffer from limitations. For all its careful scholarship, it is sometimes inaccurate in details. The following are typical instances of the trivial inaccuracies which occur from time to time. They are unimportant save that they are disturbing in a book so obviously destined to be a standard reference. For example the Latin phrase quoted from Dio Cassius on page 57 is obviously incorrect; the decision reached by the rabbinic synod at Lydda (page 60) is misquoted. It is inexact to say, as does Mr. de Haas (Page 62), that Justin {SPAN}M###yr{/SPAN} was executed for heresy. {SPAN}###atin{/SPAN} syntax allows for a {SPAN}relig###{/SPAN}{SPAN}###icita{/SPAN} but not a religio licite, and no account of Eusebius, however brief, can afford to omit reference to his Praeparatio Evengelica. The final severance of the Easter from the Passover by the Christian Church took place not in 193, as Mr. de Haas asserts, but at the Council of Nicea in 325.

Other limitations might be mentioned: Mr. de Haas’ failure to exploit fully the wealth of material found in Talmudic literature; the fact that he sometimes so crowds his text with facts that the reader’s interest, so well sustained generally, is relaxed; and the glaring omission of any trace of a map. Compared, however, to the vastness of the achievement, these failings are insignificant. ######gean stable of history can be pardoned for stray straws which have escaped his broom.


It should be observed finally that Mr. de Haas has performed a distinct service not alone to the general cause of scholarship but also to Jewry in particular. Between a people and its land an organic relationship exists. The land determines in great measure the character of the economy and polity of its inhabitants, thus molding their culture. It is, in brief, a determinant in the career of a nation. The sin of geographic determinists like Buckle and Ellsworth Huntington is not one of falsehood but of over-simplification and over-emphasis.

In the case of the Jew, the land played a typical role. It molded the early life of Israel and its culture. During the Galus, it continued its influence both as an object of the imagination and as a physical reality. In writing “Palestine: The Last Two Thousand Years” Mr. de Haas has done more than write a fascinating and objective book. He has also helped define and clarify a factor which has molded the Jew in the past and gives promise of remaking his life in the future.

Recommended from JTA