The connection of the Jewish people to the land called "Palestine" by the Romans is one of the oldest religio-political claims in the world. Jews (and many Christians as well) will point to God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:17 and Deuteronomy 1:7 and 11:24 as proof of the sacred "birthright" of Jews to what they call the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). Jewish presence in Palestine has been constant (if very small in number), even after the final Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt in 135 C.E. Throughout premodern times, pious Jews lived in Palestine, concentrated in the four "holy cities" of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safad, and Tiberias. They were supported by funds, called halukkah, collected by special emissaries sent from Palestine to Jewish diaspora communities.
The history of modern Israel, however, begins in the nineteenth century with the articulation in Europe of a program for Jewish national and cultural revival, called Zionism ("Zion" being one of the biblical names for Jerusalem). Zionism was a reaction to virulent and increasingly violent European anti-Semitism (which culminated in the terrible Holocaust of 1933-1945), but it was also a response to the nationalist movements of other, especially eastern and southern, European peoples throughout the nineteenth century. Zionism stressed the physical relocation of Jews to Palestine (in Hebrew, Aliya), and in 1882 the first wave of these "modern" immigrants—politically and ideologically, rather than religiously, motivated—arrived. This first wave effectively doubled the Jewish population of Palestine (from about 24,000 in 1881). Immigration continued to come in waves, mostly from eastern and central Europe, until the eve of World War II. Immigration was greatly curtailed by the war and, later, by restrictive British policies (Palestine had been a British Mandate since 1919), which sought to assuage Arab fears, which were based on the fact that, by early 1948, the Jews had succeeded in establishing a society in Palestine (called the Yishuv) that was in many ways autonomous and independent of both Arab society and British colonial constraints and that had many of the institutions of a state already in place. On the day Israel declared its independence, there were about 650,000 Jews in the country. Virtually the first act of the new government was to open its borders to unrestricted Jewish immigration. There was a massive influx between 1948 and 1960 from Middle Eastern and North African countries—almost the entire Jewish populations of Yemen, Aden, Libya, and Iraq, and large numbers from Egypt, Syria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Today these so-called "Oriental" (Afro-Asian) Jews and their children constitute the majority of the Jewish Israeli population, outnumbering Jews of European and North American origin. Nevertheless, it was not until 1975 that native-born Jewish Israelis (called "sabras") outnumbered immigrants of any kind.