The State of Israel traces its ancestry to the settlement of the Hebrews in Canaan under Abraham (b.Babylonia, fl.18th cent. BC ), the return of the Israelite tribes to Canaan under Moses (b. Egypt, fl.13th cent. BC ) and Joshua (b.Egypt, fl.13th cent. BC ), and the ancient kingdom of Israel, which was united by David (r.1000?–960? BC ) and became a major Near Eastern power under Solomon (r.960?–922 BC ). A prophetic tradition that includes such commanding figures as Isaiah (fl.8th cent. BC ), Jeremiah (650?–585? BC ), and Ezekiel (fl.6th cent. BC ) spans the period of conquest by Assyria and Babylonia; the scribe Ezra (b.Babylonia, fl.5th cent. BC ) and the governor Nehemiah (b.Babylonia, fl.5th cent. BC ) spurred the reconstruction of the Judean state under Persian hegemony. Judas (Judah) Maccabaeus ("the Hammerer"; fl.165–160 BC ) was the most prominent member of a family who instituted a period of political and religious independence from Greek rule. During the period of Roman rule, important roles in Jewish life and learning were played by the sages Hillel (b. Babylonia, fl.30 BC – AD 9), Johannan ben Zakkai (fl.1st cent.), Akiba ben Joseph (50?–135?), and Judah ha-Nasi (135?–220), the compiler of the Mishnah, a Jewish law code; by the military commander and historian Flavius Josephus (Joseph ben Mattathias, AD 37–100?); and Simon Bar-Kokhba (bar Kosiba, d.135), leader of an unsuccessful revolt against Roman rule. Unquestionably, the most famous Jew born in Roman Judea was Jesus (Jeshua) of Nazareth (4? BC – AD 29?), the Christ, or Messiah ("anointed one"), of Christian belief. Peter (Simon, d. AD 67?) was the first leader of the Christian Church and, in Roman Catholic tradition, the first pope. Paul (Saul, b.Asia Minor, d. AD 67?) was principally responsible for spreading Christianity and making it a religion distinct from Judaism.
The emergence of Israel as a modern Jewish state is attributed in large part to Chaim Weizmann (b. Russia, 1874–1952), the leader of the Zionist movement for 25 years, as well as a distinguished chemist who discovered methods for synthesizing acetone and rubber. Theodor Herzl (b. Budapest, 1860–1904), the founder of political Zionism, is buried in Jerusalem. Achad Ha'am (Asher Hirsch Ginsberg; b. Russia, 1856–1927) was an influential Zionist and social critic. Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940) was a dedicated advocate of Jewish self-defense, both in his native Russia and in Palestine. David Ben-Gurion (Gruen; b. Poland, 1886–1973), also a leading Zionist and an eloquent spokesman on labor and national affairs, served as Israel's first prime minister. Golda Meir (Meyerson; b. Russia, 1898–1978), like Ben-Gurion a former secretary-general of Histadrut, became well known as Israel's prime minister from 1970 to 1974. Other prominent contemporary figures include Pinhas Sapir (b. Poland, 1907–75), labor leader and minister of finance; Abba Eban (Aubrey Eban; b. South Africa, 1915–2002), former foreign affairs minister and representative to the UN; and Moshe Dayan (1915–81), military leader and cabinet minister. Menachem Begin (b. Russia, 1913–92), the former leader of guerrilla operations against the British, was prime minister from 1977 to 1983 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. He was succeeded by Yitzhak Shamir (b. Poland, 1915) in 1983, who gave way to Shimon Peres (b. Poland, 1923) in 1984. Shamir succeeded Peres in 1986. Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995) was instrumental in the peace accords with the PLO signed in 1993 in Washington.
Israel's foremost philosopher was Martin Buber (b. Vienna, 1878–1965), author of I and Thou. Outstanding scholars include the literary historian Joseph Klausner (1874–1958); the Bible researcher Yehezkel (Ezekiel) Kaufmann (b. Ukraine, 1889–1963); the philologists Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (b. Lithuania, 1858–1922) and Naphtali Hertz Tur-Sinai (Torczyner; b. Poland, 1886–1973); the archaeologist Eliezer Sukenik (1889–1953); and the Kabbalah authority Gershom Gerhard Scholem (b. Germany, 1897–1982).
The foremost poets are Haim Nahman Bialik (b. Russia, 1873–1934), Saul Tchernichowsky (b. Russia, 1875–1943), Uri Zvi Greenberg (b. Galicia, 1896–1981), Avraham Shlonsky (b. Russia, 1900–1973), Nathan Alterman (b. Warsaw, 1910–70), Yehuda Amichai (b. Germany, 1924), and Natan Zach (b. Berlin, 1930); and the leading novelists are Shmuel Yosef Halevi Agnon (b. Galicia, 1888–1970), a Nobel Prize winner in 1966, and Hayim Hazaz (b. Russia, 1898–1973). Painters of note include Reuven Rubin (b. Romania, 1893–1975) and Mane Katz (b. Russia, 1894–1962). Paul Ben-Haim (Frankenburger; b. Munich, 1897–1984) and Ödön Partos (b. Budapest, 1907–77) are well-known composers. Famous musicians include Daniel Barenboim (b. Argentina, 1942), Itzhak Perlman (b. 1945), and Pinchas Zukerman (b. 1948).
Significant contributions in other fields have been made by mathematician Abraham Halevi Fraenkel (b. Munich, 1891–1965); botanist Hugo Boyko (b. Vienna, 1892–1970); zoologist Shimon (Fritz) Bodenheimer (b. Cologne, 1897–1959); parasitologist Saul Aaron Adler (b. Russia, 1895–1966); physicist Giulio Raccah (b. Florence, 1909–65); rheologist Markus Reiner (b. Czernowitz, 1886–1976); gynecologist Bernard Zondek (b. Germany, 1891–1966); and psychoanalyst Heinrich Winnik (b. Austria-Hungary, 1902–82).