"If I am not for myself, who will be for me"? — Rabbi Hillel
Can we learn from history? Is the past a succession of meaningless, unrelated events? Does the rise and fall of nations in the past have
anything to do with today’s world? Are people that much different than they were then? Do they strive after different things, have different desires?
These questions came to mind recently as the similarities between Israel’s geopolitical situation increasingly resembled that of the Jews during the first Roman War. (Some would argue that it more closely resembles 20th-century Czechoslovakia, but that’s another article.)
Huge armies were assembled in ancient Judea. Pitched battles were fought throughout. Great plunder and destruction followed, and Jerusalem was destroyed, its people brutally murdered or sold into slavery. The dispersion of the Jews among their enemies began.
There were those who counseled moderation in those days: These were collaborators, wealthy men and nobles who benefited from the Roman occupation and wanted it to continue. They preferred expansion and trade to a foolish rebellion that could only end in disaster.
The war began in spite of their efforts. Menahem the Galilean conquered the Roman fortress at Masada and then entered Jerusalem in triumph.
Other nationalist movements began to stir throughout the Roman Empire, and Jews in the Diaspora were also moved to send material aid.
But the resources of these Jewish rebels were infinitely smaller than their oppressors, and they were tragically disunited. Their greatest energies were used in fighting one another, further weakening them against the powerful Roman army that had conquered Galilee and stood poised to attack Jerusalem.
The city was now the center of the rebellion, with Jews from all over the country rallying there. Zealots, an extremist organization adamantly opposed to Roman rule and the high priesthood, occupied the Temple precinct and forced the priests to withdraw into the sanctuary.
Things were made more confused by the arrival of many Idumaeans in the city. These men were great fighters, but they were not accepted as Jews, because they were converts. The three principal factions — Zealots, Idumaeans and the elitist collaborationists — now used their time to terrorize one another, creating the contagion of civil war.
Vespasian, the Roman general, twice prepared to attack Jerusalem but hesitated when the Emperor Nero died suddenly. Besides, it was evident by then that the Jews were destroying themselves by their extraordinary disunity. And indeed, the three basic factions in the capital were reduced to two by their fierce internal struggles that persisted, even though a Roman army was just north of the city and poised to attack.
Significantly, the remaining Jewish forces in Jerusalem had a misplaced confidence in their military capabilities. Partly, this was due to religious beliefs; partly it was because of Vespasian’s failure to attack the holy city for three years, even though its gates had been wide open and defenseless. As a result, when the long siege of Jerusalem began, there was no real hope for the defenders.
Ancient Judea lost its bid for freedom when it divided itself into factions and fought one another, instead of the common enemy. Its forces were caught up in their visions of the world, its fighters too certain the real enemy was within.
The result was the fall of the city, followed by a massacre and burning of the Temple and the city. The numbers of Jews killed or taken prisoner was astounding. Thirty-thousand prisoners of war were sold at auction, while many others perished in gladiatorial games.
Writing of those times, Josephus spoke thus: "…. Weary of slaughter, Titus issued orders to kill only those who were found in arms and offered resistance … troops slew the old and feeble, while those in the prime of life and serviceable they drove together into the Temple and shut them up in the court of the women."
Israel today stands imperiled much as she did in Roman times, surrounded by enemies that again threaten her existence. Jews everywhere have formed themselves into factions, unable to see any good in the policies of their political opponents.
There is little uproar over the left’s blindness, no outcry about the right’s dreams of a greater Israel. None of these factions sees anything good about the other, and some would rather demonize or talk down the elected government of Israel than present a united front against the nation’s enemies.
Should we be concerned that history is tragically repeating itself today? Should these happenings frighten those who value liberty and the survival of the Jewish state most?
That is the most important question for Jews to think about in these perilous times.
Stanley William Rothstein is professor emeritus at California State University, Fullerton.