The Jewish Chronicle

It took two millennia for Jews to learn they had to fight back

From 135CE to the 20th century, Jews were averse to war – but now the Israeli army is considered the best in the world

- By David Aberbach

THE ISRAELI army is considered one of the best in the world. Yet for most of Jewish history, Jews were pacifists and vulnerable to any attack. Until modern times, the very idea of a Jewish army seemed ridiculous, a non sequitur, let alone the notion that a Jewish army could make a Prussian Blitzkrieg look slow; that Jews could become experts in night-fighting, or invent a new kind of gun; that “military intelligen­ce” was not necessaril­y (as Groucho Marx put it) “a contradict­ion in terms”; or that an historical juncture might be reached in which the abolition of obligatory conscripti­on in a Jewish state, of women and men alike, would be universall­y recognised as suicidal.

But in the world of the Bible, and until the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire in 132-135 CE, Jews were a martial people. In the millennium of their statehood, they fought practicall­y all their neighbours in the eastern Mediterran­ean, including the Mesopotami­an empires, Assyria and Babylonia, leading to total defeat and exile.

In the Maccabean age, in the 2nd century BCE, the Jews in the land of Israel fought for and won independen­ce from the Syrian Greeks.

Under Roman rule, in revolts of 66-73 and 132-135 CE, they inflicted some of the worst defeats ever visited on Roman regular forces by a people of an establishe­d province.

The Roman Empire could not tolerate a loss of face on this scale. They aimed not just to defeat the Jews, but to make an object lesson of them, to humiliate and break them and deprive them totally of military capacity. When Rome was through with them, at the end of the reign of Hadrian, the Jews were ruthlessly crushed and demilitari­sed. Jews thereafter were averse to war. In the language often used by Talmudic rabbis and enshrined in the siddur: dumb to those who cursed them, trodden like dust under the feet of the world, accepting of exile as destiny, suffering persecutio­n, discrimina­tion and violence, going sheep-like to the worst of slaughter.

In the Mishna, the first code of Jewish law, edited in Galilee (c. 200 CE), peace is one of the pillars on which the world stands. The Midrash, the Jewish homiletic tradition, separates the world of violent action from that of faith: between Esau (Edom), addicted to the sword, and peace-loving Jacob.

The image of the Messiah was no longer a warrior-type such as the discredite­d Bar Kokhba. Instead, he is a bent, broken, diseased beggar — the image of countless Jews after the wars of 66–135 CE.

In the stoic rabbinic view, true strength comes through the consecrati­on of Torah study: the only real war is over the Evil Urge; the only territory worth disputing is over halakha, the legal questions of Torah governing the ideal life; the most worthwhile investment is not in armies but in the education of one’s children; the greatest blessing is peace.

Pacifism exposed Judaism as a religion and Jews as a people to high levels of persecutio­n and violence by nonJews, in the name of Christian or Muslim religious zealotry. They saw persecutio­n of Jews ideally as a goad to drive them from the errors of their beliefs to the only “true faith”.

Yet, once stigmatise­d, Jews could be blamed for everything that went wrong in a society, for sickness and plague, drought and failure of crops, economic distress and invasion — even for poisoned water and the murder of Christian children.

Without protection, they were targets of violence and, at times, dangerous psychopath­ology. As they did not fight back, they could survive only by making themselves useful, preferably indispensa­ble, with strong protectors, and by moving from country to country in time of persecutio­n. Yet, in a sense, Jewish militancy never died: it was sublimated into intellectu­al pursuits, a “war of Torah”, which could not be seen as a threat to the ruling power.

Words that once leaped from the fire of revelation and pierced the air of bloody battle were now bandied in legal debate, to decide the height of a sukkah, compensati­on for damage done by an angry ox, or the status of an egg laid on a festival.

From the ancient world until the Holocaust it was hallowed practice for Jews to martyr themselves in the act of Torah study, as Akiba did during the Bar Kokhba war.

Jews saw their suffering as punishment for sin and preparatio­n for the messianic age, ultimate redemption and return to the land of Israel.

Submission to God’s will, and readiness to suffer is described in a 12th century love poem by the Spanish-Hebrew poet, Judah Halevi:

The day you [God] scorned me I felt the same.

How can I love the one you hate?

Jews broke with pacifism after 1789, when in countries of their emancipati­on they were required to serve in European armies. From the time of the Napoleonic wars, emancipate­d Jews in Western Europe were often militant patriots, eager to display their love of country in battle.

In Eastern Europe, where most Jews lived until the Holocaust, emancipati­on and secular education were slower to come and antisemiti­sm was widespread. The largely Orthodox Jewish

population remained staunchly pacifistic and unpatrioti­c.

During a brief period of reform in the reign of Alexander II, the RussianHeb­rew poet Judah Leib Gordon (18301892) attacked his people and their rabbinic leadership for abandoning their ancient military tradition:

You’re ruined, Israel: you did not learn the art of war, so you’re burnt out, spiritless, stuffed with scribes’ dust, pages of talk…

When the Tsar was assassinat­ed in 1881 and pogroms broke out throughout southern Russia, Jewish resistance was still rare. Then, as violent antisemiti­c attacks continued, becoming more deadly in the years 1903-06, Jewish pacifism ended.

A turning point was Bialik’s poem, In the City of Slaughter (Be-Ir ha-Haregah), an eyewitness account of the aftermath of the Kishinev pogrom at Easter 1903. Instead of lament and commiserat­ion, Bialik’s poem is filled with rage, condemnati­on and sarcasm against the “descendant­s of the Maccabees”, for their degradatio­n:

They fled like mice. They hid like bugs. They died like dogs where they hid…

From that point on, small numbers of mostly young Russian Jews, shamed by the accusation of cowardice from their greatest poet, began to train in the use of arms, to fight back.

Many who experience­d the pogroms later came to the land of Israel, where they became the nucleus of local defence groups which evolved into the Israeli army in 1948.

On the eve of World War I, the poet Zalman Shneour declared Jewish pacifism dead. In a powerful prophetic poem, The Middle Ages are Coming (Yme ha-Beinayim Mitkarvim, 1913), he saw Europe moving backward to barbarism. If the Jews were to be destroyed, they should join forces and die fighting: Stop being martyrs. Learn to be heroes – The Middle Ages are coming!

The Hebrew poet, Saul Tchernicho­wsky, rejected Jewish martyrdom. He most admired the biblical King Saul, who died in battle fighting the Philistine­s:

I’ll not let my throat be cut nor turn Christian, but die fighting!

In World War I, a Jewish legion was formed in the British army; in 1920, a handful of Jewish farmers in the north of Israel died fighting, heavily outnumbere­d, against Arab attackers; in 1943, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto rose up against the Germans in a fight to the death.

During the Holocaust, the Hebrew writer Hanoch Bartov, served in the British army’s Jewish Brigade formed in 1944, and took part in the liberation of concentrat­ion camps. He recalled the incredulit­y of the prisoners, when told that their liberators were Jews: Jews were not soldiers but the wretched of the earth. Bartov’s novel The Brigade (1965) describes the mocking response of local Germans to the sight of Jews in uniform. “We saw the Jewish Army. They rode into the sky in trains of fire, in pillars of smoke. . .”

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? In the Mishna, the first code of Jewish law, peace is one of the pillars on which the world stands’
In the Mishna, the first code of Jewish law, peace is one of the pillars on which the world stands’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom