The previous article described the Hasmonean Revolt, which erupted after Jews turned to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, King of the Seleucid Empire, and lured him into Judah so as to force the Hellenistic culture and belief system on the Jews. The battle that ensued between the adversaries was the final attempt to maintain the Jewish law of mutual responsibility and covering hatred with love, as opposed to the culture of individualism and reverence of the self, which the Greeks cultivated. The civil war was bitter and bloody, but the Hasmoneans were triumphant, securing a few more years of Jewish rule, which at least attempted to follow the laws that had won them the admiration of Ptolemy II, King of Egypt, a hundred years prior.
This article, the last in the series, will explore the final demise of our forefathers’ effort to maintain a society that lives by the law of mutual responsibility and love of others. It will include unpleasant descriptions, as all manifestations of extreme hatred are unpleasant, but if we are to understand the present, we must also acknowledge our history. Perhaps after reading this series, we will be able to understand what it means to be a Jew, why there is antisemitism, and how we can end this curse once and for all.
The egoism that had plagued the Hellenists did not subside simply because they had lost the war. The Hasmoneans, who were now the masters of Judah, had soon fallen prey to the same power of increasing self-centeredness, and the moral and social decline continued. “In becoming rulers, kings and conquerors,” writes the previously mentioned historian Paul Johnson, “the Hasmoneans suffered the corruptions of power. …Alexander Jannaeus [ruled 103-76 BCE] … turned into a despot and a monster, and among his victims were the pious Jews from whom his family had once drawn its strength. Like any ruler in the Near East at that time, he was influenced by the predominant Greek modes.”
Following Jannaeus’ example, numerous Jews abandoned Judaism and adopted Hellenism. Jannaeus, who was the High Priest, declared himself king and slaughtered thousands of Jews who opposed his introduction of Hellenism. This time, there were no Hasmoneans to save the Jews; Alexander Jannaeus himself was of Hasmonean descent, and no other force rose up against him. “Alexander, in fact,” concludes Johnson, “found himself like his hated predecessors, Jason and Menelaus,” against whom his great grandfather fought.
After Jannaeus’ death, the kingdom of Judah continued to decline and in 63 BCE, the Roman general Pompey the Great conquered Judah. This began the era of Roman rule in Judah, and ended the era of Judah’s independence. Perhaps Johnson’s poignant conclusion best describes the rise and fall of the Hasmoneans’ sovereignty in Judah: “The story of their rise and fall is a memorable study in hubris. They began as the avengers of martyrs; they ended as religious oppressors themselves. They came to power at the head of an eager guerrilla band; they ended surrounded by mercenaries. Their kingdom, founded in faith, dissolved in impiety.”
The Romans, like the Greeks before them, had no interest in forcing their beliefs or culture on the Jews. While they annexed Syria, they “left Judaea as a dependent, diminished temple state,” writes the Encyclopedia Britannica. In fact, the Romans handed the Jews a great arrangement: A mighty empire protected them from enemies while leaving them free to lead their lives as they pleased. They could have lived peacefully and quietly under Rome’s protection had it not been for the rulers of the state who, once again, arose from within their fold. These rulers were so seditious and so cruel to their own people that eventually, in 6 CE, the Romans’ patience had run out, and they declared Judah a province of Rome and changed its name to Judea.
Between the years 6 CE and 66 CE, when the Great Revolt that destroyed Judea, Jerusalem, and the Temple broke out, no less than fifteen Roman procurators governed, sometimes for as briefly as two years. As one might expect, those years were far from tranquil. We will not go into detail in this essay or describe the countless misdeeds of the Jews toward their brethren, but we will speak about one, particularly noxious group of people: the Sicarii. The Sicarii certainly earned the title “First Century Terrorists” that Dr. Amy Zalman gave them, or “Ancient Jewish ‘Terrorists,’” as Prof. Richard Horsley called them.
Yet, they differ from contemporary terrorist organizations that act against Jews or the State of Israel in that the Sicarii came from within their own faith. They were not an underground movement that sought to overthrow the government and chose violence as a means to achieve their goal. Rather, they sought to intimidate and physically eradicate people from their own religion of whom they did not approve, either because they viewed them as submissive to the Romans or for whatever other reason. The division between the Zealots (from whom the Sicarii emerged) and the rest of the nation was the seed of the bloodbath that the people of Israel inflicted on themselves during the Great Revolt a few years later, but the diabolic assassinations of the Sicarii deepened the hatred and suspicion among the factions of the nation to levels that sealed the fate of the Jews.
After 60 years of disquiet, the Great Revolt erupted. While the official enemy of the Jews was the Roman legion, the most unspeakable, inconceivable, and inhuman agonies came to the Jews at the hands of their coreligionists. The bottom line of the atrocities of the Great Revolt is as our sages put it (Masechet Yoma 9b), “The Second Temple … why was it ruined? It was because there was unfounded hatred in it,” and because of how that hatred manifested.
The Romans’ war against the Jews was so gruesome and filled with Jewish self-inflicted cruelty that it made them think that God was actually on their side. At the beginning of the siege, looking at the Jews fighting one another inside the city, “the Romans deemed this sedition among their enemies to be of great advantage to them, and were very earnest to march to the city,” writes Josephus. “They urged Vespasian,” the newly crowned emperor, “to make haste, and said to him that ‘The providence of God is on our side by setting our enemies against one another.’” The Roman commanders wanted to take advantage of the situation for fear that “the Jews may quickly be at one again,” either because they were “tired out with their civil miseries” or because they might “repent them of such doings.”
However, the Emperor was very confident that the hatred of the Jews for one another was beyond repair. According to Josephus, Vespasian replied “that they were greatly mistaken in what they thought fit to be done,” adding that “If they stay a while, they shall have fewer enemies because they will be consumed in this sedition, that God acts as a general of the Romans better than he can do, and is giving the Jews up to them without any pains of their own, and granting their army a victory without any danger; that therefore it is their best way, while their enemies are destroying each other with their own hands, and falling into the greatest of misfortunes, which is that of sedition, to sit still as spectators of the dangers they run into, rather than to fight hand to hand with men that love murdering, and are mad one against another. … The Jews are vexed to pieces every day by their civil wars and dissensions, and are under greater miseries than, if they were once taken, could be inflicted on them by us. Whether therefore any one hath regard to what is for our safety, he ought to suffer these Jews to destroy one another.”
The siege on Jerusalem was the end of a four-year battle. When it began in 66 CE, violence broke out throughout the province. If during the Hasmonean Revolt, the fighting was between Hellenized Jews and militant Jews who remained faithful to their religion, now the fighting was only among “proper” Jews, among various sects of the militant Zealots, and moderate Jews, who strove to negotiate peace with the Romans.
Yet, the unfounded hatred that surfaced among Jews during the revolt was far worse than even the already intense odium that the factions in the nation felt for one another before its outbreak. Initially, writes Josephus, “All the people of every place betook themselves to rapine, after which they got together in bodies, in order to rob the people of the country, insomuch that for barbarity and iniquity, those of the same nation did no way differ from the Romans. Nay, it seemed to be a much lighter thing to be ruined by the Romans than by themselves.”
Once besieged inside Jerusalem, the fighting became even more hate-filled. Josephus writes that “this quarrelsome temper caught hold of private families, who could not agree among themselves, after which those people that were the dearest to one another broke through all restraints with regard to each other, and everyone associated with those of his own opinion and began already to stand in opposition one to another, so that seditions arose everywhere.”
“The Jews were … irreconcilably divided,” writes Johnson. They were so engrossed in mutual destruction that they could pay no thought to the future, not even to the following day. As a result, and as part of their all-out war, “Simon and his party set on fire those houses that were full of corn and of all other provisions … as if they had, on purpose, done it to serve the Romans by destroying what the city had laid up against the siege, and by thus cutting off the nerves of their own power.” As a result, “Almost all that corn was burnt, which would have been sufficient for a siege of many years. So they were taken by the means of the famine,” writes Josephus.
Thus, the Jews knew no boundaries when it came to self-destruction. In the end, they even resorted to cannibalism, though I will not describe the testimonies of it here.
Under these circumstances, the ruin of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile from the land were inevitable. Even Titus, the commander of the Roman legion, recognized that it wasn’t his doing that got him the triumph, but the hatred of the Jews for one another. The Greek sophist Philostratus describes Titus’ feelings about the wretched Jews: “When Helen of Judaea offered Titus a victory wreath after he took the city, he refused it on the grounds that there was no merit in vanquishing a people deserted by their own God.”
What Titus did not know, however, was that the downfall of the Jews was not because their God had deserted them, but because they had deserted each other. Indeed, the ruin of the Second Temple, with all the atrocities that accompanied it, testifies more than anything that the fate of the Jews is in their hands: When they are united, they succeed gloriously; when they are divided, they fail miserably.
When I started this article series, it was because the editor of one of the papers where I write regular op-eds requested more information on my message that if Jews are not united, they bring on themselves antisemitism. Specifically, he wanted to know my sources for making this argument so insistently.
I hope that now my sources are clearer. We must understand that unity is not an option for Jews; it is a must; it is our lifeline. As I have shown throughout this series, the scenario of division causing affliction and union bringing peace has manifested itself at every major junction in our nation’s history.
Today, we are at yet another such crossroads. Once again, we are facing the question: Unity and triumph, or division and defeat? It does not matter at the hands of what oppressor the defeat will come, but what is certain is that it will come if we are divided, and it will not come if we are united. It is my hope and wish that we will all join forces in a common effort to rise above our differences and truly become a light of unity unto the nations, as we were always meant to be. Today, like never before, it is paramount to our survival.
For much more on this topic, please see my latest publication, The Jewish Choice: Unity or Anti-Semitism: Historical facts on anti-Semitism as a reflection of Jewish social discord.