On this page, we present essays profound or timely culled from the CLAL literary archive. Most of the articles that appear here appeared originally in the pages of Sh'ma A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, which was founded by Eugene Borowitz in 1970 and published by CLAL from 1994-1998.
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(from Sh'ma 14/263, December 9, 1983)
The Chilling Fate of the Maccabees
By George Silver
The Israelis seem to be in the process of repeating an unfortunate scenario more than 2000 years old. This is not to say that they are uniquely responsible for this unhappy sequence of events; it is said only to underline the apparent pitiless nature of history and the fate of the Jewish people.
Second Jewish Commonwealth was established following a revolt against the Syrian Empire in
168 BCE, the newly independent nation was plagued with religious dissension and conflict
within, and was in constant battle against enemies from without. A tragic series of
events, turmoil, intrigue and fratricidal strife marked the 130 years of the nation's
existence. Eventually, the period ended with loss of independence and the
"Commonwealth" became a vassal state of Rome.
To review the history briefly, one must pass over most of the complications of royal successions and fleeting alliances that marked the period following the death of Alexander the Great and the breakup of his empire. In the second century before Christ, the Middle East -- in our terminology -- was in very much the same kind of turmoil as at present. Alexander's successors were at each other's throats, intriguing and plotting among themselves and with the various petty kings and princelings that made up their empires. Syria -- extending over a larger area than today's country of that name -- was far more beset by internal struggles and divisions than the other great Alexandrian successor state, Egypt. Those areas of that empire that we would today call Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Israel were wracked by confused conflicts upsetting any efforts of the central government to maintain peaceful order and resist the encroachments of Egyptian power. Generals plotted against one another and against their ruler. Off in the distance, Rome, fresh from great victories over the paramount power of the Mediterranean, Carthage, and in the process of swallowing Greece, was mounting diplomatic offensives to establish its hegemony over the entire world.
Alliance With The Superpower of the Age
The Jews, even as today, were in the middle of the crises and chaos. In 168 BC, under the leadership of an elderly priest and his five sons -- "the Maccabees" -- the Jews in Palestine began a revolt against their Syrian overlord in defense of their right to practice their religion. In the beginning, the struggle was simply for the freedom to enjoy their religion, not a political revolt at all. Eventually, however, after some victories and some defeats, the Jews managed to obtain not only religious freedom, but independence as well.
independence was achieved rather more easily than freedom of religion, curiously enough.
Empires of that day permitted "independent" kingdoms to exist provided they
acknowledged the suzerainty of the imperial power. Then, Simon Maccabee, the surviving
brother, exploited the divisions between Syria and Eygpt by arranging a
"federation," a kind of alliance, with the rising power of Rome, which insulated
the country against the victorious Egyptian forces that had overrun the area.
In short, the new Jewish nation allied itself with a distant power and alienated itself from local powers, but really under the protection of neither. Simon used the "alliance" to establish his title as king of this nation of Judea and dubbed himself High Priest also, a title formerly held in hereditary fashion by another clan altogether.
The children and grandchildren of the heroic Maccabees fell to quarreling among themselves and engaged in secret diplomatic negotiations and pacts with one or another of the great powers of the time, creating discord in the leadership and factionalism in the country. Religious dissension was fostered in part by differences in strictness of interpretation of religious law, but also by partisans of traditional priestly leadership as against the "usurpers." The internal conflicts exacerbated the external threats and incursions.
In Search of Defensible Borders
For security reasons, and the fears were not irrational, the tiny Jewish state engaged in almost constant wars of defense or reprisal. The hostility of the neighboring kings and princelings was real, as they sought to eliminate the Jewish state in response to their own expansionist designs, or on orders from their imperial masters. Forced by the unyielding hostility of their neighbors and by foreign intrigue to be fighting almost constantly, the Judeans attempted to carve out defensible borders by capturing and occupying bordering parcels of their neighbors' territory. They also adopted a tactic of the time, marrying into neighboring royal families, to consolidate advantageous alliances, again as defensive measures. This involved more than usual diplomatic action, since Jews insisted on conversion to their religion in such marriages.
end, Judea was destroyed as much from within as from without. One of the royal converts
became King and High Priest, by intrigue and assassination of the rightful heir, and
invited in the Roman legions to validate and protect his claim. That ended the
independence of the Jewish state. Total defeat and dispersion was still a century or so
off, but the Jewish state had lost its independence.
Much of the events echo into our time: great power rivalries bruising and polarizing client states; the alliance of a Jewish state with a distant power; instability among the smaller Middle Eastern states; jealous intrigues and tribal warfare; revanchism, irredentism and chauvinism. The religious conflicts were more important then than now, although serious enough now. The resentment against the usurpers of priestly power and prerogative is absent, although perhaps vaguely reflected in the passionate resentment of the "eastern" Jews in Israel against the domination of wealth, position and politics by European Jews.
Similar End For The Modern State?
The script is not too different. The similarities are striking, the augury chilling. The Israelis have not been allowed to build their country in peace. Increasingly, the country has been forced to seek "secure" borders and has become an occupying power. "Reasons of state" excuse all kinds of nefarious activity. The parallel may not be exact. In the second century before Christ, there had been no Holocaust to drive the Jews into Palestine to seek refuge; no dread memory of genocide to arm them against compromise. Yet, Moshe Dayan once boasted that the Israelis earned their military victories from Biblical study: historic battles brought up-to-date. One can only hope that history will not repeat the Commonwealth experience, the doomed efforts at control through territorial acquisition, alienation of neighboring states, alliances with distant empires, pawns to indifferent powers, toward a tragic end.
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