Last week, during Chanukah, as my rain-soaked group trudged through the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre in Beit Guvrin and later crawled through some very wet and muddy caves that had been used by the warriors of Bar Kochba during their revolt against the same Romans who built the amphitheater, I was thinking that these sites (and the holiday of Chanukah itself) represented so much fighting against seemingly impossible odds. What was it that kept the Jews revolting?
A frequent discussion I have with my Birthright groups on Masada is, “what is worth fighting for?” Unvaryingly they respond that protecting family is a prime reason to fight. When asked who would fight for their country only the enlisted Israeli soldiers on the trip respond uniformly in the positive as opposed to nearly all the American participants, whose unequivocal silence speaks volumes. When asked whether they would be prepared to die for their religion, the question is usually followed by a shuffling of feet, an avoiding of eye contact and not too many assenting answers, by either the American or the Israeli contingents.
Photograph (c) 2012, Tuvia Book. “The Shrine of the Book, Jerusalem”
One possible answer to what we fight for is contained in an ancient papyrus letter discovered in the Judean desert in 1960 by Yigal Yadin written by Bar Kochba himself. This letter written towards the end of the three year revolt (132-135 CE) against the might of the Roman Empire, just before their inevitable defeat, requests supplies for the besieged Jewish Rebels:
Shimeon to Yehudah bar Menashe in Qiryath ‘Arabaya. I have sent to you two donkeys, and you must send with them two men to Yehonathan, son of Be’ayan and to Masabala, in order that they shall pack and send to the camp, towards you, palm branches (lulavim) and citrons (Etrogim). And you, from your place, send others who will bring you myrtles and willows. See that they are tithed and sent them to the camp. The request is made because the army is big. Be well.
Facing inevitable defeat and despite the fact that he is fighting a rearguard action and is desperately short of men and supplies, he asks for the Arba Minim (“four Species) to be sent to his camp to celebrate Sukkot (The Feast of Tabernacles).
Despite the facts that the rabbinic tradition tended to down play the revolt, early Zionism eagerly seized on the story as proof that Jews, when faced with persecution, were capable of fighting for their dignity and self respect. Max Nordau, an early popular Zionist leader, wrote about the need to create a new generation of “muscle-Jews.” He wrote that, “Bar Kochba was the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.” Many Zionist sports clubs that sprang up in the inter-war years in Europe were named Bar Kochba, in honour of the legendary hero who symbolized the “new Jew” the antithesis of the weak, pale hollow-chested Diaspora Jew, constantly fleeing persecution, as portrayed scornfully by Chaim Nachman Bialik in his epic “In the City of Slaughter” poem: “Like scampering mice they fled, they hid like fleas and died the death of dogs.”
The story of the revolt came to symbolize the hope that as the Jews returned to their homeland they would be able to regain their honour by reclaiming their land, their language and the ability to defend themselves.
Yigal Yadin, who as a representative of the new Jewish State, a general in the new Jewish army, symbolically uncovered the words of the last Jewish general in the Land of Israel, almost as if they had been waiting to be reclaimed by their spiritual descendants, wrote:
It was centuries of persecution of the Jews and their yearning for national rehabilitation that turned Bar Kochba into a people’s hero, an elusive figure who they clung to because he had demonstrated, and was the last to demonstrate, that Jews could fight to win Jewish and political independence.
Gedaliah Alon, a leading scholar of this period wrote in his “The Jews in their Land,”
What especially kept the Jews in a constant state of ferment against Rome was their demand for freedom – the dual freedom of the nation and the individual.
That is what we fight for!