James R. Russell
James R. Russell

Dishonor

“There is nothing new under the sun.” If Solomon actually wrote that, a little under a thousand years before Christ, he barely knew the half of it. Though tyranny, hypocrisy, betrayal, hatred, violence, and stupidity were already old news in the political history of the Ancient Near East, so much more was to come. I love Jewish aggada and am going to tell you some very entertaining and informative traditions and tales that cluster around Solomon. I want you to enjoy them, because the nothing-new-under-the-sun leitmotif will usher in some gloomy musings that will, alas, grow much darker and angrier as we drag ourselves down the corridor of history into this bleak and clouded present day.

Tradition attributes to king Solomon the authorship of three of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible: Ecclesiastes (the locus classicus of world-weariness, from which my quotation comes), Proverbs, and the Song of Songs (an erotic poem that Jewish and Christian exegetes have wasted oceans of ink on, trying to prove it is an allegory of pious, incorporeal divine love). Let’s talk about Solomon and his times. The legend, and it’s a convoluted one but a great story, says that God refused David– Solomon’s dad– the honor of building the Temple because the ruddy boy slingshot champion, the lyre-toting musician, the prolific sweet singer of Israel (I’m gonna sing y’all a new Psalm and it goes like this…), the prodigiously accomplished lover (of both sexes), had blood on his hands. I think God was referring to David’s lust for Bathsheba, the way he sent her husband Uriah to his death on the battlefield (hence the blood), in order to have the widow for himself. That is not what the Rabbis think, mind you, and they had much longer a time that I’ve got to ponder the story. It was David’s son by Bathsheba, Solomon (of all David’s many paramours– the Lord sure does seem to move in strange ways), who was to be the man of peace and the builder of God’s quiet house in Mount Moriah’s green and pleasant land. But how was this to be done?

The stones were to be cut without a metal tool (instructed God).

How the hell do you do that? Solomon didn’t know, but he knew how to find out: our eirenic king had dedicated his ample peacetime energies to curious contrivances (a glass floor with water beneath it to play a silly trick on his girlfriend, the queen of Sheba), the study of medicine (he wrote a book explaining the treatment for every disease, entitled, straightforwardly enough, Sefer Refu’ot, The Book of Cures), proficiency in nonhuman linguistics (he spoke the languages of the birds and beasts, and they would alight or sprawl on the steps to his throne and chat with him), and the occult. The ḥotem Shlomo, the Seal of Solomon, identified in posterity as either the familiar six-pointed Magen David of our national flag or the five-pointed pentacle of the Empire Cherifien of the Maghreb, Morocco to the rest of you, could restrain most any creature, earthbound or supernatural. (By the way, the six-pointed star and/or pentacle became symbols identifying Jews only in the later Middle Ages, on banners. Before that we used the Menora, the shofar, the Lulav and Etrog, a schematic image of the four-pillared Holy of Holies of the Herodian Temple… and, however ironic it may seem now, the Star and Crescent.) Solomon’s studies of the occult included an exhaustive study of demonology.

The latter science came in handy since as it happens there was a studious demon, Ashmedai (later to be called Asmodeus in Latin), who was to solve Solomon’s tool issue. Ashmedai would learn Torah in the morning at the Yeshiva shel Ma‘ala, the Heavenly Academy, then descend to a hillside on earth, refresh himself with a drink from a brook, and spend the afternoon in a Bet Midrash, a House of Study, in Jerusalem. Solomon’s vizier suggested spiking Ashmedai’s spring water with mashke– strong drink. Isn’t this water nice today, thought Ashmedai, putting down his pint glass. I’ll have another. Then he curled up on a comfy patch of grass for a snooze, don’t you know. Up rode Solomon’s men, applied the magic Seal, which worked a bit like a taser, clapped poor Ashmedai in irons, and took him to the precinct downtown, where the archdemon sang like the proverbial canary, though maybe that particular turn of phrase about how frightened suspects under arrest spill the beans hadn’t been coined yet.

There’s this worm called the shamir, see, Ashmedai explained to the attentive king of Israel and Hiram of Tyre’s firm of contractors, and it’ll just eat right through the rock for you. Better than a laser! Problem solved. Ashmedai was also induced to summon 72 of his demonic colleagues (a duodecimally round number) to help out with the project, and the Temple was soon up and running. One lazy afternoon sometime later, with lyres tinkling, trumpets tootling, and incense smoke curling up into the sky over the Temple, and a pretty sight it was, too, Ashmedai and Solomon were having a drink. The archdemon leaned over and said, Let’s try on that magic ring of yours, mate! The king pulled it off and passed it to him, and sooner than you could say Abracadabra! all of a sudden Ashmedai was the powerful one: he picked Solomon up off his barstool, carried him outside, and pitched him a forty-day and forty-night journey through the air, bang into the trackless middle of nowhere.

Serves me right, thought Solomon, as he dusted himself off and started the long, humiliating trudge back to the land of Israel. Duly chastened, he got religion and decided to burn all the 40,000 books he’d written– a proper bonfire of the vanities. Probably went on the wagon, too. But his wise vizier swept up three volumes (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and the Song of Songs) and hid them in the folds of his robe, which is why we have them now. Good on him. These Savonarolas can get carried away.

As for Ashmedai, his name is just the Old Persian form of Aeshma Daeva, the Demon of Wrath of the Zoroastrian sacred scripture Avesta. He’s a fearful figure there; and in later western magical lore he is a menacing presence too. But in our traditions he remains a somewhat sardonic, basically good-hearted Torah scholar. An old manuscript says that when the wicked Crusaders were approaching a peaceful Jewish town in the Rhineland in the eleventh century, the three Patriarchs and Ashmedai rushed through the darkened streets, shouting and crying to warn the threatened community. But the alarm availed nothing, the text continues, and in their rampage the jihadis of their day killed poor Ashmedai with the rest of the congregation of Israel, so the chronicler writes of the martyred, “red blood flowed with green in the streets”. A green fluid called ichor, you see, flows in the veins of both the demons and the ancient Greek gods. But ichor or not Ashmedai was mortal. He also had children and grandchildren, and they, too, became famed as Torah scholars.

That’s a kind of roundabout explanation of how we have Ecclesiastes, then, although whoever the historical Solomon really was, I doubt he wrote it. More likely it is a Near Eastern reflection of the school of thought of Diogenes and his followers, the Cynics, of over half a millennium later at least. You remember Diogenes. He wintered at Athens in a jar. Not that a Jew would need a Greek’s help to observe that there’s nothing new under the sun and history tends to repeat itself. Still, the similarities are intriguing. The Cynics often expressed their ideas in aphoristic statements — apophthegmata and chreiai– that recall the genre of both Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) and Proverbs (Mishlei). Similar views recorded in similar ways, then.

Ecclesiastes is not the only place in the Hebrew Bible, though, where one finds sentiments like “There is nothing new under the sun.” Midrash Tehillim, the early Rabbinic commentary on the Psalms, compares Ps. 90, a poem that its initial words attribute to “Moses, the man of God”, to Ecclesiastes. The sentiments are indeed similar. In the Psalm we find verses such as these: Tashev enosh ‘ad dakka va-tomer shuvu venei adam. Ki elef shanim be-‘einekha ke-yom etmol ki ya‘avor ve-ashmura va-laila. “You, [God], return mortal man to a lowly crushed state, and say, ‘Return, sons of Adam.’ For a thousand years in Your sight is like yesterday already passed, and a watch in the night.” Yemei shenoteinu ba-hem shiv‘im shana ve-im bi-gvurot shemonim shana ve-rahbam ‘amal va-aven ki gaz ḥish va-na‘ufa. “The days of our years, seventy years fill them out, and if one exerts mighty efforts, eighty; but even their zenith is just toil and futility, cut, fleeting, flown.” Even some of the lexicon has a whiff of Ecclesiastes. And as for the designation of the purported author, Moses is called a “man of God” on the eve of his death– at the end of Deuteronomy (Devarim), which itself is the very personalized record of the last month of his life. The lines of Ps. 90 I’ve cited reflect a certain general philosophy of life, to be sure, that one might espouse at a younger age; but they are tinged with a desperate and crepuscular fatigue and have the flavor of a valediction. The character Moses looks back, as the character Solomon does, and muses on the fleeting vanity of one’s earthly career, even one replete with glory.

Nothing new under the sun, then. What was to come, after Solomon? More nothing new, that’s what. The disunity of the northern and southern kingdoms, the exile of the ten tribes, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, exile in Babylon, a few centuries of quiet under the Achaemenid Persians, but then turmoil again: the Seleucids, Antiochus, the Romans, the rebellion of 66-73 AD, the destruction of the Second Temple, Masada, rebellion again (Bar Kokhba this time), a much longer and darker dispersion. Déjà vu all over again! Time, speed forward! Nothing new under the sun. The Crusades, expulsions from England and France, the Inquisition and expulsions from Spain and Portugal, Bogdan Chmielnicki’s massacres. Blood libels. The Dreyfus affair. Nothing new under the sun. The Kishinev pogrom. The Beilis case. Then the mass killings of the Russian Civil War and the Russo-Polish War, which are nearly forgotten because of what followed them after scarcely a historical heartbeat or blink of the eye, the Nazis. The Warsaw Ghetto. The holocaust of bullets and Babi Yar. Treblinka. Auschwitz. Something new, but the smoke blots out the sun.

The tissue of reality becomes shoddy and insubstantial. Much knowledge multiplies sorrow. The crematoria are barely cold, and anti-Semitism, never put out, becomes red hot again. The British bar the gates of the Land of Israel to survivors of Auschwitz and confine them in the camps from which they were ostensibly liberated months before. In the Soviet Union, not pausing to mourn twenty million deaths, Stalin thinks better of the country’s wartime anti-fascist stance and turns against Jewish “rootless cosmopolitans”, Jewish “poisoner physicians”. As hundreds of cattle cars are readied on the outskirts of Moscow to finalize the final solution, the tyrant dies. But by now the bacillus is alive and infectious in the Middle East, where escaped Nazis rub shoulders with Arabophile British officers in the ranks of new states whose Arab nationalist ideology decrees, above all else, that the Jews be driven into the sea. Our young third commonwealth, the Israel Liberata risen like a phoenix after two millennia of Judaea Capta, is a country all of nine miles wide that must not only defend itself against a score of larger, richer, belligerent Muslim states, but must constantly plead for its right to exist at all to a ring of cold and hostile faces, the “international community”. What a term for a pack of hyenas.

Unlike any other country on the planet, Israel is everywhere treated as conditional, provisional. Arab Muslim political parties join the Knesset and call for the country to be dismantled. They call its foundation a nakba, a catastrophe. Anywhere else such traitors would soon find themselves dangling lifeless from the scaffold, but Israel upholds the rule of law and so on. For which it is derided as an “apartheid” state. Its place is in the wrong, and that’s the only thing about it that the UN and the rest consider permanent about it. “He’s always on trial for just being born,” is the way Bob Dylan puts it in his song about Israel, “Neighborhood Bully”. But nobody plays, sings, talks about that song. Ever. No matter how archetypally hip Dylan is, the fact that he’s a Jew, unapologetically, is uncool. Zionism is racist. Israel is a dirty word. Blood libel. Poisoning the wells. Christ killer. Nothing’s new under the sun. Sometimes it feels like there is no goddam sun.

This is not the lachrymose school of Jewish history that Salo Baron decried. I am not shedding a tear. I’m not sorrowful. I’m angry. Michel de Montaigne, the French humanist of Sephardic background who invented the modern essay, was another gentle cynic. Like king Solomon, our ancestor. It must run in our ichor, our uncanny green blood. Is man more to be pitied, or ridiculed, he asks. Montaigne’s options are inadequate. I do not feel great compassion for the human race this evening. It will do no good to cry. Man does not deserve a peal of scornful laughter, either: who has the energy left? There’s not much material left for humor these days. Except when recounting aggada or parsing midrash, of course.

Let’s now zero in on the casus belli: About a century ago, Jews bought some property in the Sheikh Jarrah district of Jerusalem, the city which has been our capital, our only holy place, for three millennia. Remember David and Solomon? They lived in Jerusalem, not London, Paris, NYC, LA, or Warsaw. Jordan conquered half of Jerusalem in 1948, with British help. (The BBC calls that half “occupied East Jerusalem”. Having no sense of shame or decency must feel very liberating, till you fall into the fires of hell.) All Jews were expelled. All Jewish property was confiscated. Hebrew tombstones were used to pave latrines and hotel lobbies. The Jewish quarter of the Old City was blown up. That was okay with the whole world. Then in 1967 Nasser declared he was going to drive us into the sea, and moved his gigantic tank columns up to the Negev border. He took command of the armies of Syria and Jordan, too. We didn’t have the “West Bank”, the “Haram al-Sharif”, the Golan. It didn’t matter: “No more Is-ra-il!” chanted Arab demonstrators outside the UN in Manhattan. And the American president, Lyndon Johnson, placidly counseled us to do nothing and wait for diplomacy to work. Fortunately, Israel attacked first, and won. We survived. The Left got angry: we’re not supposed to be alive. We’re supposed to be piles of skeletal corpses in striped pyjamas. We also liberated Jerusalem.

So, back to that real estate I mentioned. It’s in Sheikh Jarrah, and Arabs live there. Okay, say the owners, so what, live there but pay rent. Yes, say the Arab residents, it’s your property, but no, we won’t pay rent. For twenty years. The case is dragging on in the courts. Meanwhile, Abbas, the doddering Fatah dictator who wrote his doctorate in Holocaust denial, has as of this writing served sixteen years of a four-year term as president of “Palestine”. Elections loom. He wants to make an issue of Sheikh Jarrah. It’s good for getting the votes (and Molotov cocktails) out. The terrorist gang Hamas, who have already started several wars with us, want to win big in Judea and Samaria if the PA holds elections. They already run Gaza: the way they managed that was straightforward, they garroted and defenstrated Fatah candidates. Democracy, “Palestinian” style. Hamas decides to steal the march on Abbas and fuel riots in the mosque on the Temple Mount. Oh yes, Israel didn’t do to Muslims what Jordan had done to Jews. We didn’t desecrate their holy places. The Al-Aqsa mosque is there, open for prayers. And this is what the parishioners use it for: they throw stones and explosives at the police, at worshippers at the Western Wall below. Because of Sheikh Jarrah. Really?

But that is just the beginning. Riots on the Temple Mount, that sort of stuff is everyday fare, and it’s not enough. But it’s a pretext, and a pretext is all that’s needed. Hamas starts firing rockets from Gaza indiscriminately at Israeli cities and towns. That is what it’s been using all that international humanitarian aid for– to maintain an arsenal of weapons meant for aggressive, indiscriminate warfare and terror raids against soft targets. Didn’t Qatar, Turkey, the EU, the UN, and all the other donors know that? Of course they did, old boy. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. It’s a bit like 1967 all over again: Israel successfully defends itself, more or less. Nothing new, etc., right? The Iron Dome system disables 90% of the rockets, while the IDF sends text messages to residents of buildings where the terrorists have their arms caches, missile launchers, and so on: please vacate the premises, we are going to bomb them because Hamas and Islamic Jihad are attacking us from them. Gaza is very densely populated and Hamas uses children and families and hospitals and schools as human shields. Arab civilians get killed in these raids. Not as targets, you understand, but despite Israel’s efforts to spare them. It’s Israeli civilians who are Hamas targets. By the way, note to Gaza: If you start a war and attack a country and it fights back and your civilians get killed, even without any warning (which is the usual way everybody everywhere fights wars, but not, God forbid, us), it’s very sad but it’s not a war crime, it’s just war.

Israel is not supposed to be fighting back anyhow, and the western media are upset that it’s not having more dead men, women, and children. How “disproportionate”. That’s the mantra of the American talk show hosts. How dare we protect our own people more effectively than the enemy aggressor is protecting his? He doesn’t want to protect his! Never mind. We Jews are supposed to be passive and powerless. Nothing new under the sun. The left-fascist American universities, the media, Hollywood entertainers, the obscene cows of the “Squad” all howl with rage. The new American president professes friendship for us but strong arms Israel into accepting a ceasefire so Hamas can endure and claim victory. National Public Radio’s liars broadcast earnest, mournful reports on horrible Israel’s crucifixion of naked, loving, godlike Gaza. Gaza died for our sins, you Shylock! Israeli Arabs attack and kill a Jew in a pogrom in the heart of the country. They burn synagogues. The mayor of Lod calls it another Kristallnacht: nothing new under the sun there, except it’s not Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, or Hamburg. It’s the heart of Israel. Maybe that’s new. Will Israelis be accepting the transformation of our towns into shtetlach for pogromists to pillage as the new normal? If so, I think we’re done for.

Do you remember how Chamberlain and Daladier crawled to Hitler in 1938 the way nearly the whole world has now being fawning on Hamas? Appeasement? Remember? What you maybe don’t remember is how the Munich accords did not just hand over the Sudetenland to the Nazis. They also sternly instructed Czechoslovakia, which was about to be dismembered and swallowed by the German cannibals, not to lift a finger in its own defense. That’s why the Czechs did not dare ask the USSR to honor their mutual defense pact. Just saying it would have brought the Luftwaffe over Prague. The Czechs had been ready and willing to fight, as the IDF is tonight. Had they chosen collective security over selfish cowardice, the Russians and the West could have taken out Hitler and forestalled a world war.

I don’t know how the two-faced American president threatened the Israeli government in 2021, but like the Czechs in 1938, it felt it had to back down. Netanyahu knows more than I do, but one thing I know for sure is that a ceasefire now is just kicking the can down the road, enabling Hamas to celebrate, endure, re-arm, and attack. In the streets of American cities last night the Arabs and their friends celebrated their victory (yes, their victory, to them hundreds of their own brothers, wives, and children dead is a victory) by trying to run down Jewish pedestrians and attacking Jews eating dinner in restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. Not a word of that on the “All Things Considered” news program. Nothing new in that under the sun there either. American Jews won’t defend themselves: they think the Second Amendment is just for rednecks. Some American Jews are even reciting mea culpas, voicing support for the terrorists and anti-Semites, disavowing Israel. Reform Jews in Germany once condemned Zionism, ridiculed the Holy Land, said Berlin was their Jerusalem. What fools! exclaims Ashmedai. Nothing new under the sun, replies Solomon.

Hamas fired three or four thousand missiles this time. Hezbollah has about a hundred fifty thousand. Whatever the fictional pretext of this war, and however the mendacious west chooses to obscure the truth of it with politically-correct jargon (do they believe what they are saying, and does it matter, its sole purpose is apologetics for anti-Semitism and incitement to murder Jews), there will be some other mythological pretext soon, some other manufactured grievance– poisoning the wells, defaming the Host, using children’s blood for matzah, it doesn’t matter what. And there will be another war. Just as this war was worse than the 2014 one, with more and longer-range missiles, and the makings of civil war within Israel, so the next war will be in all likelihood be worse than that of 2021. It will be exponentially worse, I think, and, given the ease with which Hamas extricated itself from this one, it will most likely come soon. The Biden administration has torpedoed the Abraham accords and emboldened the Iranians and their proxy, Hezbollah. Israel’s Iron Dome is great, but the best army in the world cannot stop enough of Hezbollah’s rockets to prevent destruction on a scale that would render Israel’s existence no longer viable.

Probably the only way to neutralize Hezbollah, should such a war happen — and I think that possibility should now be treated as an inevitability — would be to resort to the unthinkable. But then, World War II, which happened thanks to exactly the same kind of appeasement we have seen over the past couple of days, opened a Pandora’s Box of the unthinkable. Something new, a sun flare that blotted out the sun. If we do not face unpleasant realities, very little that is pleasant will remain. It is time, now, for Israel to draw a line in the sand in word and deed and make its existential needs. Just as Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, Hezbollah must be disarmed. That is how to forestall doomsday.

I imagine the souls of David and Solomon, Ashmedai and the Queen of Sheba, looking down at this world and at the enemies of the Jewish people, and asking the Master of the Universe, as Moses did when he beheld the shattered corpse of the tortured Rabbi Akiva, “Is this Torah, and THIS its reward?” The Lord then ordered silence, lest the footstool of the Almighty revert to chaos; and that silence has gone on a long time. Humans, with their age-old arrogance, wickedness, and stupidity– nothing new under the sun– can now reduce this small planet to chaos without divine intervention. There is infamy and dishonor; and thanks to this capitulation, this ignobile decretum, the danger of a much worse conflict is plain to anyone who can see. I believe the good Lord helps those who help themselves. Jews everywhere should learn self-defense and be prepared to protect ourselves, our families, our homes, and our businesses by any means possible within the law. The IDF needs to finish its mission in Gaza. Hezbollah has to be dismantled before it starts a war, not after. There is no peace now, just a sellout.

When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich claiming he had won peace with honor for Britain, Winston Churchill wrote to him: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”

About the Author
James R. Russell is Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is at present Adjunct Professor of Iranian Religions at the Daneshgah-e Adyan va Mazaheb, Qom. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London. His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.
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