Lag B’Omer, until relatively recently, was a relatively insignificant minor holiday. With the rise of modern Zionism in the nineteenth century the holiday has enjoyed a huge rise in popularity. Shimon Bar Kochba, the legendary military leader of the last great revolt against oppression until the Jews returned to and revived the land en masse in the modern age became a figurehead for the nascent Zionist movement and indeed the holiday of Lag B’omer.
Yael Zerubavel offers an explanation why, despite the ultimate failure of his revolt and the ensuing destruction of vast swathes of Judea and the mass slaughter of Jews by the Romans, Bar Kochba became such an important and positive role-model. She observed that,
The Zionist search for roots in the ancient national past clearly led to the enhancement of Bar-Kochba’s positive image…Bar Kochba was a “giant” figure who represented the greatness of the ancient Jewish past.
Despite the rabbinic tradition’s tendency to gloss over 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 (1849-1923), an early popular Zionist leader, writing an essay about “muscle-Jews,” stated 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 symbolised the “new Jew,” the antithesis of the weak Diaspora Jew, constantly fleeing persecution, “Like scampering mice they fled, they hid like fleas and died the death of dogs,”as portrayed scornfully by Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) in his epic poem, “In the City of Slaughter.” Rabbi Benny Lau observed that,
“The Zionist movement emphasised the historical connection between the Bar Kochba revolt and the modern struggle for Jewish independence. It became customary on Lag B’Omer to praise Bar Kochba as a bold independent fighter…the Israeli national dream was kindled by the embers of the Bar Kochba revolt.
The story of the Bar Kochba revolt came to symbolise 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 and a general in the new Jewish army, symbolically uncovered the words of the last Jewish general in 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.