Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist

Lag B’Omer, Bar Kochba and Zionism

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.

Silver Tetra-drachma coin issued by Shimon Bar Kochba (132-135 CE) featuring the earliest depiction of the Temple façade and the inscription, “Shimon.” (Illustration © T. Book, 2019)

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.

Munich, Germany, Runners from the "Bar Kochba" group in training, 1932.
Munich, Germany. Runners from the “Bar Kochba” group in training, 1932. Photo (c) 2019, Yad Vashem Photo Archives.

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.

Givati Warriors. Photo (c) T. Book. 2019
Dr. Tuvia Book is the author of “For the Sake of Zion, A Curriculum of Israel Education” (Koren, 2017).  This article contains extracts from his forthcoming book on the Second Temple Period, also to be published by Koren later this year.

About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He is the author (and illustrator) of the internationally acclaimed Zionism curriculum; “For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Education” (fifth edition, 2017, Koren) and is at present working on his next book, a history of the Jewish people. Tuvia has a doctorate in Israel education. His dissertation title is: “Through the Soldiers’ Eyes: Exploring the Influence of a Birthright Mifgash on the Israeli Soldier Participants.”
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