Yehuda Halper
Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University

Netanyahu and the Siege of Samos

On the evening of June 13, a smiling Benyamin Netanyahu was photographed holding a copy of the Penguin edition of Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens, as the Knesset passed the first reading of a bill designed to allow more than 66,000 Haredim to avoid compulsory military service during the current war with Gaza, along with many more in future wars. This Penguin edition puts together nine biographies of prominent Athenians taken from Plutarch’s expansive work, Parallel Lives, which puts together and compares biographies of prominent Greek and Roman political figures. In being photographed with this volume and in carrying it around now for days, Netanyahu is inviting us to compare him to those classical Athenian politicians Plutarch describes.

I imagine Netanyahu expects us to compare him to Pericles, the prominent orator who led Athens during the first years of the Peloponnesian War and through a debilitating plague, which eventually also claimed his own life. According to Plutarch, Pericles was much criticized for his war and plague policies, but still managed to influence the Athenians for the better. Plutarch is particularly careful to describe repeatedly how Pericles strove to keep the Athenians from rushing into battle too hastily and without preparation, and thereby saved many Athenian lives. Like the Khan Theater’s classic play, Netanyahu may see war with the Palestinians as an Israeli analogue to the Peloponnesian War. He did indeed guide Israel through much of COVID-19, even while receiving a great deal of criticism (e.g., by Naftali Bennet). Moreover, Netanyahu probably sees himself as exercising great restraint in the War with Gaza, even while under criticism from the general public.

Also like Plutarch’s Pericles, Netanyahu accomplishes much of this through employing rhetoric and well-turned phrases to move the general public alongside complex political stratagems to move policy through the Athenian bureaucracy. According to Plutarch, when Thucydides was asked whether he could beat Pericles in wrestling, he responded that whatever happened Pericles would convince the judges and audience that he had won.

According to Plutarch, Pericles was also known for redistributing public funds in ways that went against the Council of the Areopagus, an Athenian high-court. Indeed, Plutarch describes how Pericles gave commissions and jobs to loyal friends, who spearheaded a legal reform that removed almost all judicial authority from the Council.

Still, Pericles had to defend himself and his lady-friend, Aspasia, in public trials for impiety. Indeed, Plutarch says, the public felt that some of Pericles’ more unpopular policy decisions were made to satisfy Aspasia, rather than the public good. These accounts recall Netanyahu in various ways, even though Plutarch’s Pericles was known for his moderation and limited concern with his own estate, to the point that his children were quite unhappy with him.

Yet it is Pericles’ actions eight months into the siege of Samos that most recall Netanyahu’s actions eight months into the siege of Gaza. Though previously a client state of Athens, the island-city of Samos was falling to Persian control. When the democracy Athens propped up in Samos failed, Pericles initiated an extensive siege which was eventually successful in toppling the city. During the long siege, the soldiers grew restless and sought a full-on attack of this city. Fearing the cost in lives, Pericles derived a system of lots according to which each of the eight army divisions would randomly be chosen to spend its time feasting and drinking, while the others fought the Samians. Here, too, I can’t help but think of the smiling Netanyahu decreeing, eight months into the war, that Haredim would be chosen to spend their days feasting and drinking while others did the fighting.

Perhaps, though, we Israelis are not ancient Athenians and Netanyahu is not Pericles. Perhaps, if there is any parallel between our lives and theirs, we should compare ourselves to the Samians and the United States to Athens. We can choose to receive their support and enjoy its many benefits, or we can choose to betray it and suffer the consequences. Pericles earned eternal fame through his actions, but little is remembered of the Samian leader whose recklessness led to the destruction of his homeland.

About the Author
Yehuda Halper is associate professor in the department of Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University. He directs the Israel Science Foundation, Research Grant: "Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Explanation of Foreign Terms and the Foundations of Philosophy in Hebrew." His 2021 book, Jewish Socratic Questions in an Age without Plato won the Goldstein-Goren book award for best book in Jewish Thought 2019-2021.
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