Yeshiah Grabie

No Winners across the Israel Judah Divide

During orientation week for my MBA program, I found myself in conversation with two classmates, one from Portugal and the other from Israel. The Portuguese fellow asked the Israeli if she was Jewish, to which she replied that she considered herself to be Israeli, not Jewish. I found the response both surprising and disappointing. Surprising, because growing up in the United States I did not make that distinction for Israeli Jews. Disappointing, because if an Israeli does not consider him- or herself to be Jewish, why am I asked to support Israel?

The push for judicial reform in Israel and the protest movement against it reflect this Israel-Jewish divide. The richer secular sector, represented by the “State of Tel Aviv,” seeks to maintain judicial autonomy and prevent religious coercion, while the poorer religious sectors, represented by Jerusalem, seek reform to prevent judicial overreach into religious and political matters.

This divide is not a new one. In a 2016 Pew poll, a plurality of Israeli Jews responded that they saw themselves as Jews first, while 35% of Israeli Jews considered themselves Israeli first. This split perception reflects a divide present before the founding of the State of Israel, most notably in the rivalry between the secular Zionist New Yishuv and the traditional Old Yishuv that predated the creation of Zionism.

If the current situation reflects an earlier divide, it also mirrors the divide between the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah in the biblical account. In 1 Kings, after King Solomon’s death, the tribes, still reeling from the tax burden of Solomon’s building program, asked Solomon’s son and successor Rehoboam for relief. Rehoboam, following his younger advisors, shot back “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. My father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” In response, Jeroboam ben Nevat led ten mostly northern tribes to secede from the Davidic and Solomonic monarchy, to create a Kingdom of Israel, led from Samaria. This left the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south to form the Kingdom of Judah, centered around Jerusalem.

This divide formed along a recognizable outline. The Kingdom of Israel was richer, encompassing more tribes and a larger territory, formed stronger regional alliances and worshipped foreign gods. By contrast, the Kingdom of Judah was smaller, poorer and displayed greater fealty to God.

The similarities and differences between the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah are borne out in the archaeological record. Both north and south were united in their connection to the god YHWH, as evidenced by theophoric names, names that include God’s name, on seals containing names with derivations of YHWH. This compares to neighboring states who worshipped their own national gods such as Canaanite Baal, Moabite Chemosh and Edomite Qos, and whose theophoric names included derivations of those gods’ names.

The two kingdoms of Israel and Judah are recognized as distinct in 8th century BCE Assyrian records. A traveler in Israel today will note that Israel is greener in the north than in the south, and in antiquity, Israel, centered in the north, was in possession of more verdant and productive land and more agricultural wealth relative to Judah in the south. The Jezreel Valley gave Israel control of the trade route from the coastal plain into Syria and on to Mesopotamia, connecting the commercial centers of Egypt and Babylonia, while Judah’s trade route at the edge of the Negev Desert led into Arabia. The Assyrian Kurkh Monolith recognizes Israel’s major contribution to a regional alliance, demonstrating Israelite economic and military clout, and prestige goods such as the Samarian Ivories show Israel’s ability to procure luxury items. Remains at Israelite strongholds at Megiddo, Hazor, Jezreel and Samaria are more impressive than the remains at Judah’s largest towns.

At the same time, Israel shows less fealty to God. The Samaria Ostraca, records of trade and taxation from the Kingdom of Israel, show a high percentage of personal names containing the name of the god Baal, indicating devotion to this non-Israelite god. Further, studies of refuse show that in the period before the Assyrian invasion, Israelite towns consumed pig in their diets, possibly in contravention of a biblical prohibition, while Judahite towns refrained from pig consumption. These can be interpreted as evidence of the north straying from God and his commandments and the south maintaining its attachment to God’s laws.

This distinction between Israel and Judah was a consideration in the naming of the State of Israel. Notably, Theodore Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat, ‘The Jewish State,’ not ‘The Israeli State,’ and the term Jew is a derivation of the name Judah. Ultimately the name Israel was chosen over Judah in part because Judah referred to a narrower geographic region, one that was still controlled by the Arabs.

In the Bible, the division between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah served neither well. On the eve of the Assyrian expansion into the southern Levant, Aram and Israel formed an alliance and attacked the kingdom of Judah. In response, Ahaz the king of Judah appealed to the king of Assyria, who defeated Israel’s ally Aram. This set the stage for Assyria’s invasion and ultimate expulsion of the Israelite tribes, an event evidenced by destruction layers in Israelite towns, new construction with Assyrian-style city planning and resettlement of non-Israelites into formerly Israelite towns.

If the kingdom of Judah emerged victorious in its war against Israel, this victory was a pyrrhic one for Judah’s descendants in a way entirely unforeseen by the victor. In Isaiah 7, the prophet Isaiah reassures Ahaz that Judah will soon be saved from Israel and Aram. “The young woman will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel…for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” The message for Ahaz is that he will have a son, and in the short time before the son is old enough to know right from wrong, Israel will be defeated and Judah will emerge victorious. The Masoretic Hebrew Bible version of Isaiah 7:14 utilizes the Hebrew term ‘alma,’ meaning a young woman will conceive. However, the Greek translation of this exchange utilized the term ‘parthenos,’ meaning a virgin will conceive. Christians read this as a virgin will give birth, and the newborn son will be called Immanuel, meaning ‘God is with us.’

This Greek reading of ‘virgin’ was utilized in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew to provide proof of Jesus’ pre-anticipated birth. And this reading was also used over the next two millennia to stand as proof of Christian favor over the Jews, in Jewish-Christian disputation, as an example of Jewish obstinacy and blindness, and continues in use today in missionizing material. A line of reassurance to Ahaz king of Judah in his victorious war against Israel became a major prooftext for Christian claims and grounds for attacks on Jews.

It is my hope this 9th of Av that the people of Israel can find a fair resolution to political disagreements, to not place onerous rules that disrupt the way of life for the other, and to see the commonality between Israel and Judah, just as my classmate did a year after her comment, in starting a Jewish Club at the graduate school.

About the Author
Yeshiah Grabie is a trained economist and M&A professional who is leveraging his Wall St. skillsets and applying them in the field of Jewish history. He is the author of a blog on the weekly parshah and archaeology, geared towards a maximalist audience while staying true to the archaeological science, at
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