Daniel Suraqui

Remember זָכוֹר

Second Temple Destruction
Jerusalem Burning Temple (Wikimedia Commons)

It is said that we are the people of memory, our specialty is to study the Law: the Torah, we have written millions of pages. Our existence today in the land of Israel is justified thanks to the continuity of this study and the fact that this land has been promised to us to the point that the land of Israel is called the Promised Land.

Promised certainly, but under conditions, which are that we must live there according to standards of morality and justice. In the Bible, there is a recurrent causality between our behavior and our well-being. When our moral level declines, enemies are raised up against us to bring us back on the right path and in extreme cases; we are driven out of this land. This scenario has occurred twice, the destruction of the first temple in -586 and that of the second temple in 70. Both events were extremely traumatic and are deeply engraved in our spiritual memories. The destruction of the second temple was of cataclysmic magnitude, partly due to the determination of the occupying power Rome to eradicate Jewish resistance, and partly because of a rare and violent civil war among the Jews who were also fighting against the Romans. This situation, where hatred between brothers takes precedence over the fight against the invader, ultimately led one hundred years later to the end of the Jewish presence in the Promised Land for nineteen centuries.

It is understandable that this lesson has left a deep impression. One proof of this is that in 1948, just a few weeks after the creation of the State of Israel, when a ship called the Altalena loaded with weapons intended for a dissident armed group called the Irgun was sunk off the coast of Tel Aviv by the Israeli army (Tsahal). This tragic event resulted in the death of sixteen members of the Irgun and two soldiers of Tsahal. The Prime Minister David Ben Gurion made this dramatic decision because the young state could not survive with two separate armies. For his part, the leader of the Irgun, Menahem Begin, opposed retaliation and authorized the integration of the Irgun within Tsahal. That day, the people of Israel, heirs of a millennial past, successfully passed their entrance (re-entrance) exam, which gave them the right to exist (re-exist) on this land. If they had failed, they would not have had the right to return.

Presently, Israel is going through a difficult period. The judicial crisis is dividing the country in two. The coalition is voting on laws that would allow them to control the appointment of judges and overturn Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes. In such a case, the only counterbalance to government and Knesset decisions would be paralyzed, and the country’s democratic structure would be in danger.

Half of the coalition is formed by the ruling Likud party, whose majority of lawmakers are often pragmatic, and half of nationalist and Orthodox religious parties who are not willing to compromise for different reasons. Nationalists have been partially hindered by the Supreme Court in recent decades in their efforts to expand settlement programs in Judea and Samaria. As for the Orthodox, they have been limited in their willingness to carry religious, financial, or non-enlistment laws in the military. These two groups see the current coalition as a historic opportunity that may not be repeated to shape Israeli society according to their ideology.

Likud, even if it wants to mitigate the effect of these laws on the international, economic and domestic fronts, cannot do so because the coalition would fall apart. Israeli society is split into two blocs that are wrongly labeled left-right. This is an incongruous qualifier in the classic sense of the term since the Israeli left is on the right and vice versa. In reality, the best criterion that defines these two tendencies is the policy toward the West Bank territories, which have been under Israeli responsibility since 1967. Of course, economic, religious, and educational criteria come into play, but they are secondary with respect to the major question of the territories.

The situation we find ourselves in, all things considered, has already occurred in our history. The Altalena is a revealing but microscopic example where survival instinct prevailed. There is another major counter example, which has shaken the history of the Jewish people, perhaps more than any other event, and which bears some analogies to our present situation: the destruction of the Second Temple.

To analyze current events in light of our previous history, it is necessary to recall the three fateful years from 68 AD that mark the beginning of the revolt against Rome until 70 AD, when massive massacres of Jews took place throughout the Mediterranean region, culminating in the destruction of the Temple. We have documentation of this period thanks to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, as well as Talmudic and archaeological sources. Let us briefly review the history.

In 67 AD, Judaea is a country under Roman control, the north of the country, Galilee, is ruled by a Jewish king, Agrippa, who is a Roman surrogate. The Jewish population is in the majority, but there is a significant Greek colony that is very hostile towards them. The Roman procurator who governs the country is deeply corrupt and settles disputes between the two communities by favoring the one who offers the most substantial bribe. The overwhelming majority of Jews are extremely devout, and the Temple plays a predominant role in religious life. However, religious groups are opposed to each other for ideological and belief reasons. There are the Sadducees who are descendants of the priestly line of Aaron. The high priest comes from their ranks. The Pharisees who are in the majority and who are opposed to the Sadducees; some accepting the belief in the resurrection of the dead, others rejecting it. The Samaritans who do not accept the oral Law, the Essenes who advocate an ascetic life, the Zealots who want strict observance. The Sicarii are a sub-fraction of the Zealots and do not hesitate to resort to assassination in order to achieve their political goals.

Some of these groups legitimize the use of violence against other groups, believing that the importance of their belief is fundamental. In this year 68, the region was explosive: Jews against Romans, high Jewish clergy against priests (Pharisees), Greeks against Jews, and Jews against Jews. The Jews increasingly resent Roman domination and a spark ignited by the Roman procurator will light the fire. The revolt begins in Jerusalem, where the Romans are driven out and flee to Caesarea, in the process the Jerusalem Legion was nearly wiped out. At first, an effort of conciliation is undertaken under the initiative of Agrippa without success. The Romans retreat to Caesarea, scattered Roman troops are massacred and the rest of the occupying forces take refuge in Syria, where Rome has significant contingents. At this point, all Jewish forces unite to resist the imminent Roman counteroffensive from the North, which will not be long in coming. Even those who are aware that the balance of power is in favor of Rome join the revolt: the wine is drawn, there are no alternatives and it is a question of winning or dying! The Romans organize themselves, Vespasian is sent by Nero with three legions, which join the two legions of Syria. This represents a considerable and terrifying force, despite fierce resistance Roman victories follow one another, Sepphoris and Jotapata are taken. Vespasian makes his junction with Agrippa II, seizes Tiberias and Tarichea, then Gamla and Mount Tabor. The Galilee is reconquered, the inhabitants are massacred and many survivors commit suicide. At the end of the year, the north of Judea and the coastal region south of Jaffa are subjugated.

In 68 AD, Vespasian arrived in Jericho and prepared to besiege Jerusalem. It was at this time that the latent civil war between the Jews erupted into open conflict. The Zealots seized power in Jerusalem, the high priest Ananias was assassinated, and various factions began killing each other. By the summer of 68, all was lost. The Roman troops were approaching Jerusalem, and the civil war raged within the city walls with no hope in sight. And yet, an unexpected event of great magnitude would change everything. Emperor Nero committed suicide, leading to a period of instability in the Roman Empire that would bring it to the brink of collapse. This period is called: the Year of the Four Emperors and lasted from June 68 to December 69. During these 18 months, four emperors would succeed each other and be put to death, while Roman legions fought against each other. Vespasian then left Judea with the bulk of his forces to go to Rome, where he was proclaimed emperor. He left only one legion in Judea, which was stationed in a defensive position in Caesarea. This appointment marked the end of the political instability of the Empire.

During and before the time of the First Temple, the people of Israel often found themselves in a desperate situation. A prophet would appear, announcing that despite all appearances, deliverance would come very soon. The people would repent, and the event prophesied came true. In the time of the Second Temple, there were no longer any prophets in Israel, so it was up to the people to interpret external signs. During this unexpected respite, what did the Jews do? Did they unite to rebuild and strengthen their walls? Did they attack the Roman garrison in Caesarea? Are they concerned in the face of the common enemy? They did none of these things. Instead, they undertook a fratricidal war among themselves, which will not be recounted here.

The new emperor, Vespasian, then sent his son Titus to the region to besiege Jerusalem with four legions at his disposal. As Titus began the siege, three Zealot factions were killing each other while also fighting the enemy outside. However, all of these hostile factions shared a common belief that God would intervene to drive out the Romans if they seized the Temple. Zealots burned the grain supplies so that no other faction would benefit and to hasten redemption, because how would God allow the Temple to fall into pagan hands? How could such an erroneous interpretation be made, when the Jews remembered the loss of the First Temple six centuries earlier, which had ended in exile to Babylon?

Let us end this historical parenthesis here. Our sages have decreed a fast on the 9th of the month of Av, the day of the destruction of the two temples, which is a day of mourning for the entire Jewish people. There is no one among these people who does not know that hatred between us caused the greatest disaster in our history (aside from the Shoah). Let us return to the present and be cautious. In the first century of our era, Israel was a country occupied by a superpower. Today, we are an independent country with external enemies whose declared goal is our destruction. This enemy makes no distinction between a religious, Haredi or secular Jew. Israeli society is fractured on the issue of settlements. Nationalist parties rely on the Torah to claim all of Eretz Israel. For the first time since 1967, these parties find themselves in a situation where they can theoretically impose their will. Until now, all governments have been composed of coalitions that included at least one liberal component that would never have accepted the eviction of the Supreme Court, which as mentioned above is the only counterweight in Israel. Today, due to the exceptional situation where politicians define themselves for or against the Prime Minister, the only possible coalition was the present one where the religious Zionist party can impose its policy because the Prime Minister has no other alternative than to provoke new elections, which he will not do on his own.

The religious nationalist party is faced with an irresistible temptation. It has a unique opportunity to realize a dream it has pursued for decades, that of Greater Israel. If it does so, we will find ourselves in a situation that has analogies that prevailed in 68, just before the revolt against Rome, a fractured, irreconcilable society. How can such people escape violence? While we are surrounded by enemies and no longer, share the same values with our allies who have always supported us. Will we repeat the same mistakes, with the same consequences? The feeling of holding absolute truth is extremely dangerous, this is true today for religious and nationalist parties, but tomorrow also for the opposition that has become a majority, if a boomerang effect occurs and if under external constraints Jewish settlements are in the obligation to be dismantled. Consultation, leading to compromise remains the only option to avoid disaster and it can only be done within the framework of mutual respect.

At this stage, another historical reminder is necessary. It concerns the period preceding the creation of the State of Israel. In 1897, the first Zionist Congress was held in Basel. The vast majority of the participants were non-religious Jews, while Orthodox Jews not only were absent, but also opposed the holding of the congress. These congressmen were utopians driven by an unwavering faith in a project that had virtually no chance of succeeding in the context of the time. In the fifty years that followed, these men were the vectors of the greatest miracle of the 20th century: the resurrection of an ancient people on their land and the resurgence of a language spoken by nearly ten million citizens of this country. There is no other such example in the history of humanity! They included, Theodore Herzl, animated by his power of conviction; Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who raised a mountain by making the impossible possible; Edmond de Rothschild, who fought tooth and nail to allow Jewish agriculture in the north of the country; Chaim Weizmann, who used his political influence; David Ben-Gurion, who convinced his fellow citizens to accept the UN partition plan, despite opposition from Irgun and Lehi. And many others who shared a small spark that perhaps drove them, despite themselves, to act for a great purpose. All these men did not practice Shabbat, but they were nevertheless chosen by Providence and had to face the Orthodox Judaism that opposed the future Jewish state before the coming of the Messiah, and nationalist groups who believed that the UN partition plan was unacceptable because it did not give them access to a large part of their ancestors’ land.

When we are confronted with reality, we act according to our conscience, our environment, and our actions sometimes lead us astray, and sometimes to the light. We are the people of memory, we scrutinize the past. So why do we not take into account the same causes producing the same effects? It is not easy to be a man on this earth, and even more difficult to be a Jew. It is true that the Torah has assigned us this country, which is ours, but it is also true that our presence is justified only if we reach a certain moral level, among other things, we cannot endure if hatred animates us, and the acquisition of no territory justifies a bloodbath. In our long history, the only time we effectively controlled the territories granted to us by the Torah was during the reigns of David and Solomon. For a long time, we lived in the Kingdom of Judah, which was a handkerchief of land surrounding Jerusalem, and sometimes we were happy there. Like with the Altalena, we have a passing exam, prepare for it and pass it. Remember.  ָזָכוֹר

About the Author
Dr. Daniel Suraqui is a nuclear physicist. He was a lecturer at the University of Jerusalem and then developed computer systems. In 2011, as part of the company he founded, he was the first to develop an application on Android, a revolutionary keyboard called SlideIT that has been used by millions of users and is based on many patents. After him other companies have used this technology so that today this type of keyboard exists in all languages and in almost all phones. He has also written several books and is passionate about history.
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