The name of this Blog Zionism 2.0 could be viewed as something of a misnomer in that it implies that there was a Zionism 1.0 and not rather a multitude of prior plans to restore the Jewish people to the Holy Land . This is not obviously the case unless one considers Herzl’s Basel program as embodying the entire Zionist project as if it was born ex-nihilo, with no historical antecedent or precursors at the end of the 19th century, as so many anti-Zionist detractors like to exclaim. Indeed it is true that Israel’s creation runs, if not in a straight line, then in a zig-zag line from the first Zionist conference which Herzl personally organized and hosted on August 29th-31st, 1897 at the Stadtcasino Hotel in Basel, Switzerland, to the November 2nd, 1917 Balfour Declaration under the brilliant and masterful political guidance of Chaim Weizmann, through the World Wars and the destruction of European Jewry, to the mandatory period struggles with the various internecine conflicts with the British and Arabs, to the declaration of Israel’s independence at midnight on May 14th, 1948 by David Ben-Gurion under a portrait of Theodore Herzl.
It would seem that from much of the endless ahistorical pontificating, and shrill screeds that are causally bandied about arguing that Herzl’s program converted a disenfranchised ‘Ashkenazi’ European, as it is always now emphasized (or better Polish, Ukrainian or Russian) ‘white’ population, without any connection to the ‘land’ of Palestine, into a band of ‘settler colonialists’–another hackneyed and much abused expression as of late. In this academically worked over and stale concoction, a happy fellahin peasantry is seen living an idyllic life, cultivating their olive and fruit orchards from time immemorial on their tenured and legally titled land, only to suddenly face an invading horde of European Jewish “settlers” set on ‘stealing’ their land–with the emphasis always strongly focused on the “theft’ of the land. The Jewish historical connection never mind title to the same land is in this view fundamentally illegitimate and based on false colonial claims and imperial plots and shenanigans. In this view the Jewish connection to the land is also apocryphal and based on mythical unsubstantiated biblical claims.
The Temple itself in this view, as Yasser Arafat argued with President Bill Clinton at Camp David is also a fiction and a falsity, a Zionist confabulation. The conversation, as mentioned, has been hijacked by a clumsy and jerry-built academic and analytical framework of settler colonialism that is tightly married to poorly defined concepts of ‘indigeneity’ (i.e. Aboriginal) and its necessary corollary of indigenous genocide with a heavy and a rather newfound and loaded weight placed on the term “Genocide”; a term that only originates in 1944 with the Jewish-Polish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin in his opus Axis Power in Europe. Lemkin coined the expression in his attempt to grapple with the Assyrian, and the Armenian mass murder (1915-1916) by the ethnic-cleansing and xenophobic Young Turks and the predations on the Polish people by the Nazis during WW2. The word Genocide, in Lemkin’s more restricted usage of the word to mean the total extermination of an entire people, had largely been reserved, until very recently, to the Jewish Holocaust/Shoah (or the Turkish/ Armenian) model of total annihilation. The expansion of this term to the settler/ colonial binary and its newfound and aggressive application to Israel’s acts of self defense, post October 7th is one of the most frightful and baleful aspects of recent history and public discourse. The vicious and vile accusation of genocide and the repetitive claim that Israel is deliberating killing women and children is a lacerating canard and a direct assault on the morality and consciousness of Jewish people everywhere. The motivation for this flagrant recital of genocide in every slogan, placard and marching chant, is I suppose to shame and denigrate the Jewish people, to make the recent victims of the worst crime in human history, into its very perpetrators. This is all twisted in a hideous logic and broadcasted and amplified through Tik Tok videos and social media tweets countless times, reinforcing a set of despicable beliefs so much so that the Jewish Genocide of 1938-1945, historically now one of the most documented and studied events in human history, has been entirely displaced and effaced by the current and “far greater” genocide of Gaza.
The continuous ongoing and never completely severed relationship of the Jewish people with the land of Eretz Israel has been a near constant for almost two thousand years since the Roman destruction of the Jewish Temple and the end of the Jewish people’s independent existence as a political unit. The Jewish people, it must be said, are not, perforce, moving to Israel to settle a new land as an extension of a foreign power but rather returning to their homeland, often in flight and as refugees as was most dramatically the case in the 1930s, and in post-war Europe. In some sense, the Jewish people never really left their ancient home insofar as in the post temple destruction and aftermath, the Rabbinate and Jewish elders sought to create a protective time capsule, a vehicle, legally structured and ‘fenced’ in, that would preserve the Jewish people until a time they could return in more propitious circumstances to Eretz Israel.
This act of preservation not only recognizes a special relationship between the Jewish people and the cherished land of Israel but also demonstrates an act of deliberate preservational foresight that is unexampled in human history. A legally mandated and minutely reconstructed but essentially abstract metaphysical Zion made portable and attached to the everyday lives of Jewish people anywhere. The physical landscape of Zion was locked up and encapsulated, frozen in time, so to speak, to the appointed time of return, when political, economical and military circumstances would allow the protective shell to be removed, whereupon the Jewish people would again thrive and evolve on their natural ground. What could be more exemplary of the love of a people for its land? I would challenge anyone to point to any parallel event, anywhere in human history. This act of ‘synthetic’ preservation partakes, mysteriously, of some ‘species’ of the distant future, not of the past! It feels in some very real sense as something very ‘futuristic’, and not in any way as something historical or anachronistic. ( This subject that might warrant further exploration in a future blog posting)
The majority of the Jewish people may have left the immediate vicinity of ancient Israel but they took the land of Israel with them, in an abstract and symbolic Noah’s Ark: its harvest seasons, its soil, its fruits and grains, its trees and berries, its seasons and cycles, its flowers and foliage, its wildlife and birds, its sounds, its place names, its rivers and valleys, springs and gardens, its memorials and battlegrounds, its sacred burial mounds, and its holy mountains. No land has been more greatly loved than Eretz Israel by the people of Israel. The Jewish people are exhorted to remember Israel in their daily prayers, at death and during the culmination of the wedding ceremony. On Passover every Jewish person pledges “next year in Jerusalem”. This fealty is universally known and yet it is dismissed and disparaged and diminished. What is not as well known is the tenacity and ferocity of the Wars of Reconquest that were fought in the Holy Land by Jews for six hundred years. The soil of Israel is soaked in the blood of her sons who have fought for her and from these great sacrifices descend yet another inviolable right of title and privilege.
Six Hundred Years of War
If anyone wonders about Israel’s stamina and what lengths she might be prepared to take in order to hold on to her sovereign statehood in the face of recent threats and challenges, then it would be instructive to understand the wars that the Jewish people fought in the first half millennium of the common era. What occurred, and this has never been fully explicated or given its proper historical due was what amounts to 600 years of continuous warfare. This battle to reclaim national Jewish independence is unparalleled in its duration along with the intensity and ferocity of the related uprisings, revolts, rebellions, insurrections, and campaigns to roll back the Romans, and then the Byzantines and to recapture Jerusalem. These battles, to the extent which they are understood at all, are usually looked at as separate disconnected historical events but they can easily be looked at and perhaps they must be looked at, as part of a single historical continuum, of one enormous “Jewish War”. These wars and their costliness, the loss of life and the destruction of the materially wealthy, technically sophisticated Jewish communities, reshaped much of subsequent Jewish history, in particular the eschewing of violence, nationalism and zealotry, and the formation and evolution of a particular variant of Rabbinical Judaism with its more pacific, insular, talmudical focused nature, in a very significant way.
These wars include but are no means limited to: the seven year long Roman-Jewish Wars (66-73 AD) described so extensively by Flavius Josephus in his Jewish Wars (c. 75); the Kitos War of 115-117 AD, which saw the complete destruction of North Africa and Cyprus and much of Egypt; the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132-135) a rebellion that the Roman Empire came very close to losing and that shook the whole Roman state. In fact, a new Judaean nation state was declared during the Bar Kokhba rebellion and actual coins were minted. Battles, raids and insurrections continued to rage throughout the 3rd and 4th centuries leading to the large-scale Jewish Revolt during the Roman Civil War of 350-353 against Constantius Gallus which shook the commerce and stability of the Empire and probably paved the way for the official Roman State adoption of the Judaean creed of Christianity, as the state religion, by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, in itself a type of capitulation to the commercial and mercantile significance of Jewish and Judeo-Christian communities particularly in the major urban cities. The Roman Emperor Julian in 361 AD, the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, attempted to placate Jewish nationalists and their influential and wealthy sponsors by commencing a monumental reconstruction of the Third Temple which was only prevented from being completed by the devastating earthquake of 363 CE and the accidental ignition, it is believed, of stores of Judaean (Dead Sea) bitumen which was held in deep subterranean vaults beneath The Temple where it had be used to great effect as a weapon during the earlier Jewish War with Rome.
The wars with Byzantium became even more violent from this point forward, the Jewish Samaritan Revolts, which are often characterized inaccurately as a “non-Jewish war”, were in fact very much a joint enterprise (despite the apparent religious schism and hostility between the two Judaean groups–the Samaritans were excommunicated by the Jews in 300 AD), with Jewish zealots from Arabia and surrounding lands joining in. Foreign Greek, Persian, Armenian and Byzantine reporters and correspondents referred to these wars as Judaean wars, solely and explicitly, possibly due to the inability to clearly distinguish between the two groups. These devastating wars lasted almost one hundred years. This century-long war left the Samaritan and Jewish populations greatly reduced with some sources purporting as many as 500,000 deaths between the years 484-573. Jewish efforts to restore their people’s autonomy in the Holy Land only intensified in the 7th century with wars and rebellions of extraordinary violence. During the Byzantine-Sassanid Persian ‘World’ War, there was a large Jewish rebellion that briefly saw in 619 a Jewish army reclaim Jerusalem. The significance of this extraordinary and important event is often passed over. It should not be, however. The takeover of Jerusalem was led, as some sources claim, by as many as 20,000 Jewish soldiers and was financed by the Babylonian Exilarch, the titular head of Persian Sassanid Jewry and by Benjamin of Tiberius, a Jewish Croesus whose wealth was said to exceed that of any king or emperor then living.
A dynastic office, the Exilarch, safeguarded and garrisoned the ancient Jewish religious cities in Persia, along with the renowned rabbinical schools in the completely Jewish towns of Sura and Pumbedita. These towns contained the world’s largest scriptoriums, and possibly the world’s largest and most extensive libraries. The Babylonian Talmud, the greatest compilation of Jewish law and one of the most significant religious/intellectual undertakings of all time were compiled in these rabbinical cities as was the completion and final redaction of the Jerusalem Talmud. The Exilarch also controlled the almost impregnable treasury cities of Nisibis and Nehardea, which in turn held and controlled the Sassanid empire’s purse strings. The betrayal of the Jewish soldiers by the Persian Sassanid rulers to the Byzantines is one of the great acts of betrayal; an act of betrayal that is memorialized and recalled to this day in various traditions and legends of the Near East. It resulted in a Byzantine slaughter that would not go unanswered it seems.
With both the Byzantines and the Persians greatly weakened by their wars, multiple Jewish invasions and wars were instigated from Arabia, in waves of coordinated attacks. The composition of the Jewish communities, throughout the Arabian peninsula all the way to Yemen is still very much an unexplored subject. It is believed that large migrations of refugees fled from the time of the Jewish Roman Wars, and particularly after the Bar Kochba rebellion to the Arabian peninsula. These migrations were intensive and involved large numbers of fleeing refugees. Yathrib, the holy Muslim town of Medina, was largely a Jewish town. The Koran speaks as well of many different Jewish tribes in Medina and elsewhere. In Yemen in the beginnings of the 6th century, the very area that is now the confines of the Houthis, saw the emergence of the powerful and wealthy Jewish kingdom of Himyar, who under its leader Dhu Nuwas, or in Hebrew Joseph Nu’as (meaning “he of the sidelocks”), sought to unify the Arab tribes and to destroy the Christian and Byzantine communities with a conquering attack on Jerusalem. Dhu Nuwas, whose historicity is relatively well established, is described in the Life of Muhammed, as well in Persia and Greek sources, Philostorgius and Procopius (Persian Wars). Dhu Nuwas was killed and unseated by attacks from the Byzantine Christian Kingdom of Axum, which crossed the Red Sea from Ethiopia on order of the Byzantine Emperor. Dhu Nuwas’ campaign very much ‘patterned’ the Mohammedan wars and the invasion of the Holy Land in the 7th century. And the marauding Yemenite and Jewish tribes from Yemen would feature prominently in the complex consolidations and invasion forces that were assembled in early Islam. Yemenite family names and lineages are still to this day a source of great prestige and pride throughout the Levant, Lebanon, Golan Heights and North Africa.
(Part 2 of 2 to Follow)