Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pompey's Ghost

One of the most tragic episodes in Jewish history is also one of the least well known and involves personalities that most moderns will not even have heard of. It is a seamy story about people working at cross-purposes with their own best interests, about people unable to see the forest for the trees (that expression could have been coined to describe the people I’m about to tell you about), and about the horrific consequences of being so blinded by self-interest as to not notice the enemy hordes gathering patiently at the gate and waiting…not to attack (why should they?), but simply to walk in and take what they want when everybody who should be resisting their advance is simply too distracted to seize the implications of their arrival.

The story I want to tell is about two first-century BCE brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, but to tell their story well I need to start just a bit earlier on. Everybody knows that the Maccabees were successful in establishing an autonomous Jewish state in the Land of Israel. But what came next is specifically not all that well known. At first, the Jewish state was merely autonomous without being fully sovereign, but that murky status segued quickly enough into something more like “real” independence...and then, in the year 104 BCE, about six decades after the “Chanukah story” events, Judah Aristobulus, a great-nephew of Judah Maccabee (he was the grandson of Judah's brother Simon), declared himself king of the Jews and reigned as such...but only briefly. He died, in fact, after only a single year on the throne, but his willingness to self-coronate as king had a lasting effect on the entire course of Jewish history. He was succeeded by his own brother, a man known to history as King Yannai. (In more scholarly circles, he’s often called Alexander Jannaeus.)

Along with his throne, King Yannai also inherited his brother's wife, a woman named Salome Alexandra who was thirteen years his senior. And this was quite the woman, this Salome: she was the wife of two different kings...and then, after her second husband died, she herself ascended to the throne and ruled the nation on her own as its sole regent, as its queen. And then she herself died in 67 BCE. The men mentioned above, Hyrcanus and 
Aristobulus, were her and King Yannai's two sons.

And now we get to the meat of my story. As the last reigning king’s oldest son, Hyrcanus was entitled to ascend to the throne. Which he did. Briefly. After three months of enduring his big brother’s rule, Aristobulus had enough and attempted to seize the throne for himself. What followed was, by all accounts, a horrifically violent civil war involving foreign mercenaries, back-stabbing advisors (among whom Antipater, the father of the future King Herod), terrible civilian casualties, and internecine violence on a level that I’m guessing would previously have seemed unimaginable.

And then things took a turn from the merely bloody to the truly tragic.

Watching all this unfold from a safe perch afar off in Damascus was the famous Roman general Pompey, the conqueror of Spain and a brilliant enough military tactician to understand that Rome could rule the entire Levant if it ruled Judea. What his original plan was, none can say. But as things turned out he hardly needed to put any plan into effect at all, only to watch on as the Jewish state descended into civil war and weakened itself to the point that resistance to Rome would be impossible even if anyone had been paying attention.

For their part, the Jews appear to have failed utterly to notice the wolf’s fangs jutting out from beneath the mask of civility Pompey presented in Damascus as he received group after Jewish group, each begging for his support and somehow not seizing the fact that the Romans had their own plans for the future (or rather, the non-future) of the Jewish state. Appearing to be interested in restoring the peace, Pompey arrived in Jerusalem in 63 BCE. And then the façade of phony benignity fell away and the wolf, just a moment earlier a welcome guest in the henhouse, revealed his true nature.

Josephus, the first century CE historian, records that 12,000 people died defending the Temple alone from Roman intruders. To stress the fact that he was in total charge, Pompey committed the ultimate sacrilege: he stepped into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum penetrated only once annually on Yom Kippur by the High Priest of Israel. And that was that. Having made his point, he then allowed the Jews to run things on the Temple Mount starting almost immediately because he had already made the point he had come to make: that Judea was henceforth under Roman domination and that future resistance would be futile. To make that point even more forcefully, Pompey leveled the walls of the city. And then, because he could, he imposed harsh new taxes. To appear conciliatory by offering the Jews some thin veneer of autonomy, Pompey allowed Hyrcanus, his nominal ally, to call himself king. But at the same time he appointed a governor, a man named Gabinus, to wield the real power in Pompey’s absence. And so ended Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel until 1948 CE, a cool 2,011 years later.

Pompey then returned to Rome, apparently expecting to be made emperor but equally apparently not fully understanding the extremes to which the other candidate for the position, Julius Caesar, was willing to go to secure the position they both wanted. What happened next, and the impact the long struggle between Pompey and Julius Caesar ended up having on the Jews of ancient Judea—that is another story entirely that I’ll write about some other time.

For today, though, the image of hostile foreigners watching on with glee as the unity of the Jewish people is eroded through bitter internecine violence—and, even more to the point, through an almost pathological inability to compromise meaningfully and substantively—that image should be shocking enough even without knowing the full scope of the debacle that was then yet to come.

Does this sound at all familiar?

A few weeks ago, I wrote to you all about the grotesque, insulting resolution passed by UNESCO that more or less denied—or at least ignored—the Jewish claim to Jerusalem as an integral part of our heritage and as the capital of any number of ancient Jewish kingdoms and political entities, as well as the modern State of Israel. If I could have expressed my contempt for that kind of deeply anti-Semitic manipulation of the facts of Jewish history to serve the perverse political ends of our enemies any more clearly, it wasn’t for want of trying. But, as I wrote there, there is something far more sinister afoot here than merely lying about history; the UNESCO vote is part of a world-wide campaign to delegitimize Israel by calling into question details of ancient history that no serious scholar doubts and which have been part of the narrative of Jewish history for centuries upon centuries. (If you wish to review my remarks with respect to UNESCO, click here.)

All that being the case, you would have expected the Jewish people, both in Israel and in the lands of our dispersion, to respond by uniting around the relics of our ancient past, by showing the world that, despite the riven, divided nature of the Jewish people with respect to even the most important issues, on this one point we are in total agreement: that Jerusalem was the capital of ancient Israel, that the Temple Mount is the site both of Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple as well, and that the remaining bits and pieces of the Temple—and primarily the Western Wall, the largest visible piece of the ancient site—are the common property of all who claim membership in the House of Israel. And, indeed, showing a united front to our enemies would have been a simple, effective way collectively to spit in the eye of our foes and to make it clear that they can pass all the resolutions they wish…but that the past remains by its very nature inviolate and as such unchangeable by even the most hostile resolution. And it would also have served to remind the world that the Jewishness of Jerusalem is not a topic that rational people debate any more than they discuss whether the Civil War ever actually happened…or whether the Shoah did.

But all of that is precisely not what happened. The endless wrangling around the Kotel, the Western Wall, spilled over into actual violence last week as the government of Israel, led by feckless leaders unable or unwilling to put into effect the agreement they themselves brokered last year between the extremist rabbis who have traditionally run things at the site and the various groups of non-Orthodox Jews who reasonably and justly wish not to be excluded from the holiest of all Jewish sites because they refuse to sign onto the fundamentalist fanaticism that the other side openly promulgates.

This has been going on for a very long time. The agreement of last January was hammered out between a number of interested parties: the Women of the Wall group, the Reform Movement in Israel, the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, the wall’s areidi rabbinical leaders, the Jewish Agency, and the Israeli government. It wasn’t what we had always wished for, but the agreement constituted a big compromise for all sides and it was something that we all felt we could live with. Except for its Orthodox signatories, who immediately began working to undermine a compromise to which they themselves had just agreed, going so far as to file a petition with the Israeli Supreme Court barring its implementation.

This led to a counter petition filed in the Supreme Court demanding that the Court order the compromise agreement to be implemented. And then, when it finally became more or less clear that the Israeli government too was backing away from its own commitment, the decision was made to move forward unilaterally, which led to a large-scale act of civil disobedience that involved carrying ten Torah scrolls from the Dung Gate, the city gate nearest the Kotel Plaza, to the Western Wall Plaza last week. It did not go well. There was violence. There was shoving. There was name-calling of the vilest, most grotesque variety. The level inner-Jewish disunity on full display for the world to contemplate was beyond appalling. It was Hyrcanus and Aristobulus all over again: real foes massing outside the gates…and the people inside ignoring the real danger and choosing instead to spend their time screaming hateful epithets at each other.

The Jewish people has real enemies, serious, deadly foes working intently to deny the Jews of Israel the right to chart their own destiny in their own place. Some of these enemies are well known. Others wear sheep’s clothing when they come to call. But all are united in their hatred of the Jewish state and the people Israel.

And the response of the rabbinic leaders into whose hands the most sacred of all Jewish shrines has been entrusted and their followers? To devote energy, resources, and endless time to disparaging non-Orthodox Jews and to refusing to live up to their own public commitment to compromise. The fault rests equally with the government of Israel and its hapless leadership, and with the areidi rabbis who cannot stand the thought of anyone other than themselves sharing in the governance of Judaism’s holiest site. The battle isn’t over. In a sense, it’s hardly even truly been joined just yet. What Prime Minister Netanyahu truly thinks, I have no idea. But what Pompey’s ghost thinks…I know all too well.

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