A dose of nuance: Alas, lonely sits the city – again

Tisha Be’av is a day on which we not only recall the demise of Jewish sovereignty in the past but also contemplate its fragility in the present

By
July 23, 2015 11:35
Kerry and Zarif in Vienna

Secretary Kerry Poses for a Group Photo With Fellow EU, P5+1 Foreign Ministers and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif After Reaching Iran Nuclear Deal. (photo credit: STATE DEPARTMENT PHOTO)

To the litany of things that are wrong with the proposed treaty with Iran – it pumps between $100 billion and $150b.

into Iran’s economy, which the mullahs can then use for exporting terrorism throughout the region and the world; it grants regional hegemony to a power that unabashedly declares that Zionism is a virus and that Israel should be destroyed; the inspections it calls for give Iran so much time to cover up violations that what the inspections will actually do is reveal to Iran what international intelligence has uncovered but give the international community little chance to see what Iran is really doing – there’s another problem with the agreement.

Be the first to know - Join our Facebook page.


That problem is that the agreement came too early.

It would have been better had the agreement come a week or 10 days later. It should have been announced not on July 14 (Bastille Day, ironically) but a week later, perhaps a bit more. For had the agreement been even slightly delayed, it would have come during the Nine Days, the period of mourning in which we Jews now find ourselves, which will culminate on Sunday with the observance of Tisha Be’av and the reading of the Book of Lamentations.

The Mishna (Ta’anit 4:6) claims that Tisha Be’av is about mourning more than just the destruction of the two Temples.

On Tisha Be’av, the Mishna says, the Jewish people suffered at least five calamities: After the slanderous report of the Ten Spies, it was decreed that the Jews in the desert would not enter the Promised Land; the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE; the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE; the city of Betar was captured, putting an end to the Bar Kochba Revolt; and Jerusalem was plowed over by the Romans following the fall of that revolt.

All five events were symbolic of our inability to live as a sovereign nation in this land. Our ancestors were told that they themselves would not live to see this place. When the two Temples were destroyed, Jewish sovereignty over Judea ended. The collapse of the Bar Kochba Revolt, symbolized by both the fall of Betar and the plowing over of the city, also marked the end of Jewish sovereignty.

Tisha Be’av is thus a day on which we not only recall the demise of Jewish sovereignty in the past but also contemplate its fragility in the present. From the time that the Jews entered the Promised Land on their way from Egypt until they were finally exiled by the Romans in 72 CE, they were not sovereign for very long. The united monarchy (Saul, David and Solomon) lasted barely more than a century.

Add the period when there were two Jewish kingdoms, often in conflict with each other, and the period extends by a few centuries. But not more than that.

Jewish sovereignty in this land has always been fleeting.

If there is any message about Jewish sovereignty that emerges from the Tanach, it is that our being sovereign on this land is not the default position. Over the thousands of years that we have been a people, we have, for the vast majority of the time, not been sovereign in the land to which Abraham made his way, to which the Israelites wandered for 40 years and to which political Zionism ultimately succeeded in returning us. Especially in a year like this, our ephemeral history here is well worth noting.

There’s yet another dimension of that history we do not think about enough.

No less sobering than the fact that our sovereignty here has always been shortlived is the fact that (as the prophets make clear) one of the reasons the kingdoms fell is that they made bad treaties. Particularly in a week like this, when we both observe the Nine Days and struggle to make sense of what the free world has just done, it is worth recalling that our tradition has known for thousands of years that unwise treaties are often the prelude to our doom.

When Hosea ben Elah, the king of Israel, makes a treaty with Egypt (in an attempt to free himself from servitude to Assyria), Isaiah rails against the foolishness.

“Ha! Those who go down to Egypt for help, rely on horses (and not on God).” The price, the prophets warns, will be painful. “God of Hosts will descend to make war against the mount and the hill of Zion” (Isaiah 31:1-4).

Similarly, Jeremiah rails at King Jehoiakim of Judah for making foolish alliances with other nations in the region against Babylon. The king was getting bad advice about the treaty from many people, Jews who thought the treaty a good idea key among them. “Give no heed to your prophets, augurs, dreamers, diviners and sorcerers.” What will happen if the king of Judah makes the foolish treaty? “You shall be banished from your land; I will drive you out and you shall perish” (Jeremiah 27:9-10).

As we listen to Jews tell us and the world that the agreement with Iran is a good thing, it’s worth recalling the words of the lesser-known prophet Hanani in II Chronicles. As the Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judea battled each other, King Asa of Judah made a treaty with Ben-Hadad of Aram. The prophet Hanani minces no words. “You have acted foolishly in this matter, and henceforth you will be beset by wars” (II Chron. 16:1-10). Bad treaties do not bring peace, he understood better than do many of today’s leaders.

If only the agreement with Iran had been announced during the Nine Days.

How fitting it would be to recall the long history of treaties in this region that resulted in our losing sovereignty. How fitting it would be to recall the long line of rulers who imagined that they were doing the right thing, when in fact they were actually destroying everything we had built.

How fitting it would be to remember that what we have here is fragile, and that on numerous occasions what led to our downfall was treaties.

The Obama administration, though, will press on without looking back. And some Jewish “leaders” will join the administration’s chorus, pretending that they know best. “Following our own review of the agreement, we expect to call on Congress to support the deal,” wrote one Jewish organization, unequivocally situating itself on the wrong side of history.

Which will make it all the more fitting, wherever we may be this coming Saturday night, to fast, to mourn, to recall the way that the State of Israel was once viewed and the way it is now reviled; to open up our Bibles and, in the most melancholy melody our people knows, begin to chant the Book of Lamentations: “Alas, lonely sits the city, once great with people. She, once great among the nations, has become like a widow.”

The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul. He is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.


Related Content

The Palmah members founding the kibbutz in 1948.
May 22, 2018
Today’s millenials aren’t so different from early kibbutz members

By SIVAN SHAMRI DAHAN