‘The Jews were exiled from their ancestral homeland, and after 2,000 years of
displacement, they finally came home and restored their sovereignty,” we
commonly say, and it’s true. Sort of.
“The Land of Israel was the
birthplace of the Jewish people,” begins Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
“Here, their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.” That, too,
is accurate – sort of.
“Sort of,” because to start with a picky point,
the Israelites became a people not in the Land of Israel, but in Egypt. “Sort
of” because much of our identity was shaped in Babylonian exile. And “sort of”
because the unspoken assumption of all these narratives is that the default
status of the Jewish people was as a sovereign, united people in its homeland.
Exile, we insist, is the aberration. When the Jews returned to Zion, we ended
that aberration and restored the condition that had long been our
But is that really true? In our (give or take) 4,000-year
history, during how many of those years were we sovereign in one united Jewish
state? Not long at all, it turns out.
Let’s consider the first
commonwealth, which began with King Saul. No one know how long Saul ruled. I Sam
13:1 says two years, but every scholar notes that the verse’s language is
Josephus suggests both 20 and 40 years; the Septuagint says 22;
John Bright, the biblical scholar, says “at least a decade.”
guess high and say 20. After Saul, King David ruled for 40 years. And Solomon,
the last king of a united Israelite kingdom, ruled for about 39
Then the kingdom split. The first united Israelite kingdom,
therefore, lasted about a century.
In a history spanning thousands of
years, that’s not much.
To those who would point out that sovereignty
continued even after the split, that is true – but small
Merely five years after the division into northern and
southern kingdoms, an Egyptian military expedition destroyed most of the
northern cities and farmland.
Though the south was largely spared, it was
clear to all (and especially to the prophets) that sovereignty was all but over,
and Jewish flourishing was a thing of the past. Despite a few reprieves, the
post-division period was one of more or less uninterrupted decline, with exile
and permanent defeat always looming.
How about the second commonwealth?
Though Cyrus sent the Jews back to Judea to build the Second Temple in
approximately 538 BCE, they did so under his rule. Indeed, the only period
between Ezra/Nehemiah and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE during
which the Israelites were genuinely independent was during the Hasmonean (aka
Maccabees) Dynasty, from 140 BCE until 37 BCE (all these dates are approximate
and highly contested, obviously). That means, more or less, that the second
round of Jewish independence also lasted, give or take, 100 years.
then the Jews were exiled – again – this time for 2,000 years, until
Exile, despite our narrative to the contrary, was not a distortion
of the “Jewish normal.” Exile was the norm. In 4,000 years of history, we’ve had
a united, sovereign state for less than 300 years.
Why does that matter
now? It matters, in part, because we’re in the middle of the Three
The Three Weeks, which began with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz
(commemorating the date of the Romans’ breach of Jerusalem’s walls) and will end
with the fast of the Tisha Be’av (when the Temple was destroyed), evoke almost
no serious contemplation in the Jewish world. In the non-observant community,
this period is scarcely noticed. And even in the observant community, they are
typically marked more by rigorous attention to fulfillment of halachic
prohibitions (live music, weddings, swimming, etc.) than by
The very few who do think hard about the Three Weeks
associate them with mourning the Temple. How many of them genuinely want the
Temple restored is an issue no one discusses aloud with any honesty.
that the best we can do? The Jewish calendar was meant not just to be marked,
but to provoke us, to challenge us. Is there no way in which both observant and
non-observant Jews, those who would like to see a Temple rebuilt and those who
would not, can make of the Three Weeks something that matters, the setting for a
conversation about issues in Jewish life and Israel’s future that are critical
to us all? I believe we could, if we began by internalizing how brief have been
our periods of sovereignty. The first two instances of Jewish sovereignty lasted
a mere 100 years each. Today, we’re already 65 years into round three. The first
two times, it was menacing empires – Egypt and Babylonia/Persia – which
destroyed us. Today, Egypt is more problematic than it was 20 years ago, the
Syrian border (which had been dormant for decades) is extremely worrisome, and
Iran, more or less the Persia of today, is, says David Albright (a former UN
weapons inspector), within a year of having “the capacity to produce enough
fissile material for a single bomb in one or two weeks,” according to The
If menacing neighbors weren’t sufficient, the Israelites
managed to toss in a huge dose of internal division, contributing mightily to
the defeat of both the first and second commonwealths.
Like them, we are
bitterly divided over how to deal with our enemies. Like them, we often despise
each other more than we fear our enemies. And like theirs, our commonwealth
could also fall.
There is nothing natural or inevitable about Jewish
It is not clear that the Israelites would have survived had
they been wiser, but it would not have hurt. Nor is it clear that we will
survive. There may be a Jewish state in 100 years, but there may
There may be a Jewish state in 50 years, but there may not. What is
clear is that if we have any hopes of being around for the long term, we must
first internalize how utterly fragile Jewish sovereignty has always been, how
dangerous are Jewish divisions that know no boundaries, and how strategic and
thoughtful we must be when dealing with the powers that threaten
Israel may make it, and it may not. But surely we want to be able to
say, regardless of whatever transpires in the decades to come, that we were not
blind to the lessons of history, and that we thought hard and acted carefully,
based on the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of history.
Three Weeks fostered a transnational Jewish conversation about the historic
brevity of Jewish sovereignty and the fragility of Jewish independence, is there
anyone who would think it irrelevant? I doubt it. So let’s start, marking this
period first and foremost by talking about the issues it raises.
challenge today is not simply to mourn, but infinitely more importantly, to make
our mourning matter. Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret
distinguished fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts
college. His most recent book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest
Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, was recently named by Jewish Ideas
Daily as one of the best Jewish books of 2012. His new book, Menachem Begin and
the Battle for Israel’s Soul, will be published by Nextbook in 2014.
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