Are Israel's zealots the same as ancient Judea's zealots?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: The zealot attacks regardless of his resources, training or skill.

 DEMONSTRATORS OUTSIDE the US Consulate in Tel Aviv on March 7 call on the US to intervene to stop the government’s judicial overhaul.  (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
DEMONSTRATORS OUTSIDE the US Consulate in Tel Aviv on March 7 call on the US to intervene to stop the government’s judicial overhaul.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

‘He who wishes to fight must first count the cost,” said Chinese military thinker Sun Tzu in The Art of War.

That’s exactly what zealots don’t do. Driven by wrath, blinded by hatred, and guided by fantasy, the zealot charges the enemy head on, regardless of who the enemy is, what he carries, and what the zealot himself lacks, whether in resources, training or skill.

This is what is happening in the right flank of the assault on our judiciary. Opposite the zealots in this three-part front sprawl the royalists, whom this column will discuss next week, and in between them loom the separatists, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, whom we addressed last week.

As the tragedy unfolding about us makes plain, the zealots are this front’s most dangerous component. Where do they come from, and where might they lead?

ZEALOTRY IS total dedication to a cause, tolerating no delay of fulfillment, no notion of compromise, and few moral constraints.

 Judicial reform protestors block the road at HaKfar HaYarok youth village in Ramat Hasharon on March 9, 2023. (credit: Shai Koriansky) Judicial reform protestors block the road at HaKfar HaYarok youth village in Ramat Hasharon on March 9, 2023. (credit: Shai Koriansky)

From communists to Islamists, history’s many zealots couldn’t tolerate the gap between the present’s travails and the future’s idyll.

That is what happened to the Jews who provoked war with Rome, the people behind the Webster Dictionary’s definition of “Zealot,” which is: “Member of a fanatical sect arising in Judea during the first century AD and militantly opposing the Roman domination of Palestine.”

That’s the mild way of putting it. What the Zealots really did was trigger a war they stood no chance of winning, a war with an enemy about which they knew precious little, while dividing their own nation and arriving for their chanceless war unorganized, unequipped untrained, and unled.

Yes, they fought gallantly, but they also fought each other, so intensely that “the blood of all sorts of dead carcasses stood in lakes in the holy courts themselves,” as Flavius Josephus reported (The Wars of the Jews V 1:3).

Militarily inept and politically ignorant, the Zealots did not understand Rome’s imperial depth and logistical efficiency, and thus had no effective reply to the 60,000 soldiers Rome eventually landed here in order to defeat them, including three legions – one brought from Egypt, two from Syria – followed by 13 brigades of 600 footmen and 120 horsemen each, in addition to 15 infantry divisions of 1,000 warriors each, and three more armies of 1,000 cavaliers and 2,000 archers (Wars III 4:2).

In their incompetence, the Zealots hardly confronted this juggernaut when it was on the move – as real guerrillas would have – and instead awaited it within fortifications, like Yodfat, Gamla and Jerusalem. It was a static type of warfare for which the Romans were well prepared and the Jews could not win.

Besides their military ineptitude and political ignorance, the Zealots also disparaged the law and detested those who represented it.

That is why the Zealots murdered Yehoshua ben Gamla, a towering legislator who pioneered compulsory education (not just for the Jews but for all mankind), and that is why when they wanted to baselessly accuse one of their rivals with treason, they collected 70 “men of the populace for a show, as if they were real judges” (Wars IV 5:4).

Zealots assault Israeli law

All these elements resurface now among the zealots assaulting our own courts of law.

OUR OWN zealots’ ignorance of the outer world became patent with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s statement that the Palestinian town where brothers Hallel and Yagel Yaniv were murdered last week “should be erased.”

Such a statement is reckless by any leader any day, but coming from the finance minister it discloses his cluelessness about the outer world and about his place in it, as would indeed befit a man who has hardly traveled and never really dialogued with non-Jews or read what they write, even in Hebrew, let alone in their own tongues.

That is also how a minister like Amichai Chikli could tweet to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, following his critique of the anti-judicial assault, “Mind your own business.” Such zealots’ failure to accept the size gaps, and hierarchy, between Israel and Uncle Sam repeats the ancient Zealots’ failure to understand who their own era’s superpower was and what its sway entailed.

Just like they don’t know how to measure size, zealots also can’t stomach complexity.

That’s why they can think that “erasing” a town can end a conflict, and that’s why they can’t accept the fact that the pro-judiciary protesters include major-league patriots like the fighter pilots whom one zealot said are “brainwashed,” a second called “not Zionists,” and a third told to “go to hell.”

Like the ancient Zealots who went to war without knowing what war meant, such zealots are clueless about what the pilots they deride did over long years of daring sorties beyond enemy lines followed by voluntary service, including operational action, one day every week of their civilian life, for decades.

It is this mindset of ignorance, arrogance and binary simplifications that makes the zealots detest the Supreme Court, which one of them once said should be “mounted with a D9” bulldozer.

The judiciary’s enemies have different motivations. The separatists we discussed last week detest the court that does not let them evade the draft. The zealots abhor the court that does not let them snatch lands it finds rightfully owned by Palestinians.

In other words, the anti-judicial front brandishes, at its one end, ultra-patriots out to provoke an Armageddon for which we will arrive as international lepers and, at its other end, anti-patriots who would have us reach that war with a decimated military.

We have been through such madness in the past, and the result was 1,878 years of trauma, powerlessness, humiliation, and despair. There is no way we will let them do this to us again.

The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.