This post will look at the disconnect between popular and scholarly belief and try to examine the origin of the myth several centuries after the event occurred. I will follow pretty closely the first part of a comprehensive article on the subject by Hebrew University professor, Yisrael Yuval, which is available here . Because this article is under copyright, I can’t quote more than a few passages, and so I will just be paraphrasing him. But I urge you to read the article, especially his copious footnotes.The myth was not invented by the Zionists, although it was greatly used by them, in part, to justify the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland. For the tacit assumption of the Zionists was that if the Jews had left the land willingly, if they had merely “emigrated” because they found opportunities beckoning in the Diaspora, then they would have betrayed their allegiance to the land, and their return would have been less justified. That is one of the reasons why Zionists argued for years that the Palestinians left Palestine of their own free will – if they were forcibly expelled, then somehow their claim to the land would be stronger. Of course, the putative expulsion by the Romans was not the only claim of the Jewish people to the land – many peoples have been exiled from their lands, and the Zionists were not claiming that all of them had a right to return -- but it dovetailed nicely with the historical view of the wandering Jew that finds no rest outside of his native place from which he was expelled. The first point to make is that well before the revolt against Rome in 66-70 c.e., there were Jewish communities outside Palestine, most notably in Babylonia and in Egypt, but elsewhere as well. References to the dispersal of the Jewish people throughout the civilized world are found in the book of Esther, Josephus, and Philo. There is no indication that these communities were small, satellite communities. Second, there is no contemporary evidence – i.e., 1st and 2nd centuries c.e. – that anything like an exile took place. The Romans put down two Jewish revolts in 66-70 c.e. and in 132-135 c.e. According to Josephus, the rebels were killed, and many of the Jews died of hunger. Some prisoners were sent to Rome, and others were sold in Libya. But nowhere does Josephus speak of Jews being taken into exile. As we shall see below, there is much evidence to the contrary. There was always Jewish emigration from the Land of Israel, as the quote above from Baron indicates. The first mention of the exile of the Jews occurs in remarks attributed to the third century Palestinian rabbi, R. Yohanan that are found in the Babylonian Talmud, a work that received its final recension several centuries later (c. 500 c.e.): “Our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land” (Gittin, 56a). The editor/s of the Talmud referred this statement to the Roman exile. Similar statements can be found elsewhere in the Babylonian Talmud attributing to rabbis living in the Land of Israel the view that the Romans were responsible for the destruction of the House, the burning of the temple, and the exile from the land. But if one examines other Babylonian sources, and most sources from the Land of Israel, the statements most likely refer to the First Temple, and the exile by the Babylonians. There is, after all, something odd in having rabbis living in the Land of Israel bemoaning an exile from the Land of Israel. Yuval summarizes the sources as follows: “In other words, it seems that the triple expression—destruction of the House, burning of the Temple, exile from the land—originally (in the sources from the Land of Israel) referred to the First Temple and were applied to the Second Temple only in Babylonia.10 In the Tannaitic and early Amoraic sources, Rome is accused only of destroying the Temple, not of exiling the people from their land.11 A broad historical and national outlook, one that viewed the “Exile of Edom” (Rome being identified with the biblical Edom) as a political result of forced expulsion, did not survive from this period. Nor would such a view have been appropriate to the political reality and the conditions of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, which were certainly very well known to the members of that generation.” In fact, Chaim Milikowsky, professor and past chairman of the Talmud department at Bar Ilan university, has argued that in 2nd and 3rd century tannaitic sources, the Hebrew term rendered as “exile” has the meaning of political subjugation rather than physically being driven from the land (cited in Yuval, p. 19, n.1) This, by the way, dovetails nicely with the Zionist historiography that emphasizes the loss of political independence, rather the physical removal of the Jews from the Land of Israel. For Zionists were somewhat at a loss to explain how Jewish rabbis could create the Mishnah and subsequently the Talmud of the Land of Israel if there was a mass exile. This much of Yuval’s essay is uncontroversial and based on widely-accepted historiography. What follows is speculative and fits well the general trend of Yuval’s work, which is to see much greater Christian influence on the formation of rabbinic Judaism than has hitherto been recognized. Yuval points out that in early Christian sources, following the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion, there is an attempt to interpret the removal of the Jews from Jerusalem as punishment for the sin of rejecting Christ, and the depletion of the Jewish population of Jerusalem in light of the Biblical prophecies of exile. The Jewish reaction, on his reading, was to emphasize that Jews were still very much in the Land of Israel – which contemporary Jews, for the first time, interpreted to include not merely the Northern Kingdom of Israel, but the entire land. Only later, during Talmudic times, was the Exile from the Land incorporated in Jewish collective memory. What implications does the exposure of the myth of the Roman Exile have for Zionism, the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, etc., etc. None, in my opinion. It is less important that the Jews were actually carried off into Exile than that they thought they were. The rabbis, and even earlier Jewish scholars, tended to conflate the Babylonian exile with the later loss of independence among the Romans. As a formative moment in Jewish religious consciousness, the destruction of the first temple and the exile was vastly more significant than the destruction of the second temple; some, like Bible scholar Adele Berlin, have argued that parts of the Bible, and maybe even the Torah, were edited in light of the trauma of the Babylonian exile. What this means is that in Jewish (and Christian) consciousness destruction, exile, and return, became significant categories in light of which history was read. If there is any argument for a right to return, it is not based, in the case of the Jews, on being driven out of the land against their will. It is more because of the Land of Israel playing such an important role in the consciousness of many (though not all) Jews. This is a more modest claim than is generally heard; it certainly does not in itself justify Jewish hegemony over Palestine. But it does put on the table the very real connection (imagined or not) between the Jewish people and Palestine. That, to me, is what is reasonable about Zionism. In the words of J.K. Rowling, just because it is in your head doesn’t mean that it is not real.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
No, Rivkele, The Jews Weren't Driven into Exile by the Romans
"In A.D. 70, and again in 135, the Roman Empire brutally put down Jewish revolts in Judea, destroying Jerusalem, killing hundreds of thousands of Jews and sending hundreds of thousands more into slavery and exile." Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, May 5, 2006 "Well, now: We were expelled from the land and taken into captivity in the year 70 of the Common Era." Leonard Fein, The Jewish Daily Forward, May 11, 2007–07–23 "After Bar Kochba…Jewish emigration, a more or less permanent feature of ancient Palestinian demography, now assumed alarming proportions." Salo Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (New York/Philadelphia, 1952), vol. 2, pp. 122-3. Despite their ideological differences, what unites columnists like Charles Krauthammer and Leonard Fein, and what distinguishes them from Salo Baron,the greatest historian of the Jews in the twentieth century, is inter alia their acceptance of the myth that the Jews were forcibly expelled from the Land of Israel, and taken into captivity by the Romans. To this day, most lay people, Jews and non-Jews, accept the myth of the exile, whereas no historian, Jew or non-Jew, takes it seriously.