Image by Canadian Atheist Bus Campaign
Atheist Campaign: A bus in Toronto with the slogan “There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying And Enjoy Your Life.”
Twenty-six hundred years ago on this day, the first of Tishrei, Gedaliah Ben-Ahikam, a Judean Deep State functionary of the pro-Babylonian faction in Judea was assassinated by Ishmael Ben-Netaniyah, a Judean Deep State functionary of the pro-Egyptian faction and a member of the House of David Royal family. The reason I believe in God, one of them anyway, is that today (in fact the day after tomorrow to allow for the Rosh Hashanah holiday), Jews around the world will fast to commemorate this murder. They fast to mourn an event that proved to be a disaster for the Jewish people, but which, at the same time, came to completely define the world we live in today. A minor functionary of a tiny nation occupying a few hilltops between the Jordan River Valley and the Eastern Mediterranean is remembered today, two and a half millennia later, by millions of people, his fast day showing up on electronic calendars on smartphones held by Gedaliah’s direct descendants, smartphones that to a large degree were designed and built by them, as they are going about their business over the same exact tiny patch of land that Gedaliah spent his entire life on. Is it possible to view this as anything short of miraculous, as anything short of the divine?
The great empires of the day with their chariots and palaces and gold treasure hordes are long since gone, lying under the sands of time, their cultures leaving no discernable influence on our modern existence. Their treasures plundered by the French and the British, their cultural identities obliterated by the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, Babylon and Egypt are reduced to dusty basements of the Louvre and the British Museum, their holidays and sacred rituals finding no place on anyone’s smartphone. Except that is as remembered and retold by the tiny nation these empires liked to periodically subdue and conquer and tax: Judea. The name of the month in the Jewish calendar that starts the Jewish year, Tishrei, is a Babylonian name, adopted after the Babylonian exile of the Judean elites. The only reason that this name finds itself popping up on LCD displays around the world, in Latin, Arabic, and yes, in Babylonian-influenced “modern” Hebrew scripts, is that the Jewish elites, the Judean Deep State, exiled from their homeland by the Babylonians precisely so as to erase their cultural identity, kept it intact for two and a half millennia, long after the cultural identity of the Babylonians was buried under the shifting sands of Mesopotamia.
Gedaliah, by the way, was a very real historical figure; his seal was found in archeological excavations at Lachish, a town in Western Judea. Gedaliah was a close confidant of the Prophet Jeremiah, from a prominent (but not royal) family of Judean deep-staters. Jeremiah and Gedaliah were leaders in the pro-Babylonian faction within the Judean elites, whereas the House of David royal family saw maintaining the historical ties to Judea’s centuries-old superpower overlord Egypt as crucial to Judea’s survival. The situation in 6th century BC Judea rather closely resembled the situation in 21st century AD Israel, with the caveat that modern nuclear-armed Israel is much more powerful than its predecessor in deep antiquity. During the Bush and especially Obama administrations, the support that Israel received from the United States of America became increasingly unreliable, echoing the diminishing influence of American Jewry, the misalignment between it and the Israeli Jewry, and the rise of socialist anti-Semitism in the US. This “betrayal” by its superpower sponsor has not escaped the Israeli authorities, who diligently worked to replace it with support for Israel in both the economic and political arenas from the emerging superpower of China and with secondary support from Russia, India, and Japan, even if when it came to China and Russia such support was harmful to Israeli relations with America.
Jeremiah famously called Egypt a “broken cane”, meaning that reliance on it was both futile and dangerous. Certainly, America under president Obama was viewed as such by the Netanyahu government, faithfully representing the views of most Israelis. At issue was not only the personal animosity of Barack Obama towards the Jewish State, not only his strong preference for the violent apocalyptical theocracy of Iran, but also the rapid decline of the US under Obama as a global superpower. In a way that, I suspect, would be difficult for most of my readers to understand, the lessons of the destruction of the Kingdom of Judea in 586 BC, with its full accompaniment of disastrous outcomes such as the burning down of Jerusalem and the First Temple and the first ever exile of Jews from their ancestral homeland were (and are) very much in the forefront of Israel’s policy considerations today. The refusal of the late Judean kings, in the face of repeated and loud warnings from people like Jeremiah to recognize the decline of Egyptian influence and the rise in its place of the new superpowers of Assyria and later Babylon, was perhaps the earliest recorded example of political thought stagnation and refusal to acknowledge changing geopolitical realities. Even after Judea’s sister kingdom of Israel was defeated and erased from the face of the earth by the Assyrian king Sargon II, even after his son Sanherib severely punished the Judean king Hezekiah for choosing to heed Egypt rather than maintain Assyrian vassal status, Judean kings refused to correctly read the geopolitical map of their times.
Image by Dror Feitelson
Model of Jewish temple
Amazingly, even after the last Judean king prior to the Babylonian exile, Zedekiah was captured by the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar, even after the First Temple was burned to the ground, the remnants of the House of David still found it necessary to obey their Egyptian masters and assassinate Gedaliah who was appointed overseer by the Babylonians. Fearing Babylonian reprisals, most Judeans of means not already exiled to Babylon fled to Egypt, leading to the total devastation of Judea. Today, the twin fasts, less than a month apart (though in reality five years likely separated the events), of Tish’a be-Av and Zom (fast) of Gedlaiah, commemorate the disastrous lapse in judgment, the refusal to heed wise counsel and the sheer bloody-mindedness of the House of David in inviting the sack of Jerusalem in August of 586 BC followed by the assassination of the Babylonian-installed overseer Gedaliah five years later. This one-two punch combo left Judea completely bereft of its elites and ruling classes and condemned it to the dust bin of history. Except it didn’t.
The old truism states the history is written by the victors. Not in this case. The history of the Babylonian conquest of Judea with its consequent destruction and exile was written entirely by the vanquished, not by the conquerors. In fact, with rare exceptions during the reigns of kings David and Solomon in the 10th century BC, the Hasmonean revolt in the 2nd century BC, and the current modern State of Israel, the Jewish history is replete with disastrous defeats. And yet, the Jews have never once lost control of their own narrative, of defining for themselves and for the entire world their own history, heritage, and culture. How can we explain this exceptionalism? Do the “Chosen People” play by a different set of rules? The answer is yes, but not in a way one may think. The “history being written by the victors” adage is as true as ever, but the victory in question is not gained on the physical battlefield, it is won on the battlefield of ideals, of culture, of cultural identity.
Jews were defeated more often than not on the temporal battlefields of most of our planet’s continents. But they are undefeated on the much more crucial battlefield of ideas. On the rivers of Babylon, the Judean elites did something that had never been accomplished and likely as much as attempted in all of human history up to that point; they did not assimilate. But wait, there is more. Groups that refuse to assimilate, like the Roma, typically inhabit the fringes of their host cultures. In Babylon, Jews, as attested by a recently found horde of cuneiform tablets, were among the most prosperous and influential. They were at once influenced (adopting the Babylonian calendar and adjusting the ancient Hebrew writing system to better comport with the cuneiform writing system, giving us the modern “square” Hebrew script) and recalcitrant. They never forgot Zion, not only Zion as a city nestled in a hollow between two mountains above the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea, but Zion as a cultural phenomenon, as a cultural identity.
The Babylonian empire fell, replaced by the Persian one. Jews were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild their Temple, the same Temple visited by Jesus four centuries later. Of the cultures that ruled the world then, none remains, except the Jewish one. No one today identifies as Babylonian or Roman, or even Persian in a way that is meaningfully connected to the ancient Persian Empire. But 14.7 million people, according to the latest estimate published every Jewish New Year by the Jewish Agency, identify themselves as Jews right now, today, in our supposedly post-national world. Of these, more than six million reside in the same tiny strip of land between the river and the sea where Gedaliah was born and where he bled and where he was buried and where many years earlier he affixed his seal ring to a piece of wet clay, only to be found, two and a half millennia later, by a Jewish archeologist digging in the modern State of Israel, speaking a language Gedaliah would have understood, writing in the same twenty-two letter alphabet.
Image by David Shankbone
A man prays at the Western Wall
Our leaders today, the leaders of the so-called West, are blind, willfully so, to the lessons of Jewish history, to its most important lesson: the lesson that cultural identity is the ultimate survival weapon. It is what gives us humans sustenance; it is the only thing that makes our lives worth living, the only reason to have children, the only thing for which it is worth both to live and die for. The John Lennon dystopia of a world in which there is nothing to live or die for is the closest approximation to hell that can ever be imagined. And as it happens we don’t have to work hard to imagine it. It exists. It is Russia, Venezuela, Sweden, and coastal US. It is a world of barrenness, expediency, self-indulgence, substance abuse, crime, pedophilia, and death. The only world worth living in is a world in which there is indeed something to live and die for. In this world, we live and fight and if needed die to stay who we are, to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, to tell our children stories of our fathers and mothers that make their eyes light up with wonder. Jews invented this world and it’s our greatest gift to the Gentiles. For all our sake, I hope they can keep it.