“The Jews were exiled from their ancestral homeland, and after two thousand years of displacement, but 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 “normal.”
But is that really true? In our (give or take) four thousand year old 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 corrupt. Josephus suggests both twenty and forty years; the Septuagint says twenty-two; John Bright, the Biblical scholar, says “at least a decade.” So let’s guess high and say twenty. After Saul, King David ruled for forty years. And Solomon, the last king of a united Israelite kingdom, ruled for about thirty-nine years. Then the kingdom split. The first united Israelite kingdom, therefore, lasted about a century.
In a four thousand year history, that’s not much.
To those who would point out that sovereignty continued even after the split: that is true but small consolation. 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 sends 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, a hundred years.
And then the Jews were exiled, again, this time for 2,000 years, until 1948.
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 three hundred years.
Why does that matter now? It matters, in part, because we’re in the middle of the Three Weeks.
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 9th of Av (when the Temple was destroyed) evoke almost no serious contemplation in the Jewish world. In the non-observant community, the three weeks are scarcely noticed. And even in the observant community, they are typically marked more by rigorous attention to fulfillment of halakhic prohibitions (live music, weddings, swimming, etc.) than by introspection. 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.
Is 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 religious and non-religious 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 hundred years each. Today, we’re already sixty-five years into round three. The first two times, it was menacing empires – Egypt and Babylonia/Persia – who destroyed us. Today, Egypt is more problematic than it was twenty 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 Economist.
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 sovereignty.
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 a hundred years, but there may not. There may be a Jewish State in fifty 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 us.
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.
If the 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 them irrelevant? I doubt it. So let’s start, marking this period first and foremost by talking about the issues it raises.
For our challenge today is not simply to mourn, but infinitely more importantly, to make our mourning matter.