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July 29, 2014 / 2 Av, 5774
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The Real Occupiers: Judea, Circa 50 CE


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The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations show no sign of abating and the voice of collective dissent now echoes well beyond lower Manhattan. During the past few weeks, the movement has spread nationally, as protesters across the country came together in a leaderless association that rails against corporate greed and social inequality.

These American protestors were joined recently by tens of thousands of others worldwide, in hundreds of cities throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Organizers of the global demonstration said on their website they were demanding a “true democracy” for the international community. The global demonstrations came on the same day that finance ministers and central bankers from the G20 met in Paris to discuss solutions to the debt crises engulfing Europe.

Demonstrators in Rome turned violent, but crowds elsewhere were largely peaceful. In London, the atmosphere was energetic, with activists chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “We are the 99 percent” in different languages. In New York, protesters marched through the financial district to a rally in Times Square, banging drums and chanting, “We got sold out, banks got bailed out,” and “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street.”

Sadly, the word “occupy” conveys a very different connotation for the Jewish people today. Since the inception of the state of Israel, the term has largely been used to portray our nation’s return to its ancient homeland as a merciless imposition on the lives of millions of Arabs.

In the more distant past, however, the term referred to a foreign, non-Jewish presence in our Holy Land, usually accompanied by some degree of religious and/or economic persecution. In some instances, the occupation was so intense and oppressive that it forced our forebears to take a strong public stance in hopes of improving the political landscape.

Such was the case nearly two thousand years ago, in the century preceding the destruction of the Second Temple. At that time, Judean residents expressed displeasure with sustained economic and governmental heavy-handedness, perpetrated first by the Herodian rulers and then by Roman procurators. They gathered en masse to “occupy” their capital and their country, and attempt to force the hands of their tormentors.

Shortly before his death in 4 BCE, King Herod had bequeathed his kingdom to his three surviving sons: Archelaus, Antipas, and Philipus. Archelaus received the largest territory, which included Judah, Idumea and Samaria.

Herod’s death allowed the people to breathe a long-awaited sigh of relief. Surely nothing could match his extended reign of terror (Herod had ruled for nearly forty years). Upon ascending to the throne, Archelaus reinforced that impression. He received the people warmly, assuring them of future cooperation. Confident of his friendship, the Jews asked for the release of their political prisoners, and sought relief from the heavy taxation imposed by Herod. Archelaus indicated that he would satisfy their requests.

After a period of intense communal mourning for a number of sages who had been executed by Herod, the people asked for more. They wanted retribution against Herod’s advisers who had been responsible for the death of those scholars, the removal of his recent High Priest appointee, and the expulsion of Greek officials from the royal court.

This time, Archelaus made no commitments. He was tiring of their continuous requests, and was readying to set sail for Rome to secure Augustus’s consent to his appointment. Archelaus sent word in response with his officers for the people to wait until after his return. This, in turn, angered the people.

Soon after, on the eve of Pesach, the growing resentment burst forth. At the Temple, the Jewish masses again expressed their deep sense of loss for the murdered sages. Fearing an uprising, Archelaus positioned one thousand mercenary soldiers there, with orders to remove any unruly worshipers.

This act aroused popular anger; many of the soldiers were stoned. At that, Archelaus moved against the people. He unleashed his soldiers upon the crowds, killing 3,000 people in the ensuing clash. With this last outrage, Archelaus’s true character became painfully apparent.

The people took quick and decisive action to have the new ruler removed.  They dispatched a delegation of fifty delegates to Rome to “petition for the right to live by their own laws” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews). They implored the emperor to abolish the Herodian regime and annex Judah to the Syrian province. Some 8,000 Jewish residents of Rome supported the delegation. The Herodians also sent a delegation, with the hope of transferring the throne to Antipas. Archelaus reached Rome around this time. Despite the numerous calls for his removal, he managed to have his position secured by Augustus.

* * * * * For nine long years Archelaus governed the Jewish people. He ruled with a strong hand, suppressing rebellious elements in the country with the utmost cruelty and brutality. He also twice replaced the High Priest. Throughout, the Jews persisted in their complaints to Rome. Finally, in 6 CE, when the Samaritans joined in this effort, Augustus listened. He banished Archelaus to Gaul and confiscated his property; a Roman procurator based in Caesarea replaced him.

Beginning with Pompey’s eastern conquests, a Roman proconsul appointed by the emperor and approved by the senate sat in Damascus. From there he governed the region. Though officially a part of this province, Judah was granted a degree of autonomy; it was never fully annexed by Syria, nor was it viewed as a colony. With its particular religion and value system, Judah needed to be dealt with independently.

Following the end of the Herodian regime procurators were installed in Judah. They established their official residence at Caesarea, and were directly responsible to the proconsul. The procurator managed the military, judicial and civic matters of their area, and maintained jurisdiction with regard to capital punishment. The Sanhedrin exercised influence in civil affairs.

For the Jewish population, this arrangement had both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, the procurators were representatives of Rome; they had no personal ambitions for independent rule. Yet they were motivated by intense greed. These rulers were rewarded by their appointment for past civil service. Now was their opportunity for wealth and exploitation. They had to act quickly; procurators generally served brief terms.

The procurators did little to meet the needs of the Jewish populace. Sometimes they were outright hostile to their constituents, provoking open resistance. However, they never followed the same destructive path of Herod and Archelaus; the fact that they would ultimately answer to a direct overlord in Syria curtailed such activity.

Augustus died in 14 CE and was succeeded by Tiberius Caesar. During his twenty-three year reign as emperor, Judah would know four procurators: Rufus Tineus, Valerius Gratus, Pontius Pilate, and Marcellus. Gratus frequently replaced the High Priest as a form of generating personal wealth. “Because money was paid for the purpose of obtaining the position of High Priest, they were changed every 12 months” (Talmud, Yoma 8b).

After Pilate’s removal from office, Vitellius, the Roman proconsul in Syria, visited Jerusalem during Pesach. The people received him warmly. He immediately released the city’s inhabitants from paying taxes relating to the sale of produce, and restored the special garments to the jurisdiction of the High Priest. (From the days of Herod the garments were kept under the watch of the Temple guard, undoubtedly as a means of exacting a regular payment. The High Priest would only receive them a week before each festival.) After replacing the current High Priest, he returned to Syria.

Direct Roman administration brought about violent reactions from a certain sector of the Jewish population. Following the ousting of Archelaus, Cyrenius, the legate of Syria, instituted a census of the Jewish people. This decision caused a profound shock among the populace, as it violated a Torah precept. Only after significant efforts by the High Priest did the people temper their anger.

But not all were placated. Two Jews, Yehuda of Galilee and Tzadok, called for an armed revolt to throw off all foreign domination. Soon they amassed a great number of followers. The group would later become known as kannaim (Zealots).

This development serves to underscore the fact that many in Judah never fully accepted Roman rule, nor did they freely allow themselves to become incorporated within the imperial system. Relations with Rome remained in a state of almost uninterrupted tension, dating back to the earliest days of Pompey and Gabinius, until after the defeat of Bar Kochba by Hadrian. Other rebellions occurred in 44 CE (following the death of Agrippa I), 52–60 CE (during the reign of the procurator Felix), 66 CE (the Great Revolt) and 132 CE (Bar Kochba).

* * * * * The ongoing unrest is surprising, considering Rome’s generally liberal attitude toward the Jews. Unlike other peoples in Roman-occupied territories, Jews were exempted from the official state religion, out of a pragmatic recognition that the Jews were unswerving in their faith and would not worship idols, even when forced.

In addition, the Jews constituted a sizable percentage of the empire, particularly toward the east. They were influential politically and economically, and the different Jewish communities were closely united with each other. Any serious religious interference would have grave repercussions throughout the empire.

Few peoples ever rose in direct rebellion under Roman occupation, other than warlike nations such as the Parthians (along the easternmost border). Surely, the Jews did not fit that same description as a backward, tribal, and militaristic society. Why, then, was insurrection among the Jews so common?

The Zealot leaders had despaired of a functional Jewish life under Roman rule. To them, Rome was a “wicked kingdom” (Talmud, Pesachim 54b), interested only in exploiting Judah. As they saw it, their only ruler was God, not other men (Josephus, The Jewish War). Once they defined freedom as a religious ideal, it became worth fighting for on the same level as any other sacred precept. Thus they readily submitted when necessary to even the most horrible torture and death rather than accept Roman domination.

Josephus (Antiquities) states that, philosophically, the Zealots fell in line with the Pharisees. They differed in two areas only: Their abundant love for freedom, and their acceptance of God as their sole master and leader. Their instigation created a social turmoil, with unrest the natural consequence.

Tiberius died in 37 CE. His great-nephew Gaius Caligula replaced him as emperor. Early on, Caligula received warm support from the Jewish people. He added to his popularity by appointing Agrippa I as tetrarch in Transjordan. However, in a short period of time things would change drastically.

That same year, the pagan population of Alexandria, led by the rabid Jew-hater Apion, prevailed upon the emperor to force the Jews in Jerusalem to erect a large statue bearing Caligula’s likeness in their Temple. All other nations, they argued, had built altars and temples to Caligula, receiving him as a god. Only the Jews had refused. Their hostile words had their effect. Caligula was enraged.

 

He regarded the Jews with most unusual suspicion, as if they were the only people who opposed his wishes…. Every country and region of the earth…flattered him, dignifying him above measure…. But the single nation of the Jews, refused to carry out these actions… [Josephus, Against Apion]

 

He ordered the Syrian proconsul Petronius to march his imperial troops to Jerusalem and force the Jews to erect a statue in the Temple.

Petronius led two Roman legions southward, stopping in Ptolemias (Acco) for the winter. There, he was met by a large Jewish delegation, numbering in the tens of thousands, which begged him not to carry out Caligula’s orders. If, however, he insisted on moving forward, they asked to be killed rather than have to witness such a travesty.

Petronius was greatly moved by their courage and determination. He realized that for his mission to be fulfilled much blood would have to be spilled; the Jews would simply not give in. At great personal risk he sent a letter to the emperor, describing the Jews’ resistance and Rome’s folly in persisting.

Interestingly, the aforementioned unrest also spurred a great deal of factionalism among the Jews of Judah. A variety of groups, each with distinct religious, political, and social agendas, competed for the attention of the Jewish people. This list included a number of small sects whose members believed the Messianic Era was at hand. They preached to all who would lend an ear that the ultimate battle of good versus evil would soon be fought, a struggle that would quickly be followed by the prophetically foretold redemption of humanity.

These teachings did not capture the interest of most Jews. Nevertheless, some were susceptible to the arguments, particularly at such a tumultuous time. And while the Judean countryside was filled with numerous charismatic healers and preachers, only one man would achieve a meaningful following. That man was Yeshu (or Jesus) of Nazareth. Through his teachings, as well as those of his apostles, or followers, a new religion, Christianity, was born. The religion would have an immense impact on the Jewish people, and the world as a whole, for the next two millennia.

While we can argue over the veracity of the claims made by the current “occupy” movement, or wonder what ultimately will come from this grassroots ferment, it is certainly not the type of uprising experienced by our people almost two thousand years ago.

For the Jews of Judah, class warfare did not drive their rebellion, nor were they after increased economic opportunities. The Jews were agitated over something far more significant – the ability to live without harassment in their homeland.

In this instance, alas, their efforts failed to bear fruit, and actually accelerated the destruction of the Second Temple and the onset of the present exile.

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