” Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”
Ilan Ziv’s remarkable film, Exile, a Myth Unearthed is now being screened around the world. You may recall that this was the film the BBC purchased to air and then momentarily abandoned last May. I personally believe doubts were raised by the UK Community Trust hasbara patrol, though they deftly left no fingerprints. After Ziv wrote about the controversy on his blog, the BBC asked him to dramatically pare down the length and he cut almost half of the original. The edited version aired last week.
I watched both versions and while the shorter one is not significantly impaired, I highly recommend seeing the original if possible, since it allows Ziv to present his full argument. Which is this: at the advent of modern Zionism, and especially after the creation of the State in 1948, the new nation needed a heroic historical narrative. For this, it turned to the last period when Israel was an independent state, just before the first Roman revolt (66-73 CE).
The two Jewish revolts against Rome in the first and second centuries CE, become the opening salvo in the Zionist ‘revision’ of Jewish history. In the first war, the Jewish historian, Josephus writes about an organized national revolt against Roman authority in which virtually all sectors and regions participated. This allows him to portray himself as a valiant military leader who fought a strong, but ultimately losing battle for Jewish sovereignty. Josephus’ military command in the Galilee failed. Most Jews in the north rejected his entreaty to unite against Rome. Unlike Jerusalem, the Galilee co-existed peaceably with foreign influences like those the Romans represented.
There was no national revolt. Instead, it was a rebellion originating in Jerusalem. A conflict that was designed to protect the economic interests of the priestly élite. The comfortable, priestly class housed in the Temple in Jerusalem, had an illusion that they represented the heart and soul of the Jewish people. But those outside of Jerusalem saw things quite differently. The result was that the Galilee determined that it could live peaceably with the Romans, and so was spared destruction, while tens of thousands were killed in Jerusalem.
Josephus recruited a small band whose loyalty he bought, and retreated to the single town which did revolt against Rome. It was besieged by 50,000 Roman troops, who ultimately overran it and slew all the inhabitants–except the general. He escaped, was captured by the Romans, and became Vespasian’s (the Roman general) personal slave. In that capacity, after his master brought him to Rome, Josephus wrote his famous account, The Jewish Wars. In it, he spun a tale of Jews united, fighting valiantly against Roman might. Two great peoples fighting to the death.
It’s the height of irony that latter-day Zionists embraced the self-serving narrative spun by Josephus, who was, after all, a deserter of the Jewish cause.
After subduing the north, the Romans turned to the remnants of the revolt which had escaped to Herod’s fortress, Masada. There they laid siege for three years to the forces of Elazer Ben Yair, the last surviving commander of the Jewish revolt. The story as told by Josephus and adopted by the Zionist narrative, has it that these 900 souls, rather than being put to the sword by the Romans, took their own lives in a valiant act of national self-sacrifice.
This is one of Israel’s primary founding myths. One which Baruch Kimmerling criticized so cogently in Israel’s Culture of Martyrdom. From events such as Masada flow many of the myths and illusions that fuel latter-day Israeli nationalism.
In 1961, when Yigael Yadin began the first excavations in the area of Masada, he was laying the foundation for a “national archeology.” One that would both search for Jewish roots in ancient Israel and link these roots to the creation of the new State. Seeking remnants of the Bar Kochba revolt, the last period of Jewish sovereignty in the land, was a paramount concern. If he could do so, he would weave a powerful national story of a tragic exile and a redemptive return.
Though Yadin found the skeletal remains of Jewish refugees who fled to caves, no archaeological excavation could support the final mass martyrdom Josephus describes. Thus a dominant myth of the new Jewish state cannot be supported by any scientific evidence (at least to date).
In the second war, led by the messianic figure Shimon Bar Kochba (132-135 AD), the Jews again revolted. The rebellion failed the second time as well. The end of this war led to the Romans putting all of Jerusalem to flame (again). Unlike after the first revolt, the Romans expelled all Jews from Jerusalem and allowed none to return.
The Myth of Forced Exile by Rome
Despite the double destruction of Jerusalem in the first and second wars, there was no forced exile. Rome did not expel all Jews from the province. They allowed any Jew who had not rebelled to remain. After the second war, no Jews were permitted to reside in Jerusalem or its environs. This, in turn, led to these survivors fleeing north and taking up residence in the flourishing Jewish towns of the Galilee.
They were joined by rabbis who moved their religious academies there and created a form of Jewish continuity with what had previously existed. They in turn created new rituals like the Passover haggadah and seder, which affirmed that despite the Temple’s destruction, Jews maintained a direct connection to the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
This was a radical concept because in Judaism, before the Temple’s loss, religious worship meant offering sacrifices and making pilgrimage three times a year during the major holidays to the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. These new traditions comforted Jews by showing them they could maintain their religion despite this traumatic loss.
The assumption that if Jerusalem died, then Jewish life in Israel died with it falsifies the reality for Jews on the ground. Thus, a fundamental premise of Zionist history–exile and the centrality of Jerusalem to Jewish survival–is proven to be a myth. Jews couldn’t return from exile after 2,000 years because they never left.
But the modern Zionist narrative has Rome exiling the entire population of Judea as punishment for the revolt. This, in turn, leads to the far-flung Jewish Diaspora and the yearning of these Jews over the centuries to return to their ancient homeland.
Christianity’s Role in Promoting Myth of Exile
The film notes that Christianity itself played a role in developing the concept of Jewish exile. Those Jews who broke away from normative Judaism and became followers of Jesus, imprinted their own interpretation on these historical events. For them, the loss of two wars and destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple signified a rejection by God of the Jews. To Christianity, the myth of exile became a convenient trope that explained both the decline of Jewish life in Israel and the rise of the new competing religion, which eventually (to their mind) superceded it. Exile was God’s punishment of the Jews and His affirmation that He had instead embraced Christianity.
Here is another irony, that modern Zionism embraced a Christian concept of exile used that reinforced the claim that Judaism was a religion rejected by God.
Continuity of Jewish Life in Israel After the Wars Against Rome
Not only did Jewish life in Israel not die, the archaeologists Ziv consults find that major northern communities like Sephoris actually grew in size and wealth after the revolt. In other words, there has always been continuity in Israel. Jews always lived there and never left.
This directly contradicts the notion that Jerusalem is the navel of the world. That the Temple is the single unifying edifice that draws the Jewish nation together. That without the sacred city and sacred House, Judaism could not survive. In fact, Israel could survive as a place where Jews lived quite well for centuries after the Temple fell.
Diaspora Predated the Roman Conquest of Judea
Returning to the concept of exile: there was in fact a Jewish Diaspora, as Zionist history suggested, but it existed long before the revolts against Rome. What’s more, there were more Jews living in the Diaspora than in Israel BEFORE either of the revolts. In Alexandria alone, close to a million Jews lived. This population alone was larger than that of all the Jews living in Judea at the time. Further, the first Jews arrived in Rome in the first century BCE or even earlier, long before the Jewish revolts.
Why is all this important? Because the nascent State of Israel needed a heroic narrative to inspire its early citizens and to capture the heart of the world. Ben Gurion and the other Zionist leaders knew there were enemies lurking everywhere in the region. They knew that to survive they would need not only a strong army and political structure, but also a compelling historical myth.
There were two interlocking elements of this narrative: the Holocaust and Exile. The Holocaust was an epochal tragedy that befell European Jewry. Its surviving remnants needed a refuge where they could build a new life. What better way to welcome them than to tell them that their settlement in Israel wasn’t just a last resort to ensure their survival, but the fulfillment of a national dream to return from exile and close the circle of Jewish history.
Palestinians: the True Exiles
The myth of exile was supremely useful for another important reason: there already was a people in Israel before the Zionist movement arrived: the Palestinians (or as Ben Gurion called them, the fellahin). The Zionist leadership, in the course of the 1948 War, deliberately expelled up to 1-million of these residents of Israel who would otherwise have become citizens of the new state. In order to justify this founding injustice (I call it Israel’s Original Sin), known to Palestinians as the Nakba, the new state needed to its own myth of exile redeemed to supercede the Palestinian one.
In other words, the only way to diminish the injustice of the Palestinian exile was to suggest that ending the 2,000 Jewish exile justified it. Those millions of Jews returning to their homeland from this purported exile would blunt the sting of what the new state did to its Palestinian inhabitants. In fact, in denying the Nakba, the “Jewish state” could even argue that it would never commit such an injustice to the Palestinians, because it would never inflict its own fate on another people.
The film, Exile, argues that, in fact, the only people actually exiled from Israel was the Palestinians. Ziv returns to Sephoris and the archaeological excavations there which research the history of Jewish habitation. There is no accompanying excavation of the ruined Palestinian village of Sefuri (destroyed during the Nakba), which sat atop the former Jewish community. These Palestinians were truly exiled by the new State. They, unlike the Zionists returning from their dreamed exile in 1948, were never allowed to return.
One of the most intriguing ideas Ziv floats is that those exiled Palestinians from Sefuri might, in fact, be blood relatives of the Jews who lived in Sephoris earlier. Since there was no exile from the ancient Jewish town, there’s reason to believe there was historical Jewish continuity for centuries afterward. Perhaps the Jews, who’d proven so open to foreign influences and culture during the Roman era, eventually intermarried with the Arabs who came to the area at a later date.
Further, the Arabs of the Galilee treasured their own connection to the Jewish traditions they knew, in part, by worshipping at the grave of a Jewish rabbi, whose holiness, women believed, would bring them good luck and fortune. When Isaac Luria and his Kabbalist followers settled in the Galilee in the 16th century, those who told them where their ancestors were buried were the Arab residents of towns like Safuri. So they, in effect, helped preserve these critical Jewish traditions.
All this could make Sephoris-Safuri a potential model for a joint Israeli-Palestinian future in which no people rules over another. It could pose an example for peaceful co-existence and an end, once and for all, of exile.
But this is a dangerous concept for classical Zionism. Without the myth of exile, it stood to lose a good deal of its power. Israel becomes no more than a first among equals, in terms of its relationship with the Diaspora. The entire notion of shlilat ha’galut (negation of Diaspora), the supremacy of Zion over the Jewish hinterlands, is shot to pieces without exile as an undergirding idea.
Diaspora, in other words, is a place where Jews have always been at home. Those Jews living in ancient Rome, for example, were completely integrated into the surrounding society. They spoke and wrote in the contemporary Latin of the period and managed to thrive.
Thus there is no need for Israel to take the place of the Diaspora or for the latter ever to die out and be superceded by the Zion. Undermining this claim of the centrality of Israel to Jewish life and identity is a form of heresy. A betrayal of the sacred principle of Zionism. Without exile, without the myth of return, the ingathering of exiles and withering away of the surviving remnants, the fear is that Israel might collapse like a House of Cards.
The closing words of the film are memorable and powerful reminders of what is at stake for Israel and the Palestinians in this land:
What is being unearthed in the ruins of Sephoris and Safuri is a message of hope and warning: the promise of hope from a town that survived for hundreds of years because of its capacity to embrace many cultures and traditions; and a warning written in the destruction brought about by blind faith in a single narrative of history at the expense of others.
Now you can see why UK’s Jewish leaders hated this film. To them, it was part and parcel of the program of delegitimzation orchestrated by Israel’s enemies throughout the world. It doesn’t matter that Exile was made by an Israeli. Even Israelis can be self-hating and participate in their own demise. Right?
I take a different view: just as Sephoris defied Jerusalem’s national narrative and decided it could co-exist with Rome, there are Jews who reject the classical Zionist narrative in favor of one that suggests that Israel can survive without being the navel of the Jewish universe. Just as the Jewish people thrived both in Israel and in Diaspora, they do not need a Zionist narrative or heroic Jewish state to protect them or save them. They need an Israel that learns to take its place alongside the Diaspora, rather than above it. They need an Israel that integrates itself into the Middle East, rather than attempts to dominate it and subject the region to its will.