In October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel must be prepared for all manner of threat to her existence. “Otherwise, in thirty years’ time, Israel will not be celebrating her 100th Independence Day,” Netanyahu gloomily predicted. He reminded those gathered for a Bible study at his official residence that the Hasmoneans ruled in the Land for less than 80 years. In its 3,500-year history, the nation of Israel has only three times been able to live free, united, sovereign and independent, as it does today. And only for very short periods of time.
It is an interesting and enlightening debate that today dominates the Israeli media. People want to learn from the mistakes of the past. Why is there so much division among the Jewish people as soon as they come to live in their ancestral homeland? Why is the nation of Israel always exposed to destruction and expulsion? What is our weak point in the areas of sovereignty and independence? It seems the moment the Jewish nation is free to make its own decisions regarding its fate, that’s when the unrest among the people begins. Why does this happen? Is it a curse? What can Israel learn from the past to save her from herself? How long will this third sovereignty last?
Despite Israel’s long history, she has only existed as a united and fully sovereign nation thrice. The first was during the First Temple era for a period of just 75 years. The second came 800 years later during the reign of the Hasmoneans, and lasted a mere 66 years. In total, out of her 3,500 years of existence, the nation of Israel has enjoyed true self-determination for only 141 of those years. The topical documentary film by journalist Rino Tzror titled “The Jews, For the Third Time” highlights this problematic phenomenon. Israel President Ruben Rivlin said after watching the film: “Tzror demands that we see reality from a different perspective. Even if I don’t agree with everything, I understand his fears for our people.”
Each time Israel’s kingdom was divided, sovereignty was lost, independence was taken away, and it was always for the same reason: internal division. Disharmony between politics and religion resulted in hatred among the people. Enmity developed between moderate and fanatical Jews. There were fights between the tribes. This has already happened twice in the past, and a third round appears to be looming on the horizon. Israeli politicians, rabbis and intellectuals have for years been cultivating a fraternal hatred such as that which over the course of history has repeatedly brought about Israel’s downfall.
King David reigned for 40 years, from 1010 to 970 BC. His son Solomon also reigned for 40 years. His son Rehoboam reigned for two years until civil war broke out. As a result of the high Temple tax, the 10 northern tribes rebelled against the political-religious center in Jerusalem and founded their own kingdom.
Once strong and united, Israel became divided and weak. The large strong Kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms, Judah in the south and Israel in the north. The kingdom of the house of David lasted for 82 years, and then it came to an end. Rehoboam ruled the southern kingdom of Judah, and Jeroboam the northern kingdom of Israel. Now, it is true that the two rival kingdoms of Judah and Israel existed for several hundred more years, but the nation as a whole did not exist in harmonious sovereignty.
Following the fall of the Kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians, Jews did indeed remain in the land, and even later returned en masse to rebuild the Temple. But they did not live in a state of self-determination. In fact, the situation was similar to that prior to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, when the Jews in the Land lived first under Turkish rule and then under the British Mandate. Jewish Israel existed, but it was not sovereign.
It was only 800 years after the splitting of David’s kingdom that a second united sovereignty was established in the Land. In 164 BC, local priest and founder of the Hasmonean dynasty, Mattathias, instigated a Jewish uprising against the Seleucid Greek occupiers. Eleven years later, in 153 BC, his son Jonathan, brother of the famed Judah Maccabee, captured Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple. When Jonathan and his brothers, Judah and Simon, were murdered, Simon’s son John Hyrcanus was crowned King of Israel in 135 BC. Six years later, he proclaimed Israel’s full independence. A sovereign state was again established. But, just 66 years later that second sovereignty came to an end when the Roman statesman and general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) conquered Jerusalem.
It was only 2,011 years after the conquest by Pompey that David BenGurion was able to once again proclaim Israel an independent state. Israel’s third sovereign state will soon have existed for 70 years. All three united sovereignties together total just 211 years, a mere six percent of Israel’s history. Whether it is six percent or 15 percent (for those counting the Kingdom of Judah) does not make a great deal of difference. The point is that on each occasion, Jewish sovereignty was fragile, unstable and short-lived. And it could happen again.
“I have an illness and its name is ‘optimism,’” religious Knesset member Yehuda Glick told Israel Today. “I see where we were standing 70 years ago, and where we are standing today. Even if there is much that is corrupt in the Land, and people love to grumble about things, I still have a positive feeling about Israel’s future. I don’t want to believe that our society is once again on a path towards self-destruction.”
But Israel’s existence cannot be taken for granted. Netanyahu has good reason to sound the alarm over Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran’s stated goal is to annihilate Israel in the next 25 years. Louis René Beres, a leading professor of political science, also sees an existential threat in a Palestinian state, which would provoke an exchange of nuclear attacks in the Middle East. He describes this in a detailed report for the BeginSadat Center for Strategic Studies. Orthodox Jews are prone to regard all this as justified punishment for turning away from God and His laws, or their interpretation of such. For instance, many Orthodox view compulsory army service as being no less wicked than the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, both secular and Orthodox Jews are striving in equal measure for Israel’s survival. Each perceives different causes for the undeniable danger of demise. Israel’s government tends to view things in a conventional strategic manner. For this reason, Israel must remain a military superpower in the Middle East. The Orthodox Jews, however, see an overriding spiritual danger. There are those who defend Israel on the battlefield, and others who do so in prayer. Both have the same concern: to save Israel from downfall. But it is this divergence of views regarding the root of the problem that, just as in the past, is driving Israel toward a political and religious explosion. The same internal disagreements that brought down the first and second kingdoms now threaten the third. And yet, one must continue to wonder at the phenomenon of a nation being reborn three times in the same homeland, speaking the same language and serving the same God!
This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Israel Today Magazine.