A Witness from the Past

A person who died 1900 years ago was summoned this week by Ariel Sharon to appear before his verbal kangaroo court.

That, in itself, is not surprising. In Jewish consciousness, there is no clear borderline between past and present, as there is none between history and myth. This may be the result of living outside history for thousands of years. Anyhow, in all debates about the future, Jews are used to involving figures from the remote past.

Joseph ben-Mattathias, better known by his Roman name Josephus Flavius, was the scion of a priestly family in Jerusalem. With the outbreak of the Jewish Rebellion against Rome, 66 AD, he was appointed commander of the Galilee. When the Romans re-conquered the region, he was holed up in the fortified town Jotapata (Jodpat), but saved himself by resorting to a clever device. The defenders of the town decided to kill each other (as the defenders of Massada did later) and fixed by lot who would kill whom. Joseph managed to be the last one left alive, went over to the Romans and became a court historian of the Emperor.

His book “The Jewish War” is the most important report on the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish Temple–a traumatic event, that has left a deep imprint on Jewish consciousness to this very day. Every year, on the ninth day of the month Av, Jews are bound to mourn the destruction of the Temple and Israeli law forbids opening places of amusement. The claim for Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount is even now a major obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

A few days ago, on the first day of the Jewish New Year, Ariel Sharon invited himself to a solemn interview by two handpicked interviewers of the state-owned Kol Israel radio. That was not difficult, because Sharon is now the direct boss of all state-owned media.

(He achieved this by a small putsch: the Labor minister who was in charge of these media was persuaded to resign and accept a huge salary as the director of a bank, which collapsed the next day. Contrary to the coalition agreement, Sharon took the portfolio for himself. Now he controls the state media the way Stalin controlled his, with the same results.)

In the course of the interview, Sharon was asked about the Gush Shalom activists who, as put by the interviewer, are collecting material about IDF soldiers with the intention of submitting it to the international war-crimes court at The Hague.

This was obviously an invited question, since Sharon had brought with him to the interview a testimony for the prosecution: a quotation from Josephus Flavius.

First, Sharon accused the Gush activists (including myself) of treason and espionage in times of war. According to him, we are collecting the names of IDF officers and soldiers, in order to denounce them to the “enemies of Israel”, namely the judges of the International Criminal Court at The Hague. “No act is more despicable than that,” he pronounced.

After claiming that the Gush activists want to sow discord within our ranks, he read the long passage from Josephus that he had brought with him: “They (the defenders of Jerusalem) fought against each other, and their actions delighted the besiegers. Indeed, the evil that the Romans brought upon the city, was not worse than the evil the defenders brought on each other. After that, the fall of the city could not add to the disaster. The calamities that befell the city before its fall were so terrible, that one may say that the quarrel conquered the city, and the Romans conquered the quarrel, which was stronger than its besieged walls.” (My translation.)

The trouble with this quotation is that it is quite irrelevant, to say the least. The assistants who prepared it for Sharon are, it seems, ignorant of history.

First, nobody is besieging us. We are besieging the Palestinians. In this story, we are the Romans and the Palestinians are the Jews.

Second, the terrible civil war that broke out inside the besieged city was not between those who supported the rebellion and those who objected to it, between extremists and moderates, or, in today’s terms, between right and left. It broke out between the Zealots themselves, or, to use today’s language again, between the extreme right (Sharon) and the even-more-extreme right (Effi Eitam and his ilk). The moderates, those who argued that a war against the Roman Empire was hopeless, were liquidated by the Zealots long before that. The Rabins of those days were murdered, one by one.

Third, the crazy Zealots did indeed kill each other inside the besieged city, they destroyed the remaining foodstuffs and demoralized the starving population. But the city did not fall because of the quarrels inside it. Even if the defenders had behaved in an exemplary way and united like one man behind Sharon and Ben-Eliezer (sorry, behind Jochanan of Giscala and Shimon Bar-Giora), the Romans would have breached the walls. Nobody was able to stop their immense military might for long.

It was the Rebellion itself that was an act of madness. The end of the Jewish commonwealth in Palestine became inevitable when the Zealots took control of it. The more so, since the Jews outside Palestine–already numbering at that time two thirds of the Jewish people–turned their backs on the rebels.

By the way, Sharon’s attack on Gush Shalom was so important to his minions, they saw to it that it was announced in five consecutive news broadcasts throughout that morning. All his other statements in the interview, such as the scoop about his forthcoming visit to India and the session of the Palestinian parliament, were ignored.

That may be a hint of what’s to come. Sharon plans a full-fledged attack on Gush Shalom and all the serious peace camp, in order to silence all criticism and frighten other opponents into silence. His words are not only designed to pressure the state prosecution into putting the Gush activists on trial, but are also a simple incitement to murder, very much like his speeches on the eve of Rabin’s assassination.

What frightens Sharon so much? It seems that the Gush Shalom activity causes many soldiers to think, for the first time, about the possibility that certain actions are not only immoral and sabotage all chances for peace, but also violate Israeli and international law and might constitute war crimes. After all, the great majority of the soldiers are reasonable persons. Sharon hears the echo. In order to silence the message, he chooses to silence the messenger. I believe that even Josephus Flavius will not help him to achieve that.

Uri Avnery has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.