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Fight or Fawn: The Spectre of Caesar
To render unto Caesar or to slit his throat? Reversing an ancient tragedy, Israel plays Caesar while Palestinians must either submit or fight. In losing, Palestinians unleash their power of weakness.
The spectre of Caesar today haunts the Levantine. Israel is playing the role of a mini-Caesar as it squares up for combat against occupation resistance fighters in Palestine and Lebanon. At the same time it looks for a boost from the fading global-Caesar, the US, to help fight Israel’s forever war against an ever expanding list of enemies. The war in the Levantine reopens the age-old question: what is the proper response when Caesar occupies your land?
Collaboration or Terrorism?
Former Israeli PM Ehud Barak is one of the most highly decorated soldiers in Israel’s history and still serves as a lieutenant general in the IDF. A key element of any soldiers success is strategic empathy—the ability to get into the head of your opponent and to see the world through his eyes. While politicians must draw stark black and white portraits with their side being good and their opponents evil; a soldier knows the side he fights for is a random accident of birth. He cannot help but speculate how he would approach the military problem if he had happened to be born on the other side of the battle line. Ehud Barak is more soldier than politician when he expresses empathy for his adversaires:
Israel's yearning for experienced military leaders brought [Barak] back to political life after the 2006 Lebanon war and he became minister of defence. He seems to have a feel for what motivates his enemies and was widely quoted as saying: "If I were a Palestinian I would have joined a terrorist organisation." Barak also stated during a US television interview last year that he would "probably" strive for nuclear weapons if he were in Iran's position.
The ancient memory of Israel is filled with debates about the wisdom of either collaborating with Caesar or violently resisting his occupation. The Biblical period was one of growing instability and anti-tax agitation in Judea under the Roman jackboot. One day a group of collaborators asked Jesus the thorny question of whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar. These pro-Roman Jews hoped the radical Jesus would patriotically preach an anti-tax sermon against the foreign occupiers. They would then report Jesus to the Roman authorities and he would be arrested if he dared question the wisdom of complete submission to Rome.
In response to their question, Jesus asked to see a coin with which these taxes would be paid. Since Caesar’s portrait was on the coin, Jesus wisely counselled:
"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's"
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Jesus’s otherworldly ideology, which was to eventually evolve into Christianity, taught that spiritual energy should not be wasted fighting battles upon the earthly realm. Nevertheless, much orthodox Jewish theology emphasized the here-and-now of the material world and preached a form of Jewish nationalism based on the claim that the land of Canaan had been promised to Abraham. In his book Maccabees, Zealots, and Josephus: An Inquiry into Jewish Nationalism in the Greco -Roman Period (1956), American theologian William Reuben Farmer emphasizes the rural nature of Jewish nationalism. The urban rural divide in ancient Judea would not surprise present-day Americans:
Jewish nationalism in the days of Josiah was firmly rooted in the farming population of the rural areas. This was no less true of Jewish nationalism in the Greco-Roman period. To some extent Jewish nationalism was an expression of the conservative rural reaction to the more extreme cultural changes taking place in urban centers, especially in Jerusalem. But it was much more than this! Leadership for the Holy War in the time of Josiah as well as in the Maccabean period came from priestly circles in the rural areas bent on reforming the national life and assuring the correct observance of cultic rites in the Jerusalem temple. These cultic rites, especially the great agricultural festivals, were of great importance to the Jewish farmer, whose relationship to his land was a covenant relationship. It was "promised" land. But this promise was conditional upon complete obedience to the commandments to the covenant God, including strict compliance with the divine prescriptions for sacrifice and worship in the Jerusalem temple.
The divine promise of the Land must also be viewed from the perspective of the further extension of this promise found in Deuteronomy 15:6. After reminding the Israelites of God's promise of the Land, and calling their attention to the necessity for strict obedience to his commandments, Moses went on to add this fateful promise of God: "You shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you." Jewish resistance to foreign rule in the days of the Maccabees and the Zealots cannot be separated from their confidence that God would fulfill his promises concerning the inheritance of the Land, and political sovereignty for his covenant people.
The Romans in one way or another had controlled Judea since Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 B.C. At first Rome used client kings in a form of self-occupation which is mirrored today by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Herod the Great is the most infamous of these Roman puppets who ruled the Jews in the interests of Rome. Herod was smart enough to play to Jewish pride and went on a massive infrastructure building spree, launching the renovation of the magnificent Second Temple.
After Herod’s death in 6 B.C. Jewish agitation slowly rose against Rome. The eventual Jewish refusal to accept Roman imperial domination after the time of Christ led to what are today called the Jewish Wars, a series of Jewish insurgencies against the power and might of Rome. Given the very same choice as Palestinians have today, some Jews—the Sadducees—collaborated with Rome while other groups, including the radical Zealots refused to bend the knee to Caesar. One such group was the Sicarii, who militated against collaboration with the Roman occupier. As Richard A. Horsley reports in his paper The Sicarii: Ancient Jewish “Terrorists” written in 1979:
The Sicarii emerged in Jerusalem during the 50’s AD. They received their name from the weapons they used, that is, "daggers resembling the scimitars of the Persians in size, but curved and more like the weapons called by the Romans sicae"
Most of our knowledge of the Jewish insurgency against Rome comes from the writings of Flavius Josephus, a Romanized Jew who led an earlier Jewish rebellion but surrendered to Rome after most of his colleagues had committed suicide. Josephus joined the Roman elite, advised the Caesar’s and wrote several books about his people—-often trying to downplay the scale of the Jewish rebellion. Nonetheless, many Jews consider him a traitor. Josephus tells us:
But while the countryside was thus cleared [of brigands], a different type of bandits sprang up in Jerusalem, the so-called Sicarii, who murdered men in broad daylight in the heart of the city. Especially during the festivals they would mingle with the crowd, carrying short daggers concealed under their clothing, with which they stabbed their enemies. Then when they fell, the murderers would join in the cries of indignation and, through this plausible behaviour, avoided discovery. The first to be assassinated by them was Jonathan the High Priest. After his death, there were numerous daily murders.
Unlike Hamas who primarily attack their enemy, Sicarii terrorism targeted collaborating Jews:
The terrorist tactics of Sicarii were threefold, according to Josephus’s reports: selective, symbolic assassinations; more general assassinations along with destruction or plundering of the property of the wealthy and powerful; and kidnapping. Other common tactics of terrorist groups such as sniping and sabotage against the military or indiscriminate attacks in public places, are not mentioned by Josephus. In all cases the attacks by the Sicarii appear to be highly discriminate and always directed against fellow Jews, not against Roman soldiers or civilians.
In A.D. 66 tensions between Jewish insurgents and collaborators reached a fever pitch. Some Greeks sacrificed birds near a synagogue which triggered Jewish priests to stop praying and sacrificing to Caesar.
It did not take long for random attacks and small riots to occur. To quell the rioting, Gessius Florus ordered Roman troops to breach the Jewish Temple. This led to more unrest and massive rioting throughout the city. Jewish citizens started mocking Florus on the streets. The Roman procurator reacted by ordering troops to raid Jerusalem and arrest various leaders. The arrested citizens were whipped and crucified.
Revolts were occurring throughout Judaea, including Galilee. In A.D. 67, Roman Emperor Nero sent General Vespasian to crush the uprising in Galilee. Within a year, the Roman legion stationed in Galilee had overwhelmed the Northern resistance.
John of Giscala, the leader of the Zealots in the north, escaped Galilee and fled to Jerusalem. During the revolt, the Zealots overtook Jerusalem from the Romans. In response, Vespasian sent his son Titus to retake the city. With the city cut off, Jerusalem descended into anarchy and civil war. The Zealots and Sicarii executed those who wanted to surrender to the Romans.
The Jewish Wars ended in a total military victory for Caesar. The Second Temple was turned into rubble just as parts of Gaza are being destroyed today. The terrorist Sicarii committed mass suicide as Caesar’s legions rushed towards them in the closing moments of the Siege of Masada. And after two more uprising by A.D. 133, Caesar dispersed the surviving Jews into a diaspora.
Today, it is unlikely that Hamas will stay and fight mini-Caesar’s IDF troops—if they decide to invade Gaza— the militants are far more likely to melt into the civilian population or flee towards Egypt. Strategic victory for Hamas will be their ability to maintain an insurgency-in-being. Strategic victory for Israel will only come by imposing a Caesar’s punishment upon the Palestinians.
Today it’s the Palestinians who must answer the question that created such a rift in Judea. Do they calmly submit to Israeli dominance through a policy of self-occupation, as the Palestinian Authority does in the West Bank? An example of self-occupation and compromise with imperial power was the thriving Israel under Herod the Great. Or should Palestinians resist the Zionist mini-Caesar by emulating the Zealots and Sicarii, whose resistance to Roman occupation led to the Jewish Wars and Rome’s destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem? What would American’s do if they suddenly found their country occupied? Red Dawn-style terrorism or liberal-bourgeoise quietist collaboration?
Judea Emerges Victorious over Rome
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claims that although Rome won the battle, ultimately Judea won the war by imposing slave morality upon Europe by means of Christianity. From Genealogy of Morals:
Let us conclude. The two opposing values "good and bad," "good and evil" have been engaged in a fearful struggle on earth for thousands of years; and though the latter value has certainly been on top for a long time, there are still places where the struggle is as yet undecided. One might even say that it has risen ever higher and thus become more and more profound and spiritual: so that today there is perhaps no more decisive mark of a "higher nature." a more spiritual nature, than that of being divided in this sense and a genuine battleground of these opposed values.
The symbol of this struggle, inscribed in letters legible across all human history, is "Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome": -there has hitherto been no greater event than this struggle, this question, this deadly contradiction. Rome felt the Jew to be something like anti-nature itself, its antipodal monstrosity as it were: in Rome the Jew stood convicted of hatred for the whole human race; and rightly, provided one has a right to link the salvation and future of the human race with the unconditional dominance of aristocratic values, Roman values.
Which of them has won for the present, Rome or Judea? But there can be no doubt: consider to whom one bows down in Rome itself today, as if they were the epitome of all the highest values-- and not only in Rome but over almost half the earth, everywhere that man has become tame or desires to become tame: three Jews. as is known, and one Jewess (Jesus of Nazareth, the fisherman Peter, the rug weaver Paul, and the mother of the aforementioned Jesus, named Mary). This is very remarkable: Rome has been defeated beyond all doubt.
Nietzsche highlights the rather plebeian origins of Peter and Paul as the slayers of the noble aristocratic values of Rome. But since the late 19th century, with the rush of secularization that Nietzsche foresaw in “God is Dead” there are fewer and fewer people who still bow down in Rome, or anywhere else to Jesus, Paul, Peter, or Mary in the West. While still preaching a woke slave morality domestically, the United States has declared itself a new Rome and acts as a boundless global-Caesar on the international stage.
Zionism is at base a Jewish nationalist movement where only a Jewish Caesar will be ruling the Jews. Roughly half a century after Nietzsche’s death, the young state of Israel, in the wake of mid-20th century genocidal murder, embraced the master morality of the Roman Empire. And as a result the puny Palestinians were forced to wield slave morality’s power of weakness.
The Power of Weakness
Martin Van Creveld is a world-renowned Israeli military strategist. In 2004, as the lustre of Operation Iraqi Freedom was fading, he framed some of the failures of Bush II’s military adventure through the lens of Vietnam. In his comments, Van Creveld illustrates the power of Nietzsche’s slave morality concept without referencing it. His theme applies well to a potential Israeli invasion of Gaza:
The third and most important reason why I think Vietnam is relevant to the situation in Iraq is because the Americans found themselves in the unfortunate position where they were beating down on the weak. To quote Dayan: “any comparison between the two armies… was astonishing. On the one hand there was the American Army, complete with helicopters, an air force, armor, electronic communications, artillery, and mind-boggling riches; to say nothing of ammunition, fuel, spare parts, and equipment of all kinds. On the other there were the [North Vietnamese troops] who had been walking on foot for four months, carrying some artillery rounds on their backs and using a tin spoon to eat a little ground rice from a tin plate”.
The power differential between a Hamas militant and an Israeli soldier is today even starker than that of a Vietcong and GI Joe. But Hamas militants are rarely seen. The mediatized victims of Israel’s bombings are civilians, and in particular, dead or injured children. Van Creveld continues:
That, of course, was precisely the problem. In private life, an adult who keeps beating down on a five year old—even such a one as originally attacked him with a knife—will be perceived as committing a crime; therefore he will lose the support of bystanders and end up by being arrested, tried and convicted. In international life, an armed force that keeps beating down on a weaker opponent will be seen as committing a series of crimes; therefore it will end up by losing the support of its allies, its own people, and its own troops. Depending on the quality of the forces—whether they are draftees or professionals, the effectiveness of the propaganda machine, the nature of the political process, and so on—things may happen quickly or take a long time to mature. However, the outcome is always the same. He (or she) who does not understand this does not understand anything about war; or, indeed, human nature.
In other words, he who fights against the weak — and the rag-tag Iraqi militias are very weak indeed — and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins also loses. To kill an opponent who is much weaker than yourself is unnecessary and therefore cruel; to let that opponent kill you is unnecessary and therefore foolish. As Vietnam and countless other cases prove, no armed force however rich, however powerful, however, advanced, and however well motivated is immune to this dilemma.
In Judea the Roman legions used overwhelming force to crush the puny Jewish insurgency. This cruelty was in harmony with the dominant master morality of the time. Nietzsche holds that the Jews (together with Christians) lost the battle of Judea against Rome but ultimately won the war against Rome by spreading their slave morality—the power of weakness—to the dominant mode of thought in the Western, if not entire, world. Today Israel is attempting a revaluation and reassertion of a master morality within a world engulfed in slave morality. And so far it is falling flat on its face. The US-led information warfare dominance is shattering before our eyes as much of the globe takes the side of the weak Palestinians, leaving both the Israeli mini-Caesar and the US global-Caesar in strategic paralysis. The two Caesars—Israel and the US— are today losing the narrative to the weak.