‘The Jewish War’ by Flavius Josephus
Josephus was born in CE 37 to a Jewish priestly family and attended a rabbinic school. He lived for three years with an ascetic hermit in the desert, and then returned to take up his priestly duties. (Page reference in what follows is to the Penguin Classics revised edition. The date of Josephus’ death is not known.) He opposed the Jews taking up arms against the Romans but only because he saw the attempt as doomed to failure. However, when the country was divided into Jerusalem and six regional commands, Josephus was placed in command of “the most northerly of the regions, Galilee” (page 11) where he acquitted himself as a brave and resourceful military leader. When his army deserted in the face of massive Roman attacks, Josephus joined a small group that retreated to a fortress town and continued the fight. The siege lasted two months and ended with the capture of Josephus. He would have been sent to Emperor Nero but saved himself by prophesying to Vespasian, the Roman commander that he, Vespasian, would soon be Emperor. The prophecy came true and thereafter Josephus had an honoured place in Rome, adding the Roman name Flavius to his own. He was granted citizenship and a pension for life. Ethnicity counted but citizenship was proudly prized. The claim was that a man who declared that he was a citizen of Rome (civis romanus sum) would be safe anywhere in the empire. For example, in the New Testament of the Bible (Acts, chapter 22), one reads the following in relation to Paul, later Saint Paul:
But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes”. So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen.
Staying a little longer with the Bible, it is not without significance that though the author mentions Pontius Pilate, he makes no reference to Jesus: “When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it” (Matthew, 27: 24). Josephus’ book is a full and, I must caution, a very detailed account of the war waged by the Jews, CE 66-70, against the Romans.
We must bear in mind that Josephus was living and writing under the protection and patronage of the Romans. He wrote for them (copies were gifted to Caesar), and not for his fellow Jews. In Sri Lankan terms, it would be as if either Douglas Devananda or Colonel Karuna were to write his account of the war between the state and the Tamil Tigers. Of Devananda, the Internet states that he is wanted outside Sri Lanka “on charges of murder, attempt to murder, rioting, unlawful assembly and kidnapping. He was sworn in as Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources on 22 November 2019.” Colonel Karuna Amman fought for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for over 20 years. The title of Josephus’ book is ‘The Jewish War’, and its very first sentence begins: “The war of the Jews against the Romans”. Truthfully, it should have been the war of the Romans against the Jews. So it is that, given Western power and influence, the reference usually is to ‘the Vietnam war’ and not to ‘the American war on Vietnam’. So too, is it ‘the war of the Tamil Tigers against the state’ or ‘the war of the state against the Tamil Tigers’? (I recall long, long years ago being asked a simple question by a simple farmer in Jaffna: “All we want is to lead our lives as we like. Why don’t they leave us alone?” Of course, the question was a simplification.) The use of the words ‘loyal’ and ‘loyalty’ by Josephus also betray his betrayal and new loyalty. Those who remain obedient to or supportive of imperial Rome are deemed by him to be “loyal”. Under other empires too, natives who sided with the imperial power against their own folk were advanced or given some token of recognition. They, as in erstwhile Ceylon, were collaborators. (I use ‘natives’ without apology. Once a term of insult, it is now one of contest, claim and pride.)
The Jews faced the Goliath of the Roman Empire which was grounded on, probably, the best army in the world at that time: highly trained, superbly disciplined and excellently equipped. (For the story of David and Goliath, see the Old Testament: 1 Samuel, Chapter 17.) There have been instances in history when a small army defeated a force numerically far superior but, as a general rule, the numerical ratio makes for a decisive difference in war, as the Tamil Tigers learnt. The comparatively tiny Jewish population was no match against the huge Roman Empire. So why did they fight, and how did they fight?
Justice includes elements such as freedom and equality, opportunity and dignity. But justice is never extended freely: it is demanded, fought and paid for with wounds and blood; with death and tears. As we have been told by several writers, a person who is not free is not fully human. She or he cannot realize her or his full potential. Professor Mary Smallwood in her ‘Introduction’ to this Penguin edition writes that the Jews rose up to free themselves from the Roman “yoke” (page 13). It is an apt lexical choice for a yoke is placed on the neck of an animal (or human being) to make it tractable. Those not free live under the political, economic and social yoke forcibly placed on them. So it is that, against the judgement of men like Josephus, the Jews took to arms, again and again, in an attempt to rid themselves of the alien and oppressive Roman yoke. Like the Tamil Tigers in another place and time far, far distant, they won many a battle but lost the war. The longing of a people for independence and freedom may be forced to dormancy but, deep down, it doesn’t die.
The Jews fought with great courage, tenacity and skill and, despite his disloyal ‘loyalty’, Flavius Josephus acknowledges this: “the Jews stood shoulder to shoulder and held their ground magnificently” (page 172). Rather than being broken-hearted by disaster, “the Jews were stimulated by defeat to still greater determination” (page 191). What happened at the fortress of Masada is now disputed but Josephus recounts that 960 men, women and children took shelter there under their leader Eleazar. Facing certain defeat, they opted for mass suicide. First the men killed their wives and children: the wives so that they would not be violated; the children so that they would not be sent into slavery. With streaming eyes they embraced their wives, “and taking their children in their arms pressed upon them the last, lingering kiss” (page 404). Ten men were chosen by lot to be the executioners of the rest: “every man flung himself down beside his [dead] wife and children where they lay, put his arms round them, and exposed his throat to those who must perform the painful office” (ibid). The last ten men then freed themselves in turn from life. The very last man, after having made sure all were dead, also committed suicide. The Romans admired and respected courage – even when displayed by the enemy (page 405): “When they came upon the rows of dead bodies, they did not exult over them as enemies but admired the nobility of their resolve, and the way in which so many had shown an utter contempt of death in carrying it out without a tremor”. (In Sri Lanka, “after the final battle with the Tamil Tigers, desecrated bodies were found: those, particularly of females, with objects thrust into their private parts”.)
It’s interesting that Eleazar mentions Indian philosophy, and Indians who inform their friends that they are going to depart: “No one tries to stop them” (page 401). The bereaved, when they weep, weep for themselves and not for the dead because the departed are thought to be happy (ibid). To continue with this brief digression, Josephus describes a sect, the Essenes, who are “communists to perfection” (page 133). None of them will be found to be better off than the others. Among them, there’s neither humiliating poverty nor excessive wealth.
Etymologically, the term ‘diaspora’ is linked to scattering or dispersal (one reads of “the Tamil diaspora”) and Josephus observes that the Jews having been defeated, the sacred Temple destroyed for the second time, and their land occupied, “dispersed in great numbers among the native populations all over the world” (page 377). The Jewish scholar, Professor David Myers, comments that the Jews took with them a “portable homeland” consisting of their beliefs and culture, their rites and observances. They have been consistently disliked, observes Myers but it must be added that the worst suffering of the Jews in their exile-life was at the hands of Western Christians.
A dear relation of mine now settled in Canada is a pro-Zionist. This surprised me because, in my naivety, I had thought that Sri Lankan Tamils, because of their own experience, would instinctively side with the weaker, with those discriminated against; that they would, almost automatically, stand with and for the underdog. (Emma Goldman, also of Jewish origin, and many others come to mind.) I have read several books by and about the Jews, and have admiration for their achievement; sympathy for what they suffered over centuries. Again, because of their own experience, I had thought that Tamils would be against racism in any form and everywhere, including the self-avowed racism of Israel. Among the many books by Jews on their experience, one that is deservedly famous is Primo Levi’s ‘If This Is A Man’. Yet Levi who survived the Nazi concentration camp had the courage and honesty to write that the Palestinians had become the Jews of the Israelis. To my knowledge, Israel is the only country which officially declares that it is racist: the Nation-State Law explicitly states that the right to exercise national self-determination in Israel is limited to the Jewish people. Some members of population-groups (Jews, Sinhalese and others) settled happily and freely in countries outside their original homeland see no contradiction in denying minority-groups back “home” equality.
Leaning on Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society: Study in Ethics and Politics’ and on other works of a similar nature, I wonder: Must justice for one group always mean injustice to another group(s)? Does our primordial struggle for survival lead us to think there can’t be justice for us and for others also? Justice, it has been said, is indivisible and discriminatory justice is not justice. Past victimhood may explain but it cannot excuse, much less justify, victimising others in the present. ‘Ceylon’ was ruled for about five-hundred years by Western, Christian powers and during this long period, native cultures (in alphabetical order: Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem) were disregarded, even held in contempt. With independence, there had to be rectification but it was unfortunately felt that justice could be done to the majority only at the cost of continuing injustice to minority groups. To alter SWRD Bandaranaike’s electrifying election-slogan, it was: “Sinhalese Buddhists Only!” with the emphasis being on the excluding and subordinating “only”. Must justice for the majority necessarily mean injustice for the minorities? Or is it the human hegemonic drive untrammelled?
Contrary to some religious teaching, suffering does not ennoble. On the contrary, as the poet W H Auden wrote, “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.” Israel has a right to exist but must it be at the cost of erecting an apartheid state, humiliating and bullying the Palestinians? Lines from the (Jewish) ‘Old Testament’ come to mind: “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place” (Isaiah 5:8).