A few years earlier, they had even started a minor uprising when they had followed some young upstart who had had the affrontery to call himself the "King of the Jews". Pontius Pilate had put a quick stop to that when he'd had the whelp nailed up to a crucifix, but these Jews continued to be a source of irritation.
Although it was by no means a serious problem, the emperor could no longer simply ignore the situation because the conquered area was tying up more legions than it should have been, and he needed those troops elsewhere. History does not tell us whether the emperor was too superstitious to utterly obliterate the offending race in a bloody pogrom.
It certainly does not seem likely, since his predecessors —and indeed, his successors— did not and would not hesitate to use such tactics in other venues, and with chilling success. He had the both the available manpower and the authority, and the Jews were not numerous enough to survive such an assault. Perhaps he suspected that no campaign of genocide, no matter how thorough, could ever completely succeed... that the dead would be martyrs and that the few survivors would become even greater thorns in the empire's side than ever before.
Whatever his reasons, the emperor decided on a new and unusual course of action: he ordered that the Jews be forcibly removed from their homes by Roman legionnaires and forcibly relocated to the far-flung corners of the empire. This was done, and the long, sad journey went down in Jewish history as the diaspora. In their absence their former homeland, a now-empty patch of prime beachfront real estate on the Eastern Coast of the Mediterranean Sea, began to slowly fill up with their former Arab neighbours.
As the next two thousand years went by, the Jews lived on in little communities all over the world, especially Europe (this, after all, is where the Roman Empire had been mostly located). We'll never know whether a pogrom by the Roman emperor would have been more successful, but the diaspora certainly wasn't.
Rather than squelching Jewish culture and religion, this forced exile from their homeland became a defining event in Jewish history. The diaspora became a crucial part of the Jewish heritage and tradition, a permanent fixture of their rituals and within their holy book, the Talmud. For the past two thousand years, in a thousand little communities all over the world, father has passed to son and rabbi has passed to congregation the importance of remembering the diaspora.
There is no better example of this stubbornness than the contemporary existence of the Hebrew language. Latin, the language of the Romans, is the basis of French, Spanish, Italian and Portugese and was considered the educated language of cultured people everywhere for hundreds of years after Rome fell. The Roman Catholic Church used it in all its church services all over the world until just a few years ago, and groups of medical students worldwide are frantically using it right now as they cram for their next exam in Gross Anatomy class. How many people, however, do you know today who actually speak Latin as their daily language of diplomacy, commerce or arguing with their wives about taking the trash out?
Aside from possibly a handful of monks with strange haircuts cloistered in their fortress somewhere in the Pyrenees, NO ONE speaks Latin anymore. The language of the great and powerful Roman Empire is finally dead. By contrast, millions of people listen to the evening news, shout at their employers, and try to convince their wives they don't really have headaches (and therefore to stay up just a bit longer) every day, all in Hebrew, the language that the Roman emperor intended to die out when he ordered the diaspora.
After being scattered by the Romans the Jews settled throughout the known world, learned the local languages and became a part of the local population. The rabbis, however, kept the Hebrew language alive, much as Christian monks kept knowledge and literacy alive through the Dark Ages. The rabbis used Hebrew in church services and required all Jews to learn at least enough to actively participate.
The language was preserved by each rabbi in the form of great scrolls of holy texts written in Hebrew, much as medieval monks hoarded books. Also like the monks, before the advent of the printing press rabbis had to hand-copy out these huge scrolls, an effort requiring tremendous time and concentration.
Today Jewish holy books are mass-printed using perfect computer-generated Hebrew characters, but those manufactured for use in synagogues still take the form of huge scrolls of imitation papyrus or linen. Jews are nothing if not traditional.
Like the Roman Catholic Church, Jewish synagogues have only recently started using the local vernacular in their services. Even today, however, when a young man reaches the proper age he must stand before the congregation and sing out a long passage in Hebrew which he reads from one of these great scrolls. This rite-of-passage-into-manhood ceremony is called the bar mitzvah. In answer to recent political cries for gender equality, Judaism has recently created an equivalent for adolescent girls called the bat mitzvah.
From the mid-1500's until well into the current century the dominant pattern in the world was European colonialism. First the Spanish, then Dutch and finally the British were the preeminent powers in the world -- challenged with varying degrees of success by likes of the French, Germans and Italians. The Jews stayed in the background, minding their own business.
No matter where they'd settled, Jews had been seen as just a little bit on the outside by virtue of their religion, their "secret" language of Hebrew and even their ethnicity, so they'd been prevented from holding public office, becoming military leaders or even entering institutions of higher learning. As a result, they'd entered the only field left open to them: business.
As it turned out, they'd seemed to have a knack for it, too: by the late nineteenth century Jews in Europe were widely perceived as being rich, or at least a little bit richer on average than everybody else, by virtue of the fact that many of them had entered jewelry and banking and had done rather well for themselves.
People in power began to assume that a sort of conspiracy existed; they believed that the Jews were quietly manoeuvreing around behind the scenes, using their money and the influence it could get them to help put people into power who would be most sympathetic to their interests. At about this time a pro-Jewish political movement called Zionism arose in Europe. Its purpose was "to return the Jews to their rightful historical homeland".
No one bothered to mention that during the intervening two millenia over 75 generations of Arabs had lived and died on that Eastern Mediterranean soil, now called Palestine. These Arabs figured that they had a bit more right to determine who was going to live on what was now THEIR homeland than a bunch of European nations which had still been a bunch of wild barbarian tribes when the Romans had booted the Jews out in the first place.
One of those wild barbarian tribes, now calling itself the British, was perhaps a bit influenced in its thinking by Zionist arguments and by the idea that European Jewry was a rich and influential group one would do well to have one one's side. Besides, the British Empire was at the height of its power and glory: India was the jewel in its crown about which books by Rudyard Kipling were being written, Sherlock Holmes was stalking the streets of London, Stanley and Livingston were making their way around Africa and Queen Victoria was on the throne.
The sun never set upon the British Empire, she had the largest and most powerful navy in the world and by George, she'd do whatever the heck she bloody wanted to -- and without any guff from any bleeding Arab beggars! Besides, the whole point was academic: Palestine had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire (Turkish Muslims) for centuries, so the Arabs living along the Eastern Mediterranean had no say about anything anyway.
What harm would it do, then, to issue a meaningless policy statement in order to win the favour, support and financial attention of the European Jews? So it was that British Foreign Minister Lord Balfour issued the appropriately-named Balfour Declaration in support of an independent Jewish homeland to be located in Palestine.
The Jews loved it, of course, but it remained just that -- a meaningless policy statement. It was certainly forgotten a couple of decades later in 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by an anarchist in the city of Sarajevo. The French, Germans and Russians mobilised their troops and, before anyone knew what had happened, a million mothers' sons were charging out of their trenches only to cough their lungs up from the mustard gas or be mown down by machine-gun fire. The Great War, the War to End All Wars, had begun.
Trench warfare held the war at a stalemate in Europe for the better part of four years. British General George Allenby, in charge of the "Southern Front", was under pressure from his superiours at the War Office in London for some progress against the Ottoman Empire, a British enemy in the war and the power that controlled the Middle East as it had for centuries. By manipulating Arab tribesmen into fighting the Turks in exchange for tentative implications of Arab independence, Allenby ensured that by the end of the war the Middle East was British-held territory.
Immediately after the war, the newly-created League of Nations, really just an old-boys' club of the same old European colonialist powers, legitimised continued occupation of territory captured by the victors in the war by ceding areas to their occupying victorious forces as "mandates". The idea was that the "big brother" nation would prepare the mandated area for eventual independence, but in practise it was colonialism by any other name... which still smelled just as bad.
Britain got the League of Nations mandate for the Middle East, which included Palestine. Zionist groups and Jews worldwide immediately began pressuring the British to live up to the promises they'd made decades earlier in the Balfour Declaration. If they did nothing the Jews would accuse them of going back on their word, but if they started airlifting massive numbers of Jews into Palestine the local Arabs would riot. They tried to go the middle ground and brought in a slow trickle by sea.
This went on for nearly thirty years while the British controlled the area, and the Arabs certainly did riot, more than a few times. The population of Jewish immigrants slowly swelled, living in an uneasy peace with the Arabs. Then one day a man with a severe little moustache started raving about how the Jews had ruined his country, the rest of Europe and the world besides. The joke was on him, of course; Adolf didn't realise that he himself had Jewish blood, but his countrymen bought it hook, line and sinker, and the Second World War was on.
During the war Palestine remained under British control, never seriously threatened by the massive tank battles in the North African desert between British General Bernard Montgomery and German Field Marshal Erwin 'The Desert Fox' Rommel. At war's end, though, the world was a very different place. All the 'great powers' of Europe were totally tapped out, shattered and economically devastated. Even England, which had resisted invasion, had taken a beating from German bombs.
Suddenly only one country had a healthy economy. Suddenly only one country had no domestic damage at all from the war. Suddenly only one country had the largest and most powerful navy in the world, and it wasn't England any more. Suddenly only one country had the atomic bomb. Suddenly only one country had the undivided attention of every other country in the world, was calling the shots, could do whatever it wanted to and had the force to back up its foreign policy initiatives.
The United States started pressuring all former colonial powers to grant independence to their colonies. Her moral high ground for doing this was that she herself had been a colony and had had to fight for her independence, so she sympathised with other colonies that wanted independence. A more likely reason for doing this is that since colonies trade exclusively with their host countries, excluding other nations, the U.S. wanted to get those host countries out of those colonies as quickly as possible so that she could get access and start selling Coca-Cola and other fine American products.
They grumbled, but Britain and the other former colonial powers of Europe started vacating their colonies rapidly, not only because the United States was pressuring them to but also because they could no longer spare the troops, funds or resources to maintain those colonies when so much reconstruction needed to take place back in their home countries. Amongst others, Britain was making plans to vacate its League of Nations mandates in the Middle East -- including Palestine.
The world had been shocked, sickened and horrified beyond description when it had seen photographs and newsreels of the ghastly 'final solution' of the Nazis. Concentration camps liberated by the Americans had yielded mass graves, poison-gas showers, non-stop crematoria and living skeletons with haunted eyes. The carnage was so far beyond anything ever seen before that even conventional language did not have a word for it. A new word was created to describe it: genocide.
No one could conceive of anything that anyone could ever have done to deserve such a fate. The hearts of everyone on Earth went out to the Jews. Everyone felt guilty for not having stopped Hitler sooner, before six million Jews had gone to their deaths. Filled with shock, compassion, guilt, shame, remorse and regret, the world of 1945 could deny the Jews nothing.
The British were rapidly vacating the land of Palestine, the Jewish homeland of two thousand years ago. Many Jews had emigrated there during the last thirty years. Many European Jews were wandering around the continent as "Displaced Persons", sole survivors of their families or villages with nowhere to go. The world felt shamed and wanted to "do something for the Jews" to "make up" for what had happened. Some Jews themselves and other Zionists were clamouring about the Balfour Declaration, made by the British in a very different world over fifty years and two world wars ago.
Almost before the British were out of Palestine, the United States stepped in and declared that the area would once again be the Jewish homeland. The Americans were trying not only to make up for the Second World War, but to correct an ancient historical wrong. Huge waves of Jewish immigrants flocked to their ancient ancestral homeland.
As these European "displaced persons" found a home once again, they created a whole new flood of "displaced persons" -- Arabs whose umpteenth great-grandfather had farmed the same land 75 generatons ago, forced to leave because a newly-arrived European Jew had become the new owner. These Arabs, today called the Palestinians, left in droves.
It took two years from wars' end for the British to finish vacating and for the brief period of American assistance with Jewish immigration to conclude. Jews all over the world had been delighted with the idea; those who didn't emigrate to live there were quite generous financially. The United States gave much financial and military assistance so that in 1947 the area which had been known as Palestine for two thousand years declared itself the state of Israel.
The brand-new state was promptly attacked at the same time by several of its outraged Arab neighbours. They themselves had been under the boot of the Ottomans for centuries, then had had to endure the British, but now that the entire Middle East had looked as though it were finally going to be free and self-determining, here had come the meddling Americans to eject the Palestinians —brother Arabs— and move Jews in in their place!
Aside from this strange, offensive new outpost there were no Jews for thousands of miles around — only Arabs. For the Arabs it was like surgically transplanting a tuft of blond hair onto a head full of black. They saw these Jews sitting proudly on land that had been Arab land for two thousand years, while the 'rightful' Palestinian-Arab owners sat shivering in refugee camps just outside the borders of the new state. Outraged and offended, they attacked with their combined military force.
Unfortunately for the Arab states that attacked in 1947, U.S. weapons and training that had been provided to the Israeli military allowed Israel to trounce them. In other Arab-Israeli conflicts (1956, 1967 and 1973), almost always started by the Arabs, the same has been the result: one was called the Six-Day War because that's all the time it took the Israelis to win, while another was called the Yom Kippur War because the Arabs tried to win by surprise-attacking on the holiest Jewish day.
The previous Palestinian inhabitants haven't been sitting idly in their refugee camps on Israel's borders for fifty years while fellow Arabs from other Arab countries have been fighting and dying in attempts to win back their land for them. The Palestinians formed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), a terrorist group that has been bombing Israel and conducting other terrorist raids on her for decades.
For many years now Yasser Arafat has been the leader of the PLO, and thus Public Enemy Number One of the Israeli state. He was controversial in the 1980s for once wearing his customary pistol on a visit to the Pope and because the United States didn't want to grant him a visa to enter the U.S. so he could speak at the United Nations.
The first real progress in the Arab-Israeli situation was made by President Carter, who got Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to sign a peace treaty. We later found out what ordinary Arabs thought of that when some of Sadat's own people assassinated him as he stood on the reviewing stand during a parade.
The fact that Israel recently allowed the Gaza Strip to become an 'autonomous Arab zone' with its own police force and Yasser Arafat (Israel's Public Enemy Number One), of all people, as its leader, is probably the most encouraging move towards peace since the Americans started the whole mess in the 1940s. Of course, we found out what ordinary Israelis thought of that when a former member of his own security forces assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the guy who made the Gaza Strip thing possible, as he moved through a crowded public square a few months ago.
Since historic agreements signed in Oslo, Norway in September of 1993 between the Israelis and the PLO set the Gaza Strip aside for the Palestinians, the PLO and its leader have been kept busy with the headaches of self-rule. Those Palestinians and other Arabs who felt that this arrangement was not good enough and that there was still more for which Israel must answer felt that the PLO had gone soft and sold out; they became dissatisfied with the PLO as the representative of their interests.
These extreme anti-Israelis formed a group called Hezbollah, a fundamentalist Islamic force composed of Palestinians and other sympathetic Arabs. Backed by the sympathetic Islamic countries of Iran and Syria, since the 1993 Oslo accords Hezbollah has set up shop in Israel's chaotic bordering neighbour to the North, Lebanon, which has been paralysed for decades by civil war.
The situation in Lebanon is so fractious and its government so weak that Hezbollah has actually taken over the running of schools and hospitals in some areas, gaining it popular support amongst some Lebanese. Its primary purpose for existence being to inflict harm upon Israel, however, in April 1996 Hezbollah began raining fire down upon its hated enemy in the form of Katoushka rockets.
Surrounded as it is by hostile neighbours who would prefer to see the blood of all its citizens running through the sands, Israel has perhaps understandably developed a 'massive retaliation' policy over the years. To guerrilla attacks by the Egyptian-backed Palestinian terrorist group fedayeen ("self-sacrificers", the predecessor of the PLO and Hezbollah) in the 1950s, Israel invaded Egyptian army posts in the dead of night, shooting hundreds of Egyptian troops as they slept, and on 29 October 1956 actually invaded Egypt herself, taking the entire Sinai Peninsula from her.
In Israel's belief that she must show a tough face in order to deter aggression, she has not hesitated even to operate far outside her home region. On 3 July 1976 she reacted to the hijacking of an airplane containing her Olympic team by storming the plane with a massive assault force as it sat on an airport runway in Entebbe, Uganda, a country well into Africa and decidedly not in Israel's home region, the Middle East. Israel had refused to negotiate or even talk to the hijackers, it attacked without regard to casualties and it took no prisoners. The message was clear: don't mess with us.
When terrorists attacked Israel from bases in Southern Lebanon in March of 1978, Israel responded by invading Lebanon. When Mossad, Israel's secret intelligence service, learned in 1981 that its neighbouring country of Iraq (with its new leader Saddam Hussein) had an atomic reactor near its capital city of Baghdad that would enable it to manufacture nuclear weapons, Israeli jets invaded Iraqi airspace, flew on over to Baghdad one fine day and blew the atomic reactor to Kingdom Come.
When Israel's ambassador to Great Britain was wounded in a PLO terrorist attack on the streets of London —just one man, mind you— Israel responded by launching a massive, all-out, coordinated land, sea and air attack against PLO bases in Lebanon on 6 June 1982. By 14 June they had the PLO trapped and surrounded in Lebanon's capital city of Beirut and were pummeling them into oblivion with round-the-clock bombing.
If Ronnie Ray-gun hadn't yanked on the leash of his Israeli pit bull and forced him to wait while the United States Navy evacuated what was left of the PLO from Beirut, the Israelis almost certainly would've done there and then to the Palestinians what the Romans hadn't done to the Jews almost two thousand years earlier. In any case, the message "don't mess with us" was once again clear.
With the election of Yitzhak Rabin as Israeli prime minister in 1992 on a campaign of peace and reconciliation with Israel's Arab neighbours, it looked as though perhaps such stiff reprisals might no longer be necessary. In the historic Oslo accords of 1993 the PLO recognised Israel's right to exist and Israel acknowledged the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians. The Gaza Strip and the West bank of the Jordan river were designated as Palestinian homelands, and Israel and Jordan (the country) signed a treaty ending their 46-year state of war in 1994. Things were really looking up.
A few months ago, however, we found out what at least some ordinary Israelis thought of all this 'peace with the Arabs' stuff when a former member of his own security forces assassinated Rabin as he moved through a crowded public square. Shimon Peres became Israel's new prime minister and tried to continue as best he could his predecessor's policies of peace and reconciliation with Arabs.
When the extreme Palestinian-Arab Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group Hezbollah started firing salvos of deadly Katoushka rockets at Israel from its guerrilla bases in Lebanon in April of 1996, frightened, disappointed Israelis began to cry loudly to their government that perhaps those ingrate Arabs would only take advantage of peace and reconciliation, would only understand the language of force. Perhaps, some said, the only sure policy for security was the old 'massive retaliation'.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, facing an upcoming election and terrorist rockets raining fire down on those who would be deciding whether or not to vote him into office again, didn't take long to decide. On Thursday, 11 April 1996, Israeli ground-based planes and helicopter gunships operating from navy vessels in the Mediterranean launched a massive, non-stop bombing assault on Lebanon.
As of Wednesday, 24 April 1996 the Israeli bombing is still going full-force... but Hezbollah rocket attacks from Israel against Lebanon continue unabated. The Israelis, who have code-named their bombing campaign "Operation Grapes of Wrath", pledge to continue it until Hezbollah's rocket attacks cease. In years to come it may be Israel who will taste the sour grapes, since its military offensive in the first six short days already produced 800,000 homeless refugees in Lebanon -- many of whom will probably become embittered towards Israel and provide excellent new recruits for Hezbollah.
On Monday, 15 April 1996 the United Nations Security Council in New York spent the entire day debating the situation but in the end could reach no decisions. United States Ambassador to the United Nations Madeline Albright made it clear that the U.S. position was that Israel's actions were appropriate and justifiable, and implied rather obviously that the U.S. would use its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council to block any punitive measures the council might attempt.
The reactions of Syria and Iran, the two Islamic Arab countries which helped establish Hezbollah in the first place and continue to fund and supply her, have been no surprise: they have loudly decried that Israel is committing a monstrous crime against humanity and must be stopped. Israel, for its part, has pointed out that both Hitler and Hezbollah launched attacks trying to kill Jews, and reminds the international community what the countries of the world felt was necessary to do about Hitler. With all this rhetoric, the average confused bystander surely must be wondering what to believe.
Two thousand years ago the Romans committed a great wrong against the Jewish people. One hundred years ago the British made a promise that that wrong would be made right. Fifty years ago, after the Germans committed another great wrong against the Jewish people, the Americans tried to make up for it by honouring England's promise. In the process, they committed a great wrong against the Palestinians, who even today still sit shivering in their refugee camps.
The Palestinian Arabs hate the Jews for taking away their homes. The rest of the Arabs hate the Jews for taking away the homes of their brethren. All the Arabs hate the Americans for what they did to the Palestinians. So now today, in a region consisting of dozens of Muslim countries twice as wide as the United States, stretching from Morocco on the West coast of North Africa to Pakistan on the Indian Subcontinent, everyone speaks a form of Arabic, obeys Islamic law and worships a single god most recently revealed to him by Muhammad the last Prophet...
...everyone, that is, except for those living on one tiny little strip of land, forty-seven miles long. For two thousand years the people there also spoke Arabic, obeyed Islamic law and worshipped the god most recently revealed by Muhammad. Now, however, those people are shivering in camps on the borders of what used to be their land. Today the people on that strip of land speak Hebrew, follow Talmudic law and worship the god of Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca and Sarah.
It has been suggested that there are historical parallels between the Arab-Israeli situation and the plight of the native inhabitants of North America (Native Americans / American Indians). Very few people are suggesting today that everyone whose ancestors came to North America after A.D. 1500 should go back where they came from so that the Native Americans can have their lands back. Why, then, was Palestine "returned" to the Jews? We were all taught as children that two wrongs don't make a right, so why did the U.S. try to right a two-thousand-year-old historical wrong by wronging the Palestinians?
Such speculation, however, is merely crying over historically spilt milk: wouldn't removing the Israelis yet again, or blasting them out of existence as the Arabs tried so many times to do, simply be more of the same? Viewing the Middle East as it is today, should we not seek to learn from the mistakes of the past? Shouldn't we seek to learn not only from the mistakes of the Romans and the Nazis, but also from the mistakes we ourselves as Americans made a mere half-century ago when we sought to offer a quick fix to someone else's problems? Good intentions are not enough; surely only listening to and understanding the problems of those who must LIVE there, and then giving help IF it is requested, will finally bring peace.