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The Roman-Jewish Wars and Hebrew Cultural Nationalism

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The Roman-Jewish Wars and Hebrew Cultural Nationalism
By Moshe Aberbach and David Aberbach. (St. Martin's Press, 2000. Pp. xix, 170.) ISBN: 0-312-23191-1.


Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - December 1, 2000

"Physically they remained under Roman rule. Intellectually they rebelled and were free." (pg 90).

The Roman-Jewish Wars and Hebrew Cultural Nationalism covers two interrelated subjects - the Roman-Jewish wars and the development of Hebrew cultural nationalism.

The book discusses the short and long term causes of the three revolts that erupted between the Jews and the Graeco-Romans. The three revolts, which occurred in 66-70, 115-17, and 132-35 C.E. were to precipitate an unbelievable change for the Jews. By the end of the Bar-Kokhba revolt in 135 CE, the Jews found themselves without an independent country, Jerusalem was razed and the temple destroyed, and most of those that lived in Judea where either dead, enslaved, or in exile. More important, the entire political structure, the ruling classes, including the priesthood, of the Jewish nation was destroyed. Yet unlike every other civilization before them, which had met with such a tremendous defeat, the Jewish people did not fade from history. Rather, in an unprecedented move, they remade themselves into a new form which allowed them not only to survive, but to persist and flourish throughout all the tribulations that they were to face in the coming centuries.

Most people assume that anti-Semitism is an outgrowth of Christianity. This is an erroneous assumption. Even before the advent of Christianity, many 'Pagan' cultures developed a hatred for the Jews. This hatred developed for the simple fact that the Jewish people would not compromise their faith by adopting the Pagan gods.

According to Moshe and David Aberbach, in their new book, The Roman-Jewish Wars and Hebrew Cultural Nationalism, anti-Semitism truly came to the fore during the 'Pagan' Roman period. Before the Romans, anti-Semitism was a nonstandardized, haphazard affair. Under the Romans, anti-Semitism took on a systematized. By the reign of Caligula (37-41 C.E.), anti-Semitism had become ingrained in the social and political fabric of the Roman world, and it was commonly used as a political weapon. As such, according to the authors, Roman anti-Semitism laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.

The rise and causes of Roman anti-Semitism are but one of the many controversial issues addressed in this work, authored by two well respected scholars. Moshe Aberbach is Professor Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and David Aberbach is an Associate Processor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at McGill University in Montreal.

The remaking and reawakening of the Jewish people, after the defeat, gives rise to another controversial issue addressed in this book. For most scholars, nationalism is a modern phenomenon. Yet the Aberbach's succinctly show that the rise of Hebrew cultural nationalism was, and is, the first documented incidence of nationalism. Cultural nationalism rests in the culture rather than in a political possession of an ancestral homeland. After the defeat, the rabbis took over the roles of leadership,

"The rabbis transformed defeat and humiliation, grief and despair, absorbing these into a new form of Judaism, based on the Bible but with many changes and innovations and with greater psychological sophistication... The exceptional attractiveness and flexibility of rabbinic Judaism is most obvious in its staying power, for it has survived to the present..." (pg 89).

This is an enlightening book, it explains the background events that led up the various Roman-Jewish wars, their causes and consequences, and goes into great detail explaining just why the Roman's viewed the Jews as such a threat.

"The schizoid treatment of the Jews by Rome might be explained as a struggle between opportunistic tolerance towards on of the more powerful and dynamic groups in the empires and an equally strong fear of the power and dynamism of that group." (Pg 79).

Interestingly, the authors show how, in many regards, the level of animosity directed toward the Jewish people was more an aspect of who was in command, rather than as a result of a well thought out political policy. They also show just how much influence was excreted over the Roman political machine by Hellenistic ex-slaves and how long standing Greek-Jewish rivalries came to taint the Roman political agenda.

While this book was written primarily for a scholarly audience, it is accessible to all. It is well written, concise, easy to read, and without a lot of the superfluous pedantic ramblings that often weigh down academic texts. The text is also enhanced with an engaging forward by John Hutchinson, a Lecturer in Nationalism at the London School of Economics. Also included in the book are detailed area maps, a bibliography, and extensive endnotes.


Related Reviews:

Between Rome and Jerusalem, By Martin Sicker.
In this book, Sicker demonstrates how, and why, Judea played such a large role in Roman Politics, in Rome's expansionist goals, and why it was important that Rome subjugate Judea.

The Jewish People in Classical Antiquity, By John H. Hayes and Sara R. Mandell.
This book covers the turbulent period of Jewish history from 333 B.C.E. to 135 C.E. This periods covers a time frame begining with the conquest of Jewish Palestine by Alexander the Great and ends with the termination of the Second Jewish Revolt aginst Rome.

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