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Jewish Political Violence: Nothing New Under The Sun

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Tucked in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the easily forgotten day of Tzom (the Fast of) Gedalia. Generally occurring the day after Rosh Hashanah, this day has been set aside to remember the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam.
As recorded in the Hebrew Bible and later sources such as Josephus, we are told that after the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, they still allowed the Jews in Judea to hold onto some level of political autonomy. In this arrangement, Gedaliah was appointed to be the governor of Judea, and represented a faction of Jews who were strongly opposed to any rebellion against the Babylonians. We could only imagine the lachrymose feeling in Judea right after the destruction of the First Temple (just read the book of Eicha/Lamentations). Gedaliah did his best to try and make life as decent as possible for the Jews who remained.
To make a long story short, not everyone was thrilled with this arrangement. Some Jews felt that accepting a political position under the Babylonian government, instead of trying to rebel and reinstate the Davidic kingship, was a defeatist position. Subsequently, a Judean (Jew) named Ishmael ben Netaniah began collaborating with other political leaders in the area, planning an assassination. Now Ishmael had an especially strong motive for this murder. Not only did he represent a small minority of Jews who refused to accept a form of Judaism under Babylonian hegemony, but he also used to be one of the advisors to the past Judean king Jehoiakim and was powerless in this new arrangement. Pretending to be a visitor in town in need of a meal, Ishmael and a band of a few men assassinated Gedaliah and continued on to massacre many of the Jews in the city.
Now, of course, the assassination did not spark a glorious rebellion against Babylon, as Ishmael and his supporters might have hoped. Instead, the Jews were forced to flee to Egypt and any form of Jewish political autonomy immediately ended.
Sadly, this is a story that has re-runs throughout Jewish history. When the Romans surrounded Jerusalem almost 600 years later, most Jewish leaders tried to work out some sort of political solution that would perhaps save the Temple and thousands of Jewish lives. Instead, a group of extremists (known as the zealots) burned down all of the grain houses in Jerusalem, basically forcing the Jews to take up arms against the Romans. A few days later the Temple was destroyed and thousands of Jews were killed on the streets.
We can move to recent history and discuss Chaim Arlosoroff, an early Zionist who was assassinated in 1933 because he engaged in negotiations with the Nazis, planning transports of Jews going from Germany to Palestine. Or we can mention the well-known case of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel who was killed for attempting to negotiate peace with the Palestinians.
What is interesting in these cases is the obvious similarities. In each case the Jews were dealing with an enemy who was bent on some form of Jewish destruction. In each of these cases, a man attempted to negotiate with the enemy in an attempt to minimize the destruction and save lives. And, in each of these cases, that man was killed by others who felt that negotiating with the enemy was an extreme act of treason warranting death.
Now, I do believe that in each of these cases we can step back and have an interesting discussion regarding whether or not it was reasonable to engage in negotiations with the enemy. There are genuinely good arguments on both sides of the coin when it comes to most of these issues. However, resorting to violence and assassination is the most destructive and morally reprehensible action possible as it breaks down the fundamental stability that is crucial in any society.
In discussing the assassination of Gedaliah, the Rabbis comment that the reason why this day was made into a fast, is because “the murder of the righteous is equal to the destruction of the Temple” (Tractate Rosh Hashanah).
A Temple represents everything a society deems as holy and important. Destroy it and the society will lose its inspiration and ability to continue. I believe that the Rabbis are attempting to connect the loss and destruction of the physical Temple, with the uprooting of the cornerstone of any working political system; namely, the loss of nonviolent political discourse and peaceful transfer of power.
The Rabbis based their entire worldview off discussion and debate, in an attempt (for both sides) to arrive at the truth. For them to see or learn about a Jewish political disagreement come to the point of violence and murder, was akin to them watching the Temple being destroyed.
Every year, for one day, we fast and remember that no matter how difficult it may be to talk out issues in a civil manner as a Jewish community, it is the key to our stability.
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Why do rabbis sometimes declare a fast day, like when Israel needs rain? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
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