Israel has been the pawn in power politics since the dawn of history
The monotheistic religion and with its inherent social justice system that Israel has practised since its very beginnings, are and always have been an anathema in a region which traditionally glorifies violence and revenge killing, and in the early years of the Common Era approved of human sacrifice. Does this justify the desire to destroy Israel and the Jewish people, or is it all about avarice and global trade, with a good bit of Jew hatred thrown into the mix?
Israel the whipping boy
Israel's monotheistic religion with its inherent social justice system, which has been practised since its very beginnings, has been and remains an anathema in a region which traditionally glorifies violence and revenge killing. Human sacrifice was acceptable in much of the region until the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Do these differences justify the desire to destroy Israel and the Jewish people, or is it all about avarice and global trade, with a good bit of Jew hatred thrown into the mix for good measure?
The Via Maris (purple), King's Highway (red), and other Levantine trade routes, c.1300 BCE
Attribution for this image - Briangotts at English Wikipedia
Its all about trade
The ancient trade route between Egypt and the Levant, known as the Via Maris ( Way of the Sea), which ran along the Mediterranean coast through the Sinai, Gaza, Israel and Lebanon, also branched inland to connect with Assyria and Mesopotamia. Countless wars have been fought over the past 3 millennia as successive regional powers have sought control over the lucrative trade routes. Israel, with its Mediterranean coastline, enjoyed maritime access to Europe, as well as the overland routes which connected the Via Maris with the Asian interior These factors placed Israel at the centre of several lucrative and strategically important trade routes, making it a delectable prize
Significantly situated at the confluence of the Via Maris where it branches north to Lebanon (Ancient Phoenicia) and east to Syria and beyond, Israel has been the victim of big power aspirations and geopolitics for over 3,000 years. While the Israelite Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses was the formative event of the Jewish religion, it also appears to have been part of a larger movement of people of Syriac origin to Mesopotamia, Moab and northern Canaan. With the exception of the Hebrews, this group became known as the Arameans, occupying much of present day Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, while the Israelites occupied an area very much conforming with modern Israel, west of the Jordan Valley, all the way to the Mediterranean coast. Small coastal enclaves were home to the enigmatic “Sea People”, a term describing both the Philistines and the Phoenicians, who it appears most likely originated from the Aegean Island of Crete.
Israel Caught up in the Aramean Assyrian Conflict
Ancient texts tell us that Aramean king Cushan-Rishathaim of Aram-Naharaim, subjugated the Israelites for a period of eight years in 1,300 BCE. This is confirmed in the Book of Judges, which relates that much of the Land of Israel came under Aramean rule for eight years in the early 13th century BCE, as a punishment for worshipping foreign deities.Thirteenth century BCE records found at the ancient city of Assur in Iraq, ascribed to Assyrian king Shalmaneser I, tell us about the rivalries between the Assyrian and Aramean kingdoms, with the 8 year Aramean occupation of Israel recorded as one of the events in this early geopolitical powerplay for control of the Levant. The battle for supremacy between the Assyrians and the Arameans continued for almost 300 years. Fortunately for the Jewish people, this 300 year period coincided with the rise of King David, the establishment of the Davidic dynasty and the emergence of Israel as a regional power, full advantage having been taken of the Assyrian and the Aramean preoccupation with their battle for regional control.
Shalmaneser Clay Tablet with historic records discovered at Assur
The Assyrian Empire
The Assyrians ended up victorious after vanquishing the combined Aramean and Israelite forces at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE. Israel had unfortunately allied with the losers, incurring the wrath of the Assyrians who attacked Israel 11 years later in order to consolidate their hold on the lucrative Levantine trade routes. The result was that Israel became a vassal state, paying costly tribute to Assyria. The history of the various wars fought against the Aramaeans by Assyrian king Shalmaneser III were recorded on what has become known as the Black Obelisk.
Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III , in the British Museum
The norm of the time was for the vanquished people to accept the deities of the conquerors, which was the antithesis of the monotheistic Jewish belief system and the root cause of many problems, which have persisted to the present time. Israel’s status as an Assyrian vassal continued for the next 100 years, during which time many Israelites accepted the Assyrian pantheon of deities, forsaking their own monotheistic belief. Hezekiah became king of Israel in 716 BCE and immediately enforced traditional monotheistic Jewish practices, which included the destruction of the idols representative of the various Assyrian deities. Trouble was brewing, but at the same time a new power was on the ascent, challenging the Assyrians.
Babylon was the new kid to emerge on the block as a superpower, after achieving victory following a protracted revolution against the Assyrians, who, strangely enough, were supported by the Judeans, Phoenicians and Egyptians under Pharaoh Necho II. this alliance was driven in part by fear of the newly emerging Babylonian power. By 605 BCE Judean king Jehoiakim was forced to accept vassal status for Judea, accompanied by the payment of tribute to Babylon. This was the unfortunate result of once again having chosen the wrong allies in the never ending Levantine geopolitical powerplay. Four years later Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylon by refusing to pay the required tribute, preferring to once again seek an alliance with Egypt, which was initially successful after Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar was defeated in a battle with the Egyptians in 601 BCE. Judea however still remained under the Babylonian thumb. One of the major causes of the Judean rebellion against Babylon had been dissatisfaction with an attempt to enforce worship of the Babylonian deity, Marduk. The result of this rebellion was the first deportation of Jewish intelligentsia to Babylon, which took place in 597 BCE, marking the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.
Painting of the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon - by Ferdinand Knab, 1886 CE
The alliance with Egypt did not enjoy the full support of the populace, with many Judeans preferring to pay tribute to, and remain under the protection of Babylon, as recorded in the Tannach. Great emphasis is placed on the warnings of the Prophet Jeremiah, who repeatedly cautioned against the dangers the Jewish people faced by forging an alliance with Egypt. Following the Babylonian defeat at the hands of the allied Egyptian Judean forces, Nebuchadnezzar attacked Judea in retribution for the support given to the Egyptians, who did not reciprocate by coming to Judea’s aid. The final result was the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE, followed by the mass deportation to Babylon of the younger Judean intelligentsia, made up mainly of members of the royal family and the priestly cast. While the Exodus had been the formative event in the religion of the Hebrew people, the Babylonian Captivity and the the destruction of the Temple became the formative events in what soon developed into Rabbinic Judaism, with rules for prayer and other religious observances replacing the Temple sacrifices and other rituals of the priesthood.
King Cyrus and the Persians
The Babylonian Empire remained the leading regional power until its defeat at the hands of King Cyrus of Persia in 539, who changed the course of Jewish history by granting the exiles permission to return to Judea, together with the sacred Temple vessels that had gone into exile with them. While a significant number took advantage of the opportunity to return home, a sizable proportion of the exiles decided to remain in Babylon. Cyrus granted permission for the Temple to be rebuilt and this was completed by 516 BCE, making Persia the first and only Imperial power to allow Jews to practice their religion without interference or demands to worship foreign deities.
The Greek Empire
The Persian Empire lasted until 332 BCE, when it was succeeded as the regional super power by the Hellenic Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, who conquered most of Asia, taking total control of all the Asian trade routes. Once again foreign customs, deities and rules were introduced, although Jews were allowed a degree of religious freedom. This ended after Antiochus ascended to the Hellenic throne in 175 BCE, after which he issued an edict removing religious freedom and enforcing the worship of the Greek pantheon of deities by all Imperial citizens. The edict led to the Hasmonean revolt which resulted in the emergence of the Hasmonean Kingdom, with Jews once again ruling Judea through a dynasty that lasted from 140 to 115 BCE. And then the Roman Empire arrived on the pages of history.
Ruins of a Hasmonean Dynasty Palace
The Roman Empire and nominal Jewish self rule
During 139 BCE Judea became a self ruled client state of the Roman Empire under the nominal control of the Hasmoneans, until the Jewsih monarchy became embroiled in the civil conflict between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Pompey died in 48 and Caesar in 44 BCE, leaving a power vacuum which was exploited by the Hasmonean king Hyrcanus II who ruled Judea as a semi autonomous state for 4 years. His rule ended with the Roman appointment of Herod the Great as king, subject to Roman authority. Rome controlled the Mediterranean maritime trade routes as well as the Asian trade routes providing the resources for the growth of the Empire. Israel (Judea) was once again the connecting link between the Asian hinterland and Rome’s European markets. Julius Caesar had granted special religious freedom to the Jews in gratitude for their support during his conflict with Pompey. This right remained in place until the installation of Caligula as Roman Emperor in 37 CE. He was suspicious of Jews and not prepared to accept their rejection of the Roman deities.
The final straw for many Jews was Caligula's instruction that his statue should be placed in the Temple as an object to be worshipped. Tensions eventually boiled over several years later and the first Jewish revolt, which lasted from 66 to 73 CE took place. The greatest tragedy of this revolt was the destruction by Roman general Titus of the Temple, which had stood for almost 600 years. The Temple treasures and holy articles were carried off to Rome as booty and exhibited during the triumphant return to the city by Titus and his victorious soldiers, along with hundreds, if not thousands of Jewish captives who had been deported from their homeland in a repeat of the Babylonian exile. Roman plans to build a temple to Jupiter over the ruins of the Jewish Temple caused renewed discontent. Revolutionary activity led by Shimon Bar Kochba erupted against the Roman overlords in 132 CE, which was finally quelled 3 years later in 135. The Roman historian Cassius Dio recorded that 560,000 Jewish lives were lost, while towns and cities were depopulated, with thousands of Jews deported and sent into exile or captivity. With the exception of a small remnant, Jewish life in Israel had for all intents and purposes come to an end.
Ancient Panel showing the Triumph of Titus
Temple Spoils including the Menorah which were taken to Rome
Christianity and Islam and the Jews
The advent of Christianity and the emergence of the Byzantine Empire in 330 as the successor to the Roman Empire introduced a new element into global politics; hatred of Jews based on the belief that they were responsible for the death of Jesus, whose disciples had founded Christianity, based on his teachings. Removal of various civil liberties for Jews became commonplace during the Byzantine period, but underlying it all was the commercial success of many of the leading figures in early Christianity, taking full advantage of Israel's position astride the trade routes.
The advent of Islam in the Middle East in 632, with an avowed policy of territorial expansion and religious conversion, changed the face of the entire region as military conquests provided fertile ground for the expansion of the new faith. The reality is however, that while the military victories were motivated by religious fervour, there was an even larger motivation, avarice and geopolitical expansionism. Israel fell under Muslim control of one form or another for almost 1,300 years, except for short periods of Persian and Christian Crusader rule. While the Muslim rulers had no love for the Jews of Israel and treated them as second class citizens, the Crusaders were happy to kill and maim the Jews, with many Jewsih communities in Europe ravaged and destroyed by the Crusader armies on their way to what they referred to as the Holy Land.
20th Century and Israel reborn
The First World War and the Allied victory over Germany and its ally, Ottoman Turkey, finally brought Imperial rule over Israel to an end. The British Government was given a Mandate over Palestine on the understanding that the Jewish homeland would be reestablished in terms of the Balfour Declaration. After many trials and tribulations the reborn State of Israel was proclaimed on 14 May 1948, finding itself at war, even before the State was actually proclaimed. For once, both major powers assisted the fledgling state, the Soviet Union with arms and aircraft from Czechoslovakia while there was much sympathy and financial support from the United States.
The end of the Stalin era and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev in 1953 resulted in a reversal of Soviet policy, with Israel being shunned, while the surrounding Arab States were given financial and military assistance. The Eisenhower administration in the United States made limited financial assistance available, while France became Israel’s leading armaments supplier. Trade once again took centre stage with the oil rich Arab countries courted by both super powers. The Cold War in which the Soviets and their client states were pitted against the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries frequently became a hot war in the Middle East. Israel became the NATO surrogate in the Middle East, while the Arab states were representative of Soviet interests. Israel was still very much the pawn at the centre of super power geopolitics.
The Suez canal, which had been opened in 1869, lessened the reliance on the ancient Levantine trade routes, but this changed after 1956 when the canal was closed to shipping for a year, as a result of the 1956 military conflict between Israel and Egypt. The canal was again closed after the 1967 Six Day War and only reopened to shipping in 1975. Israel at the crossroads, became even more significant with the establishment of Eilat as a major Red Sea port and Ashdod as an important Mediterranean port. It can be said that the Via Maris is once again very much to the fore.
21st century Israel is still at the crossroads of history, with competing regional powers staking their claim. Turkey in the north and Iran in the east both seem intent on recreating their ancient empires, with the old overland trade routes vital to their strategic planning, and Israel is once again in the crosshairs.