The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Geopolitics of Scripture

If American power recedes from the Middle East in the advancing post-Cold War era, Israel's strategic circumstances, not least its concern about a nuclearizing Iran, could start to look a lot like they did in Isaiah's time.

Published on June 10, 2012

For the better part of the past decade, as Israel continually warned that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon, Jerusalem’s strong preference for both technical and political reasons was for the United States, rather than Israel itself, to attack Iranian facilities. But with America’s departure from Iraq, its planned troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, rampant war fatigue among the American populace amid economic stringency, and the tightening of international sanctions on Tehran widely accepted, wisely or not, as a functional substitute for military action, Israel’s leaders appear to have concluded that the United States cannot be relied on to take timely military action against Iran. The tough U.S. declaratory policy notwithstanding, the fraught decision to attack, they now seem to believe, will be theirs alone. 

At the same time, the government in Jerusalem confronts a Middle East that is undergoing upheavals unlike anything the region has seen in many decades. The so-called (and misnamed) Arab Spring is no longer being led, to the extent it ever was, by the secular, liberal idealists who launched it. It has instead been co-opted to one degree or another in various countries by Islamist elements, virtually all of them implacably hostile to the Jewish State. 

The upshot of this is that Israel’s basic strategic circumstance since the early 1970s—defined, on the one side, by close U.S. support amid intense U.S. regional engagement and, on the other, by neighbors near and far led by stable and predictable even if often hostile rulers—is no more. Despite its powerful military and equally powerful economy, both of which outclass any other state in the region, Israel’s situation is nevertheless increasingly parlous.

If we were to search for a model with which to understand the changed circumstances in which Israel finds itself, we might be tempted to look to the period between May 1948 and June 1967, before Israel’s strategic ties with the United States had formed, and when Arab politics were more volatile than they have typically been over the past forty years. There may indeed be some good purpose served by examining that period, but it is both a very short and also an anomalous one. Both Israel and the Arab states were relatively new sovereign political entities, and the Cold War encased the region as a whole in such a way that historically major regional actors like Iran and Turkey could not, or at any rate did not, play the increasingly autonomous roles they play today. For this reason, we might well look to a different, more distant period for some guidance: that of the ancient Jewish states more than two millennia ago. 

It is exceedingly risky to propound any direct contemporary lessons from those ancient times, not least because the oracle of history does not speak as clearly as we might wish. The First and Second Jewish Commonwealths existed, taken together, for roughly 900 years in one form or another. From a strategic perspective, this history shows us not one but several patterns. Yet there are such patterns in Scripture; most readers overlook them simply because they have other interests in mind when they read the Bible—moral, theological, literary. These patterns, too, have a notable virtue as a guide: The passage of time tends to pare away the superficial hubbub of history-in-the-making from its essence. Studying history can help us to discern the distinction in our own time between what is fundamental and what is froth.

These patterns, and their uses, no doubt owe much to the fact that neither geography nor human nature has changed terribly much since Biblical times, even as technology and what might be called the region’s “global situational awareness” have. Israel’s location as a crossroads along the attack routes to and from Africa and Asia, and the fractious nature of its small population, were as much in evidence in those days as they are in our own. Israel could indeed find itself in a general situation paralleling that of its Biblical predecessors: without a geographically remote ally, and in a region no longer tightly tethered to and constrained by an extrinsic great power rivalry. Like its Biblical predecessors, Israel may be forced to confront its place in shifting local power balances among states that might be at times friendly and at other times hostile. It may also have to weigh alliances with and against powers more geographically proximate: Turkey, Iran, India, perhaps Pakistan (if it survives as a state) and even China. Smaller or weaker states on Israel’s far periphery—Azerbaijan, Cyprus and others—might also become strategically more significant.

How Israel shapes its foreign policy will also be a function of its domestic social circumstances. Different sections of the population, with different priorities and ways of thinking, are likely to prefer different national security strategies. In particular, the choice of whether to cast the nation’s lot in alliance with other states may well be colored by the differing views Israelis have about themselves and the nature of their state. The Israeli polity today is no more monolithic in those regards than it was 2,500 years ago. So, the debates and differences of opinion that governed political, economic and military policy as outlined in Scripture may offer particularly interesting insight into issues that could confront the modern Jewish state in the years ahead. 

The Kingdom Not of Heaven

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he place to start a historical perspective of some 900 years is at the beginning, with the foundation of the First Commonwealth. That foundation bears a poignant lesson about the interplay of domestic politics and geopolitical circumstance.

As is well known to even casual readers of the Bible, it was King David who managed to unite the 12 fractious Israelite tribes under a centralized monarchy after a nine-year insurgency against King Saul and his successor. The monarchy was only able to preside over a unitary state for little more than a single generation, however. David’s youngest son Solomon obtained the throne through a palace coup engineered by his mother Bathsheba and the Prophet Nathan. Consolidating his father’s conquests of Ammon in the east, Moab and Edom in the southeast, and Syria in the north (II Samuel, 8:1–15, 10:6–11:1), Solomon ruled an empire that stretched “from the river [Euphrates] unto the land of the Philistines” (I Kings, 5:1). Through sheer brilliance that captivated neighboring monarchs, marriages that sealed dynastic alliances and a commercial policy that included dominating trade routes to Arabia and the development of a wide-ranging merchant marine, he increased the state’s wealth while maintaining peace with its neighbors so that “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and under his fig tree” (I Kings, 5:5).  

Nevertheless, Solomon’s rule became increasingly autocratic with the passage of time.  His marriages to idolatrous women, his extravagant lifestyle and the taxes he levied to sustain it, and his press-ganging of large numbers of his people to support a massive public and personal works program, fueled popular resentment, especially in the North where tribal loyalties still held sway. It was left to his son Rehoboam to preside over the splitting of the kingdom, with the ten northern tribes forming the breakaway Kingdom of Israel in 922 BCE under Solomon’s talented but rebellious administrator, Jeroboam. Less than a year after succeeding his father on the throne, Rehoboam was master only of a small rump state, which came to be called the Kingdom of Judah and consisted only of the king’s eponymous native tribe and the neighboring tribe of Benjamin.

Apart from the friction that naturally aggravated relations between the breakaway kingdom and its original parent, several other factors highlighted their differences as well. The northern Kingdom of Israel, though its capital lay in the hill country of Samaria, bordered the Mediterranean Sea and was more open to external influences, whether religious, economic or political, than its southern counterpart. Its focus was on trade, and its orientation was to the north and west. The southern Kingdom of Judah, however, was landlocked, bordering on wilderness to the east and south. More religiously conservative, its economy was based primarily on small farms, animal husbandry and on revenues deriving from the fact that it was home to the Temple in Jerusalem. It appears that Solomon’s vast trade routes, whether land- or sea-based, all but dried up with the division of his kingdom. 

Parallels with modern Israel are obvious, and have become increasingly so with the passage of time. Virtually all of the ancient Kingdom of Judah is located on what is now called the West Bank—except by its settlers, who call it Judea. The West Bank also includes the interior parts of the ancient northern Kingdom of Israel, which its settlers term Samaria, but it is in Judea that the majority of settlers are to be found. Like the Kingdom of Judah, Judea and Samaria today are far more religiously and politically conservative than the rest of Israel; a major proportion of the settler movement, if not a majority, is dominated by nationalist-minded Orthodox Jews. This is increasingly the case in Jerusalem as well, where the ultra-Orthodox haredim form a plurality and constitute the most potent political force in the city. That portion of Israel inside the Green Line, particularly the urbanized stretch along the Mediterranean coast from Tel Aviv to Haifa often referred to as “North Tel Aviv”, reflects many of the characteristics of the ancient northern kingdom. Dominated by secular values, far more prosperous and diversified economically, it is the heartland of what has been termed recently “the start-up nation.” The coastal area and its elites have little sympathy for the settlers, the haredim and the political and religious values they espouse.

The two Israels have been cohabiting in an increasingly uncomfortable manner since May 1977, when the election of Menahem Begin initiated a seismic political shift away from the secular, Ashkenazi (that is, European) elite that had dominated the state since its creation and the Zionist movement before that. The growth in both the settler and haredi populations—the former fueled by an influx of modern Orthodox Jews from English-speaking countries, the latter by astonishingly high birth rates—has sustained that shift and promises to perpetuate it for years to come. 

The gap between Orthodox and secular is reminiscent of ancient divides along similar lines that prompted rebukes from a host of prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah in the south, Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, Joel, Micah and Amos in the north. This was the case especially in the north, where Jeroboam’s creation of a rival Jewish ritual led to a virtual disintegration of the people’s commitment to their ancient rites and the growing influence of pagan cults. The Kingdom of Judah was often no less prone to paganism, but it generally veered between bouts of strict adherence to the law and its rejection, depending on who ruled at the time. Perhaps the starkest contrast in that regard was that between the pious Hezekiah and both his father Ahaz and son Manasseh, both of whom Scripture describes as importing the worst features of the rites practiced by neighboring pagan peoples.   

Not by Bread Alone

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srael’s present day religious divide is but one of the schisms roiling the Israeli polity that could affect the state’s foreign policy in future. Economic issues and ethnic tensions are also eating at Israel’s societal fabric, much as they did in ancient times. 

Israel’s widening gap between rich and poor, particularly those of non-European ethnic origin, and indeed the outright discrimination against Ethiopian Jews, evokes the exploitation of the poor in both Judah and Israel that the Prophets so eloquently condemned. Isaiah’s rebuke of those who focused on religious ritual while ignoring the cries of the downtrodden reflected conditions in the Kingdom of Judah. Referring to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the prophet fulminated (58: 4, 6–7):

Behold, ye fast for strife and contention, 

And to smite with the fist of wickedness;

Ye fast not this day

So as to make your voice to be heard on high . . .

Is not this the fast that I have chosen?

To loose the fetters of wickedness,

To undo the bands of the yoke,

And to let the oppressed go free,

And that ye break every yoke?

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry,

And that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?

When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him,

And that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

Matters were no better in the northern kingdom. In a particularly stark manifestation of the class divide, economic hardships often drove the poor into servitude when they failed to pay off loans (see II Kings, 4:1). The Prophets Hosea and Amos, in particular, lambasted the mistreatment of the lower classes by the rich. Amos noted that not only were the poor exploited by their creditors, but the entire legal system was so corrupted in favor of the wealthy and powerful that they had no redress anywhere (see Amos, 5:11–12).

Amos and Jeremiah argued that religious backsliding and socio-economic inequality were the fundamental causes of the political and military insecurity that haunted both Jewish states. Yet geopolitics is a not a matter of bread alone. It was certainly the case that the two small kingdoms, like modern Israel, often found themselves surrounded by potentially hostile enemies, with only intermittent periods during which they were at peace with one or another of their neighbors. The Psalmist summed up their strategic situation in the following manner (83:4–9): 

They hold crafty converse against Thy people,

And take counsel against Thy treasured ones.

They have said: ‘Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation;

That the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance.’

For they have consulted together with one consent;

Against Thee do they make a covenant;

The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites;

Moab and the Hagrites;

Gebal and Ammon, and Amalek;

Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre;

Assyria is also joined with them. . . .

He might have written the same verses about modern Israel’s situation in 1948 or 1967, with only the names of its enemies having to be changed.

The Prophets generally encouraged both kingdoms to adopt a policy of armed neutrality. No doubt they feared the corrupting influences of outside powers. The Kingdom of Judah was more responsive to prophetic advice than its northern neighbor, but only marginally so. Both states were constantly shifting alliances and often adopted the pagan practices of their erstwhile allies.

The founder of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem, King David, did not join in any alliances when conquering neighboring kingdoms. He did enter into one treaty relationship, with Hiram of Tyre. Nevertheless, Scripture does not explicitly outline his motives for doing so, merely recording that Hiram “loved” him (I Kings, 5:15). Whatever David’s reasons may have been for his arrangements with Hiram, Solomon’s were driven by economic motives. When Hiram reached out to him, seeking to maintain the relationship that the Tyrian king had established with David, Solomon responded by seeking the latter’s provision of Lebanese cedar for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Hiram was only too happy to oblige. 

In addition, in order both to maintain peace and to recompense Hiram for all he had done (Hiram had also provided cedar and fir trees, as well as gold, not only for the Temple, but for Solomon’s palace), Solomon did something that would be unthinkable to those who press for the absorption of modern day Judea and Samaria into Israel proper: He relinquished territory. Scripture recounts that Solomon gave Hiram twenty cities in the Galilee. But the gesture was less than it seemed: The land Solomon handed over was barren and useless. Hiram protested, but did nothing more. (Scripture relates that he actually gave Solomon an additional subvention, though it does not seem likely to have been payment for the cities he received.)

Solomon pursued a second crucial partnership, again driven by economic calculations. The renowned Queen of Sheba came northward to Jerusalem to engage him in an intellectual contest. Their relationship is the stuff of legend, beginning with the location of her kingdom. Some say it was located along the Red Sea, in modern day Yemen. Others, among them the former royal house of Ethiopia, placed Sheba in their lands—perhaps in what is now Eritrea, formerly a province of Ethiopia—and claim descent from the marriage of Solomon to the Queen. It was for that reason that Haile Selaissie, the last king of Ethiopia, styled himself “the Lion of Judah.”

Solomon and Sheba’s motives for a pact were rooted in something far more significant than the solving of riddles—namely, trade. Solomon had built a merchant fleet, headquartered in Etzion Geber (present day Eilat) that rivaled that of the neighboring Phoenicians. Sheba had gold and spices to sell. The partnership made sense for both.

It is noteworthy that Solomon’s alliances were both economic rather than military arrangements. Solomon’s state had no military alliances, and Solomon does not appear to have sought any. Modern Israel has not sought any formal alliances either but, like Solomon, has long sought friendships among both neighboring and more remote states. Unlike Solomon, however, it generally has been unable to do so successfully for very long.

The original post-1948 Israeli policy of relying on an “outer circle” of friendships—Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia—to counter the hostility of neighboring Arab states proved modestly useful for a time. It came apart when Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in March 1979, which seemed to reduce the need for a peripheral strategy. It came completely apart when Iran was taken over by the mullahs that same year. Israel’s strained relationship with Turkey after a kind of golden age of cooperation lasting no more than two decades, and the general regional unrest of the past two years, have forced Israel to look further afield for support, to India and China, for example. But it has no real alliances other than with the United States. Should America indeed pull back from the Middle East, even if it were to continue to arm Israel, the Jewish state would in effect have become a kind of super Sweden—a de facto non-aligned regional superpower, much as was the kingdom of David and Solomon in its day.

War and Insurgency

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erhaps because of the combination of his powerful armed forces, led by Benaiahu ben Yehoyada, and the treaties that protected two of his flanks, Solomon never engaged in outright warfare—a circumstance foreign to modern Israel. In the latter years of his reign, however, Solomon did engage in two low-intensity conflicts, one domestic, one external. 

The former conflict was sparked by Haddad the Edomite, a scion of the royal family of Edom, who, together with a band of supporters, had escaped to Egypt when David conquered Edom. Haddad, having married into the royal family in Egypt, received Pharaoh’s permission to return to Judah when news came of David’s death. Scripture states that he then became Solomon’s “adversary.” Whether Pharaoh actually supported Haddad’s campaign in Judah is unclear; in any event, Solomon took no action against Egypt. The second conflict was with Syria, where Rezon ben Elyada, a former servant in the court of Haddadezer the king of Zova, had seized power. Scripture also describes Rezon as an “adversary” but is silent as to whether Solomon took any major military action against him.  

The parallels with the challenges for modern Israel are striking, for Solomon, like modern Israel, was essentially confronting “non-state actors.” For Haddad the Edomite, an indigenous resident stripped of his territory, one might substitute Hamas or Islamic Jihad; for Rezon the Syrian, one might substitute Hizballah. As with modern Israel, neither threat to Solomon’s state was existential. Solomon was prepared to tolerate some level of violence in his more remote territories as long as he could preserve the peace in Judah and avoid entanglements with major foreign powers. That was not the case for those who ruled after him, whether in Judah or in Israel. Few of Solomon’s successors avoided major conflicts with other states. Modern Israel, likewise, cannot now and probably will not in the future be able to avoid conflict with states, whether with Iran or with some as yet unforeseen threat. 

But apart from having to cope with foreign adversaries, the nature of threats to the two ancient kingdoms was particularly complex because they were so often at war with each other. The consequences of these seemingly endless rivalries were already evident during Rehoboam’s reign. Upon the Ten Tribes’ secession, Rehoboam mobilized his forces to snuff out the fledging kingdom at birth. It was only due to the intervention of the prophet Shemaya that he left off doing so. Nevertheless, tensions between the two states often flared to the surface, fueled in part by the legacy of Jereboam’s decision to close the border with Judah, thereby preventing his subjects from making the triennial pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, and instead constructing two new temples in the northern cities of Shechem (modern day Nablus) and Dan. 

Rehoboam eventually did go to war with the northern kingdom, as did his son, Abijah; the latter successfully recovered part of its territory, but failed to reunite the kingdoms (II Chronicles, 13:1–20). Perhaps because his attention was diverted by those hostilities, Rehoboam was caught unawares by an Egyptian attack on Jerusalem during his fifth year on the throne, in 918 BCE. Scripture relates that Shishak (Shoshenq I), the Egyptian pharaoh, no doubt recognizing that the Kingdom of Judah was not more than a shadow of the empire that had flourished under Solomon, plundered Jerusalem and made off with the royal treasury. According to some accounts, Shishak also devastated the entire country. Rehoboam was unable to respond effectively to the Egyptian aggression. 

While the Egyptian attack was clearly motivated by a desire to seize Solomon’s riches, it pointed to another serious challenge for both Jewish kingdoms: the fact that they were on the crossroads between Western Asia and Africa. As such, they were especially vulnerable to the regional superpowers seeking control of both areas. Geography’s harsh reality forced each kingdom constantly to confront the choice of whether to ally itself with one or another of its neighbors, particularly Egypt, often the region’s superpower, or to go it alone, seeking all the while to maintain its neutrality and to avoid being overrun by the superpower’s forces. 

Perhaps because of their weakness, and no doubt because of the wars between them, one or another of the two Jewish states usually elected to seek military alliances with outside powers. When Israel’s third king, Baasha, launched an attack on the Kingdom of Judah, Rehoboam’s grandson Asa responded by bribing his ally Ben Haddad of Damascus to revoke his treaty with Baasha. Ben Haddad promptly attacked and despoiled the northern kingdom, forcing it to halt its offensive against Judah. But the long-term implication of this intervention was that the Syrians (then called Arameans) were never far from interfering in the politics of both Jewish states.

Geography has not changed much in the Middle East over the past several thousand years. Modern Israel remains at the crossroads of the Middle East and in the crosshairs of potential regional and extra-regional great power rivalries. Egypt is certain once again to emerge as a strong regional force; so too, for that matter, will powerful states to the north, be they Iraq or its successor state, Iran/Persia, or Turkey. The dilemma of whom to choose as an ally, if anyone, and how to resist predations by external powers will never be far from the thoughts of future Israeli policymakers, just as they were for those of the rulers of the ancient Jewish kingdoms. 

The Assyrian Menace

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y the time Assyria rose to prominence, the lines had clearly been drawn in Israel and Judah between those who sought alliances to counter the external threat and those who advocated neutrality. The northern kingdom, wracked by a succession of coups, fell increasingly under the sway of the Assyrians. Initially, Menahem ben Gadi, who had ascended to the throne after killing the reigning monarch, bribed the Assyrian king Tiglath–pileser III (known in Scripture as Pul) not to attack his territory and, at the same time, to support his claim to the throne. Menahem recognized that the Assyrian king was unstoppable. In reaching out to the Assyrians, however, Menahem effectively made Assyria the arbiter of politics in his kingdom in return for a modicum of independence. Tiglath-pilesser was not so easily bought off, however, and seized a large sector of the northern kingdom’s territory in 733 BCE, four years after the anti-Assyrian general, Pekah ben Remaliah, assassinated Menahem’s son and acceded to the throne.

Meanwhile, King Yotham of Judah pursued an independent policy and had successfully attacked the Ammonites, rendering them subservient to his kingdom. His son Ahaz, whom the prophets condemned for conducting pagan rites, nevertheless promptly presided over the fragmentation of his kingdom. Pekah joined forces with Rezin of Aram to attack the Kingdom of Judah; together they exiled or killed a large number of Judahites. At the same time Judah was attacked by the Philistines to the west and the Edomites to the south, the latter directly supported by Rezin’s forces. 

Facing a combined Israelite and Aramean attack on Jerusalem, Ahaz panicked, ignoring the prophet Isaiah’s advice not to fear “these two tails of smoking firebrands” (7:4, 8). Indeed, Isaiah foretold the Assyrian occupation and destruction of the northern kingdom in the not-too-distant future. Ahaz offered the Assyrian king a bribe consisting of the royal treasury in Jerusalem. The Assyrians promptly plundered Damascus, and Ahaz sought to propitiate the Assyrian king even more by hurrying there to greet him.

Isaiah’s advice proved correct, as the combined assault on Jerusalem failed. Pekah was soon assassinated by Hoshea ben Elah in 732 BCE. Hoshea promptly accepted Assyrian overlordship but, seeing external alliances as a means of salvation, he reached out to Egypt for support. Hoshea seriously miscalculated Egyptian power, however. The country was hardly the superpower it had once been, having broken up into several rival states. When, on the strength of what he thought was a formidable alliance, Hoshea withheld his annual payment of tribute to Assyria, Shalmanesser, now the Assyrian king, captured and imprisoned him and overran his kingdom. Two years later, in 722 BCE, the Kingdom of Israel was no longer in existence.

Hezekiah, King of Judah, who succeeded his father in 715 BCE, along with the country’s leaders, observed developments to their north but also noted that Assyria had ceased any new predations southward, the Assyrian King Sargon II having been preoccupied elsewhere. Given the revolt of the Philistine town of Ashdod the following year and a new, more powerful Egypt under Ethiopian rule, Hezekiah and his advisers debated whether they should join a coalition against Assyria being formed under Egyptian leadership. Once again, as he had done to Ahaz, Isaiah counseled neutrality, prophesying that, “so shall the king of Assyria lead away the captives of Egypt, and the exiles of Ethiopia” (20:4). Hezekiah appears to have followed the Prophet’s advice; when Sargon responded by crushing the rebels, Judah escaped unscathed.

When Sannecherib ascended the Assyrian throne in 704 BCE, Hezekiah, a conservative and pious man who was disgusted by Assyrian pagan rites, promptly declared his independence and withheld the payment of annual tribute. He also recaptured the Philistine territories his father had lost. At the same time, other states under Assyrian dominion, most notably Egypt, also revolted; Hezekiah seems to have joined the anti-Assyrian alliance, much to the annoyance of Isaiah, who argued that the revolt would fail. It did.

 Sannecherib responded by attacking and seizing a large number of Judah’s fortified towns. Hezekiah had to sue for peace and in 701 BCE, once again accepting Assyria’s suzerainty and the tribute that went with it. In addition, Hezekiah emptied the Temple treasury, transferring it to Sannacherib; he even sent the gold-plated Temple doors to the Assyrian king. The Assyrians remained unsatisfied, however, and sent a delegation to Jerusalem calling for its surrender and appealing to those elements of Judah’s leadership who were prepared to settle with Assyria on any terms. Isaiah remained insistent that Judah not capitulate, and that it rely on divine assistance rather than alliances. This time Hezekiah heeded his advice. Scripture records a major defeat for the Assyrians at the walls of Jerusalem, preserving the Davidic kingdom for several more generations. But Judah did not immediately become independent; it continued to function as a vassal state to Assyria during the reign of Isaiah’s son Manasseh and his grandson Amon.

The Assyria of yesterday could, for modern Israel, be Turkey, Iran, India or China tomorrow. Being initially called in to resolve local differences or protect Israel from an attack by an immediate neighbor, they may find the temptation to meddle in Israeli affairs too great to resist. Perhaps none of these states would actually seek to control the Jewish state. Economic influence, however, is an entirely different matter, and a powerful outsider, initially viewed as a protector, might impose one-sided trade or economic agreements on a weakened Israel. The fact that the United States has never done so, despite Israel’s dependence on Washington for its support in so many ways, simply underscores the exceptionality of the United States and its unique role as a superpower. Others simply will not behave the same way. 

Ancient Israel and Judah’s extended encounters with the Assyrian empire thus point out another lesson that may have a future: While we in our day tend to think of national sovereignty as an all-or-nothing proposition, reality offers up many shades of autonomy in between. For small states in dangerous neighborhoods, degrees of deference and vassalage were more common historically than either total independence or complete submission to foreign rule. It may happen again.

Confused over Babylon, Redeemed by Persia

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mpires arise, and empires collapse. Assyria was no exception. By the time Amon’s son Josiah ascended to the throne, the Assyrian empire was falling apart and Judah once more became independent, if only by default. While still a minor, Josiah appears to have easily regained territory in the former northern kingdom and rid the territories of pagan practices. Judah’s independence did not survive Josiah, however. The Babylonians and Egyptians both contested for the western remains of the Assyrian empire; Judah found itself caught in the middle of that rivalry. 

Thus, when the Pharaoh Neco (Neco II) sought to transit what is today known as geographical Palestine en route to the Euphrates, where he planned to attack the Babylonians, Josiah confronted his forces at Megiddo, refusing to allow the Egyptians to proceed. Neco responded by attacking Josiah’s troops, resulting in Josiah’s death. Shortly after Josiah’s son Jehoahaz was crowned, he was deposed by Neco, who placed a client—Jehoahaz’s brother Elyakim, whom Neco renamed Jehoiakim—on the throne, and Judah became an Egyptian vassal state. The end of the Judahite state was fast approaching, as the Babylonians attacked and Jehoiakim switched sides, becoming a vassal of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. The Judahite king was no more comfortable as a vassal of the Babylonians than he had been of the Egyptians, and after three years, in 601 BCE, shortly after the Babylonians and Egyptians had fought a major but indecisive battle, Jehoiakim tried to wriggle free in revolt. 

Although the Prophets generally encouraged independence and neutrality, Jehoiakim had fallen afoul of Jeremiah, the leading prophet of his day, by flouting Jewish law. When Jeremiah had called for public repentance, the king had rebuffed him, and the Prophet predicted that both the king and his countrymen were destined for destruction. Indeed, a combined force consisting of Babylonian, Syrian, Moabite and Ammonite forces ravaged Judah prior to Jehoiakim’s death, and he was assassinated, no doubt at the behest of the Babylonians. He was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin. Nebuchadnezzar immediately besieged Jerusalem. Within three months, in 597 BCE, the young king surrendered and was carried off into exile. 

Nebuchanezzar then placed a royal uncle, Mattaniah, renamed Zedekiah, on the throne. Once again, however, a king of Judah plotted with other states to revolt against the superpower, despite admonitions to the contrary from the leading prophets. Spurred on by false prophets, Jews in Babylonia became involved in revolts against Nebuchadnezzar, and Zedekiah followed by plotting with ambassadors of many of the countries that had so recently invaded his territory—Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon. Recognizing that both events and the royal court’s irreligious behavior foreclosed any possibility of a successful revolt, Jeremiah urged Zedekiah and his nobles to “bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, and his people, and live” (27:12). Once again, the secular rulers ignored the words of the far more realist-minded religious leader, and in 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar brought an end to the First Commonwealth era established by David around 1000 BCE, destroying Jerusalem, burning its Temple, blinding the king and exiling him to Babylon.

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t is something of a mystery why the Zionist movement, in its original secular and largely socialist manifestation, insisted that its purpose was to restore the Jewish people to the normal skein of its history. True, life in exile, scattered hither and yon, had often been tragic, but it is not as if the historical path the Jews were forced to leave after 136 CE, when Rome crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt, had been one of unbroken glory and joy. The history of the Second Commonwealth in many ways mirrored the tragic trajectory of its predecessor. 

After Babylon fell suddenly to the upstart Persian Empire in 539 BCE, Judah found itself a sub-province of the Persian satrap of Eber Nahara. In 538 BCE Cyrus the Great issued his famous edict permitting the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their Temple and, under Zerubbabel and his successors, they did so. While the province of Judah was led by Jews, it remained a Persian vassal state. Alexander’s defeat of the Persian Empire and his conquest of geographical Palestine in 332 BCE initially resulted in that land becoming a part of the Greco-Egyptian empire of the Ptolemies. Just over a century later, Palestine fell under the control of the Seleucids, who defeated the Egyptians in a decisive battle at Banias (in the Golan) in 198 BCE. Geographical Palestine remained a vassal state of the Seleucids until the Maccabean revolt that Mattathias the priest launched in 166 BCE. 

That revolt, whose successful consummation is celebrated by Jews today as the festival of Hannukah, was as much a civil war between Jews who adhered strictly to the law and those who were prepared to adopt some, if not all, of the Hellenistic practices prevailing at the time. In that regard, it foreshadowed tensions between future generations of Jews who absolutely refused to assimilate to the surrounding culture, and those who, to a greater or lesser extent, were prepared to do so if only the opportunity presented itself. 

The Hasmoneans prevailed in both the civil war and the rebellion, and in 164 BCE proclaimed themselves kings of an independent state of Judea. Genuine independence actually took much longer to achieve, however, as the Hasmoneans continued to fight the Seleucids on a sporadic basis for the next 35 years. When the Seleucid king Antiochus Sidetas was defeated by the Parthians in 129 BCE, the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus fully recovered Judean independence.

John Hyrcanus and his successors, Aristobulus, Alexander Jannaeus and Queen Alexandra, pursued a policy of armed neutrality, and the first three monarchs seized considerable territory from their neighbors. Independence and empire did not last long, however, as dynastic rivalries between Alexandra’s sons led to Roman intervention at the request of one of the parties claiming to succeed to the throne. That intervention, by Pompey the Great, who actually decided which claimant was entitled to the throne of Judea, marked the end of Judea’s independence in 63 BCE and the beginning of the end of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, which fell in 70 CE with the destruction of Jerusalem. 

D

o the foregoing events bear any lessons for modern Israel? In one sense they do not, because never in the past did Israel or Judah have a powerful external ally that simply lost interest or patience with the region and withdrew from it; ancient centers of power based in modern-day Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey were all too much a part of the region to leave it. But in another sense these events might indeed offer some guidance for the future. 

Even in ancient times allies of Jewish polities exerted cultural influence among Jews, and often enough, too, many Jews lived in the lands of allied countries, including Egypt, Babylonia and Persia. These cultural/communal relationships had broad geopolitical significance over time, just as one would expect, since geostrategic decisions are never completely divorced from politics at large. So it matters that internal divisions within Israel today abrade against the sensibilities of some Americans and American Jews in particular. American Jews are becoming progressively more disenchanted with Israeli domestic religious policies that increasingly favor an ultra-Orthodox community whose mores are alien to them. Ever more American Jews are also unhappy with Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, even if the vast majority is not in principle hostile to Israel itself. Finally, as more and more American Jews drop their synagogue and communal affiliations, put forth little to no effort to learn about their own culture and history, and think of themselves as “just Jewish” (and then, often enough, only if someone asks them), their emotional stake in Israel wanes accordingly.              

There certainly remains a wellspring of strong diaspora Jewish support for Israel, and even for many of its right-wing policies. But that support increasingly is limited to American Orthodox Jews, who themselves are increasingly alienated from the rest of the American Jewish community. (Most Americans who support right-wing Israeli policies are religious Christians, who far outnumber American Jews.) While the high birthrates of the Orthodox point to their growing proportion within the American Jewish community, there could not be an Orthodox majority among American Jews for several more decades. What this means is fairly obvious: If the American political class judges that U.S. interests in the Middle East and in Israel no longer warrant the attention and expense characteristic of the past half century, the power of pro-Israel sentiment in American society is increasingly insufficient to thwart or reverse that judgment.

How then should Israel look to the future? This is a difficult proposition for a country whose leaders are notorious for their short-term perspectives on policy. Nevertheless, it is a question that Israelis and their American supporters must face. Geography is relatively unchanging, and Israel will always find itself caught between rival great powers, whether those proximate to it, like Egypt or, more likely, those further afield, like Turkey or Iran, or those even more remote, but with expanding military reach, like China and India.

Scripture and post-scriptural history both teach that the Jewish polity does not fare well internationally when it is divided internally, whether for reasons of politics, economics or religion. Scripture also teaches that the voices of reason are often found outside government, and that extremism is as often found within. The Prophets were consummate realists: Isaiah preached independent neutrality when it was appropriate; Jeremiah preached submission to the superpower when the external “correlation of forces” had changed. 

Nor were the Prophets religious fanatics. They were especially vocal in their denunciations of empty ritual, the kind of behavior that seems all too common among many haredim today. And they preached economic justice, recognizing that a country consisting of a few haves and many have-nots simply could not thrive, or even survive, for very long.

Perhaps that is the true lesson Scripture offers modern Israel. Realism in foreign policy, moderation in religious policy, openness in economic policy and equality in social policy may be the best path for the Jewish state as it confronts its uncertain future. None of the foregoing will be easy to implement in a country that is bitterly divided across all four axes—political, religious, economic and social. But the alternative in an uncertain world simply cannot be acceptable to a small, beleaguered state that, sixty years after its founding, still faces enemies who remain bent on its submission, if not on its complete destruction. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) from 2001–04.