In May 2012 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed the practice of Bible circle gatherings in the Prime Minister’s Residence, which was an event that taking place once every two weeks during the premiership of David Ben-Gurion and was reintroduced by Menachem Begin when he became prime minister in 1977.
From time to time, Netanyahu mentions the relevance of the Bible to our life today. At the end of the annual Bible quiz for youths last May Netanyahu stated that “there is no statute of limitations on the Bible. On the contrary, what characterizes the Bible more than anything is the ‘statute of renewal.’ Each generation finds in the Bible answers to the challenges of the era.”
The last gathering of the Bible circle at the Prime Minister’s Residence took place last week under the title “the sukka and temporary residences.” Unfortunately, the event was not broadcast, and if it was recorded, the minutes have not been made public.
Most of what we know about last week’s event was published by one of its participants – Benny Zipper, the editor of the Haaretz culture and literature supplement and an admirer of the Netanyahu family. However, what Zipper published had nothing directly to do with the Bible itself or with the topic of the gatherings, though it certainly added to what we know about how our prime minister perceives Jewish history in Eretz Yisrael, and the challenges facing the current Jewish state.
According to Zipper, Netanyahu stated that “the Hasmoneans ruled here for 70-80 years, which was the longest period of Jewish political independence. My goal is to reach the hundredth year. We shall get through that and go on. But what is important now is to get there.”
What we learn from this quote is that Netanyahu is very much aware of Israel’s vulnerability, and the fact that its long-term existence cannot be taken for granted. Furthermore, unlike the leaders of Bayit Yehudi, Netanyahu does not believe that we should trust in God to ensure our continued existence no matter what we choose to do, and believes that it is in his hands to follow policies that will ensure that Israel survives for at least another 30 years, and beyond.
The $64,000 question is whether the Netanyahu’s policies in fact strengthen Israel’s viability. Unfortunately, Netanyahu is inclined to regard those who disagree with the path he has chosen as traitors and enemies of the continued existence of the State of Israel, rather than as legitimate rivals who view the solution to Israel’s existential problems differently. Unfortunately, under these circumstances a true dialogue on the issue is impossible.
Many of those who reacted to what Netanyahu allegedly said about the Hasmoneans read into the quote things that were not there. For example, Netanyahu said nothing about whether he believes that there was anything the Hasmoneans could have done to prevent the Roman conquest that put an end to their dynasty (for example, refraining from allying themselves to Rome’s enemies).
He said nothing about the effect of the internal schisms in the Hasmonean state on its sturdiness, though the fact that he does not seem concerned about the current schisms in the Jewish state and is certainly not trying to do anything to heal them might be an indication of his feelings with regard to this issue.
Where one can argue with Netanyahu is on the question of whether the Hasmonean era was the longest period in history in which a Jewish state existed. To the best of my recollection the period of the Judges, the united Israelite kingdom (under kings Saul, David and Solomon), and then the two separate kingdoms of Israel and Judea existed for much longer than 70-80 years (the period of the settlement in Eretz Yisrael of the 12 tribes began around 1250 BCE and the destruction of the First Temple occurred in 586 BCE). Furthermore, there is no agreement about how long the Hasmoneans actually ruled. The years that are usually given are 143-63 BCE (some claim the Hasmoneans came to power in 160 BCE).
The second Netanyahu quote from last week, which strangely enough did not elicit any comment (at least as far as I could discern) was the following: “The theory that there was no Jewish settlement in the country for long stretches of time is untrue. We were always here. Neither the Byzantines, nor the Persians, nor the Romans managed to banish us. The only ones who did it were the Arabs.”
Netanyahu is absolutely right that there was always a Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael – sometimes larger and sometimes smaller – and that it is not true that the Jews were ever completed banished from here. But there were certainly points in time when large sections of the Jewish community were banished: by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. The Romans were also responsible for killing hundreds of thousands (some say over a million) Jews in the course of and following the Great Rebellion (66-73 CE).
Over the years, Jews migrated from Eretz Yisrael due to wars and economic hardships. That is what happened in the course of the Arab conquest of the country (640-1071 CE), though throughout this period the Jews enjoyed communal autonomy and were allowed, like the other “infidels,” to practice their religion freely.
There was certainly no systematic banishment of Jews, neither in these years nor later on when there were other Muslim rulers in Eretz Yisrael (at least not until the First World War when the Ottomans banished the leadership of the Jewish community).
During the Bible circle gathering last week Netanyahu reacted to a comment by Bible scholar Prof. Yaira Amit to the effect that “the Jews had banished Arabs from their lands during the War of Independence” (we were not told the context of the statement), saying that “this is a total lie.”
Since this is the era of alternative facts, who are we to argue with Netanyahu about whether historically Arabs banished Jews or vice versa. I suspect that today there are many persons on both sides who would like nothing better than to throw the other out of this land if they could. But they can’t....