This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Two Thousand Years *

"To be a free people in our own land," proclaim the inspiring words of Israel's anthem the Hatikvah, "is the hope of two thousand years." I admit that I find the phrase very puzzling. The magic number of "two thousand years" is one that has become an ubiquitous cliché in Israeli conversation, where it is not at all strange to hear proud references to achievements like "the first Israeli basketball championship in two thousand years," etc.

Interestingly the original lyrics of the Zionist anthem as composed by the poet Naftali Hertz Imber did not specify the age of the hope, speaking merely of an "ancient hope." The fact that the "two thousand years" did get interpolated onto the text bears witness to how central that number has come to be in Jewish consciousness.

What is the real significance of that time definition? In my experience, it has invariably been used to indicate a rough approximation of the time that has elapsed since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. No doubt that was a national tragedy of terrible proportions involving not only the death, destruction, and suffering of a viciously suppressed rebellion, but also a traumatic crisis in religious life as the Jews found themselves without the sanctuary that had hitherto stood at the center of their worship.

There might have been more justification for using the phrase if its starting point had been in 63 B.C.E. when the Roman conquest of Jerusalem under Pompei brought a formal end to a century of Hasmonean sovereignty. In actual practice, however, it is the year 70 that is always singled out in the popular Jewish memory as the turning point in our political destiny. As one widely used Jewish history text puts it: "...Jerusalem fell and the Temple went up in flames. The Jewish state had ceased to be." In truth, at the time of this disaster, Judaea had not been an independent Jewish state for well over a century.

As noted above, the words of the Hatikvah seem to imply that the destruction of the Temple marked the beginning of Jewish exile as well as statelessness. Though this perception seems to be a very widely held one, it is also devoid of factual foundation.

Jewish exile is a phenomenon that dates back many centuries before 70 C.E., to the captivity of the "ten lost tribes" of the northern Israelite monarchy, which was to be followed by the destruction of Judea and the first Temple, when masses of Jews were exiled to Babylonia.

When the Jews returned to their homeland under Ezra and Nehemiah in the sixth century B.C.E., it was only a small group of loyalists who were prepared to leave their now-comfortable existences in Babylonia. The majority were of a less pioneering spirit, electing to remain in exile. Even those who did return to Jerusalem did not enjoy political independence, but passed through the hands of an assortment of foreign governments--Persian, Ptolemaic and Seleucid-- until the successful rebellion of the Maccabees and the brief period of independence that ensued.

Through all periods of subsequent Jewish history there were more Jews living outside the borders of the Holy Land than within. The destruction of the Second Temple did not change that fundamental situation, though it did result in the expulsion of additional numbers of Jews, many of whom were taken as slaves to Rome.

Another version of the argument would have it that the significance of the "two thousand years" lies in the fact that, from 70 C.E. the land of Israel became almost emptied of its Jews. This is also an absurd notion. Literary and archeological evidence attest to the fact that Jews continued to be the dominant population in most regions of Palestine for many centuries afterwards.

This fact is amply demonstrated by the monumental literary creations of the era: the Mishnah, Palestinian Talmud and a rich assortment of other rabbinic works. It is also apparent in the dozens of of synagogues and other monuments to thriving Judaism that are continually being unearthed in Judaea and the Galilee.

The more we learn about our past, the longer we find that Palestinian Jews maintained a vibrant religious and cultural life. Not too long ago it was commonly held that Jewish life functionally disappeared from the region from the fourth century, with the advent of Constantine and the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Under the severe persecutions--so the theory argued--many Jews abandoned their homeland, and those who remained were unable to produce anything of lasting value.

This view has also been discarded in the face of the historical data: It was precisely during this period of persecution that Jews in the Land of Israel were producing some of the most impressive creations of Jewish literary history: the many volumes of midrashic commentaries to the Bible, the masterpieces of liturgical poetry, the intensive study of the text and language of the Bible (Masora), and much more.

An interesting by-product of this situation was noted at the beginning of the revival of Jewish settlement in Israel in this century. When names had to be assigned to Jewish settlements it often proved surprisingly simple to reconstruct the original Hebrew name of the place, because it had been preserved in the Arabic. This simple phenomenon is actually of profound importance. When the Arabs conquered Palestine in the seventh century, many of these localities actually bore "official" Greek names. The Arabs however did not use the Greek names, but the ones they picked up from their current inhabitants, who were mostly Jews. They of course referred to their villages by their original Hebrew names.

I suspect that the myth of "two thousand years of Jewish exile" owes much of its popularity to its use by Christians. For them there was a theological import to asserting that the Jewish situation was radically changed soon after the time of Jesus as a punishment for their rejection of him. This argument figures prominently in ancient polemics, and has apparently penetrated into the Jewish consciousness as well.

As it relates to the later periods (between the third and tenth centuries), it seems that there were Jewish parties who had their own motives for minimizing the achievements of Palestinian Jewry. This era was marked by a fierce rivalry between the rabbinic leaderships of Babylonia and the Land of Israel for dominance in the religious life of world Jewry. It was the Babylonians who ultimately prevailed, largely because they had the support of the the major super-power of the time, the Muslim Caliphate centred in Baghdad (which now became the home of the major talmudic academies of the region).

This rivalry often expressed itself in intensely polemical utterances in which Babylonian Jews would try to delegitimize the traditions of their Palestinian cousins, arguing that the latter's customs were not to be take seriously because they were nothing more than emergency measures adopted during times of persecution. The "persecution" theory proved very convenient, since it allowed the Babylonian rabbis to reject Palestinian traditions without actually showing overt disrespect for the revered citizens of the Holy Land.

A similar phenomenon arose in modern times with the rise of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. Israeli curricula in Jewish history (especially in the secularist stream) tend to skip directly from the Bar Kokhba revolt in the second century to the rise of Zionism at the end of the nineteenth. Everything in between is an uninteresting saga of persecution and oppression that is the antithesis of the Zionist ideal. This image of "two thousand years" of Jewish passivity served the ideological interests of Zionism as well, by equating geographical dispersion with political powerlessness. The fact that a number of short-lived independent Jewish states did arise in various places during the Middle Ages, outside the Land of Israel, is another story altogether, and would make an interesting subject for a separate study.

For the moment it strikes me as a bit too late in the game to emend the accepted lyrics of the Hatikvah. But I shall always feel uncomfortable singing that line.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1] First Publication: Jewish Free Press, May 4 1995, p. 9.