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traitor or Gandhian? Arrow vol 4 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 4 Number 3, 2005


Josephus: Traitor or Gandhian avant la lettre?

John Docker
Australian National University

     And I prayed unto the LORD my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments;
    We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments:
    Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.
    O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day; to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and unto all Israel, that are near, and that are far off, through all the countries whither thou has driven them, because of their trespass that they have trespassed against thee.

—Daniel 9: 4-7

... the language in which I record the events will reflect my own feelings and emotions; for I must permit myself to bewail my country's tragedy. She was destroyed by internal dissensions, and the Romans who so unwillingly set fire to the Temple were brought in by the Jews' self-appointed rulers, as Titus Caesar, the Temple's destroyer, has testified. For throughout the war he pitied the common people, who were helpless against the partisans; and over and over again he delayed the capture of the city and prolonged the siege in the hope that the ringleaders would submit. If anyone criticizes me for the accusations I bring against the party chiefs and their gangs of bandits, or my laments over the misfortunes of my country, he must pardon my weakness, regardless of the rules of historical writing. For it so happened that of all the cities under Roman rule our own reached the highest summit of prosperity, and in turn fell into the lowest depths of misery; the misfortunes of all other races since the beginning of history, compared with those of the Jews, seem small; and for our misfortunes we have only ourselves to blame.

—Josephus, The Jewish War (1981: 28)

1. Josephus is famous, or infamous, as the author of The Jewish War, one of the most remarkable and controversial works of antiquity. He wrote the book first in Aramaic for his fellow Jews of the eastern Diaspora, and then translated it into Greek, the common language of Asia Minor, Syria, and the eastern part of north Africa in the ancient world for over three centuries. It was thus made accessible to the peoples of the Roman Empire, and indeed it became a classic from antiquity to the present day. The book was written in the mode of Western history as bequeathed by Thucydides, focusing on history as crisis, on political and military events, with many set speeches that the historian believes could have been made at the time by the various protagonists, but which are also infused with rhetoric and literary art. Like Thucydides in relation to the Peloponnesian war in fifth-century Greece BCE, Josephus promised to narrate as completely as he could the details of a war in which he himself was a participant and observer (Josephus, 1981: 20, 23-24, 29; Rajak, 2002: 5, 9, 80, 155; Curthoys and Docker, 2005, ch. 2). The Jewish War evokes the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire that began in 66 CE; Jerusalem, the centre of the revolt, was defeated and overrun by Roman forces led by Titus in 70 CE. The Temple was destroyed. Three years later the rebellion's final act occurred at Masada, a fortress not far from Jerusalem, when the Jewish warriors known as the Sicarii mass suicided rather than submit to Roman rule (Josephus, 1981: 266, 398-405). In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, in official and popular Israeli culture and the Zionist movement generally, the mass suicide at Masada has been celebrated as one of the great defining episodes of Jewish history, iconic of the undying desire Jews have for their own nation and independence; in Zionist rhetoric, the heroic spirit of Masada is reborn in the modern Israeli state (see Ben-Yehuda, 1995 and Zerubavel, 1995).

2. Because he went over to the Roman side during the war, Josephus has always been regarded as a historical traitor to the Jewish people (Ben-Yehuda, 1995: 28, 89, 267, 294). Writing this essay gives me the opportunity to do something I've long wanted to do: defend Josephus. I argue, on the basis of a Gandhian reading of The Jewish War , that Josephus was not a traitor: on the very very contrary. I suggest that The Jewish War raises questions about the wisdom of armed revolt, and about nationalist violence and political leadership. I also draw attention to Josephus's musings on non-violence as part of Jewish tradition. I make this intervention in the spirit of Walter Benjamin suggesting, in fragment XVII of his "Theses on the Philosophy of History", that the historian should "blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history —blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework" (Benjamin, 1969: 263). Accordingly, I will arrange conversations between past and present, with Gandhi most crucially, but also with the radical theologian and cultural theorist Daniel Boyarin and contemporary Jewish Cultural Studies, including Boyarin's concern with gender.

3. In terms of method, I will follow Tessa Rajak in focusing on Josephus' own self-presentations, approaching The Jewish War in terms of creation of character, genre, drama, and narrative (Rajak, 2002: ix, xi, xiv-xv, 6; Rajak, 1998: 222-246). I will also follow Benjamin's urgings in the prologue to The Origin of German Tragic Drama that the critic fragment the text into distinct and separate particles, seeking out extremes, an awareness of discontinuity, of the need for digression. In particular, I will explore how The Jewish War disperses 'Josephus' its narrator into a number of disparate figures, of historian, philosopher, high-born priest, warrior, military leader and strategist, trickster, apocalyptic prophet, redeemer and saviour, angry denouncer, anguished mourner of a lost world (Benjamin, 1996: 28-29; Docker, 2001: 247).

Gandhi on Zionism

4. A conversation between Gandhi in modernity and Josephus in antiquity suggests itself. Gandhi, we know, had a cosmopolitan, pluralist, and critical interest in many religions, in Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism. In South Africa, three of his closest Western co-workers were of Jewish ancestry: Henry S.L. Polak, Herman Kallenbach, and his secretary, Sonya Schlesin; and later, in 1939, Kallenbach visited Gandhi and stayed with him at the Sevagram ashram (Jack, 1956: 317). In a 1938 essay "Zionism and Anti-Semitism", Gandhi writes that he has learnt much from his Jewish friends about their "age-long persecution", in particular persecution by Christians, which he compares to the treatment of untouchables by Hindus. In this essay Gandhi denounces Hitler and anti-Semitism in Germany, indeed he comes close to supporting war against Hitler's "religion of exclusive and militant nationalism": "if there ever could be a justifiable war," Gandhi declares, "in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified." But, Gandhi continues," I do not believe in any war" (Gandhi, 1956: 317-18).

5. Despite his sympathy and understanding of Jewish experience of persecution, in this and other essays Gandhi is also highly critical of the Zionist movement and what it was doing in British-Mandated Palestine. He is not impressed by the Zionist call for a Jewish return to Palestine which is supposedly sanctioned by the Bible, a call that affords, Gandhi notes, "a colorable justification for the German expulsion of the Jews".

Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. ... Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home (Gandhi, 1956: 318).

Gandhi suggests that the "Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract", rather it lies in Jewish hearts. He observes that the Zionists are trying to make Palestine their national home "under the shadow of the British gun": the Zionists are "co-sharers with the British in despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them"; the Jews can "settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs", and they "should seek to convert the Arab heart". Gandhi adds, in reference to a book by Cecil Roth called The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, that while Jews have enriched the world's literature, art, music, drama, science, medicine, and agriculture, he wishes they could add "non-violent action" to their historical achievements. Gandhi is critical, in another 1938 essay, "Questions on the Jews", of the Old Testament for its discourse of violence, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Gandhi, 1956: 321-322).

6. Interestingly, Gandhi in the essay "Zionism and Anti-Semitism" wishes the Palestinian Arabs had "chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regard as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country" (Gandhi, 1956: 321).

7. In a 1946 essay "Jews and Palestine", Gandhi again criticises the Christian world for singling out Jews for prejudice, "owing to a wrong reading of the New Testament". (Perhaps because of his admiration for the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, Gandhi is too charitable to the Gospels, especially John, which in its notorious chapter eight denounces "the Jews" as no longer God's chosen people and as children of the devil, a passage which proved fatefully influential in European anti-semitic violence in both the Crusades and Nazi Germany; see Carroll, 1991: 90-98, 102, 110, 114.) Again he also attacks the Zionists for recent violence: "they have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism". Gandhi exhorts the Jews to instead adopt the "matchless weapon of non-violence whose use their best prophets have taught and which Jesus the Jew who gladly wore the crown of thorns bequeathed to a groaning world" (Gandhi, 1956: 324-326).

8. In acknowledging that there may be support for non-violence in Jewish tradition, Gandhi is here reprising a major theme of Josephus's speeches to his fellow Jews two millennia earlier.

The Case Against Josephus  

9. It is nonetheless no easy task to defend Josephus. As a historian he is accused—unlike the austere and detached Thucydides—of being inaccurate, an exaggerator particularly of numbers, and self-interested. His moral character as he reveals it in his own words has been judged harshly by posterity. Let's quickly review his life as he presents it. He was born in CE 37 to an aristocratic priestly family (Rajak, 2002: 14-21). Destined for the priesthood, he was educated in a rabbinic school in Jerusalem, under Roman rule since 6 CE. At about the age of sixteen he spent some months studying successively with the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Sadducees, and in The Jewish War there is a fascinating summary of their varying beliefs and positions, suggesting that Jewish thought in antiquity, as in the Hellenistic world of thought more generally, was differentiated into competing schools. In this portrait, Jewish thought can be viewed as sharing with Greek, Egyptian and Indian philosophy an interest in the notion of the immortality of the soul, and indeed there was a belief in the ancient world, including by a pupil of Aristotle, that the Jews were descended from Indian philosophers (Josephus, 1981: 133-138, 400-401, 459 n. 39; Rajak, 2002: 34-7, 109-112, Sievers, 1998: 20-31) .

10. Revealing as a teenager an interest in bodily renunciation that Gandhi surely would have admired, Josephus went to live with a hermit in the desert for three years' meditation, returning to Jerusalem at the age of nineteen, now a declared Pharisee. Josephus says the Pharisees were counted as the leading sect of the time and were held to be the most authoritative exponents of the Law. In common with the Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plato, they believed in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls; as Josephus phrases it, every "soul is imperishable, but only the souls of good men pass into other bodies, the souls of bad men being subjected to eternal punishment" (Josephus, 1981: 9-10, 137, 427 n. 15).

11. Just as Gandhi would cross the dark waters to the centre of empire and to explore many strands of thought, Eastern and Western, so Josephus at the age of twenty six sailed to Rome on a minor diplomatic mission, to gain release for some Jewish priests held by Nero. He succeeded in getting his friends acquitted, through the good offices of Nero's wife Poppaea, to whom he was introduced by an actor of Jewish descent he had met on landing in Italy, Rome having a sizeable Jewish population, and seems to have stayed in Rome for the next couple of years (Rajak, 2002: 43). When he returned to Jerusalem in 66, he was travelled and worldly, possessing a cosmopolitan ease with different cultures, including Greek literature and mythology (Josephus, 1981: 199; Rajak, 2002: 3-4). But the city was on the point of revolt against the Roman Empire; since the annexation of Judaea sixty years before, Jewish nationalists had chafed under Roman rule, which they considered oppressive. As a Pharisee Josephus aligned himself with the moderate party in Jerusalem, which tried to prevent the revolt, warning that the outcome of war with Rome would inevitably be calamity and disaster. The moderate forces, however, lost out to the extreme nationalists, including the Zealots, who now took control of the city; the moderates like Josephus had to go along with the revolt, and Josephus was appointed commander of the most northerly of the regions, Galilee. In 66-67 Josephus did everything he could not to engage with Roman forces, to the anger of the extremist Jewish leaders in the area, but in spring 67 when a large Roman force invaded Galilee and his army ran away, Josephus retreated into the town of Jotapata along with the extremists (Josephus, 1981: 10-11, 16; Goodman, 1995: 18-20; Rajak, 2002: xi).

12. The Roman siege of Jotapata lasted for nearly two months, Josephus proving an able military commander, impressing the attacking Romans led by Vespasian. He was finally captured in circumstances which have always been regarded as highly discreditable. As Josephus himself explains, when the town fell, the Romans, remembering what the siege had cost them, showed neither mercy nor pity, slaughtering everyone they came across, except women and babies, with many even of Josephus' picked soldiers driven to suicide so that they would not die at Roman hands. Josephus meanwhile had jumped into a cave which could not be seen by the Roman soldiers above. With him were "forty persons of importance". When the Roman leader Vespasian discovered where he was, he offered Josephus safe conduct and kindness. His companions, however, realizing that Josephus was about to accept Vespasian's invitation to surrender, said they would kill him if he did not suicide with them to avoid being enslaved. In this scene as he evokes it Josephus attempts to dissuade them. He argues that "suicide is hateful in God's sight", an act of "sheer impiety". As a Pharisee, Josephus here expresses his belief in reincarnation and transmigration of souls. He tells his companions that, if they suicide, their souls, instead of proceeding upon death to unsullied bodies and further lives on earth, will be cast into Hades (Josephus, 1981: 11, 137, 215-19, 427 n. 15, 440 n. 14 & 15).

13. Josephus fails in his attempt to persuade his companions against mass suicide. Thinking quickly, Josephus then suggests that if they have chosen to die, they should all draw lots and kill each other, one man to the next; as it turns out, Josephus and another man are the last two undead, and Josephus makes a pact with him so they can both stay alive. Josephus forever after has been accused of despicable duplicity and unworthy trickery for this act. Perhaps it was—Josephus says that either divine providence or luck looked after him—though I can't see why he should be blamed for not suiciding, given that as a Pharisee he opposed suicide on religious and philosophical grounds and he made his opposition clear to his companions (Josephus, 1981: 220; Zerubavel, 1995: 200-201, 292 n. 31). Arguably as well, the scene of his escape as Josephus describes it belongs to the trickster genre, a narrative mode and figure of great antiquity: the trickster, who had somehow made sure there were only two people left, defeats death; to defeat death is the trickster's ultimate test, and out-tricking death gives hope not only for his own survival against the ravages of fate but also for humanity, hope that fate is not necessarily ordained towards misery and failure (Docker, 1994: 217). In the drama of The Jewish War Josephus here as trickster had to escape, because he also has a prophetic and indeed apocalyptic mission: to survive in order to attempt to save his country and his city from imminent destruction.

14. Josephus had just before his escape from death been thinking about the "terrifying images of his recent dreams", dreams by which "God had forewarned him both of the calamities coming to the Jews and of the fortunes of the Roman emperors". Moreover, he adds, he was "in the matter of interpreting dreams" capable of "divining the meaning of equivocal utterances of the Deity". Suddenly understanding the awful meaning of these dreams, he had sent a secret prayer to God:

Inasmuch as it pleaseth Thee to visit Thy wrath on the Jewish people whom Thou didst create, and all prosperity hath passed to the Romans, and because Thou didst choose my spirit to make known the things to come, I yield myself willingly to the Romans that I may live, but I solemnly declare that I go, not as a traitor, but as Thy servant (Josephus, 1981: 217).

Josephus as prophet is like the biblical Daniel, interpreting dreams in order to foretell of the future, a future that might be desolation or hold out hope of salvation (Bilde, 1998: 42-56; Hall, 1991; Gray, 1993; Rajak, 2002: xii, 1998: 253-6). But, in the drama of The Jewish War , will Josephus, the trickster who has survived to be prophet, be listened to, will he be heeded by his own people?

15. Taken to Vespasian, Josephus tells the Roman leader that he has prophetic powers, and he predicts both he and Titus will become emperors of Rome: prophecies that turn out to be true (Josephus, 1981: 221).

Defending Josephus

16. Josephus spends the rest of the war with the Roman forces, with Vespasian indeed becoming emperor of Rome in 69, his son Titus then taking over as commander in Palestine. It is in this context, as a kind of intermediary for the Roman army, that Josephus makes a remarkable as it were Gandhian speech to the nationalists who were resisting the Roman siege and scorning as well Titus' offers of leniency if they would surrender. The alternative, Titus had suggested to the nationalists, with the city already in a state of famine and starvation, was eventual complete destruction of the city, death of their men and the enslaving of the women and children (Josephus, 1981: 314-317).

17. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, before the hostile nationalists throwing missiles and screaming execrations at him, Josephus speaks eloquently against violence. It betrays, he says, Jewish tradition at its ethically finest and most sacred. He tells the nationalists that, in continuing the rebellion till final destruction was guaranteed, they would inevitably endanger Jerusalem's holy places. Further, in choosing violence they were fighting not only the Romans but God as well, who should be trusted to come to the assistance of the Jews when he chooses to. Josephus then points to key moments in the Jewish past as evoked in various biblical stories. He observes that when the Egyptian pharaoh Necho descended on the Jews with a vast army and seized Sarah their Princess, mother of their nation, Abraham did not respond by force of arms, but waited for God to intervene. And indeed, the very next evening the Egyptians sent back Sarah while the Egyptians themselves, shaken by terrible dreams, fled. Josephus then refers to the Jews' sojourn in Egypt, which lasted four hundred years. Though the Jews could have resisted with weapons, they instead committed their cause to God, who finally came to their assistance with plagues directed against the Egyptians. The Jews could then leave, Josephus says, "with no bloodshed and no danger, led forth by God to establish His temple-worship". Josephus reminds his howling interlocutors that when the Jews were taken in bondage to Babylon and lived there in exile for seventy years, they never tried to shake off the yoke till Cyrus granted them liberty as an offering to God (Josephus, 1981: 318-319).

18. In short, Josephus declares, "on no occasion did our fathers succeed by force of arms, or fail without them after committing their cause to God. If they took no action, they were victorious as it seemed good to their Judge: if they gave battle they were beaten every time". It was never intended, Josephus says, "that our nation should bear arms, and war has inevitably ended in defeat". He urges the nationalists to surrender before it was too late, for all the Romans were demanding was the customary tribute which their fathers had always paid. When the tribute was paid, Josephus reassures them, they will neither sack the City nor lay a finger on the holy places: "they will give you everything else, the freedom of your children, the security of your property, and the preservation of your holy Law" (Josephus, 1981: 321). Josephus here reminds the nationalists—anticipating Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents—that the Hellenistic Roman Empire was pluralist in relation to its many communities, religions, and diverse cults (Freud, 1989: 73; Assman, 1997: 136; Docker, 2002: 215-217, 2001: 168-169). In this internationalist pluralistic world, Jews were not outsiders and pariahs, the despised and persecuted, as they would later frequently become in European Christian history.

19. Josephus ends with a plea to the nationalists to save Jerusalem, a plea reminiscent of the great lamentation speeches near the end of The Iliad prophesying the devastation of Troy: "at least", says Josephus, "pity your families, and let each man set before his eyes his wife and children and parents, so soon to perish by famine or the sword". In a later speech inside Jerusalem, as the nationalists faced final defeat and the city faced destruction, Josephus spoke again to the citizens remaining, reminding them of the "splendid example" of Jehoiachin, king of the Jews, who, when the king of Babylon made war on him, left the city of his own accord before its capture, and with his family submitted to voluntary imprisonment rather than surrender the holy places to the enemy and see the House of God go up in flames (Josephus, 1981: 322, 345).

20. As it turned out, Josephus was ignored, the revolt continued, and the siege of Jerusalem ended in mass death, atrocity, horror, deportation and enslavement, a catastrophe, as Josephus warned, including destruction of the Temple, for one of the world's great and most renowned cities.

21. After the war, Josephus left for Rome, where he was given the house in which the emperor Vespasian had lived as a private citizen, a pension for life, Roman citizenship, and enjoyed friendships with non-Jews. Here he wrote his first work, The Jewish War (75-79). In Rome, in exile from Palestine the land of his birth, Josephus became a diasporic writer and intellectual and produced more books, including a Jewish history and an autobiography. In the last two decades he has become an increasingly important figure in many fields of Jewish, Greco-Roman, and Christian history (Josephus, 1981: 16-17; Rajak, 2002: ix-xv, 6-7; Mason, 1998a: 64-103; Rajak, 1998: 224).

Josephus, Daniel Boyarin, and Gender

22. Josephus opposed armed revolt against a ruling power, suggesting in The Jewish War that armed rebellion always leads to domination within a community by the most violent of the political leaders. He tells us that the nationalists, including the fearsome Zealots, had spent much of their time during the revolt murdering or imprisoning the moderates within Jerusalem who appealed for peace, including Josephus' own family (Josephus, 1981: 147, 188, 266, 393, 405, 407, 462).

23. Among the extreme nationalists in and outside Jerusalem were the Sicarii, or dagger men, the nationalists who mass suicided at Masada in 73. In The Jewish War Josephus refers to the Sicarii as assassins and marauders, people who, contrary to later Zionist mythologising, were the reverse of heroic, murdering in broad daylight in the middle of Jerusalem; taking up residence in Masada in 66, they engaged in raids and looted and set on fire nearby Jewish settlements that were prepared to submit to Rome (Josephus, 1981: 147, 166, 266, 393, 462; Zerubavel, 1995: 25, 129, 198-99 ). Against the nationalists, Josephus urged the citizens of Jerusalem to find salvation in non-violence and arts of accommodation to ruling secular power, here that of the Roman Empire.

24. In his dislike of nationalist violence, Josephus is being valued more highly in some recent anti-Zionist critique. In contemporary theory, in the New Jewish Cultural Studies, Daniel Boyarin opposes Zionism confusing mind and spirit with territory, and for its stress on masculinity. In an essay entitled "Tricksters, Martyrs, and Collaborators: Diaspora and the Gendered Politics of Resistance" (2002), Boyarin feels that Josephus should be reassessed in modernity, noting particularly Josephus's undermining of the Masada myth by drawing attention to the murderousness of the Sicarii (Boyarin and Boyarin, 2002: 48-9, 135 note 11, 137 n. 19).

25. Boyarin positions gender at the centre of his opposition to Zionism. In these terms, he contrasts Zionism with the rabbinic Judaism of late antiquity, a diasporic Judaism existing precariously within the Roman Empire after the destruction of Jerusalem. He argues that the thinking of late nineteenth-century Jewish intellectuals like Herzl and Nordau who initiated the Zionist movement was very much shaped by their historical context, in particular by general European prizing of the nation-state, and influential conceptions of masculinity that contrasted effeminate Jews with what should be considered proper ideals of manliness in a nationalist and imperial age. Boyarin argues that "essentialization of the male role" became "typical of Zionist ideology", indeed is the "very goal of Herzlian-Nordovian Zionism", and such "exacerbation" of "male domination" is clearly related to Zionism as a form of aggressive nationalism (Boyarin, 2002: 44-45, 53, 69, 91-2, 135 n. 10, 136 n. 18, 137 n. 19, 138 n. 26, 142 n. 51).

26. Boyarin suggests that Zionist ideals of masculinity actually draw on a long tradition in non-Jewish thought of admiration for the phallus, in and from Greco-Roman times to the present. Here he brings into focus twentieth-century Zionism's attraction to the story of Masada and mass suicide as told in the final pages of Josephus' The Jewish War (Josephus, 1981: 393-405). So familiar and prominent has Masada become as Zionist myth and collective memory, that it is surprising to recall, Boyarin reminds us, that its provenance is quite recent, from early in the twentieth century (Ben-Yehuda, 1995; Zerubavel, 1995: 62-68). Boyarin notes that it was Christians who preserved Josephus' text through the centuries until its highly selective and belated discovery by Zionism. The Zionist misuse of Josephus's evocation of Masada is, Boyarin reflects, highly ironic. While the "Masada myth" became paradigmatic for Zionist notions of "manliness", honourable death by suicide rather than surrender and submission to slavery was, Boyarin observes, a long-established Roman ideal; the Masada leader El'azar's pro-mass suicide speech supposedly reported by Josephus is an historiographical fiction, modeled on Roman exemplars, and perhaps created in this way by Josephus so that the Roman audience for his work could sympathize and empathize with it as a concluding note to his history (Boyarin, 2002: 46-8, 135 n. 12).

27. Boyarin compares Josephus' The Jewish War with a particular tale told in the Babylonian Talmud which refers to the siege of Masada (perhaps, he speculates, the only allusion to Masada there is in rabbinic literature). Where Josephus' closing evocation of Masada creates the Sicarii as heroes, the Talmudic text expresses anger at them as "hooligans" and links them to the extreme nationalists in Jerusalem: such nationalism is perceived, says Boyarin, "as more of an enemy than Rome itself and its Emperor Vaspasian". In this Talmudic story the Sicarii in Masada and the "zealots" in Jerusalem prefer death to making "peace with Rome", yet such peace would have ensured continuing life for the Jews of Jerusalem, and where there is continuing life there can be continuing Jewishness. The Talmudic story, Boyarin adds, perhaps even parodies the Masada mass suicide, for in it one of the rabbis pretends to be dead and hopes to be taken out alive in a coffin in order to give himself up to the Romans (Boyarin, 2002: 50-52, 101-102). Such trickster actions of cheating death directly recall—though Boyarin himself doesn't point this out—Josephus's own trick whereby he escapes the mass suicide that his companions had tried to force on him at Jotapata.

28. Boyarin regards as highly significant the Talmudic narrative opposing the Masada mass-suicide and the nationalist revolt of Jerusalem. He feels it embodies the "Babylonian founding myth of the rabbinic movement", the creation-story of all of rabbinic literature, established in the story's encoding of an "exact reversal of values". It exactly reverses Roman and later Zionist codes of manliness, for in the story the "Rabbis prefer slavery to death", for even in slavery Jews could work out a "resistant strategy for remaining alive and continuing as Jews". And a key part of such strategy is a discourse of "femminization", a neologism which, Boyarin tells us in an enigmatic endnote, is "based on 'femme' as in butch/femme"; it indicates the "constructed and nonessentialist character of the 'feminization' imputed to these sociocultural practices". Faced with the "tyranny of the Roman Empire", the Diaspora Jews of late antiquity positioned themselves as akin to a certain conception of femaleness. Like the powerful and honoured Jewish women of ancient Israel such as Esther, Ya'el, and Judith, Jewish men in Diaspora chose to practise "dissimulation, intrigues, tricks, and lying" when they served the purpose of survival. Such is rabbinic Judaism's "femminized self-understanding", which is not to be confused, Boyarin clarifies, with actual gender relations between Jewish men and women in late antiquity: "This did not cash out as a better life for human wives." (Boyarin, 2002: 37-38, 40, 46, 52-53, 134 n. 5)

29. In the Talmudic texts, creating stories and characters, often humorous, what Boyarin refers to as "Roman phallic masculinity" is always being defeated: here is Jewish culture at its wisest, for whereas Zionism attempts to enforce gender as normatively patriarchal, for Boyarin it is "precisely that discourse of natural gender roles that ... Jewish culture helps dislocate". Such diasporic Jewish culture demystifies the phallus for what it is, a "violent and destructive ideological construct". Where in late nineteenth-century Europe and in Zionism the absence of the phallus is considered pathological, a signifier of disease, in Jewish diasporic history, with its "marked images of femminized men", the absence of the phallus can be viewed as a "positive product". Indeed, Boyarin speculates, such images represented a challenge to the Roman Empire, a site of cultural crisis that, "it could be argued, led eventually to its breakdown" (Boyarin, 2002: 38-40, 45-6, 52-4, 64, 78, 100-101). The implication is that such a challenge to Zionism's gendered politics may also help lead to its breakdown.

30. Such practices in relation to oppressive power are in direct opposition to strategies of martyrdom and masculinist defiance. In one rabbinic story the theme is, says Boyarin, that "Torah is incompatible with the sword", that there is an "opposition between the Torah and modes of violence per se" (Boyarin, 2002: 55-56, 59, 61-66, 80, 83, 101). In these formulations, Boyarin comes very close to Josephus's vision of the importance of non-violence in Jewish tradition (Docker, 2005: 71-90).

Uncertain Conclusions: Josephus and Gandhi

31. Josephus in antiquity and Gandhi in modernity shared many positions concerning non-violence and the course of history. Both believed that history was overseen by God. In his appeal to the nationalists from outside the walls of Jerusalem, Josephus reports that he told them that at this period "the might of Rome was invincible", with "submission to her an everyday experience". Their ancestors, he tells them, far superior to the partisans in wisdom, had rightly chosen to submit to Rome, "which they could not have borne to do if they had not known that God was on the Roman side". God, he points out, "who handed dominion over from nation to nation round the world, abode now in Italy", in a situation where the Romans were the "lords of the whole world" (Josephus, 1981: 317, 217). Josephus was suggesting that at some future stage God would favour another nation, that Rome was not destined for ever to enjoy God's favour (Rajak, 1998: 233, 238). Gandhi, too, suggested that Britain would one day be abandoned by God. In his 1922 essay "Shaking the Manes", Gandhi writes: "No empire intoxicated with red wine of power and plunder of weaker races has yet lived long in this world, and this British Empire, which is based upon organized exploitation of physically weaker races of the earth and upon a continuous exhibition of brute force, cannot live if there is a just God ruling the universe." (1956: 196)

32. There are differences between Josephus and Gandhi we can ponder. Unlike Josephus, Gandhi represented a popular mass movement and enjoyed the support of other leaders, whereas Josephus by his own account was reviled by the nationalists when he attempted to intervene and stop the revolt. Nonetheless, we can also qualify this difference. Gandhi struggled to avert the horrifying violence that accompanied Partition, and he was assassinated by Indian nationalists—a fate perhaps that Josephus might have met with if the nationalists could have captured him and if he did not have Roman protection (Azad, 1959: 190-227, 215).

33. Another apparent difference is that Gandhi felt affection for the Indian masses, whereas it is generally held that Josephus, proud of his claimed aristocratic ancestry and imbued with the belief that society—Jewish but also to be emulated by others—attained an ideal harmony when guided by a priesthood who could bring knowledge of God's intentions to the world, had nothing but relentless contempt for the masses. Tessa Rajak writes, for example, that a "blanket contempt for the masses (plethos or demos) runs through Josephus's thinking", including in The Jewish War, where he identifies the masses with the rebels, both of whom inspire in him only disgust, and she compares Josephus's attitudes in this respect to Hellenistic thought, as in Plato's disdain for the ignorance of the multitude, or Thucydides' observations of the ways the multitude are given to civil discord (Rajak, 1998: 239-40). Perhaps, however, The Jewish War is more ambivalent than Rajak suggests. Certainly there is a Thucydidean thread running throughout The Jewish War commenting on the gullibility of the masses, especially when "the mob" is willing to be deceived by false prophets. In this thread, history is perceived as frequently farcical, the "mob" so easily misled by the not infrequent appearance of impersonators, parvenus, and imposters (Josephus, 1981: 120-1, 128, 130-1, 147, 162-3, 184) .

34. Yet Josephus, during the final stages of the siege, notices the contempt the "war-party" in Jerusalem, in conditions of famine and starvation, had for the common people, who were dying from hunger:

... the partisans welcomed the destruction of the people: it left more for them. The only people who deserved to survive were those who had no use for peace and only lived to defeat the Romans: the masses who opposed them were a mere drag, and they were glad to see them go.

Josephus refers here to the "innocent" ordained to perish by the actions of the partisans (Josephus, 1981: 315-316). Josephus also writes warmly, as we can see from our epigraph, of Titus who "throughout the war ... pitied the common people" and repeatedly called on the ringleaders of the revolt to submit to prevent the carnage that would destroy the masses along with the extremists (Josephus, 1981: 28).

35. Some differences between Josephus and Gandhi relate directly, I think, to differences across the millennia between the two empires they inhabited as their known worlds, the Roman and British. Josephus' The Jewish War reminds us of a pre-modern imperial world without nation-states, where city states had a choice between paying tribute or violent revolt, in which case they faced the prospect of catastrophe. If they did pay tribute, the Jews in Jerusalem and surrounding areas could be counted as one community amongst others in an overarching mosaic, where local communities could retain considerable legal, cultural and religious self-governance—as indeed would occur later with the Arab and Ottoman empires, successors of the pluralisic Roman empire. The British empire worked by settler colonialism as in its colonization of North America, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, and colonialism of extraction as in India. Britain always regarded its own society as ideal, the civilizational model to be followed by all and imposed on all in the territories within its power. Further, Britain itself, the metropolitan centre of the empire, was a nation-state which, like every modern nation-state in European history after 1492, was conceived as an ideal unity, of culture, language, ethnicity, and religion (Docker, 2001: ch. 10).

36. In his situation, Josephus urged his fellow Jews to pay tribute and continue their customary community; if they were faced with situations of dire oppression, they should choose inaction until God intervened. This may remind us of a comment of Gandhi's, which he made in 1937 to two African-American visitors: "there may be action in inaction. And action may be worse than inaction." In this same interview Gandhi also urges patience, saying that he knows that victory through non-violence and civil disobedience may not come in his lifetime (Desai, 1956: 311-312). It was Gandhi's genius, his legacy of wisdom, his contribution to history, to think through the question of resistance without violence, opposing "passive resistance" and favouring creative and imaginative forms of direct action.

37. Yet the danger of Gandhi's desire for India to achieve national independence was the spectre of the modern nation-state itself. Clearly Gandhi did not seek a purity and unity of culture, language, ethnicity, and religion in a new India and he always celebrated India's historical diversity as one of its great civilizational achievements. Nor was Gandhi opposed totally to the British Empire, or at least to a supra-national entity like an empire. He admired, for example, as he wrote in his "Farewell Speech" to South Africa in 1914, the liberal "ideals" of the "glorious British Constitution" (1956: 99-100)—an admiration that anticipates Mandela's respect for such ideals in his Autobiography. In his 1922 essay "Shaking the Manes" Gandhi writes approvingly of the British Empire being quietly transformed into a "true Commonwealth of free nations, each with equal rights and each having the power to secede at will from an honorable and friendly partnership" (1956: 196). Here Gandhi supports a kind of pluralistic commonwealth of nations. Yet, it would very much appear, despite Gandhi's opposition to Partition, that the historical logic of the nation-state, with its inherited suspicion of those designated internal enemies and desire to exclude those regarded as others, overtook the new Indian state on independence, in the disaster of Partition itself and the consequent establishing of two nation-states India and Pakistan, and then later in the rise and political power—until recently anyway—of Hindu fundamentalism. To continue eternally to be in the power of the British Empire was intolerable for Gandhi, but the alternative, the establishing of a nation-state or indeed now three nation-states, has involved various kinds of violence—state and communal.

38. In a world still marked by national and religious violence, non-violence as argued for by Josephus in antiquity and Gandhi in the first part of the twentieth century—and by Daniel Boyarin in his musings on rabbinic Judaism, Josephus, and the Zionist myth of Masada—remains the only hope for humanity in a disastrous world.


John Docker, of the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, is the author of 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora (Continuum, 2001) and coauthor, with Ann Curthoys, of Is History Fiction? (UNSW Press, 2005).


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