Monday, January 18, 2010

All 3 Monotheisms Have Had "Conversion by the Sword", Including Judaism

Anti-Islamic xenophobia has once again brought into vogue the accusations that Islam is spread by the sword and inherently violent and blah blah blah. The quick rejoinder from Muslims is "hey boys, Christianity has plenty of experience in spreading by the sword too". From Middle Age Crusaders eating the flesh of Muslims in Syria and Palestine, to Reconquista baptism-death-or-exile choices (or sometimes a combination) in Iberia, to the only slightly more subtle attempts to weld modern colonialism and mostly Protestant evangelizing in the 19th and 20th centuries, Christianity ain't free from the charge either. Truth is, one can point to episodes of both violent and peaceful spread of Islam and Christianity over the centuries, and in speaking in the broadest possible definitions of those religions, neither has a clean record. Both have examples of people of the most vile persuasions and other people of the purest hearts spreading their faiths.

Largely left out of this discussion however is Judaism. The assumption most have is that Judaism is not and never has been a proselytizing faith therefore any discussion of whether it is/was spread by the sword is moot. I'll admit, this was always my back of the mind assumption as well. However, I've been back to reading and finding all sorts of juicy tidbits as books often do. This time, a friend has persuaded me to read Shlomo Sand's "The Invention of the Jewish People". A book I had heard about but frankly somewhat dismissed and never intended to read because the hypothesis inherent in its title struck me as over the top even if the author was an Israeli and not some non-Jewish anti-Jewish racist. I'm a bit over halfway through right now and the book has its strong and weak points, but fundamentally it does what a good book should: it makes the reader really think.

So, I'm not doing a full book review here, but I want to address this question of spreading religion "by the sword", which Sand shows actually has happened in Judaism as well. One might argue that with the secular religion of nationalism (in Israel's case Zionism, but one might apply similar arguments to any virulently nationalistic society) having in many ways replaced traditional religion, perhaps Israel is still engaged in this with its wars aimed at getting neighboring countries/societies to accept ethnic nationalism (with all its inherent racism) as an acceptable basis for regional states despite the fact that the era of such has long since passed in most even moderately successful and stable countries of the world. However, that's far too esoteric and problematic a debate to get into here, and instead what Sand shows is that there are direct examples of spreading Judaism by the sword in the "traditional" manner. Nor are we speaking of the Biblical accounts of Joshua's destruction and occupation of Canaan by the Hebrews (which Sand in any case doubts ever happened based on his reading of the archaeological and textual history). That would perhaps be something more comparable to the Crusades and less to the Reconquista. Rather, we're speaking of the era of the Hasmonean Judean kingdom.

Sand goes into a discussion of the mixture of Hellenistic and monotheistic influences in the era, arguing that the two were much more symbiotic and not nearly as antagonistic towards each other as Zionist historiography has since tried to claim. That in turn leads him to a discussion of (1) how the era marked a major growth in the numbers of Jewish converts throughout the eastern mediterranean, far outnumbering the inhabitants of Judea and any diaspora communities of Judeans, and (2) how spreading the size of the Hasmonean realm involved conquering and forcibly converting neighboring kingdoms to their beliefs.

From here, I'll let a few pages of Sand's book speak for itself, and just close with this reminder: when people start arguing that this or that religion is inherently more or less violent than another, you can know they are standing on thin ice. Virtually every religious or cultural group that gains a position of power, has had experiences of abuse of that power, as well as the peaceful spread of influence and ideas. Certainly that is the case for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism (if I knew more about the eastern religions I'm sure we could start adding lengthy examples there as well). It is *not* the religion - its doctrines or culture - that creates problems or solutions, it is what people choose to do with it. The Bible is full of ideas which - even if one believes they are divine in origin - if carried out today would be nothing short of murderous. If a Christian wants to accuse the Qur'an of having such, then that Christian needs to stare the Bible full in the face and acknowledge it as well. And the same goes for Judaism obviously with the shared Torah/Old Testament heritage as Christianity, and as shall be shown below, a historical period - in Sand's argument, the most important historical period in all of Judaism in terms of ensuring that the number of Jews in the world to this day numbers in the millions and not the mere hundreds or thousands such as the few remaining Samaritans - in which spreading the religion by the Hasmonean sword was considered ordinary and acceptable alongside the more peaceful spread of the religion in places like Egypt and Syria.

Anyhow, I blabber on yet again, here's the text from Sand (pp. 157 - 160). Apologies for the lack of footnotes which in many cases actually add some very good corroborating evidence, sources, quotes, and anecdotes, for that you'll have to read the book yourself:


In 125 BCD Yohanan Hyrcanus conquered Edom, the country that spread south of Beth-zur and Ein Gedi as far as Beersheba, and Judaized its inhabitants by force. Josephus described it in Antiquities of the Jews:
  • Hyrcanus took also Dora and Marissa, cities of Idumea, and subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews; and they were so desirous of living in the country of their forefathers, that they submitted to the use of circumcision, and of the rest of the Jewish ways of living, at which time therefore this befell them, that they were hereafter no other than the Jews.
Thus did the ruling Hasmonean high priest annex an entire people not only to his kingdom but also to his Jewish religion. Henceforth, the Edomite people would be seen as an integral part of the Jewish people. At that time, joining the religion of another group was regarded as joining its people--its cult community. But it was only the progress of monotheism that made attachment to the faith as important as the traditional association with origin. This was the beginning of the slide from what we might call Judeanity--a cultural-linguistic-geographic entity--towards Judaism, a term denoting a broader kind of religion-civilization. This process would evolve till it reached its height in the second century CE.

Who were the Edomites? There are several sources. The important Greek geographer Strabo, who lived at the time of Augustus, erroneously stated, "The Idumaeans are Nabataeans. When driven from their country by sedition, they passed over to the Jews, and adopted their customs." Ptolemaeus, an obscure historian from Ascalon, was probably more accurate when he stated, "The Idumaeans, on the other hand, were not originally Jews, but Phoenicians and Syrians; having been subjugated by the Jews and having been forced to undergo circumcision, so as to be counted among the Jewish nation, and to keep the same customs, they were called Jews." Their number is not known, but it could not have been insignificant, since their territory was about half the size of the kingdom of Judea. Needless to say, the Edomite peasants and shepherds probably did not all become good monotheists overnight. Nor, presumably, did all the Judean farmers. But it is almost certain that the higher and middle strata adopted the Mosaic religion and became an organic part of Judea. The converted Jews of Edomite origin intermarried with the Judeans and gave Hebrew names to their children, some of whom would play important roles in the history of the Judean kingdom. Not only Herod came from among them; some of the disciples of the strict Rabbi Shammai and the most extreme Zealots in the great revolt were also of Edomite descent.

Jewish historiography has always been ill at ease about the forced conversion and assimilation practiced by the Hasmoneans. Graetz condemned the acts of Hyrcanus, asserting that they were catastrophic for the Jewish people. Dubnow, in his gentle way, sought to soften the history and depicted the Edomites as "tending to cultural assimilation with the Jews," and Baron remained laconic in his treatment of the "problematic" issue. Zionist and Israeli historiography was divided. Klausner, the proud nationalist, saw the conquest of Edom and the conversion of its inhabitants as righting an old injustice, since the Negev had been part of the kingdom of Judah during the First Temple period. One of the later historians of the Hasmonean kingdom, Aryeh Kasher, went out of his way to show that the mass conversion of the Edomites was voluntary, not imposed by force. He argued that the Edomites had been circumcised before the conversion--and that everyone knows Jewish tradition has always opposed forced conversion.

Urban Edomites had long been under Hellenistic influence and were probably uncircumcised. Moreover, though the rabbinical tradition did in fact renounce any attempt to force people to change religion, it only did so much later--after the Zealot uprising in the first century CE, when forced conversions to Judaism were no longer feasible. Under the Hasmonean rulers of the late first century BCE, it was a regular feature of Jewish policy, and Hyrcanus was not the only one who implemented it. In 104-103 BCE his son Judas Aristobulus annexed the Galilee to Judea and forced its Iturean inhabitants, who populated the northern region, to convert to Judaism. According to Josephus, "He was called a lover of the Grecians; and had conferred many benefits on his own country, and made war against Iturea, and added a great part of it to Judea, and compelled the inhabitants, if they would continue in that country, to be circumcised, and to live according to the Jewish laws." In support, he quotes Strabo, who wrote, "This man was a person of candor, and very serviceable to the Jews, for he added a country to them, and obtained a part of the nation of the Itureans for them, and bound them to them by the bond of the circumcision of the genitals."

Judeans probably lived in the Galilee earlier, but it was populated and governed predominantly by the Itureans, the center of whose kingdom was in Chalcis in Lebanon. Their origin is obscure--probably Phoenician and possibly tribal Arab. The territory annexed by Aristobulus stretched from Bet She'an (Scythopolis) in the south to beyond Giscala in the north--that is, most of today's Galilee minus the coast. Masses of Itureans, the original inhabitants of the Galilee, assimilated into the expanding Judean population, and many became devout Jews. One of Herod's associates was Sohemus the Iturean. It is not known if John (Yohanan) of Giscala, a Zealot leader in the great revolt, was of convert origin like his comrade and rival, Simon Bar Giora.

Aristobulus's brother and successor, Alexander Jannaeus, also sought to convert the people he conquered, but he conducted wars mainly against the Hellenistic trading coastal along the borders of Judea, and was less successful in converting their inhabitants. The Hellenists, who were proud of tehir culture, might have been willing to convert to Judaism of their own free will, as indeed some of them did in the countries around the Mediterranean. But it appears that they were not willing to accept the forced Hasmonean conversion, which would have meant losing the political and economic privileges granted to them by the poleis--the city-states. According to Josephus, Alexander destroyed the city of Pella in Transjordan "because its inhabitants would not bear to change their religious rites for those peculiar to the Jews." We know that he totally destroyed other Hellenistic cities: Samaria, Gaza, Gederah and many more.

Judas Aristobulus's father, Hyrcanus, had to deal with a complicated problem of conversion. When he conquered the region of Samara in 111 (or 108) BCE, he could not forcibly convert the Samaritans, who were in part descendants of the ancient Israelites. They were already monomtheists--they avoided pagan customs, observed the Sabbath and practiced circumcision. Unfortunately, it was forbidden to marry them, their liturgy was slightly different, and, moreover, they insisted on holding their ceremonies in their own temple. Hyrcanus therefore destroyed Shechem (Nablus), the main Samaritan city, and obliterated the temple on Mount Gerizim.

A long Jewish tradition marks the twenty-first day of the month of Kislev, the day when the Samaritan temple was destroyed, as a propitious day in the Hebrew calendar, on which it is forbidden to fast or mourn the dead (see the Tractate Ta'anith). The national memory, too, honors the figure of Yohanan Hyrcanus, the Jewish Titus, destroyer of the Samaritan temple. Today in Israel, many streets proudly bear the name of this victorious Hasmonean priest.

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