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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Bar Kochba Debate

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Dore Gold Articles


Among the historical events associated with “Lag Ba’omer,” celebrated in the days ahead, is the Second Jewish Revolt led by Bar Kochba which was a war of national liberation against the Roman Empire. It mostly took place in Judea, during the years 132 through 135, some eighty years after the destruction of the Temple.

At the early stages of the revolt, Bar Kochba’s forces actually defeated whole Roman armies. A Roman legion that was dispatched from Egypt to help was completely annihilated by Jewish forces. Bar Kochba fought to liberate Jerusalem and apparently extended his rule beyond Judea to much of what is today the territory of Israel. Thousands of coins were issued by his government celebrating the “Redemption of Israel.”

In the modern period, two schools of thought emerged with respect to his revolt. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and most of his generation, saw in Bar Kochba a heroic leader who could be a source of inspiration for the youth of Israel who were being asked in 1948 to fight for the reestablishment of their homeland. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Revisionists led by Zeev Jabotinsky named their youth movement after Beitar, where Bar Kochba’s forces were finally defeated by Rome.

Bar Kochba continued to be an important symbol for Israel in the years after its independence. As defense minister, Ben-Gurion authorized the IDF to assist Prof. Yigal Yadin, the second IDF chief of staff, and his archaeological teams to uncover artifacts from the Bar Kochba Revolt that were hidden in caves in the Judean Desert. These included Bar Kochba’s written communications with his forces and also religious items like tefillin used in daily prayer. In 1982, Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave a eulogy at the grave where the ancient bones of the last 25 survivors of the Bar Kochba Revolt were buried with full military honors.

The second view of Bar Kochba was represented by Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former head of military intelligence. In the late 1970s he accused Bar Kochba and his supporters of bringing national disaster upon the Jewish people by conducting a war against all odds to defeat the Roman Empire and by relying upon an “unrealistic assessment of the historical and political circumstances” they faced.

There is no dispute that Jewish losses after three years of fighting were staggering. According to the Roman account by the historian Dio Cassius, written in the third century, 985 Jewish settlements were destroyed by the end of the war and 580,000 Jews were killed. After the revolt, Emperor Hadrian (117-138) forbade Jews from even entering Jerusalem. The leading sage, Rabbi Akiva, who hailed Bar Kochba as the Messiah, and other members of the Sanhedrin were tortured and executed by the Romans at the end of the revolt.

Harkabi influenced a whole generation of intellectuals and politicians. Israel’s former foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, who was known for his dovish positions in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, credits Harkabi with “the erosion of old mythologies” that could change what he called Israel’s “messianic obsession” with the territories.

A prevalent opinion is that if the Jews had been content with a mainly spiritual identity, based on the example of Rabban Yohanan ben Zaccai, who re-built Jewish life in Yavneh after the destruction of the Temple, the Romans would have left them alone. But from the year 70, when the Temple was destroyed, until 132, when the Bar Kochba Revolt began, there was growing evidence of a renewed Roman enmity against the Jews, particularly in Judea, but also in the communities of the Diaspora. The Yavneh option did not appear to be any longer realistic to many at the time. It was notable that the Jews were far more united behind Bar Kochba in 132 than they were during the earlier revolt in 70.

Under the Emperor Domitian (81-96), Roman armies hunted down any potential Jewish leaders who were descended from the House of David. From 115 to 117, under the Emperor Trajan (98-117), Roman forces massacred Jewish populations in what is today Iraq as well as in Egypt, Cyrenaica (Libya), and Cyprus. Learning the lessons of these wars in the Diaspora, the Jews in Judea apparently began preparing for another round with Rome, by building fortifications and escape routes to caves near the Dead Sea.

Fifteen years later, Emperor Hadrian instituted a ban on circumcision. He also planned to build a temple to the Roman god, Jupiter, on the ruins of the Temple. Rome sought to crush the national will of the Jewish people by adopting laws that were intended to destroy the ability of the Jewish people to remain constituted as a nation. In fact, after the revolt, Hadrian renamed Judea as Syria-Palestina, to erase the memory of the Jewish connection to the land.

One of the mysteries of the Bar Kochba Revolt was why the Roman Empire concentrated such a massive military force to defeat what was essentially a guerilla army in a backwater province like Judea. At the height of the war, Hadrian dedicated no less than 12 legions to his campaign against Bar Kochba; there were only 28 legions in the entire Roman Empire. During the previous century, a major revolt in what is today Germany was vanquished with just three Roman legions.

Hadrian appointed Julius Severus, the commander of Roman forces in Britain, to take his own legions to Judea along with units from the Danube provinces.

The reason for Rome appearing to have decided that it needed to defeat Bar Kochba at all costs may be linked to the Jewish struggle for freedom having much wider implications. Dio Cassius, wrote that “many gentiles came to their aid.” The Jews in the Diaspora and some Samaritans, who in the past had a hostile relationship with the Jews, also joined the rebellion. Dio Cassius summarized the effects of the revolt, as follows: “the whole earth, one might almost say, was being stirred over the matter.” Clearly from this perspective, had Bar Kochba succeeded, he could have brought down the whole Roman Empire, whose vanquished peoples might have arisen against Rome as well. Hence its determination to do anything possible to defeat the Second Jewish Revolt.

So how should we relate today to Bar Kochba? Should he remain as a legendary hero as he was depicted by Israel’s founders? Prof. Yigal Yadin made the point that it is hard for us today to judge the wisdom of those who launched a guerilla war against Rome in 132. The main Roman historian Dio Cassius lived more than a century later. There was no Josephus witnessing the Bar Kochba Revolt and writing its history as it occurred the way there was for the Great Revolt eighty years earlier.

Moreover, there are serious dangers emanating from misusing the history of the Bar Kochba Revolt, and its results, to analyze Israel’s political options in modern times. Had the Jewish leadership of the Yishuv in 1948 relied upon the alternative interpretations of Bar Kochba as a guide, they might not have declared Israel’s independence, fearing the invasion of six Arab armies (they probably would have invaded anyway, just to grab territory). Also, Israel would not have launched a preemptive strike in the 1967 Six-Day War when Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq were massing their armies along its borders.

Finally, acts of heroism are not to be evaluated only by the immediate results they obtain, but rather by the mark in history that they leave and the extent to which they inspire future generations. If that were not the case, then the world would have already forgotten the valor of the Spartans who halted the Persian advance on Greece at Thermopylae, or the bravery of the Americans at the Alamo, or even the Russians who lost nearly a million soldiers holding back the Germans at Stalingrad. The fact of the matter is that Bar Kochba ultimately won the war he launched nearly two thousand years earlier, for the Jews returned to their land and re-established Israel, partly inspired by his example, while the tyrannical regime of the Roman Empire that he fought is no longer.