For much of our history — and certainly before the establishment of the State of Israel — Jews were stereotyped as meek and defenseless (ironically, though, we were also characterized as all-powerful. Antisemitism never made much sense).
Such stereotypes are not only historically untrue, but many Jews have unfortunately accepted that line of thinking (likely as a collective trauma response). For example, the “like sheep to the slaughter” myth posits that Jews passively went to their deaths during the Holocaust.
It’s true that Jews experienced some of the most horrific forms of oppression throughout our 3000+ year history. But it’s also true that, (1) our ancestors fought back, and (2) our ancestors never gave up the hope of one day retaining our sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
It’s obviously impossible to outline every single Jewish revolt, uprising, and rebellion throughout our 3000+ year history in a 10-slide post. But I’ve included those that I find particularly significant.
The Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE) was a Judean revolt against the foreign rule of the Greek Seleucid Empire, which Jews to this day commemorate every year during the festival of Hanukkah.
In 198 BCE, the Seleucid Empire conquered Judea from the (Macedonian Greek) Ptolemaic Kingdom. In 168 BCE, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes launched an oppressive campaign against his Jewish subjects, outlawing Jewish practice and implementing Pagan worship in the holy Jewish Temple. This triggered a rebellion, led by Judah Maccabeus (Judah the Maccabee) and his family.
Initially the revolt started as guerilla warfare targeting Greek government and military officials, but eventually the Maccabees were able organize an army. The revolt was successful, and in 164 BCE, Judah the Maccabee entered Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple to the Israelite G-d. Nevertheless, the civil war persisted for decades.
In 141 BCE, Simon Thassi, Judah’s brother, established the Hasmonean dynasty. By 110 BCE, the Hasmonean dynasty ruled over a semi-autonomous Jewish kingdom, known as the Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea. This was the last time — save for a brief period in the early seventh century — that Jews had any sovereignty over our ancestral land until 1948.
The Hasmonean Kingdom, however, was short-lived, ceasing to exist in 63 BCE, when Judea fell into the hands of the Roman Republic, after decades of infighting among the Hasmoneans and civil unrest. In 37 BCE, Herod the Great defeated the last Hasmonean king and Judea fell under the complete control of the Roman Empire.
FIRST JEWISH-ROMAN WAR
The First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE), also known as the Great Jewish Revolt, was one of three major Jewish uprisings against the rule of the Roman Empire over Judea.
For years, tensions between the Romans and Jews had been simmering in Judea. Following anti-taxation protests, the Roman governor plundered the Jewish Temple, raided Jerusalem, and arrested prominent Jewish leaders. This escalated the violence, with Jewish rebels initially making significant advances.
In 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the holy Jewish Temple, a painful tragedy that Jews commemorate every year on Tisha B’Av. All that remains of the Temple is the Kotel, also known as the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall, and the Foundation Stone, which Jews can’t access. The Western Wall is the holiest site that Jews are permitted to pray; Temple Mount, the holiest site for Jews and the place upon which the Al-Aqsa mosque was later built, is restricted to Jews for political and security reasons.
The First Jewish-Roman War ended with the Roman siege of Masada in 73-74 CE. In total, nearly 100,000 Jewish rebels were killed. According to first century Jewish historian Josephus, over one million Jewish civilians were killed; historians today think the number is closer to 300,000, as Judea couldn’t support a population large enough to produce such death tolls.
BAR KOKHBA REVOLT
The Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE) was the third of the Jewish-Roman Wars when Jewish rebels revolted against the rule of the Roman Empire.
The revolt broke out due to tensions left over from the First Jewish-Roman War, economic changes in Judea, the suppression of Jewish revolts elsewhere in the Roman Empire, and the Roman construction of a new city over the ruins of Jerusalem, as well as the construction of a temple dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter over the remains of the holy Jewish Temple.
The revolt was unsuccessful and ended in catastrophe. Nearly 600,000 Jews were massacred in an act of genocide. Subsequent disease and famine resulted in the deaths of many more. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were enslaved and taken to Rome. The Romans changed the name of Judea to “Syria Palestina,” likely to sever Jewish ties to the land.
REVOLT AGAINST HERACLIUS
In the midst of the Byzantine-Sassanian (Persian) War (602-628), the Jews of Jerusalem, Tiberias, the Galilee, Damascus, and Cyprus revolted against the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius and attempted to retain autonomy over the territory then known as Palestina Secunda and Prima (now Israel-Palestine). They were briefly successful, holding control of Jerusalem for the first time since the dissolution of the Hasmonean Kingdom.
When the Persian army entered the Galilee, 20,000-26,000 Jewish rebels, angered by hundreds of years’ worth of oppressive Byzantine rule, took arms with the Persian forces. The Jewish army was led by Nehemiah Ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias.
In 614, the Persians and Jewish rebels conquered Jerusalem and Nehemiah was appointed the ruler of the city. The Jewish recapture of Jerusalem was considered so miraculous that Nehemiah began making arrangements for the construction of the Third Temple. In 617, however, the Persians went back in their promises to the Jews and sided with the Christians. In 622, the Byzantines captured Jerusalem and massacred tens of thousands of Jews, with the only survivors having to flee to Egypt and the mountains. Jews were then banned from living within a three-mile radius of Jerusalem.
WARSAW GHETTO UPRISING
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April-May 1943) was the largest Jewish uprising during the Holocaust. After 250,000+ Warsaw Jews were deported to the Treblinka death camp in the summer of 1942, two Zionist organizations — the left-wing socialist Jewish Combat Organization and the right-wing Jewish Military Union — formed and began training.
The uprising began on the 19th of April, when the Jewish leadership in the ghetto refused to surrender to the Germans. Though deep tensions existed between the Jewish resistance and the Polish Home Army, the uprising was likely possible only with the help of the Home Army. The Germans responded by burning the entirety of the ghetto, resulting in 13,000 Jewish deaths, most of whom suffocated to death or were burnt alive. Another 36,000 Jews were sent to death camps.
According to Marek Edelman, the only surviving commander from the Jewish Combat Organization, the Jews knew the revolt would be unsuccessful. He later stated, “This was a war of less than a thousand people against a mighty army and no one doubted how it was likely to turn out… The important things were inherent in the force shown by Jewish youth after years of degradation, to rise up against their destroyers, and determine what death they would choose: Treblinka or Uprising.”
REVOLT AGAINST THE BRITISH MANDATE
For a more in-depth look at the Jewish insurgency against the British Mandate (1944-1947), please check out my post THE ZIONISTS & THE BRITISH: WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.
In 1936, the Arab Higher Committee of Palestine boycotted Jewish goods. This escalated into violence, resulting in 415 Jewish deaths at the hands of the Arabs. Due to their inadequacy in protecting the Jews, the British reluctantly agreed to arm the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization formed in response to the Arab anti-Jewish massacres of the early 1920s.
In 1939, on the eve of Holocaust, the British issued what is known as the 1939 White Paper, which went back on previous British promises to the Jews, restricted Jewish immigration to impossible quotas, and banned Jews from purchasing Arab land.
In 1944, the Irgun, a Jewish paramilitary organization formed in response to the 1929 Hebron massacre, launched an insurgency against the British. The Haganah remained mostly cooperative with the British, while the Irgun targeted British police and military targets. After the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel, the Jewish resistance movement was briefly disbanded. By 1947, however, the insurgency resumed. The Jews in Palestine were put under martial law. The British indiscriminately killed Jewish civilians, including children. However, it was this very insurgency that prompted the British to leave Palestine in 1947, leaving its fate up to the United Nations and setting the groundwork for the November 1947 partition vote.
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