Why Tisha b'Av Matters

Well we can go back - there are some very good examples of the Romans putting down Jewish insurrections from the first century BC all the way into the second century AD that were very successful. ...In every one of the cases the Romans were able to divide and conquer. In other words, they found a larger percentage of the population would be willing to want to educate their children, speak Latin, have aqueducts, be subject to habeas corpus law, and enjoy Roman prosperity -- a larger percentage than that of so called nationalist leaders who wanted to kill the Romans and revert back to their pre-provincial status. So it worked. - Victor Davis Hanson, quoted at Right Wing News

The Jewish fast of Tisha b'Av commemorates the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and again by the Romans in the year 70 CE. It is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, marked by the reading of the Book of Lamentations and special hymns.

The destruction of the Second Temple - with its enormous loss of life, and accompanied by the expulsion of the Jews from the land of Israel and an exile lasting more than 18 centuries - created a fundamental crisis for Jewish theodicy. (The newly published Koren Mesorat haRav Kinot provides a complete guide to the liturgy and commentary by the great twentieth-century teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.)

One theme that has been consistently stressed by rabbis through the ages is the role of 'sinat chinam', a Hebrew phrase roughly translated "baseless hatred", in pricipitating the tragedies of Tisha b'Av. They mean, specifically, hatred among the Jewish people; in other words, to a certain extent we brought in on ourselves.

I'm no historian, but I found myself reading up on the Jewish revolt against Rome. It is - to say the very least - sobering reading.
The siege of Jerusalem, the capital city, had begun early in the war, but had turned into a stalemate. Unable to breach the city's defenses, the Roman armies established a permanent camp just outside the city, digging a trench around the circumference of its walls and building a wall as high as the city walls themselves around Jerusalem. Anyone caught in the trench attempting to flee the city would be captured, crucified, and placed in lines on top of the dirt wall facing into Jerusalem. The two Zealot leaders, John of Gischala and Simon Bar Giora, only ceased hostilities and joined forces to defend the city when the Romans began to construct ramparts for the siege. Those attempting to escape the city were crucified, with as many as five hundred crucifixions occurring in a day.

Titus Flavius, Vespasian's son, led the final assault and siege of Jerusalem. During the infighting inside the city walls, a stockpiled supply of dry food was intentionally burned by Sicarii to induce the defenders to fight against the siege instead of negotiating peace; as a result many city dwellers and soldiers died of starvation during the siege. Zealots under Eleazar ben Simon held the Temple, Sicarii led by Simon Bar Giora held the upper city. Titus eventually wiped out the last remnants of Jewish resistance.

By the summer of 70, the Romans had breached the walls of Jerusalem, ransacking and burning nearly the entire city. The Romans began by attacking the weakest spot: the third wall. It was built shortly before the siege so it did not have as much time invested in its protection. They succeeded towards the end of May and shortly afterwards broke through the more important second wall. The Second Temple (the rennovated Herod's Temple) was destroyed on Tisha B'Av (29 or 30 July 70). Tacitus, a historian of the time, notes that those who were besieged in Jerusalem amounted to no fewer than six hundred thousand, that men and women alike and every age engaged in armed resistance, everyone who could pick up a weapon did, both sexes showed equal determination, preferring death to a life that involved expulsion from their country. ...

Here's the Jewish Virtual Library:
In the decades after Caligula's death, Jews found their religion subject to periodic gross indignities, Roman soldiers exposing themselves in the Temple on one occasion, and burning a Torah scroll on another.

Ultimately, the combination of financial exploitation, Rome’s unbridled contempt for Judaism, and the unabashed favoritism that the Romans extended to gentiles living in Israel brought about the revolt.

In the year 66, Florus, the last Roman procurator, stole vast quantities of silver from the Temple. The outraged Jewish masses rioted and wiped out the small Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem. Cestius Gallus, the Roman ruler in neighboring Syria, sent in a larger force of soldiers. But the Jewish insurgents routed them as well.

This was a heartening victory that had a terrible consequence: Many Jews suddenly became convinced that they could defeat Rome, and the Zealots' ranks grew geometrically. Never again, however, did the Jews achieve so decisive a victory.

When the Romans returned, they had 60,000 heavily armed and highly professional troops. They launched their first attack against the Jewish state's most radicalized area, the Galilee in the north. The Romans vanquished the Galilee, and an estimated 100,000 Jews were killed or sold into slavery.

Throughout the Roman conquest of this territory, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem did almost nothing to help their beleaguered brothers. They apparently had concluded—too late, unfortunately—that the revolt could not be won, and wanted to hold down Jewish deaths as much as possible.

The highly embittered refugees who succeeded in escaping the Galilean massacres fled to the last major Jewish stronghold—Jerusalem. There, they killed anyone in the Jewish leadership who was not as radical as they. Thus, all the more moderate Jewish leaders who headed the Jewish government at the revolt's beginning in 66 were dead by 68—and not one died at the hands of a Roman. All were killed by fellow Jews.

The scene was now set for the revolt's final catastrophe. Outside Jerusalem, Roman troops prepared to besiege the city; inside the city, the Jews were engaged in a suicidal civil war. In later generations, the rabbis hyperbolically declared that the revolt's failure, and the Temple's destruction, was due not to Roman military superiority but to causeless hatred (sinat khinam) among the Jews (Yoma 9b). While the Romans would have won the war in any case, the Jewish civil war both hastened their victory and immensely increased the casualties. One horrendous example: In expectation of a Roman siege, Jerusalem's Jews had stockpiled a supply of dry food that could have fed the city for many years. But one of the warring Zealot factions burned the entire supply, apparently hoping that destroying this "security blanket" would compel everyone to participate in the revolt. The starvation resulting from this mad act caused suffering as great as any the Romans inflicted. ...

For the Jews of modern-day Israel, the significance of Tisha b'Av is complex. Israel is a modern state founded on secular institutions and Jewish identity; in short, it is inherently paradoxical. FailedMessiah links to Noam Talmor at Yediot Acharonot with a defense of Israel's Tisha b'Av enforcement on secular grounds.

Talmor also turns a critical eye on Israeli education:
Upon its inception, Zionism sought to establish the image of a strong and proud Jew. To this end, the Bible was glorified as it encapsulated a period in which the nation of Israel enjoyed independence in its own land. Such glorification served to justify the settlement of the land in light of the historical connection between the Jewish people and the land described in the Bible. However, one of the side effects of such glorification was a disconnect by Jewish historical sources from the period following the canonization of the Biblical text.

Even today, no Jewish text written after the Bible and before Bialik is taught in the state school system (except for medieval poetry in the literature study track). Indeed, there is a sort of hole in the history of the Jewish people between exile and Herzl. Therefore, many secular Israelis do not have a sequential perception of Jewish history. For many, there is biblical history and Zionism, nothing in between. ...

The piece links to a related article summarizing the results of an opinion poll on the subject of Tisha b'Av. The poll finds that
A majority of the Jewish public declared that they intend to fast or, at the very least, to avoid going out with friends on Tisha B'Av, the day marking the destruction of the First and Second Temples, according to a Ynet-Gesher poll conducted ahead of the holy day.

Returning to the related topic of 'sinat chinam', the poll also examines the attitudes of Israelis toward Arabs, haredim (or "ultra-Orthodox" Jews), "Tel Avivians" (representing the supposedly decadent, secular side of Israeli society), and religious-Zionist settlers.

In response to the question "Which among the following groups in your opinion is the most hated in Israeli society?" 54% chose Arabs, 37% chose haredim, 8% chose religious, and 1% chose Tel Avivians. An analysis of the data reveals that the haredim themselves believe that they are the most hated, whereas religious, traditionalists, and seculars responded that Arabs are more hated.

The poll also asked the respondents to indicate honestly which of the four groups is the least liked by them personally. Arabs topped the list with 52% and haredim were in second place with 32%. Some 11% responded they least like settlers, and 5% said they least like Tel Avivians. A breakdown of the results shows that haredim, religious, and traditionalists mainly dislike Arabs, whereas seculars mainly dislike haredim.

Perhaps most strikingly, the poll showed the religious/secular rift in nearly a dead-heat with the Arab/Israeli conflict in terms of its perceived danger to Israeli society.

The Jewish nation-state has faced external threats in all of its historical incarnations. The threats to Israel from within are ultimately the threats that can destroy Israel: a divided society; an element who believe that "G-d is on Israel's side" and that therefore Israel cannot lose; and another element who just do not care.

But Jews are, above all else, masters of taking the long view. Here is the IDF Chief of the General Staff visiting the Chief of Defense Staff of Italy.

Funny, I didn't hear anybody speaking Latin.