"Toldot Milhemet Hayehudim Baroma'im" ("The War of the Jews Against the Romans"), by Yosef Ben-Matityahu (Josephus Flavius), Hebrew translation by Lisa Ullmann, Carmel, 751 pages, NIS 159

Like every self-respecting Israeli youth movement, my Hanoar Ha'oved branch in Herzliya also held a mock trial for Josephus Flavius, aka Yosef Ben-Matityahu, under the heading "traitor or hero?" The unique thing about our particular trial was that it had two defendants: not only Josephus - the commander of Jewish forces in the Galilee in the first century C.E., who after the fall of Yodfat went over to the Roman side - but also Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, who fled a besieged Jerusalem to the camp of the besieging 10th Legion, and asked that "Yavneh and its sages" be spared; his wish was granted. Having both figures as defendants made our trial more complicated and interesting, especially since it was held in late 1948, during the charged days of Israel's War of Independence.

Both defendants were acquitted. If I recall correctly, the argument made in their favor was that the harm caused by their respective choices to cross the lines was not as great as the good they did the Jewish people - whether in the form of Josephus' historical enterprise, or in the capacity for survival symbolized by Yavneh and its sages, which made it possible to create an alternative normative framework for Jewish identity after the destruction of the Temple (we in Herzliya at the time were, of course, a bit less scholarly in our phrasing).

The appearance of a new Hebrew translation of Josephus' "The Jewish War" [all of the following quotations are taken from the English translation by G.A. Williamson, Penguin Classics, 1984] is, of course, cause for celebration, since it may well enlarge the readership of this canonical text. Without a doubt, this is one of the most compelling of classical history books.

Of course, the writings of Herodotus on the Greco-Persian wars and Thucydides' work on the Peloponnesian Wars (two sources for Josephus' method and rhetoric) are both compelling, as are the writings of Tacitus, Plutarch and other Greek and Roman historians. Ultimately, however, they are of interest only to other historians: One can hardly imagine contemporary Athenians poring over Thucydides to understand their own identity or connection to the European Union. Nor is it likely that Romans under Berlusconi delve into Tacitus to seek insight into the murky depths of Italian politics.

For better or worse, however, the writings of Josephus remain not only one of the most important sources for understanding Jewish history, but a focus of contemporary discussion and debate. (For example, on the question of Masada: Without Josephus, we would know nothing about what is supposed to have happened there and in the surrounding area after the destruction of the Temple.)

And yet there is a paradox: Herodotus wrote his books out of profound identification with the Greeks in their war against the Persian barbarians, and Thucydides composed his while deeply grieving for Athens' loss in the wars against Sparta. The music of Josephus in "The Jewish War" is more complex: On the one hand, he writes with scathing contempt for the irresponsible, murderous, thuggish ways of the Jewish Zealots, whom he clearly despises. Throughout the book, he describes them in Greek as "tyrants"; furthermore, one of the most moving speeches in the book is by Ananus the Priest, who wishes to rescue Jerusalem from the rule of Zealot gangs. On the other hand, the book was written not to praise the Romans' victory, but rather to celebrate the courage, resolve and culture of the Jews they vanquished. If we keep in mind that Josephus was writing in Rome as a protege of the emperors Vespasian and Titus, the paradox becomes even more profound.

Jews as a nation

The first question is, of course: Who are these Jews who waged war on the Romans? Josephus' answer is clear: They are a nation. He is careful to distinguish between his strong distaste for the aggression of the Zealots and his characterization of the war itself.

When interpreting Josephus, one is always in danger of lapsing into anachronism, and yet without a doubt, to him this was the war of the Jews as a nation against the Roman Empire. One cannot, of course, understand this in terms of the modern nationalism of the 19th century, but although Josephus explains that the uprising started out as a trivial land dispute between Jews and Greco-Syrians in Caesarea, as the rebellion spread, it increasingly came to resemble a war of liberation.

The religious element is not the decisive one for Josephus; unlike Antiochus, after all, the Romans did not infringe on Jewish religious ritual and even respected it. It is important to understand how Josephus describes the nature of the war: As modern as the idea of nationalism may be (and this includes Zionism as an expression of Jewish nationalism), modern national movements - as scholar Anthony D. Smith claims - have ancient ethnic-historical roots. If I weren't wary of going too far, I would even say Josephus is the first modern Zionist.

The matter comes up immediately in the book's dramatic opening sentence: "The war of the Jews against the Romans was the greatest of our time; greater, too, perhaps, than any recorded struggle whether between cities or nations." The Greek original speaks of wars "between polis and polis and between ethnos and ethnos." Of all the Greek words for "people" (such as "demos" or "laos"), ethnos is, of course, closest in meaning to the modern idea of nationalism.

Later, Josephus stresses these meanings again: He promises to write about what "my people" have done (in Greek, "homophyloi," of shared origin) and to describe the calamity that befell his "native city." He also declares that the Jewish people suffered more at the hand of fate than any other nation; and while describing the initial success of the rebels, he adds that, "some were filled with hope of gain ... by the state of affairs in the East; for the Jews expected all their Mesopotamian brethren to join their insurrection."

When describing the riots that broke out between Jews and Greco-Syrians throughout the region in the wake of the uprising, Josephus notes the exception of Scythopolis (Beit She'an), where there were Jews who fought side by side with Greco-Syrians against Jewish rebels who attacked the city: "Treating their own safety as of more importance than the ties of blood, they joined battle with their countrymen," using the Greek terms "syngeneia"and "homophyloi," which both refer to a common origin.

Hinting at the ancient history of the Jews, which he does not describe in this work (but would turn to later in "The Antiquities of the Jews"), Josephus nonetheless claims that, alongside the Exodus from Egypt and the weary life of wandering, the Jews were exiled from " their own country," thus stressing a clear territorial link to the land of Israel.

Beyond this, there is the matter of the point in time at which he chooses to begin his narrative. The book might have begun with the immediate developments at Caesarea, where the riots first broke out, or with the obstinacy and inflexibility of the Roman procurator Florus, or even - if one wanted to go back further - with the crumbling of Herod's kingdom under his son, Archelaus, and the turning of Judea into a Roman province, or even with the very beginnings of Roman rule in the area, with Pompey's conquest of the land in 63 B.C.E.

However, Josephus does not adopt any of these points of departure, all of which are tied to the period of Roman rule. He goes back no less than 230 years, to the year 163 B.C.E., opening his narrative with the Seleucid Antiochus Epiphanes - with the conquest of Jerusalem in 163, the plunder of the Temple, the edicts of Antiochus and the Hasmonean uprising. In other words, he situates the Jewish war against the Romans within a long history of Jewish resistance to foreign rule. While describing the Hasmonean monarchy, Josephus also notes that Aristobulus, son of John Hyrcanus, the first to call himself a king and "the first to wear a crown," did so "471 years and three months after the return of the nation to their own land, set free from slavery in Babylon."

Fictional oratory

These issues of liberty and what might certainly be called national identity also appear in some of the speeches that Josephus includes in his book. As is the custom in Greek historiography, the language in them is clearly invented, even though speeches may indeed have been given on such occasions. These rhetorical addresses represent what the personages in question might have been expected to say at the time - and they certainly express the author's own views. Israelis are most familiar with Elazar Ben Yair's speech to the Zealots under siege at Masada, calling on them to kill themselves and their families rather than be captured by the Romans. But there are two other speeches in the book, as well, no less dramatic.

One is by Agrippa II, who found himself in Jerusalem with his sister, Berenice, when the revolt began. Agrippa is opposed to the uprising and summons the people to an assembly, where he explains his thinking and urges them to send delegates to the emperor instead of rebelling.

The speech that Josephus puts in Agrippa's mouth is one of the peaks of historical rhetoric, and the arguments he presents are obviously those of the author himself. The first issue Agrippa brings up is phrased in almost contemporary terms: the longing for freedom ("eleutheria"). He can understand the wish not to be subjected to foreign rule, but he adds that, the "passion for liberty ... comes too late"; those who wished to remain free "ought to have done everything possible to keep the Romans out ... when the country was invaded by Pompey." Indeed, he says, "the experience of slavery is a painful one, and to escape it altogether, any effort is justified; but the man who has once submitted and then revolts is a refractory slave, not a lover of liberty."

Then Agrippa moves to a broader theme: He turns to other nations who have submitted to Roman rule, including the Athenians, who once fought the Persians "to preserve the liberty of Greece." In a sweeping description, he names all of the peoples that have submitted to the Romans: Greeks and Gauls, Britons and the peoples of Asia Minor, Lycians and Cilicians, Thracians and Germans and Egyptians - all of whom live in the shadow of Rome without rebelling. What are the odds that the Jews alone can triumph over the Roman imperial troops? The speaker lists the feats of bravery performed by these various peoples in the past and explains that they now accept the yoke of Rome because it guarantees their security and peace.

If the Jews revolt, Agrippa claims, they will end up bringing calamity to their people, their country, their city and their temple. Moreover, "the danger threatens not only ourselves here but also those who live in other cities; for there is not a region in the world without its Jewish colony." This is a clear conception of ethnic identity that is not necessarily limited territorially. Agrippa claims that an uprising will not get the rebels what they want; on the contrary, it will only lead to catastrophe and destruction. He believes that what they seek can be obtained under Roman rule - which is why he supports sending delegates to the emperor to complain about the cruelty of the procurator.

And what is it that the Jews wish to retain, and which Agrippa believes they can have under Roman rule? The "patrios nomos" ("ancestral customs"). These arguments against the insurrection are phrased in terms of preserving the identity of the Jews as a nation, with the Jews explicitly compared to other peoples. This kind of Jewish national identity was not invented in the 19th century.

The idea of freedom as a central tenet of Jewish consciousness is also part of the speech of Ananus the Priest, mentioned above. Ananus is speaking out against the Jewish Zealots, but Josephus has him advocating national independence: "Have you really lost the most honorable and deep-rooted of our instincts, the longing for freedom? ... our fathers ... fought to the bitter end for independence ["autonomy," being subject to one's own law], defying the might of both Egypt and Persia ... our present struggle with Rome ... what is its object? Isn't it freedom?" Coins produced during the revolt indeed confirm that these issues were foremost in the minds of those who took up arms against the Romans.

Suicidal move?

All this (and there are dozens of examples in the text) clearly shows that Josephus conceived of the war as a struggle to preserve national identity. That is why, despite his relentless criticism of the Zealots, the struggle for identity and freedom itself appealed to him: After all, he was part of this war until the fall of Yodfat. It was not a war waged by one king or another, who was reluctant to submit to Rome; it was the war of a public determined to stay free. Josephus also explains that the war - at least in its early stages, before the violent coup by the Zealot groups - was led by a council (boule), which may or may not be synonymous with the Sanhedrin; in any case, it was a public institution.

All this raises a historical question, one that the late strategic expert Yehoshafat Harkabi addressed when he attacked the myth of Masada. Harkabi saw the story of Masada, like the Bar Kochba uprising, as a suicidal event that caused the Jews to suffer destruction and exile. One can ignore the polemical contemporary context of Harkabi's words, but the historical question remains.

In terms of personal destiny, Harkabi is right: The first Jewish revolt, like the Bar Kochba uprising, had catastrophic consequences for innumerable individuals in Judea. But if we follow the dramatic speech in which Agrippa lists all of the peoples that did not revolt against Rome, there is still no escaping the fact that none of them ultimately retained its existence; none survived as a people or a cultural entity with a distinct identity. All of those nations that acted rationally, as advocated by Agrippa and Harkabi, disappeared and became extinct. The only people to survive - culturally, socially, and now as a state as well - is the one who made the choice to rebel. It suffered destruction and exile as a result, but there is no ignoring the fact that, within the twisted paths of history, and despite its many trials and tribulations, it was this people that continued to exist and did not perish.

A harsh conclusion, but one whose cruel, internal dialectical logic cannot be denied.

Prof. Shlomo Avineri's book "Herzl" was published by the Zalman Shazar Center (in Hebrew).