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A Leviathan Conundrum

Posted by RB Kollannur on July 20, 2014

Around 4000 years ago, a covenant was made between Abram and the God. In it the God promised a stretch of land on the east coast of the Mediterranean to the descendants of Abram. Three sets of people believe in this covenant as part of their history; the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. For most part of the last 3000 years, these three people have dominated the population of this region and ruled over it.

The Jews consider themselves to have descended from Abram’s grandson, Jacob (Son of Isaac), while a large chunk of the Arabs deem themselves to be the descendants of Abram’s son, Ishmael (Non Arab Muslims include Persians (Iranians), Turks, Kurds etc). The Christians gave a reboot to Godly orders with the coming of Jesus, so the Promise of Land holds little contemporary significance to them.

For much of first millennium BC, the Levant supported a large Jewish population. They ruled the region for a while as well. But in 66 BC, the Jews fell under Roman hegemony thanks to a civil war within the ruling Hasmonean dynasty. In 37 BC, the Hasmoneans would be replaced by the Herodian dynasty who ruled Levant as a client of the Roman Republic. In 6 AD, the Romans annexed the kingdom but Herodians retained powerful positions within Roman administration. A revolt against Roman rule in 66 AD would eventually lead to the exhaustion of the remaining vestiges of Jewish rule within the Roman Empire. The gradual disintegration of Jewish power in the region helped in the rise of Christianity. Many of the early Christians were Jews, left disenchanted by their religious leaders.

Staying outside the Roman system of religion, both Jews and Christians were persecuted by the Romans. There were rebellions as well in the next century ending in defeat, but the revolt in 135 AD led to the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem. The Jewish hold on the Promised Land was now truly lost.

Countryless, Jews ventured out of their Promised Land after a long time. Though many stayed behind, Jews traversed the vast extent of the Roman Empire and had settled in communities of their own across Europe by the time the German tribes gained control of South Western Europe. With the Roman shift to Christianity, Levant reverted to the control of an Abrahamic religion. Christians retained control over the Levant till 613 AD, when it was conquered by the (Zoroastrian) Sassanid Empire of Persia. It should be noted that Jews had rebelled against the Christian Byzantine forces in the Levant during this time, suggesting that the Jews retained a formidable presence in the region. The Sassanid occupation was short lived. Byzantium would reclaim Levant in 627 AD, only to lose it again 10 years later to a new force – Muslims.

From then on, the Levant has been dominated by Muslims, except for a brief hiatus in 12th and half of 13th centuries owing to the Crusader intervention from Europe. Jews, who remained, remained under foreign rule. Among Muslims, Levant was first ruled by Arabs followed by the Berber Fatimids, Kurdish Ayyubids, the Mamluks (freed slaves of mixed origin) and finally the Ottoman Turks.

The Jews who had moved to Europe fared somewhat better. With restrictions in money lending on Christians, Jews flourished as moneylenders in Europe. However, they had to face persecution on and off for being an outsider in Christian Europe. Humans have had the chronic tendency to blame the outsider in bad times. Persecution would increase in the nineteenth century with the rise of the nationalistic fervor. The weakening of Ottomans and the break-up of the (German) Holy Roman Empire made way to many new nations in Europe. Jews, in the views of many Europeans, gave their religion precedence over the nation they lived in. This view festered around long enough to foster the support for an anti-semitic Adolf Hitler.

For most of nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was a nation on the verge of collapse. As early as 1855, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia had initiated talks to break up the dying Empire. He died later that year. But the expected collapse added zeal to the Jewish call for a return home – the Zionist movement. Levant eventually fell into British and French hands, with the help of Arab forces, after World War I with the demise of Ottomans. The French paved for republicanism in their sphere of influence which would eventually become Syria and Lebanon by the World War II. The British divided its realm along Ottoman lines. The former Sanjak of Jerusalem, which lied west of River Jordan, while the region east of it became the Kingdom of Jordan led by WWI ally, Abdullah I (Son of Husain ibn Ali, Sharif of Mecca, also a “male line” descendant of the Prophet, though Sunni).

The British retained control of the land between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan initially with a view to have a Jewish + Islamic state. The Arabs rebelled against the imposition and a peaceful resolution seemed to be not in the near future.

Hitler’s defeat toned down anti-Semitism in Europe but the underlying issue was not quelled. If left unattended, anti-Semitism would raise its ugly head once again in Europe. Humans have had the chronic tendency to blame the outsider in bad times. With the Zionist propaganda now in its full force, the solution for Europe seemed logical. However, the emigration of Muslims from the former Ottoman provinces in the Balkans and North Africa has perhaps negated its impact. Meanwhile, the descendants of Abram continue to kill each other off for the rite of the Promise much like the sons of Feanor chasing the Silmarils.


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