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Who Is Carrying the Menorah on the Arch of Titus?

Jan. 30 2017

Constructed around the year 81 CE, the triumphal arch in Rome depicts the ceremonial military parade a decade earlier celebrating the emperor Titus’ defeat of the Jewish rebellion. Its most famous image, visible to this day, shows people carrying a seven-branched menorah. To scholars of the era, it is evident that these are victorious Roman soldiers bearing the spoils of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the belief is widespread among Jews that the menorah is being carried by Jewish captives. Steven Fine traces this legend from Renaissance Italy, to 19th-century British Protestants, to early-20th-century Jewish scholars, to Zionist iconography past and present:

The earliest identification of the Arch of Titus menorah bearers as Jewish captives appears in an almost offhanded way in the writings of the early-modern [Jewish] historiographer Gedaliah ibn Yahya’s Shalshelet Hakabbalah (The Chain of Tradition), a treatise that appeared in Venice in 1587. . . . The Arch of Titus is transformed by ibn Yahya—himself closely associated with the messianic pretender David Reuveni (d. 1535/1541) and his claims to command Jewish armies beyond the borders of Christendom—as a monument to the strength of the Jewish people. Since Titus was forced to fight so strenuously to defeat the Jews (a war that did, in fact, take the empire eight years to win), ibn Yahya reasons, he merited this triumphal arch. Thus, the “strong” Jewish captives are depicted in its bas-reliefs, and the shame that Jews experienced in relation to the arch inverted. . . .

Like ibn Yahya before them, Zionists of the fin de siècle adopted the Arch of Titus—especially the menorah panel—and subverted it. No longer was it to be a sign of Roman victory and Jewish defeat—the original intention of the arch—but rather it was transformed into a symbol of Jewish strength. It was a “refusal to admit defeat,” as Chaim Weizmann so succinctly put it. This resignification . . . allow[ed] a subjugated population to imagine the possibilities of its own strength in the face of European power, read through a marble metaphor of ancient Roman imperialism. his recourse to an ancient artifact spoke to both Jewish proclivities and to Enlightenment romanticism. The “martyred race” (as Jews were often called during the fin-de-siècle) was actually “a strong nation.”

This “hidden transcript” was surely a poignant survival tool for early modern Italian Jews. It was developed by Anglophone Protestants of the Victorian era for their own theological and poetic purposes. And, finally, it was adapted by modern Jews as they began the processes of imagining themselves a modern “secular” nation—and then seeing that nation take shape. Taken over into Israeli popular culture, it has been preserved among Hebrew speakers and Italian and American Jews.

Read more at Academia.edu

More about: Ancient Rome, History & Ideas, Jewish art, Judean Revolt, Menorah, Zionism

 

Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the Jews

Feb. 23 2018

In 1963—a year after Adolf Eichmann’s sentencing by an Israeli court—reports on the trial by the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt appeared in the New Yorker and were soon published as a book. This “report on the banality of evil,” as the book was subtitled, outraged many Jews, including many of her erstwhile friends and admirers, on account of her manifest contempt for the entire preceding, her disgust for the state of Israel, her accusation that a wide array of European Jewish leaders (if not the majority of the victims) were complicit in their own murder, and her bizarre insistence that Eichmann was “not a monster,” or even an anti-Semite, but a mindless, faceless bureaucrat. While extensive evidence has been brought to light that Arendt was wrong both in her claims of Jewish passivity and her evaluation of Eichmann as the head of the SS’s Jewish section, her book remains widely read and admired. Ruth Wisse comments on its enduring legacy:

When Arendt volunteered to report on the Eichmann trial, it was presumed that she was doing so in her role as a Jew. . . . But Arendt actually traveled to Jerusalem for a deeper purpose—to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction [that, in Saul Bellow’s words], “everybody . . . knows what murder is.”

Arendt was to remain the heroine of postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, relativists, and internationalist ideologues who deny the stability of Truth. Not coincidentally, many of them have also disputed the rights of the sovereign Jewish people to its national homeland. Indeed, as anti-Zionism cemented the coalition of leftists, Arabs, and dissident minorities, Arendt herself was conscripted, sometimes unfairly and in ways she might have protested, as an ally in their destabilizing cause. They were enchanted by her “perversity” and were undeterred in their enthusiasm by subsequent revelations, like those of the historian Bernard Wasserstein, who documented Arendt’s scholarly reliance on anti-Semitic sources in her study of totalitarianism, or of revelations about her resumed friendship with Martin Heidegger despite his Nazi associations.

At the same time, however, the Arendt report on the Eichmann trial became one of the catalysts for something no one could have predicted—an intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservatism. A cohort of writers and thinkers, many of them Jews from immigrant families who had turned to leftism as naturally as calves to their mother’s teats, but who had slowly moved away from the Marxism of their youth during the Stalin years and World War II, now spotted corruption and dishonesty and something antithetical to them in some of their very models of the intellectual life.

They and their Gentile colleagues had constituted the only European-style intelligentsia to flourish in America. Most of them were only one generation removed from Europe, after all, so what could be more natural than for them to serve as the conduit of European intelligence to America? Arendt’s ingenious twist of the Eichmann trial showed them how Jewish and American they actually were—and how morally clear they aspired to be.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Neoconservatism, New York Intellectuals