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.

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

Iran’s Defeat May Not Be Immediate, but Effective Containment Is at Hand

Aug. 20 2018

In the 1980s, the U.S. pursued a policy of economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union that led to—or at least hastened—its collapse while avoiding a head-on military confrontation. Some see reasons to hope that a similar strategy might bring about the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Frederick Kagan, however, argues against excessive optimism. Carefully comparing the current situation of Iran to that of the Gorbachev-era USSR, he suggests instead that victory over Tehran can be effectively achieved even if the regime persists, at least for the time being:

What must [an Iran] strategy accomplish in order to advance American national security and vital national interests? Regime change was the only outcome during the cold war that could accomplish those goals, given the conventional and nuclear military power of the Soviet Union. Iran is much weaker by every measure and much more vulnerable to isolation than the Soviets were. . . . Isolating Iran from external resources and forcing the regime to concentrate on controlling its own population would be major accomplishments that would transform the Middle East. . . .

It is vital to note that the strategy toward the Soviet Union included securing Western Europe against the Soviet threat and foreclosing Soviet efforts to pare America’s allies, especially West Germany, away from it while simultaneously supporting (in an appropriately limited fashion) the Solidarity uprising in Poland and the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. It is not meaningful to speak of a victory strategy against Iran that does not include contesting Iranian control and influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while strengthening and hardening the Arab frontline states (including Oman and Qatar) against Iranian influence.

Syria is Iran’s Afghanistan—it is the theater in which Iranian forces are most vulnerable, where Iranian popular support for the war is wearing thin, and where the U.S. can compel [Iran] to expend its limited resources on a defensive battle. Iraq is Iran’s Poland—the area Iran has come to dominate, but with limitations, and a country Iran’s leaders believe they cannot afford to lose. The U.S. is infinitely better positioned to contest Iran’s control over Iraq than it ever was in Poland (and similarly better positioned in Syria than it was in Afghanistan).

A long-term approach would focus on building a consensus among America’s allies about the need to implement a victory strategy. It would deter the Russians and Chinese from stepping in to keep Iran alive. It would disrupt the supply chain of strategic materials Iran needs to advance its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. And it would force Iran to fight hard for its positions in Iraq and Syria while simultaneously pressing the Iranian economy in every possible way. Such a strategy would almost certainly force the Islamic Republic back in on itself, halt and reverse its movement toward regional hegemony, exacerbate schisms within the Iranian leadership and between the regime and the people, and possibly, over time, and in a uniquely Iranian way, lead to a change in the nature of the regime.

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More about: Cold War, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Soviet Union, U.S. Foreign policy