“Peaceful Pluralism” in the Ancient Middle East?

Focusing on the area between the Tigris and the Mediterranean from 100 BCE to 250 CE, the exhibit The World between Empires, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paints a picture of happy coexistence among Jews, Christians, and pagans during a time when Rome and Persia vied for control of the region. Menachem Wecker writes in his review:

The show teases out a potential historical interpretation of Jews, Christians, and polytheists living in “peaceful pluralism” in certain locales, like Dura-Europos in present-day Syria. That theory, however, is offset by [numerous examples of] religions attacking each other through propagandist artwork in their sacred spaces, not to mention trying to convert one another.

One of the sites which the exhibit explores in the most depth is Dura-Europos, the town that the Parthians controlled in the late 2nd or early 1st century BCE, but which the Roman military seized around the year 165 CE. . . . Excavations have unearthed nineteen religious buildings at Dura-Europos, as well as more than 100 homes, and other kinds of buildings, which collectively “provide a remarkable glimpse of how polytheism and monotheism coexisted during the middle of the 3rd century,” notes the catalog. A house-turned-Christian building at Dura-Europos, dated around the year 232, is thought to be the oldest surviving church [in the world], and a synagogue, also 3rd century, is nearly unprecedented for its elaborate and figurative aesthetic program. Biblical-themed wall paintings in the synagogue even include a depiction of the divine hand, which is an exceedingly rare if not unprecedented motif in an ancient synagogue, or even a modern one.

[The church] contains a large assembly space, thought to be where the Eucharist was celebrated, with illustrations of cavalrymen, and a David-and-Goliath painting decorates its baptistery. In addition to these two military-themed elements is a graffito of a mounted soldier in armor carrying a lance and riding a horse, which dates to around the year 232. . . . It’s possible that those receiving the Eucharist, if they took stock of their artistic surroundings, were thinking of anything but peace and turning the other cheek. . . .

Then there are the elaborate synagogue paintings. At a time when the archaeological evidence shows that Jews and Christians were living alongside those who worshipped Mithras, Atargatis, Hadad, and various Palmyrene gods in a 3rd-century Roman border town, paintings on the synagogue walls showed, in part, temples with smashed idol parts strewn across the floor. Was this meant to provoke polytheists and to contrast the two communities, scholars wonder—cautioning that it’s hard to know how much, if any, access the adherents of one faith tradition had to sacred spaces of other traditions.

Read more at National Catholic Reporter

More about: ancient Judaism, Ancient Near East, Archaeology, Metropolitan Museum of Art

What Israel Can Achieve in Gaza, the Fate of the Hostages, and Planning for the Day After

In a comprehensive analysis, Azar Gat concludes that Israel’s prosecution of the war has so far been successful, and preferable to the alternatives proposed by some knowledgeable critics. (For a different view, see this article by Lazar Berman.) But even if the IDF is coming closer to destroying Hamas, is it any closer to freeing the remaining hostages? Gat writes:

Hamas’s basic demand in return for the release of all the hostages—made clear well before it was declared publicly—is an end to the war and not a ceasefire. This includes the withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip, restoration of Hamas’s control over it (including international guarantees), and a prisoner exchange on the basis of “all for all.”

Some will say that there must be a middle ground between Hamas’s demands and what Israel can accept. However, Hamas’s main interest is to ensure its survival and continued rule, and it will not let go of its key bargaining chip. Some say that without the return of the hostages—“at any price”—no victory is possible. While this sentiment is understandable, the alternative would be a resounding national defeat. The utmost efforts must be made to rescue as many hostages as possible, and Israel should be ready to pay a heavy price for this goal; but Israel’s capitulation is not an option.

Beyond the great cost in human life that Israel will pay over time for such a deal, Hamas will return to rule the Gaza Strip, repairing its infrastructure of tunnels and rockets, filling its ranks with new recruits, and restoring its defensive and offensive arrays. This poses a critical question for those suggesting that it will be possible to restart the war at a later stage: have they fully considered the human toll should the IDF attempt to reoccupy the areas it would have vacated in the Gaza Strip?

Although Gat is sanguine about the prospects of the current campaign, he throws some cold water on those who hope for an absolute victory:

Militarily, it is possible to destroy Hamas’s command, military units, and infrastructure as a semi-regular military organization. . . . After their destruction in high-intensity fighting, the IDF must prevent Hamas from reviving by continuous action on the ground. As in the West Bank, this project will take years. . . . What the IDF is unlikely to achieve is the elimination of Hamas as a guerrilla force.

Lastly, Gat has some wise words about what will happen to Gaza after the war ends, a subject that has been getting renewed attention since Benjamin Netanyahu presented an outline of a plan to the war cabinet on Thursday. Gat argues that, contrary to the view of the American and European foreign-policy elite, there is no political solution for Gaza. After all, Gaza is in the Middle East, where “there are no solutions, . . . only bad options and options that are much worse.”

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza Strip, Gaza War 2023, Israeli Security