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The New Herodians

Herod the Great’s alignment with the Roman empire led to both the high-point of Jewish power and the destruction of the Jewish state.

Tony Badran
May 04, 2023
Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In its increasingly tense encounter with the American empire, the modern State of Israel finds itself confronted with an ancient choice: whether to continue as an independent state or whether to become a fractured Levantine client of a great power, governed by a Herodian faction. Rooted in the geography of the region and also in the historical experience of the Jewish people, the choice of how Israel positions itself now is likely to have extreme consequences for the future of the first Jewish state in over two millennia.

The choice of Israel’s elites, as expressed through a month of street demonstrations and an ongoing media campaign against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his proposed judicial reforms, is clear. Their strategy is to position themselves as a modern-day version of the Herodians, the famous allies of Rome whose preeminent king, Herod the Great, built the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem as well as the great fortress of Masada. Renowned during his lifetime and even 2,000 years after his death as a master builder, Herod not only ruled over the largest Jewish kingdom since the Iron Age, but managed to insinuate his relatives into the corridors of imperial power. Herod’s grandson was educated in Rome in the circles of imperial princes who befriended him, and his great-granddaughter Berenice was the lover of the future emperor of Rome—a liaison that, if consummated in marriage, might have fused Judaism and Rome at a much earlier juncture in history, and with what could have only been a very different effect, than Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.

Yet for the Jews, the reign of Herod and his family was but a way station on the path to disaster, culminating in the destruction of Herod’s Temple along with all vestiges of Jewish national independence for the next two millennia. It didn’t take long following Herod’s death for Judea to come under direct Roman rule as a province. Unrest would commence within a generation. By the time of his great-grandson, the destruction of the Jewish kingdom that Herod once ruled was so complete that the Jews became the world’s reigning metaphor for a stateless people, and the rise of Zionism, 19 centuries later, appeared to many, Jews and Christians alike, as nothing less than a modern-day miracle.

The Herodian pitch for Roman backing against their internal foes was not only not unique to their faction, but also in no way a particularly Jewish fault. The habit of local factions seeking external intervention defines the fractured societies of the Levant—Lebanon and Syria, as well as the stateless Kurds and Palestinians—who are unlikely ever to be sovereign. Such internally splintered polities have been the Levant’s structural characteristic going back for millennia, resulting from and contributing to its historical standing as “the crossroads of Empire”—i.e., a battleground for the armies of more stable and successful cultures.

Since its rebirth as a modern state, Israel has stood as an anomaly in the Levant: a cohesive and militarily powerful nation-state in a region where stability is hard to find. To ensure its independence, Israel became a nuclear power—attaining a destructive capability that only a few advanced states possess, and which would appear to serve as a potent hedge against conventional attack. According to some estimates, Israel now possesses either the fourth- or the fifth-most-powerful military in the world.

Yet far from utilizing Israel’s military strength to protect its own interests, which is the normal purpose of the imperial-client relationship, the ruling faction of the American empire has been working hard for the past decade toward an arrangement that recognizes and guarantees nuclear status for the hostile revisionist state in the east: Iran. Impeding Israel from taking action to prevent that outcome, which would establish Iran as a regional hegemon, has been the primary driver of the empire’s posture toward the Jewish state for the past decade—a posture that has hardened once again over the past few months. U.S. backing for the street demonstrations in Israel can therefore be understood within the wider scope of U.S. regional policy, whose cornerstone is the pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran.

Yet inviting the U.S. to participate in Israel’s internal politics has been a key part of the Israeli elite’s strategy to win their own battles at home. The Herodian faction’s leaders moved to mobilize support from American Jewish organizations as a prelude to requesting intervention by the empire against the country’s elected leader and his government—a move that in the domestic politics of a more stable country would be strictly off-limits. Israel’s new Herodians adopted the imperial lexicon to describe their fight—“shared values” and “safeguarding democracy against the rise of authoritarianism,” and so on—as a gesture of loyalty to the empire’s ruling faction. The messaging to other Israelis was transparent: We are the faction favored by the empire.

Indeed, the American empire soon stepped in to publicly back the Herodians, broadcasting the imperial dictum that demanded the Israeli government secure “consensus” before proceeding with its proposed legislation to reform its judiciary. Visiting American imperial officials likewise began meeting with the Herodians on par with the government, underscoring the need for the elected government to reach “consensus” with the imperially favored faction, and to do so under an aegis approved by the empire.

Washington presented its active role in internal Israeli politics as a benevolent answer to the petitions of the Israeli public. “I really think that most Israelis do not want America to stay out of their business,” U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides asserted in response to an Israeli minister who criticized his meddling. Sure enough, footage subsequently emerged of demonstrators gratefully welcoming imperial intervention and demanding more of it. A political cartoon disseminated in one of the Herodian faction’s local mouthpieces portrayed the U.S. president in a crowd control vehicle, emblazoned with the American flag, flushing the governing coalition away. While the cartoon may have been wishful thinking, there is no question that the demonstrations by the minority gained considerable strength from the fact that they had secured American backing—making it much more difficult for the elected Israeli government to push back.

As pressure mounted, the democratically elected prime minister eventually balked, suspending his government’s legislation while retaining a defense minister who had openly defied him, showing who actually ran the country. President Biden paraded the humiliation of the undesirable Israeli leader, publicly admonishing him to “walk away” from his own legislation, for he “cannot continue down this road.”

In response to the imperial dictum, Netanyahu did belatedly attempt to assert the principle of Israeli sovereignty. ”Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends,” he said in a statement. His coalition ally, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was more specific, and expressed concern about a trajectory whose endpoint is imperial province status, stating that Israel “is not another star in the American flag.”

In contrast, Israel’s Herodian faction had no compunction about verbalizing their conceptualization of Israel’s new relation to the empire, with one describing it as an American “protectorate.” President Biden made sure to publicly announce that Netanyahu would not be invited to come to the imperial capital “in the near term,” while opposition leaders traveled freely to America to meet with Jewish organizations and members of Congress, thereby consolidating the optics of the Herodians as the imperial favorites.

The history of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is sporadic; relatively brief periods of self-rule in a timeline where vassalage to or domination by successive empires—Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic, and finally Roman—is the norm. The arc of Judea’s encounter with Rome is therefore instructive, especially as it marked the last Jewish polity until the establishment of modern Israel. It follows a trajectory that begins with a nominal alliance, followed by client status, then incorporation into the empire as a province, ending in the dissolution and destruction of the state.

The encounter between the Jewish state and Rome began when Judea’s ruling Hasmonean dynasty appealed for Roman support against Seleucid control. That relationship in turn ended first with direct Roman intervention in 63 BCE, which established Judea as a client kingdom, and eventually with direct Roman control in 6 CE.

Rome’s initial intervention under Pompey took place as the Roman general campaigned in Syria, which he sought to annex and reorganize due to its instability, which made it a potential source of trouble for Rome in the east. The Roman decision to intervene in Judea was spurred directly by the Hasmonean civil war: the struggle for power between Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, sons of the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus.

The Hasmonean kingdom had been useful to Rome as a thorn in the Seleucids’ side. However, with the Seleucids now finished, and Judea ridden with internal strife, its continued independence was a headache that Rome did not need, especially with the potential for Parthian encroachment in the Levant. Pompey backed the aging Hyrcanus as High Priest, though he did not allow him to resume the title of king. But by this point, Hasmonean local autonomy was over. Rome’s true local client was Hyrcanus’ associate, the Idumean chief Antipater, founder of the Herodian dynasty.

The Herodians understood that their position and power depended on Rome and on remaining in its good graces—which included navigating the treacherous ways of Roman power struggles. In this task, the Herodians were as skilled as they were lucky, including in how inept their domestic adversaries proved to be.

Antipater’s son, Herod the Great, received the support of Mark Antony to retake the throne after the Hasmonean Prince Antigonus, Aristobulus’ son, aligned with and was installed by the Parthians who briefly overran Roman Syria in 40 BCE, following the Liberators’ Civil War. That year, as he took refuge in Rome, the Senate bestowed on Herod the title of “allied king and friend of the Roman people.”

Just as his family had managed to navigate the struggle between Pompey and Julius Caesar before, Herod managed to retain the trust and favor of Octavian (Augustus Caesar) after his war with Mark Antony, remaining a loyal client of Rome. Herod expressed his loyalty to Augustus, building several structures in Caesar’s honor, including an amphitheater in Jerusalem dedicated to Augustus, as well as temples of the imperial cult in Samaria, now named Sebaste in honor of Augustus (the Greek translation of his name), and in Caesarea—a coastal city whose harbor is one of Herod’s major building achievements. His grandson, Herod Agrippa, named after Augustus’ son-in-law and right-hand man, Marcus Agrippa (who defeated Mark Antony’s naval forces), was sent to Rome at an early age and grew up with members and friends of the imperial household.

Herod’s physical displays of allegiance to Rome and Augustus were targeted as much at his internal foes as at his Roman patrons. His buildings honoring Augustus served to proclaim that he was Rome’s associate and the recipient of its favor—a reminder to his local enemies of who stood behind him.

As a client king, Herod’s duty was to assimilate his subjects into the empire, through Greco-Roman culture and forms of administration. Herod Hellenized his realm and government as much as he could, modeling himself as a Greek monarch and projecting that image abroad. Styling himself as a friend of Caesar and on a par with Marcus Agrippa, Herod disbursed significant largesse on the Greek cities of the Mediterranean world, many of which were also home to diasporic Jewish communities. This orientation toward the Greek world provided Herod with an important counterbalance to internal troubles with his Jewish subjects, whose hostility he had to manage and keep under control.

As familiar as Israel’s current factional battles might seem to the ancients, it is important to underline a key difference that would leave the emperors of Rome utterly baffled. The Roman interest, and the rationale for its intervention in local Jewish politics, was to guard against encroachment from enemies to the east. Inasmuch as factional strife in Judea could serve the intrigues of the enemies of Rome, the interest of the empire was in suppressing Jewish factionalism.

The American empire, under the rule of the Obama faction, has bizarrely inverted this entirely practical rationale. In contrast to Rome’s policy, Washington is actively stoking factionalism in Israel, and publicly siding against the faction elected to govern there. What’s even more perverse is the purpose of this behavior. Whereas Rome sought to shore up the stability of the imperial realm against outside subversion, the American imperium is promoting the destabilization of an ally in the service of realigning with an American adversary in the east.

Moreover, the U.S. will not reverse this posture should the imperially favored faction return to power. Keeping Israel off balance will remain the policy of the ruling Obama faction irrespective of which Israeli government is in power. In addition to fanning the flames of domestic chaos, the empire is amplifying Israel’s internal turmoil by fostering Palestinian low-intensity warfare against Israel, all while demanding the latter cede territory and sovereignty to warring Palestinian factions, some of which are active proxies of the Iranian regime that Washington is looking to align with. The “integration” deal with the Iranian satrapy in Lebanon to the north, which the U.S. presented for the signature of the short-lived Lapid government, intentionally showcased Israel’s vassal status.

As far as the leader of the nationalist-religious coalition is concerned, there is no satisfying the empire’s list of demands—which, in fact, is endless. The point of those requests, whether couched in the language of “democracy” or “justice for the Palestinians,” is to cripple the Israeli leader and deny him the ability to interfere with America’s design of alignment with his enemy. On the upside, the empire’s posture provides clarity as to the path before Israel’s nationalist-religious coalition and its leader: either destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, rendering the American plan moot, or accept vassal status and the erosion of sovereignty.

For those who imagine a third way, in which an accommodating Israeli leadership that continues to meet Washington’s demands will steer its way through the shoals of momentary twists and turns in imperial policy to emerge even stronger on the other side, by continuing to send its elite to American schools, the fate of the Herodians argues otherwise. As it turns out, even close personal relationships with the imperial dynasties did little to alter Roman behavior.

Herod’s grandson, Herod Agrippa, who was raised in the imperial capital, cultivated extensive friendships with the Roman imperial family, having grown up with future Emperor Claudius, whose accession to the throne Agrippa would help promote, and having become close friends with Drusus, the son of the Emperor Tiberius. Agrippa also ingratiated himself with Caligula, who would succeed Tiberius. Perhaps the best he could show for that relationship was to narrowly escape the implementation of Caligula’s decision to erect his own image in the Jerusalem Temple, just as the emperor officially appointed him to rule over the territory of his uncle, the tetrarch Herod Antipas. Avoidance of the desecration of the Temple may have been thanks to Agrippa’s pleas, but it was more likely due to the fact that Caligula was assassinated before his order was carried out.

Agrippa didn’t live much longer into the reign of Claudius, his childhood friend. He did, however, live long enough to have Claudius bestow on him the same title as the one Rome bestowed on his grandfather, “friend of Rome”—in what was now no longer an independent kingdom but a Roman province. In the same year that he confirmed Agrippa as king, Claudius would also deprive the Jews of Rome of their right of assembly. A few years later, he would expel them from the city—as Emperor Tiberius, father of Agrippa’s close friend, had done some 30 years earlier.

However well he managed to placate the religious authorities and his Jewish subjects by publicly feigning Jewish piety, Agrippa was a Roman through and through. Like him, his children were Romans at heart, and it was during their time that the Jewish revolt would erupt. His Roman-educated son Agrippa II, who tried to dissuade the Jews from rebellion, participated on the Roman side in suppressing the revolt. His sister Berenice meanwhile became the lover of Titus, Emperor Vespasian’s son, who, as military commander, besieged and sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE. Yet while Titus became emperor after his father, he did not rule Rome with a Jewish wife by his side.

It seems that despite being full Romans, suppressing the Jewish rebellion, destroying the Jewish Temple, and sleeping with the future Roman emperor, the Herodians remained Jews in Rome’s eyes, even after the last vestiges of Jewish independence were destroyed.

Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.

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