In the years leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple, the Zealots were known for their efforts in combating the Romans. However, there was one particular Jewish group that focused on killing Jews. As the historian Josephus describes in his classic, The Jewish War, members of this group would mingle with crowds in broad daylight, take out a concealed short dagger, stab their victims, then feign the same indignation as the shocked people around them and melt away into the throng. It was for this reason that Josephus referred to them by the Latin plural, “Sicarii,” or “the dagger (sicae) men.”
The Sicarii strategy aimed to silence moderates who sought accommodation with Rome, and to provoke a wider rebellion by pinning the resulting mayhem in Jerusalem on the Romans. Indeed, their actions seem to have set the tone for later attacks on moderates: When the Romans captured towns like Ashdod in 67 C.E., for example, many extremists arrived in the city to take action against moderates whom they suspected of being too accommodating toward Rome.
It is also possible that the Sicarii believed that by forcing a confrontation with Rome, they would also force the hand of the Almighty. The Talmud’s Avot of Rabbi Natan mentions that when Vespasian surrounded Jerusalem, “the Sicarii took the initiative and set fire to all the granaries.” The Sicarii believed that if Jerusalem suffered a food shortage during the extended siege with Rome, one of two things would happen: Either salvation would come from the Almighty, or confrontation with Rome would become inevitable.
So burning the granaries of Jews was justified. The certainty of the Sicarii meant that all means were justified to attain their objectives, even if it meant the death of their compatriots.
Ironically, not all of the Sicarii wished that the confrontation be located in Jerusalem. The Zealots, led as they were by the high priests of Jerusalem (thus their emphasis on the Temple), were more committed than the Sicarii. Indeed, Sicarii elements actually left Jerusalem in 66 C.E. — four years before the destruction of the Temple — and helped capture the Herodian fortress of Masada, where they were later joined by the Zealots, ultimately provoking the mass suicide of Masada’s 960 defenders.
The story of Masada, interestingly, does not appear in the Talmud, although the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai — who urged the Romans to enable the establishment of the Yavneh Academy — is very well documented. Perhaps the talmudic rabbis understood that the saga of Yavneh, which enabled the reconstitution of Jewish life in the post-Temple period, holds more enduring value to the Jewish people.
Today, there are shadowy groups who ominously call themselves the Sicarii. These unrelated “Sicarii” groups are best known for terrorizing Modern Orthodox grade-school children in Beit Shemesh and attacking police in Mea Shearim — even throwing cement blocks from rooftops at police during the High Holiday season. In years past, these same groups attacked the homes of peace activists.
More significant than what these groups call themselves, however, is their belief that they, like the Sicarii of old, can silence moderates. Some fringe settler groups (such as the Hilltop Youth) today feel the same sense of self-righteous certainty that all of Israel’s problems stem from its enemies within.
The closest inheritor of the Sicarii mantle — which Israeli officials have not yet addressed appropriately — is a group known as “Price Tag.” This shadowy group, which also invokes the name of Sicarii, seeks to exact a “price” from Palestinian civilians by burning their fields, vandalizing their other properties, and attacking Israeli security forces in retaliation for any action they perceive to be against the interests of the settlement movement, including the removal of settlement outposts deemed illegal by Israel’s own law. This group may be as small as a few dozen people, but it is possible that they are enjoying the tacit support of a wider group. They have become increasingly brazen, even vandalizing mosques.
Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon, until recently deputy commander of the IDF Central Command (Israel’s military authority in the West Bank), has said that more needs to be done to stop this group.1 As Alon concluded his term as deputy commander last summer, he declared, “Even today, an extremist minority, small in number but not in influence, could bring about a major escalation via acts that are dubbed ‘price tag,’ but amount to terrorism. [These acts] should not just be condemned for their inherent injustice and stupidity; they must be stopped, and their perpetrators arrested.”
In July 2011, settlers attacked Alon’s military jeep at Tapuah Junction. They also protested outside his family’s moshav home in an effort to intimidate his family members. Yet, this extreme settler group’s assault on an IDF army base inside the West Bank several months later stunned even the military. An IDF spokesman attributed the attack to rumors of an imminent eviction of settlement outposts.
In the years leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple, no one stood up to the Sicarii. As the rabbis say, sinat chinam, senseless hatred, destroyed the Second Jewish Commonwealth. If the Third Jewish Commonwealth is to endure, the people and their institutions must stand up against the new, violent hatred of “Price Tag” and other modern “Sicarii” groups, just as they do to Palestinian terrorism.
David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of its Project on the Middle East Peace Process. He is also an adjunct professor of Middle East studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. With Dennis Ross, he is co-author of Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction in the Middle East (Viking/Penguin, 2009).
1 I have known Alon for nine years, since he was selected by the IDF to join a think tank I run (the Washington Institute for Near East Policy). He previously served as the head of Sayeret Matkal, the IDF’s elite commando force, and he has impressed many with the skills of a natural leader: bravery, moderation, professionalism, and the capacity for balanced and forward-thinking consideration.email print