Josephus on Trial

Mock trials of Josephus, in which he faced accusations of treason, were held regularly between the 1920s and the 1970s in both schools and youth movements within the Zionist education system. The historian was prosecuted and defended, investigated and judged, on the basis of his conduct during the Great Revolt, especially his defection to the Roman side at Yodfat (Jotapata), where he, as commander of the rebellion in Galilee, defected to the Roman side.

Reminiscences by two Jerusalem academics reveal characteristic themes. Shlomo Avineri writes: ‘Our Herzeliah branch of the No’ar Ha-Oved youth movement, was no different from all the other branches, in conducting a public trial of Josephus Flavius – “traitor or hero?” Yet, the trial in our branch was unique in that it had two defendants: not only Josephus…. but also Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who escaped from besieged Jerusalem to the camp of the 10th Roman Legion where he asked for, and received, “Yavneh and its sages”. The presence of these two personalities naturally made the conduct of the trial more intricate, interesting and complex, especially since it took place in 1948 in the loaded atmosphere of the War of Independence.’ Josephus was in fact defended through the merits of his historical writings and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai because he secured a framework for the future survival of the people.

Avishai Margalit, who impersonated Josephus in his school trial, reports that ‘at age thirteen, I was called a traitor’. He called in defence the prophet Jeremiah, who, during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (which ended in the destruction of the first Temple and the city) had advocated surrender to the besieging forces. The judges dismissed this well-established comparison: ‘How can you compare Jeremiah, the true prophet, to yourself, Josephus, the traitor?’

These trials were widespread in British Mandate Palestine and in the later established State of Israel. They also featured in the inter-war Jewish network of national education in Eastern and Central Europe (the ‘Tarbut’ schools), and later in Jewish schools across the Atlantic. The diaries of Rudashevski and Katzenelson show their continuation as part of Ghetto Life in Vilna and Warsaw.

Avineri, S., ‘Josephus Flavius is the First Zionist’, Ha-aretz 8.1.2010 [Hebrew].
Margalit, A., ‘Josephus vs. Jeremiah’, Biblical Archaeology Review 38.5 (2012): 53-57.
Sznol, S., ‘Reading and Interpreting Flavius Josephus in the Vilna and Warsaw Ghettos (1941–1943)’, in: Josephus in Modern Jewish Culture, ed. A. Schatz (forthcoming).

JRA entry contributed by Zviah Nardi