Hollywood star Will Smith is reportedly planning to make a movie on Taharqa, a black warrior king from Nubia who ruled over Egypt during the 7th-century BCE. The film is likely to focus on issues of black pride, but if Smith and his scriptwriters do their homework well, “The Last Pharaoh” should also be of particular interest to Jewish moviegoers. According to some scholars, Taharqa played a key part in the early history of Judaism — and his story carries a crucial lesson for the future of the State of Israel.
The figure of Taharqa, who was born in what is today Sudan, is linked to a pivotal historical event that is described in the Bible: the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE. Hezekiah, the king of Judah, had little chance of surviving that onslaught by one of the greatest military powers on earth; only two decades before, the Assyrians had conquered the neighboring kingdom of Israel and deported many of its citizens.
But the Assyrians eventually withdrew from the walls of Jerusalem and Hezekiah’s throne was saved. Judah kept its independence for another 115 years, until it was defeated by the Babylonians, who went on to destroy the first temple in 586 BCE.
The rescue of Jerusalem had enormous consequences for religious thought. Recent archaeological discoveries have convinced most historians that monotheism had not yet fully taken root among Israelites at the time of the siege, and the Torah had very likely yet to be written down.
It was only after the withdrawal of the Assyrians that the embattled survivors became deeply convinced that their God was truly unique and almighty. That new belief then had more than a century to evolve and flourish, and it grew strong enough to allow the exiled Jews to retain their faith during the Babylonian exile and later return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.
Why, though, did the Assyrians withdraw from Jerusalem? The Bible talks about God visiting a plague on the invading army. It also mentions a lack of water in the Judean Hills that bedevilled the besiegers, and archaeologists have since credited King Hezekiah for having the foresight to build a tunnel to Gihon Springs that gave the city a secure water supply.
But in a recent book, journalist turned historian Henry Aubin argues convincingly that it was the approach of the Kushite-Nubian army — headed by young Taharqa, whom the Bible refers to as king of Ethiopia — that made the Assyrians lose heart. Militarily, it makes sense: It’s not the best idea to be caught up besieging a city like Jerusalem when a hostile force approaches from the rear.
The turn of events was arguably one of the most important moments in human history. Had Jerusalem been destroyed in 701 BCE, Judaism very well have disappeared before it really got underway. The other two monotheistic world religions, Christianity and Islam, might never have been born. It was the timely intervention of a black warrior that convinced an embattled tribe in the Judean hills that their god was so special that they would still pray to him 2,700 years later.
The lessons of this unlikely alliance between Jews and Nubians are worth pondering as Israel approaches its 60th birthday.
What the Judean king did was play a good game of geopolitics. He chose a strong ally at the right moment to help him against a dangerous foe. The Assyrians later defeated Taharqa and drove him out of Egypt, but they left the kingdom of Judah alone.
The combination of fortuitous geopolitical circumstances and smart diplomacy was also crucial during other successful episodes in Jewish history.
The Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century BCE, which we commemorate each year during Chanukah, was, to be sure, a truly popular uprising. Independence, however, only came and was sustained with the help of the rising Roman republic, which regarded the Hasmoneans as a pawn in their battle against the Greek-Seleucid empire.
One hundred years later, King Herod demonstrated even greater tactical skills and maintained Judea’s independence from Rome against all geopolitical odds. Disaster only struck when radical nationalists staged the hopeless revolt against the Romans in 66 C.E.
The founding fathers of modern-day Israel likewise knew how to play a good game of geopolitics. Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion took advantage of, at various times, British, French, American and Soviet interests to secure the Balfour declaration, the United Nations resolution dividing Palestine, and military support for the War of Independence. The strength and heroism of the Haganah obviously mattered quite a bit, but without the right allies, Israel would likely never have come into existence.
The Jewish state is today militarily and politically stronger than at any time in its history. At the same time, plenty of threats remain — and the future of Israel may again depend on correctly reading the geopolitical trends and making the best of them. It may even require Jerusalem to look for allies besides America, perhaps ones in unexpected places.
Such an approach might mean Israel linking up more closely with the expanding sphere of stability and prosperity that the European Union is trying to create on its eastern and southeastern flank. Israel’s most important ally in this endeavor may turn out to be Turkey, a Muslim state vying for full E.U. membership within a decade.
In dealing with Iran, Israel may find allies for a strategy of containment among those Sunni Arab states that feel at least as threatened by Shi’ite fanaticism as Israel does. On the other hand, Iran might one day again become a geopolitical ally against aggressive Arab designs, as it was under the reign of the shah.
Such clever diplomacy requires flexibility, pragmatism, opportunism and a light touch when it comes to Muslim sensitivities. Self-righteousness, stubbornness and a misguided myth of self-reliance are counterproductive in the realm for diplomacy. Beating up on Hamas radicals and other demonstrations of toughness may make political sense in the short term, but more often than not they make Israel more isolated and therefore more vulnerable.
When national survival is at stake, one can always pray for God’s timely intervention — but searching out a modern-day Taharqa might not be a bad back-up plan.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.