The Byzantine Scribe

by Geoffrey Clarfield (August 2010)

Many years ago, while walking through the grounds of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s greatest temple, the Hagia Sophia, in what is now the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, I marveled at how it is that some great civilizations decline, disappear and are renewed from the outside.


Since the rise of agriculture and the subsequent emergence of the Biblically inspired empires of the Near East, with their distinctive forms of world religion, it is clear that the decline of these civilizations was often completed by invasions or migrations and penetrations of barbarian chieftains and their hordes, who, after having pierced the empire’s borders and sometimes sacked the capital, would then take over whatever remained of the apparatus of the state. Gibbon’s classic study The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is replete with examples.


These new barbarians would then, by necessity, and in order to consolidate their conquest, set up a new, rougher state, but with the minimum trappings of the old one, and which often, like the Holy Roman Empire, pathetically aspired to the greatness of that which they had destroyed or overtook.


As a boy, I often wondered what life was like for the worldly and well educated Byzantine refugees, after the Ottoman Turks finally breached the walls of Constantinople on that fatal day of May 29, 1453. What became of these final exiles from Constantinople, whose only asset was their sophistication? They arrived in Italy, in the Slavic lands and in Europe’s far west, selling their skills to the more simple societies at the courts of semi barbarian kingdoms, for Byzantium was the light of the middle ages and the spark of the Renaissance.


The Jews of the West, educated professionals, carrying a plethora of degrees and diplomas and who have immigrated to the Land of Israel since its rebirth in 1948, are in a sense akin to those wandering Byzantine refugees and who have found a new home and market for their skills.

What I am saying, very simply, is that so many Western Jews who live in Israel have functioned and continue to function like Byzantine scribes – as administrators and advisors to the no nonsense, pragmatic and tough talking pioneers and patriots who created the State of Israel. What do I mean by this? I mean that in subtle and often unconscious ways aspects of history recur in new contexts.


The late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and his generation of Sabras (native born Israelis) were partially justified in rejecting the refinement and manners of the Jews and Gentiles of the Diaspora, claiming that such “bourgeois manners” covered up both the denial of anti-Semitism by the Jewish middle classes of Europe and the hypocrisy of their anti-Semitic host societies. 


The Sabras substitute was what in the end turned out to be an equally arbitrary culture of directness – no shaking hands, no polite elections, passionate ideology and personal vendetta (however, substituting character assassination for the vendetta based murder that is common in more traditional surrounding Mediterranean cultures) instead of dispassionate public debate, and, at least in the early days of the state, a denigration of corrupting luxury.


These were, in the time of the Zionist pioneers, fine and true virtues and perhaps even necessary, especially when building an egalitarian state amidst a sea of authoritarian regimes and kingdoms who sympathized with the Axis powers of the nineteen thirties and who have yet to admit that they did. But, and this but has enormous consequences, for once Israel joined the family of nations its rough hewn new leaders, of a sudden, found that they had to deal with all that hypocrisy and sophistication that they had left behind in the Diaspora.


Sabra leaders and diplomats became like the later Kikuyu tribe of Kenya after the Mau Mau revolt-“we have defeated British Imperialism, grown our hair long and taken oaths, it is time once again to put on suits, learn English and beat the white man at his own game.”


Once a cultural form is imprinted it takes generations to change and the norms of modern Israeli behavior, from a European or North American perspective, are still direct and lacking subtlety. There is a certain charm to it, once you have mastered the language and the local Mediterranean life style, but most foreigners just don’t get it. The late Prime Minister Rabin was hardly eloquent and Shamir before him was close to mute. Luckily, by 1948 there existed a growing minority of Western Jews, who with visions of a Third Jewish Commonwealth, had returned to the land of their forefathers.


Once these men and women entered Israeli society they often found, on the whole, that they were not the best kibbutzniks, farmers and soldiers, although many made noble attempts, but that on the whole they were better writers, administrators and advisors than their Eastern European, and Sabra employers, since they had come from precisely the world of the Gentiles of the West and which Israel was now so desirous of joining.


Behind the early rulers of Europe, after the fall of the Western Empire, there was many a Byzantine scribe. And so, with the fall of the British Empire and the establishment of the State of Israel the Western Jewish immigrant fulfills the role of these Byzantine scribes of bygone times.


In cultures established by new and vigorous “barbarian elites,” either tribal as with the Vandals or Visigoths after the fall of Rome, or self proclaimed like the early Zionists with their cult of the “natural,” we find that behind many great Israeli leaders, there have been a plethora of subdued Central European, English and North American Jews quietly preparing letters, speeches and analyses. Examples of these scribes are the Canadian secretary to the late David Ben Gurion and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s former American born spokesperson, David Bar Ilan. There are and were many, many others.


As the conquering Turks ravaged the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire, as the Slavic tribes pushed down from the north, as the rough, first pagan and then marginally Christian tribes of Vandals and Goths destroyed and then occupied the lands of the Roman Empire, each of these tribes established their newly established authority over the dead carcass of effete and often corrupt civilization that they had overcome. Once on their new thrones, chieftains, soon to be tribal kings, would turn to the wandering Byzantine scribe in order to administer their domains and communicate with the other, as yet unconquered powers on their newly acquired borders.


In parallel fashion, during late antiquity when the untutored and illiterate Bedouin camel nomads waged their holy war, emerging from the Arabian wastes as conquerors of the lands of the middle east in the name of a new monotheism, later to be called Islam, the administration of these lands was immediately put back into the hands of its former Byzantine subjects, Greek speaking administrators, many of whom eventually joined the religious community of their conquerors.


It has been argued that Islamic civilization, as opposed to Islam itself, was due to the followers of Mohammed’s speedy adoption of Greek Byzantine philosophy, literature, science, technology and forms of administration. There are many modern theorists who would argue that this was and remains Islamic civilization’s saving grace and this argument is the essence of the late historian Gustave von Grunebaum’s once classic, but now little read historical study, Medieval Islam.


The Byzantine scribe was a man of letters, of general cultivation and wide horizons, well read in the classics, conversant with geography, medicine and statecraft and often multi lingual. Since he was cut off from his own social origins by the conditions of his emigration after the fall of Constantinople, he had little or no local family or social network which would otherwise be the engine that could drive the hidden agenda of an extended kin group on the way up a social hierarchy of privilege and power. Such is the status of the skilled Western immigrant to Israel. His loyalty is unquestioned, because he (or she)  chose to emigrate. He is unhindered by conflict of interest, since he does not live and work among neighbors and family from childhood.


The more he learns about Israel and Israelis, especially the Sabras (and formerly the Eastern European elite network who dominated the country for years) the more he is valued by them; because he has more knowledge of the culture, language and thought patterns of Israel’s allies and trading partners in the West, than do those that employ him, for in reality he comes from their cultural world.


The Byzantine scribe advises the young statesmen. In Israel he feels uncomfortable posing in the limelight for a state, where he has, even after ten or twenty years, spent less than half or a quarter of his life. He is all too happy to be invisible but effective.


In the end, he is the quiet power behind the throne, transferring the accumulated lore of centuries of complex settled societies to late coming modernizers and by doing so, equalizing the balance between young and old cultures. Eventually there will be little need for him as more and more native born Israelis study and live abroad and come home again to positions of influence and power, having “tasted the West” and learnt its complex ways.


Scribal migration in the service of new political elites, has been one of the hidden patterns of history in this region for millennia, or at least since the rise of the agricultural and hierarchical civilizations of the ancient Near East and their periodic transformation by robust immigrants. It is a pattern that did not die out when the British, themselves masters of a waning empire, one whose proponents had boldly declared that it was greater than Rome and Constantinople, marched into Jerusalem in 1917 and like the Byzantines before them, who had unwittingly allowed the Slavs to settle their Balkan frontiers, by the stroke of a pen in the exchange of a letter from Lord Balfour, established the foundation of a new and vigorous Jewish democracy.



Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.

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