Amid the 1948 war that would establish the State of Israel and dispossess the Palestinians (celebrated by Israel as its War of Independence and mourned by Palestinians as al Nakba, or “the catastrophe”), the great German-Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt warned that a Jewish state established in this way would “degenerate” into a “Sparta.” She was characteristically prescient, as the two have a great deal in common.
Both Sparta and Israel were founded through the conquest of territory and through the subjugation and dispossession of the native population. The Spartans conquered the Southern Greek lands of Laconia and Messenia, subjugating and dispossessing the natives. The Jewish Zionists conquered Palestine in 1948 and 1967, subjugating and dispossessing the Arab natives. For an outstanding overview of this, see Murray Rothbard’s “War Guilt in the Middle East.”
Both Sparta and Israel established a permanent military occupation over the native population, which was oppressed as a legally persecuted underclass in an apartheid state. The natives vanquished by the Spartans became “helots,” locked in a hereditary status somewhere between serfdom and state slavery. The hereditary status of Palestinian Arabs range from second-class citizenship in Israel to being inmates in an open-air prison camp in the Gaza Strip.
The helots were and the Palestinians are horribly economically oppressed. The labor and harvests of the helots were pitilessly exploited and extracted. The Palestinians are economically strangulated by blockades and other restrictions and by continued Israeli settlement building and other forms of dispossession. The main difference here is that the objective of the Spartans was colonial exploitation, while the original (and likely continuing) objective of the Israeli state was ethnic cleansing. For a thorough, scholarly demonstration of this, see The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Israeli historian Ilan Peppe.
Sparta’s helots were subject to ritual and arbitrary humiliation and violence. Every autumn, as a rite of passage, elite Spartan youth in the state’s “Crypteia” institution were challenged to ambush and murder helots as a rite of passage.
As the ancient Greek biographer Plutarch related:
“By this ordinance, the magistrates despatched privately some of the ablest of the young men into the country, from time to time, armed only with their daggers, and taking a little necessary provision with them; in the daytime, they hid themselves in out-of-the-way places, and there lay close, but in the night issued out into the highways, and killed all the Helots they could light upon; sometimes they set upon them by day, as they were at work in the fields, and murdered them. (…) And Aristotle, in particular, adds, that the ephori, so soon as they were entered into their office, used to declare war against them, that they might be massacred without a breach of religion.”
This tradition maintained the subjugation of the helots by terrorizing them into submission and by inculcating habitual brutality in future leaders of the state.
The Palestinians are subject to arbitrary humiliation and violence so recurrent that it might as well be ritual:delivered by the Israeli Defense Force at ubiquitous checkpoints, torture prisons, and “administrative detention camps.” The IDF also tries to terrorize the Palestinians into submission through periodic neighborhood-leveling raids and “canned hunt” massacres. Israel habituates its own future leaders to brutality by filtering its youth through the IDF with its near-universal draft.
Sparta and Israel were both impelled to become thoroughly martial states by their need to periodically bring their helots to heel. Sparta had to maintain a permanent war footing in order to crush the helot uprisings (like the one that followed the great earthquake of 464 BC) that periodically erupted throughout its history. And Israel has taken a permanent war footing in order to crush recurrent Palestinian intifadas.
The helots featured prominently in Sparta’s foreign policy. Sparta was always terrified of foreign powers offering the helots support and emancipation, as Athens did in 425 BC, and of the helots becoming a “fifth column” of such powers. Israel has always had the same fears regarding the Palestinians and regional Muslim powers. In the case of Israel, this has dictated an extremely belligerent foreign policy, contributing to wars, hot and cold, direct and proxy, against Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and more.
But Israel has something extra that makes it infinitely more dangerous than Sparta was. Because of the great influence of the “Israel-first” neocons and the Israel Lobby over US foreign policy, Israeli belligerence has a “global superpower” amplifier, through which it has helped to upend and devastate the entire Muslim world.
Sparta’s warlike nature resulted in a small empire that grew into a sizable one after it won the Peloponnesian War against the Athenian Empire. Israel’s led it to the further conquest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights, and (temporarily) the Sinai Peninsula. And the US, largely on Israel’s behalf, has propped up despotic regimes throughout the Muslim world that are supportive of or at least tolerant of Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians, including in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan.
To keep its helotry, Sparta was impelled to become a complete garrison state. It was famous throughout the ancient world for its totalitarianism. In order to ensure the martial vigor of its stock, the Spartans maintained a rigorous eugenics program, casting “unfit” infants into a chasm. Childhood for the Spartan citizen was one long boot camp, and adulthood one long military campaign. Work and commerce were denigrated and legislated against as unfit pursuits for soldier-citizens. The individual was considered of no importance, except in his usefulness to the State. As Herbert Spencer wrote:
“…it is noteworthy that in the most warlike Greek state, Sparta, not only was the condition of the helot more abject than elsewhere, but the Spartan master himself was deprived in a greater degree than elsewhere of the power to order his own movements as he pleased.”
To keep his slaves, the Spartan had to become one.
In all these regards, Sparta was perhaps the definitive case of what Spencer called the “militant” type of society, as contrasted with the “voluntary” type.
The Spartan system was a major inspiration for Plato’s utopia, and thus an indirect inspiration for innumerable modern totalitarian schemes.
Aside from its universal conscription, Israel has not yet gone down this road with regard to its Jewish citizenry; although its recent hard-right turn toward bigoted jingoism and against “traitors” is foreboding. For more on this, see Justin Raimondo’s review of Max Blumenthal’s book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. But its martial character has been hugely corrupting and distorting for its economy, which is dominated by defense spending and addicted to its billions in military and financial aid from the US. For more on this, see Raimondo’s article “Israel: A Socialist Sparta.”
Arendt warned that an Israel born of dispossession and hostility would:
“…degenerate into one of those small warrior tribes about whose possibilities and importance history has amply informed us since the days of Sparta.”
What she was probably referring to is the widely attested fact that the life of Sparta was grim, cruel, and devoid of loveliness. Unlike Athens, it left no great cultural legacy, but only a negative one: fodder for totalitarian dreams and war-glorifying Hollywood movies like 300.
The Israel of today may leave a similar legacy, unless its people start seriously resisting their government’s brutalities, and work toward restitution and reconciliation. But this may never happen, unless the American people start seriously resisting Washington’s unconditional support for the Israeli state.
Israel must free its serfs to get off its road to garrison state serfdom.
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Thank you for reading. I work at the Mises Institute where I run the Mises Academy, an e-learning program for Austrian economics and libertarian political philosophy. I am a columnist for Antiwar.com and my essays have appeared at Mises.org, LewRockwell.com, The Ron Paul Institute, and David Stockman’s Contra Corner. I have given lectures and conducted interviews for the Mises Institute and appeared on The Scott Horton Show and The Tom Woods Show. You can find all of my essays, lectures, and interviews at DanSanchez.me, you can follow me via Twitter, Facebook, TinyLetter, and Medium, and you can email me at dan-at-mises.org.