Commentaries about Hanukkah abound this year, from Hilary Krieger’s reminder in the New York Times that the holiday is about more than miraculous oil and plying children with presents to a typically obtuse Mondoweiss piece by Avigail Abarbanel decrying any celebration of Hanukkah as hypocritical because Israel is occupying the West Bank (but don’t worry, since Mondoweiss never conflates Judaism with Israel as we all know that criticism of the latter in no way ever has anything to do with the former). Tying in Krieger’s argument about what Hanukkah is really about with Abarbanel’s clumsy attempt to bash Israel over the head got me thinking that there is indeed a connection between Hanukkah and modern day Israel, but it is not the one that Abarbanel advances about Israeli behavior making Hanukkah unfit to be celebrated.
As Krieger points out, Hanukkah is actually about a revolt that paved the way for Jewish independence and freedom of worship, and the miracle of the oil burning for eight nights is only ancillary to the main story. Making Chanukkah primarily about lights burning in the Temple is the equivalent of celebrating on New Year’s Eve not because the calendar is about to change but because a giant ball is going to drop in Times Square. The reason Jews originally celebrated Hanukkah was because it represented the triumph of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel for the first time since the Babylonian expulsion four centuries earlier. Following hundreds of years of Judea being ruled by foreigners – Persians and Greeks – the Hasmoneans carried out a successful revolt against Judea’s Syrian Greek overlords and established a Jewish kingdom that lasted for a century before one side in the Judean civil war made the mistake of inviting the Roman general Pompey to settle things, which led to a Roman siege of Jerusalem and eventually Roman control over Judea. Hanukkah certainly has an important religious component in that it celebrates the end of Greek religious persecution – which, for those interested, is the only recorded instance of forced religious coercion by pagan conquerors in the ancient world – but just as vital is the celebration of Jewish political sovereignty and the establishment of a Jewish kingdom that was independent rather than a client of a larger empire. To me, Hanukkah has always been about this rather than about lights remaining kindled in the Temple.
Krieger mentions Maccabean religious zealotry and attacks on neighbors, and argues that these elements to the story require some Jewish introspection, as occurs on other Jewish holidays. The story is actually a lot more interesting than she details and requires vastly more real estate than the New York Times op-ed page provides. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Seleucids, they embarked on a mission to expand the borders of their new state. After the Seleucid empire broke apart, the Hasmoneans seized the opportunity to conquer the regions neighboring Judea, including the Galilee, Idumea, and Samaria, expanding into what is modern day Syria and Jordan. This expansion was not benign, however, as the Hasmoneans were not only looking to conquer territory but to create an explicitly Jewish kingdom. This meant forcing the local populations that they conquered to submit to conversion (which included being circumcised) or face expulsion, which was not exactly a great set of options. Over time, this enlarged kingdom became harder to defend and to govern, and the Judean political class divided into factions and civil war ensued. In many ways, what happened is reminiscent of Jack Snyder’s imperial overreach, and Jewish sovereignty was eventually snuffed out by the Romans.
So what’s the relevance of all this to modern day Israel? The reason Israel holds such meaning for many Jews around the world is because it represents the triumph of Jewish sovereignty in the historical Jewish homeland for the first time since the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks in the Hanukkah story and established the kingdom of Judea. In a sense, Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday most intimately connected to Israel and the Zionist dream, precisely because it mirrors the struggle to create the Jewish state and because it is a holiday that has powerful political meaning behind it rather than a holiday that is purely a religious one. Hanukkah represents Jewish political and military power and Jewish political independence, and it is something to be proud of and grateful for if you are Jewish and have any sense of Jewish history at all. The Hasmoneans and their fellow 2nd century BCE Judeans were able to establish a state despite the odds being heavily stacked against them, and it is tough to look at the Hanukkah story and not see the parallels to David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, and the other founding fathers of Israel.
Ultimately, however, as great as it must have been to establish Jewish sovereignty after centuries of foreign rule, the Jewish state in the Hanukkah story collapsed under its own weight due to poor decisions and infighting. So too, there are many dangers looming in Israel’s path, some of which are out of its control and some of which are very much of its own making. It should be obvious to everyone, particularly as the possible beginnings of a third intifada are just now emerging, that hanging onto the West Bank is a failed policy that is hanging around Israel’s neck like an albatross, and it is one that will continually put Israel’s status as a Jewish democratic state at risk. The more that Israeli policies anger Western states that do not have the same base of support for Israel that exists in the U.S., the more Israel will rely solely on the U.S., and that in itself will endanger Israeli sovereignty as it will become harder for Israel to chart its own independent path. Just as ancient Judea expanded beyond what it could reasonably control and descended into destructive factionalism and eventually civil war, modern day Israel does not quite appear to be in such dire straits but resembles this scenario in enough of a way as to be unsettling. Hanukkah should not prompt one to reject any celebration of the holiday because Jews once fought against foreign occupiers and Israel is now occupying the West Bank, but it should certainly prompt a recognition that there are some lessons to be learned from ancient Jewish history. Just like the Hanukkah story of the kingdom of Judea, which began so triumphantly but ended tragically, Israel is also currently headed down a path that it desperately needs to find a way around so that Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland is not once again interrupted.