Until now, Twitter has been my most important social media resource for promoting my journalism and blog posts. Given the turmoil there, I’ve created a Mastodon account. If you’re on an instance, please Follow me. Promise I’ll follow you back.
Hanukah, if you follow the conventional view, is a holiday celebrating Jewish freedom. It marks a miraculous victory by Judean forces against a powerful foreign invader who sullied the Temple and sought to enslave the Jews. Zionism has foisted a number of these versions of history upon us; co-opting the holiday, transforming it into a celebration of Israeli national identity: just as the Maccabees liberated themselves from Greek rule and its Hellenist collaborators, so Israel liberated itself from British rule. Just as the ancient Hasmoneans established Jewish sovereignty, so Zionism succeeded in establishing a Jewish national state.
That’s the legend. Some of you cinephiles old enough will recall the memorable line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” That’s the case with Hanukah. It, and much of ancient Jewish history is shrouded in legend; and much of the legend is wrong. Much of it is refracted through a lens of modern necessity. We dress up the past to serve the needs of the present. So Zionism has appropriated the past in service to its own national vision. However, by creating a false version of the past, it has exposed its own weakness.
While the Maccabees did fight and win a battle against Antiochus IV, it ushered in a short era of Judean greatness. Over time, the Hasmoneans became as corrupt and violent as the Greeks they vanquished. Near the end, they themselves invited a new foreign invader to maintain their own tyrannical regime. Rome eventually ended the Hasmonean dynasty. A bitter irony for those who had won the original battle, only to lose a war to a different foreign conqueror.
The two Books of Maccabees were omitted from the Biblical canon by the Talmudic rabbis who formalized it. Though there is speculation about the reasons for its exclusion, there is one persuasive theory. It suggests the rabbis–who survived the disastrous Judean revolts against the Romans, which concluded with the destruction of the Temple, the razing of Jerusalem, and dispersion of many of its inhabitants–found that it offered a destructive model. Their role was to devise a long-term strategy to ensure Jewish survival. In doing so, they created a (more or less) centralized set of sacred texts, alongside a decentralized communal structure, which permitted diversity and maximum flexibility for the far-flung Diasporic Jewish communities. For two millenia, it was the Jewish Diaspora which saved the Jewish people. As such, the rabbis would have been loathe to canonize books which celebrated a dynasty founded in a violent revolt, and later vanquished amidst its own corruption and brutality.
DONATE: As the year comes to a close, please donate (via Paypal) to support Tikun Olam. It offers you breaking news Israeli censors and the security services desperately want to conceal. It is a still, small Jewish voice in a desert of Judeo-supremacism.
Nevertheless, Zionism was in need of heroes. It needed a history that ratified its own ambitions. So it turned to the Maccabees and “printed the legend.” But today, we are not bound by Zionism or its mythmaking. In fact, analyzing the distortions it brought to Jewish history exposes its contradictions.
Archaeology has also played a critical role in Israeli mythmaking. Yigal Yadin’s famous discoveries of the Qumran Scrolls and excavations at Masada, offered a narrative of militant heroism and ultimate self-sacrifice during the Judean revolt against Rome. He also promoted Josephus’ now discredited myth of the mass suicide of Masada’s defenders in the face of certain death at the hands of the Roman legions. There is little credible evidence supporting Josephus’ account. But Zionism needed a heroic myth to fuel its own national ambitions. So it was not averse to falsifying (or “embellishing” depending on your view) history in service to its vision. However, once a people comes to believe its myths, it will make disastrous decisions based on false assumptions of its own power and virtue.
There were two factions in ancient Judea fighting for domination: the Hellenizers, who sought to integrate Judaism with the prevailing Hellenist culture; and the Hasmoneans, a fundamentalist movement seeking to retain ancient traditions and to purify Judaism of any foreign influence. Similarly, there were two factions within Zionism struggling for dominance: the cultural Zionists active in the half-century before World War II, who rejected the primacy of a Jewish nation-state and believed in peaceful co-existence with the native Palestinians; and the political Zionists whose goal was creating a national state. They understood that this would bring them into conflict with the indigenous inhabitants, and that they would have to dominate them by force of arms. This mirrors the Hasmonean approach as well.
The Holocaust ended this struggle. Those favoring accommodation were drowned out by the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry. The victorious political Zionists then transformed their own version of Jewish history into the prevailing narrative: the same history taught to many of us in Hebrew school or summer camps.
Today’s Israel is the outcome of a movement that believed its own myths. One that transformed itself into the very corrupt, brutalist regime the Hasmoneans had been. Israel, in particular its incoming government, embodies the paranoia, xenophobia, militarism, and fundamentalism of the ancient Maccabees. It also parallels the end stage of the royal dynasty, in its reliance on the military weaponry and global dominance of a superpower ally.
Zionism today is a form of rejection of Yavneh’s Disaporic Judaism. It boasts of the centrality and supremacy of Israel to Jewish peoplehood. But it’s critical to remember which side won out in after the suppression of the last Judean revolt.
We have already seen in that ancient history, what happens when Jews resort to military might to assert their sovereignty; and what happens when Judaism becomes centralized in a single place under a single dominant theology or political regime. Regimes like the fascist government Israel has elected will, in the long-term, end in disaster both for Israel and the Jewish people. Just as the Maccabean dynasty did for ancient Judeans.
I’ve written many Hanukah posts over the past twenty years. Here are a few. I especially recommend the first one as an offering an alternative spiritual approach to Hanukah: