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(photo credit: AP [file])
What induced Antiochus Epiphanes to attempt to eradicate Judaism? Some speculate that he had his own political motives. However, he initially had good relations with the Jews who had helped him take Jerusalem from his rival, the Egyptian Ptolemy. The chronicler of that era, Josephus Flavius mentions that Antiochus initially granted Jews the right to keep their laws. (Josephus Flavius, Antiquities, Book XII, chapter 3:3) He had also decreed that the Temple of Jerusalem continue to be respected by all as a Jewish institution under Jewish auspices. Furthermore, the attempt to eradicate an existing nation by outlawing their religious practices was unprecedented.
One might presume that all of Antiochus's predecessors who had ruled over the Land of Israel for over 150 years since the conquest of Alexander the Great, had themselves, imagined forcing Hellenism and idolatry, the universal creeds of the time, upon the Jews. All other nations readily accepted Hellenism, so naturally the question arose, what about the Jews?
The Jews for the most part were left alone to practice their faith and live their way of life. The Greeks initially on favorable terms with the Jews, had also understood that they were steadfast in their beliefs, and there was a futility of attempting to force them to accept other creeds and practices.
However, as Antiochus Epiphanes ruled, the numbers of Jews who had embraced Hellenism were increasing. Those Jews known as, mityavnim sought to popularize Hellenism among the Jews. The Book of Maccabees quotes the Hellenists who proclaimed, "let us go out and make a covenant with the heathen around us." (Maccabees 1:11)
As two brothers, both mityavnim, and heirs to the position of the High Priesthood feuded for that position, one of the brothers, Menelaus, went to the emperor and told him that the mityavnim were "desirous to leave the laws of their country, and the Jewish way of living according to them, to follow the king's laws, and the Grecian way of living" (Antiquities, book 12, Chapter 5:1). He then proposed the construction of a Greek style stadium in Jerusalem, to which the emperor consented.
When Antiochus eventually issued his infamous decrees outlawing Jewish practices, the Jewish Hellenists readily consented. "They (the mityavnim) profaned the Sabbath and sacrificed to heathen altars" (Maccabees 1:43).
IT IS plausible that Antiochus was influenced by the existence of the mityavnim from whom he might have perceived that the Jews' tenacity and resolve could actually be broken. If some Jews could accept Hellenism, maybe they all could. However, the Jews proved him wrong.
There have been similar situations facing the Jews in their history. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet regime banned Jewish observances and closed Jewish houses of worship. Similar to Antiochus, their intent was to eliminate Judaism by destroying its spiritual sources. Jewish assimilation in the Soviet Union was on the increase. Furthermore, there was a comparatively small but vocal Jewish wing of the Communist Party, which in 1918 passed a resolution that called for "suspending the operations of Jewish institutions" within Jewish communities. A section of the Jewish communists, known as the Yevsektzia, also zealously aided efforts against Judaism in Russia. They helped the regime close religious institutions, and informed on those Jews who continued Jewish observances clandestinely. The Soviet authorities were also no doubt influenced by their modern day mityavnim.
However, during the difficult years of Soviet rule, courageous efforts among Jews who acted as modern-day Maccabees, persevering to preserve their heritage, bore outstanding results. Today there are multitudes of dedicated and observant Jews from the Russian republics in Israel, and other communities worldwide.
PRESENTLY, THE world watches the nation of Israel. As nations line up to pressure and demand more Israeli concessions, what if the people of Israel held their ground? What if they categorically said no to a Palestinian state and to the pressure? What if they proclaimed that they have but one country while the Arabs have virtually unlimited territory? What if they stated that no nation can be compelled to facilitate the creation of an entity that would continue to oppose and act against its very existence? If the Jews were unmovable, world reaction might be different.
Instead, President George W. Bush, Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, the EU, and various other world leaders speak of visions of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, although there is no tangible sign that these visions have any value.
But when many in the Israeli media and Knesset, along with American Jewish leaders utter the same lines, and espouse the same positions, what reaction from world leaders should one expect?
The pressure we face may not be so much about George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, the EU and the UN, as about an internal Jewish issue of self image; of how Jews perceive themselves within the global community.
Will events of the modern times compel Jews to seek to merge with the international community at the cost of imperiling the well-being of the Jewish state? Now is the time for modern Maccabees to stand up.
The writer is the author of The Cantonists: The Jewish Children's Army of the Tsar recently released by Devora Publishing.
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