As Jews around the world gather this week to celebrate Hanukka, it is worth taking a moment to consider an aspect of the holiday that is often overlooked.
Both in ancient and modern times, the miracles of Hanukka have been directly associated with Judea, Samaria and Gaza, those portions of the Land of Israel that the world is so keen to take away from us.
Now, in particular, when international pressure is mounting on the Jewish state to forgo these areas, it is all the more important that we appreciate the deep connection between the Festival of Lights and Israel’s heartland.
Consider the following: many critical chapters in the Maccabean wars, when God “delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few,” took place in the territories that the world now accuses us of “occupying” and “colonizing.”
In 166 BCE, at Beit Horon, which is west of what is now Ramallah, Judah the Maccabee defeated the Seleucid governor Seron and routed his forces in a crushing defeat. This victory followed shortly after Judah and his men had vanquished Apollonius, the Seleucid commander, at Ma’aleh Levona near Shechem (Nablus) in Samaria.
In Beit Zecharia, in what is now Gush Etzion, Judah’s brother Elazar was killed when confronting elephants deployed by Antiochus against the Jewish rebels.
And it was in the hills around Beit El that many of the Hasmoneans found refuge from the Seleucid tyrant’s forces of oppression.
Indeed, in Samaria one can visit the remains of fortresses that were erected by the Hasmonean dynasty, such as the one on the Horn of Sartaba, a mountain overlooking the Jordan Valley, where the Alexandrion fortress was built by King Alexander Yanai.
The list goes on, and it underlines the incontrovertible fact that Mattathias and the Maccabees fought to expel foreign invaders from Judea and Samaria and reclaim this central part of our ancestral patrimony.
All this took place some 800 years before Islam was founded, and more than two millennia prior to the establishment of the United Nations, giving the lie to claims that Israel has no right to these areas.
Gaza, too, played a starring role in the Maccabean wars. In the year 145 BCE, Jonathan, Judah the Maccabee’s brother, attacked Gaza and forced its population to sue for peace, as recounted in the First Book of Maccabees (11:62).
His brother Simon the Maccabee, who succeeded him, later captured Gaza and pacified its hostile population, which had been agitating against the Judean kingdom. He sent Jews to settle Gaza, and even built himself a home there, sending a clear message that the Jewish people were there to stay.
In our own generation, Hanukka has provided us with still another connection to Judea and Samaria, as well as an additional reason to rejoice.
For it was precisely 40 years ago, on a cold and wet Hanukka day, that a small band of Jewish pioneers closed a historical circle and renewed Jewish life in the hills of Samaria.
The drama began shortly after the Yom Kippur War, when a group started by Rabbi Menachem Felix and Benny Katzover sought to create a Jewish community in the area. Seven times they climbed hilltops, erected tents and tried to create a permanent Jewish presence in Samaria, and seven times the government sent the army to remove them.
Finally, on Hanukka in December 1975, their eighth try proved successful when thousands of Jews from across the country converged on an abandoned Ottoman-era train station in Sebastia.
The government, headed by then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and defense minister Shimon Peres, relented and agreed to the establishment of a temporary community at the site of the Kadum military base, 11 kilometers west of Shechem. Thirty families moved in, and despite living under extremely difficult and primitive conditions, they held firm.
Out of that fortitude later arose Jewish cities, towns and villages such as Itamar, Kedumim, Sha’arei Tikva, Ariel and Elon Moreh, with Samaria now home to tens of thousands of inhabitants in dozens of thriving Jewish communities.
More than 2,500 years ago, the prophet Jeremiah (31:4) foretold, “You shall again plant vineyards upon the mountains of Samaria,” and that verse has literally come to life, as wineries in the region now produce award-winning Chardonnays and Chenin Blancs.
For Jewish life to have been renewed in Samaria despite the many daunting diplomatic and political obstacles that have stood in its way is itself a Hanukka miracle.
In his work Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wrote that on every Jewish holiday, we merit the same divine illumination that took place at the time of the miracle being recounted.
In this sense, Hanukka connects history and destiny, as we recall the triumphs of our collective past and seek to infuse our present with the same level of meaning and sanctity.
So as we light the candles this week and thank God for delivering us from our foes, let us also bear in mind a very important truth: the Maccabees cherished Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and the entire Land of Israel. Shouldn’t we? ■ The writer served as deputy director of communications under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.