Fundamentally Freund: Hanukka and the spirit of Samaria

Samaria is now home to tens of thousands of inhabitants in dozens of thriving Jewish communities.

Samaria mountains 521 (photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
Samaria mountains 521
(photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
Across the long, winding and often painful sweep of Jewish history, the festival of Hanukka has proven to be a reliable companion.
Despite the passage of over two millennia, the heroism of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil, together with the deliverance from foreign occupation and the liberation of the Holy Temple, have been a faithful source of hope and determination under even the most trying of circumstances.
But it is in our generation that Hanukka has provided us with still another reason to rejoice, an additional marvel to add to the list that we commemorate each and every year. For it was 38 years ago, on a cold and wet Hanukka day, that a small band of Jewish pioneers closed a historical circle and healed a national wound that had lain open for centuries by renewing 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 where the prophets of old had once prophesied and the kings of Israel had ruled. Seven times they clambered up hilltops, put up 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 (of all people!), relented and agreed to the establishment of a temporary community at the site of the Kadum military base, 11 km west of Shechem (Nablus). 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, Shaarei Tikvah, Ariel and Elon Moreh, with Samaria now home to tens of thousands of inhabitants in dozens of thriving Jewish communities.
In 2005, during the expulsion from Gush Katif, four communities in northern Samaria were also uprooted. But that setback has not dented the continued growth of the Jewish presence in the region. Over 2,500 years ago, Jeremiah (31:4) foretold that, “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. Samaria is home to prominent yeshivot, fine schools and even a newly-accredited university, as well as large industrial parks and businesses. For the Jews of Samaria to have accomplished so much in so little time, with so many daunting diplomatic and political obstacles standing in their way, truly is a Hanukka miracle worth celebrating.
And lest you think this would constitute politicization of the holiday, think again. It is a historical fact that the Maccabees were observant Jews who undertook construction projects in Judea and Samaria and dreamt of asserting Jewish sovereignty over the entire Land of Israel.
They were religious-nationalists whose modern-day incarnations are those much of the Western press and the international community just love to bash and demonize. Consider the following: In the year 145 BCE, more than seven centuries before Islam was founded, the Hasmonean king 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, who succeeded him, later captured Gaza and pacified its 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 Jews were there to stay. In Samaria, one can find the remains of fortresses that were erected by the Hasmonean dynasty, such as the one on the Horn of Sarbata, a mountain overlooking the Jordan Valley, where the Alexandrion fortress was built by King Alexander Yanai. And Yochanan Hyrcanus, Judah the Maccabee’s nephew, is well known for his military campaign against the Seleucids in Samaria, where he liberated the city of Shechem and restored it to Jewish control.
Clearly, Hanukka is about far more than just the victories of the past, which continue to illuminate our present. It is also a sacred triumph, one that in the modern era is embodied by the spirit of Samaria, which continues to breathe renewed life and purpose into our national rebirth. As the heroes of Hanukka did long ago, and their 20th-century heirs in Samaria have demonstrated, a little Jewish fortitude can go a very long way.
The Maccabees loved and fought for the entire Land of Israel. Shouldn’t we?