The untold story of Hanukka

‘The Hasmonean War was primarily directed against Jews and not against Greeks… meaning the Hellenistic Jews’ (Yeshayahu Leibowitz)

THIS WAS found in an underground cave tomb uncovered by workers widening a road in central Israel. The Hebrew inscription Hashmonaim appears on one of the boxes for human bones – the first evidence, archaeologists say, that the Hasmoneans, or Macccabees, who rebelled against Greek rule in the 2nd ce (photo credit: REUTERS)
THIS WAS found in an underground cave tomb uncovered by workers widening a road in central Israel. The Hebrew inscription Hashmonaim appears on one of the boxes for human bones – the first evidence, archaeologists say, that the Hasmoneans, or Macccabees, who rebelled against Greek rule in the 2nd ce
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Hanukka is a joyful holiday that commemorates a great Jewish victory over foreign forces. Young and old alike are familiar with the tale of the outnumbered Maccabees who fought against the heavily armed Greek forces, and the miracle of the rededication of the Temple, where sacred oil that should have lasted only for one day instead lasted for eight days.
Less well known is the back-story, so to speak, to the struggle that Hanukka actually depicts: the struggle of the Maccabees not only against the Greeks, but against the Hellenized Jews of Israel. These not only culturally identified with the Greeks, but actually encouraged them to strike at the institutions and the essence of traditional Jewish practice.
In other words, as painful as it is to acknowledge, Hanukka represents the reality of a semi-civil war among the Jews. How did this civil war play out? The Jewish aristocracy had increasingly become enamored with Greek culture, with its emphasis on physical beauty, sport, different dress, and a world view at odds with that of traditional Judaism.
Thanks to their wealth and influence, they succeeded in securing the permission of Antiochus, the Greek ruler of the Levant, in building a gymnasium in Jerusalem. This in turn became the wedge for the attempt to attack and to supplant traditional Jewish practice, such as the Temple ritual, study, and commandments, including the commandment of circumcision.
While this was destructive in and of itself, the Hellenistic Jewish elite committed the great sin and error of actually encouraging the Greeks to impose sanctions on the traditional Jews. In his seminal work, The Land of Israel during the Second Temple Period,” Prof.
Ze’ev Safrai writes: “From the standpoint of the Greek-Seleucid regime, the decision to impose religious decrees is out of the ordinary.
“The regime favored and promoted Greek culture, but never enforced it…In these circumstances the use of police measures to enforce Hellenist religion and culture was very strange. It appears that the initiative of the decrees came from the radical Hellenists.
Menelaus [a leader of the Hellenist Jews] and his friends appeared before the king and convinced him to impose religious decrees in order to speed up the Hellenization process.”
Why is this less noted aspect of the Hanukka story so important? This is because, sadly, it is totally relevant to what is happening in the Jewish world today.
Today there are the traditionalists, better known as Zionists, seeking to chart Israel’s path as a Jewish and democratic state, and to have that charting determined by the citizens of Israel and their elected government, in fully sovereign and independent fashion.
Then there are those who, because they are not in control of the mechanisms of power in Israel and even more so don’t have the support of the people, seek to influence, change or subvert governmental decisions and policies through the use of foreign money, foreign influence and foreign pressure.
Their goal is to see their vision of what Israel should be like take hold, regardless of whether it is the vision of a majority of Israelis themselves. Bereft of popular support among the Israeli public, these groups turn to sympathetic foreign sources for financial and political support.
Today we see such domestically discredited groups as Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Rabbis for Human Rights and dozens more that secure enormous sums from the US-based New Israel Fund, European governments and government-affiliated NGOs.
These small NGOs reflect and mirror the agendas of these foreign entities, each frustrated by their inability to have the Israeli government do their bidding.
Unfortunately, the Hanukka story has an additional very troubling aspect to it, one that should send shivers down the spine of all of us who care deeply about Israel. The fact is that the Hellenists opened a Pandora’s box that ultimately turned against them.
As Josephus recounts, Antiochus first invaded Jerusalem (after he withdrew from Egypt for fear of encountering a Roman force). He did so at the invitation of the Hellenists and “he took the city without fighting, those of his own party opening the gates to him.” Having plundered and slain many of the traditional opposition, Antiochus then withdrew from Jerusalem back to Antioch (in modern day Syria).
However, as Josephus notes, Antiochus returned on his own terms. “Now it came to pass, after two years… that the king came up to Jerusalem, and, pretending peace, he got possession of the city by treachery; at which time he spared not so much as those that admitted him into it…led by his covetous inclination… and in order to plunder its wealth, he ventured to break the league he had made in order to plunder the Temple.”
In this second invasion, Antiochus turned against Hellenist and traditional Jew alike and for the first time plundered the Temple.This of course prompted the uprising of Mattathias and his sons, led by Judah.
The historic lesson of Hanukka is simply that once foreign forces are drawn in to domestic disputes, there is a great danger that all can be lost. By making the proverbial deal with the devil, the Hellenists were complicit in their own destruction, because they had no control over the agenda or motives of the foreigners whose help they sought.
It is no different today. Anti-Zionist Israeli NGOs are happy to share the policies and attitudes of foreign entities, and are happy to get the financial and operational support of these European governments and their related NGOs, as well as the New Israel Fund. In doing so, they are playing with fire, for their patrons have their own agendas, which could be even more threatening to Israel’s welfare than those of the NGOs themselves.
Regardless, it behooves those of us who believe in the Zionist enterprise both to call out the actions of the Israeli NGOs and their foreign enablers. In doing so, we will have internalized the history and hidden significance of Hanukka.
On this Hanukka, let us not only appreciate the great deeds of the Maccabees, but also understand that what the Maccabees opposed we also face today in our midst.
May we be blessed to have their clarity in perceiving our dangers, their courage to confront their foes, and their success in protecting the Israel and all who cherish her.
The writer is chairman of Im Tirtzu.