The Troubling Link Between the Hanukkah Miracle and Modern Israeli Policy-making

Israelis may feel the need to stand up for what they believe in regardless of the circumstances, but it may be wiser not to.

Calev Ben Dor
Calev Ben-Dor
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) lights Hanukkah candles during a press conference at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem, on December 17, 2014.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) lights Hanukkah candles during a press conference at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem, on December 17, 2014.Credit: AFP
Calev Ben Dor
Calev Ben-Dor

For 2,000 years, Jews have emphasized different aspects of festivals to maintain their relevance, so when modern thinkers and leaders do it today, it comes as no surprise. Hanukkah, in particular, has had more facelifts than an aging D-list celebrity. Most modern thinkers discuss whether the Maccabees are closer to religious fundamentalists, French revolutionaries, modern day Israel Defense Forces soldiers, or proud Jews fighting a battle against an aggressive secular McWorld. Yet what fascinates me is how the "geostrategic lessons" of Hanukkah play out in contemporary Israeli consciousness and political policy-making.

The Al Hanissim prayer (we thank you for the miracles) read during the festival relates:

“You [God] in your abundant mercy rose up in their time of trouble, delivered the strong in the hands of the weak, the many in the hands of few, the impure in the hands of the pure, the wicked in the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones in the hands of those occupied with Torah.”

The message seems clear: God protects His people, especially when we fight for what is right. If justice is on our side, we should stand firm. However minimal our chances might seem we need not compromise our values. Because, with God's help, we will emerge victorious.

Indeed, the Hanukkah miracle sits subconsciously (and sometimes even consciously) in the minds of many Israelis as a model for successful policy making. Several years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu evoked the Maccabees when describing how Israel deals with geostrategic challenges.

“Israel is still surrounded by strong enemies, by new and dark empires that want to put out the light of our freedom and to once again uproot us from our land Then, even more than today, a small people stood against the might of a large and threatening empire, the Seleucid GreeksThen, like today, the significance of the battle much exceeded just our people, and instead influenced the ideals and values of major parts of humanity,” he said.

Drawing from these lessons, Netanyahu argued that “when a free people is willing to fight for its soul, when its willing to gird its strength and its wisdom, and to enlist all its strength in determined action, it is able to overcome evil and to win over the dark forces that threaten our existence.”

It is incumbent on Jews, as an ancient people for whom memory forms such a central component, to try and learn valuable lessons from our past. But history is varied and suggests myriad ways of understanding suitable policies for tough times.

For every Judah the Maccabee who successfully fought against the odds to free his people from an occupying empire (Seleucid-Greece), there is one Shimon Bar Kochba whose failed revolt against an occupying empire (Rome, circa 130 C.E.) led to mass slaughter and expulsion. Jewish history even provides an additional "model" in the form of Talmudic sage Yohanan ben Zakkai, who, when faced with a pitiless Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., smuggled himself out of the city to parlay with the Roman general, ultimately acquiescing to the Temple’s destruction in exchange for "Yavneh and its students."

In his book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," social anthropologist Jared Diamond explores the case of five small eastern European countries which – in the space of a decade – were faced with the overwhelming might of the Soviet armies and chose different responses. The small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania surrendered their independence in 1939 without a fight (a la ben Zakkai); Finland fought from 1939 to 40 and preserved its independence (a la Maccabees). Hungary, meanwhile, fought in 1956 and lost its independence (a la Bar Kochba).

Diamond raises the difficulty in judging which country was wiser, and doubts the possibility of predicting beforehand that only the Finns would "win" their gamble. He suggests that a crux of a society’s success or failure is knowing “which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values when times change” concluding that “societies and individuals that succeed may be those that have the courage to take those difficult decisions, and that have the luck to win their gambles.”

The story of Hanukkah is indeed inspiring. But using it as inspiration for contemporary political policies can be dangerous. Instead, we need a serious societal discussion in Israel over which core values to keep and which to replace in light of our constantly changing reality. And perhaps to pray that He who kept our ancestors safe bazman hazeh – in those days – will guide us and give us courage to make the correct decisions during these.

Calev Ben-Dor grew up and was educated in England before making aliyah in 2005. He has previously worked as an analyst for the Reut Institute and the Foreign Ministry’s Policy Planning Division and is currently Director of Research for BICOM. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and lectures and writes on topics of Jewish interest.

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