History Lessons in Humility for Netanyahu

When Prime Minister Netanyahu invokes 'the spirit of the Maccabees,' he probably isn't thinking about their respectful cultivation of the superpower of the day; but he should.

"I pledge before you, in the spirit of the Maccabees," Benjamin Netanyahu solemnly declared in the central synagogue of Rome on Sunday night, "that we will not allow Iran to achieve military nuclear capability."

This writer is not one to dismiss as obsessive or deprecate as excessive Netanyahu's bellicose threats and warnings against Iran. Nor do I see any profit in quibbling over whether or to what extent Holocaust analogies apply to the Bomb. Netanyahu, deeply aware of the lessons of the past, genuinely ponders his own role and responsibility in the sweep of Jewish history. "Unlike others," he told the Rome congregation after lighting Hanukkah lights with them, "when I see that interests vital for the security of Israel's citizens are endangered, I will not be silent. It's easy enough to be silent and receive pats on the back from the international community"

All in "the spirit of the Maccabees." But for a serious (second-generation) historian like Netanyahu, who believes, rightly, that he is making history, and indeed for the rest of us too, it might be worth pondering the essence of this alluring phrase, "the spirit of the Maccabees," and considering what in it could be profitably analogous to the contemporary challenges facing Israel.

Of course the spirit of the Maccabees includes personal, physical bravery of the highest order and tactical, battlefield adroitness that enabled the Maccabees to defeat much larger and better equipped Greek armies time and again. But what did Judas Maccabeus do the moment he had won respite from the fighting? It was his last act on this earth, and arguably it had a more lasting effect on the future of Judea even than his valiant military victories.

In the words of the Book of Maccabees [1.8], "Now Judas heard of the fame of the Romans, that they were very strong and were well-disposed toward all who made an alliance with them, that they pledged friendship to those who came to them, and that they were very strong. Men told him of their wars and of the brave deeds which they were doing among the Gauls and what they had done in the land of Spain"

"So Judas chose [representatives], and sent them to Rome to establish friendship and alliance and to free themselves from the yoke; for they saw that the kingdom of the Greeks was completely enslaving Israel"

"They entered the Senate Chamber and spoke as follows: 'Judas, who is also called Maccabeus, and his brothers and the people of the Jews have sent us to you to establish alliance and peace with you'"

"The proposal pleased them and this is a copy of the letter which they wrote in reply on bronze tablets and sent to Jerusalem [The text of the tablets is from Josephus]: 'Concerning a league of assistance and friendship with the nation of the Jews. It shall not be lawful for any that are subject to the Romans to make war with the nation of the Jews, nor to assist those that do so, either by sending them corn, or ships, or money; and if any attack be made upon the Jews, the Romans shall assist them, as far as they are able; and again, if any attack be made upon the Romans, the Jews shall assist them. And if the Jews have a mind to add to, or to take away anything from, this league of assistance, that shall be done with the common consent of the Romans."

Josephus records this episode approvingly. Not every historian agreed. Two thousand years later, Heinrich Graetz suggested that the overture to Rome was of "doubtful wisdom". He saw it as an invitation to the rising empire to mix into the domestic affairs of the small Jewish state, a process that ended in disaster. What is indubitable, at any rate, is that through much of the Second Temple period that now approached its apogee, surrounding powers – Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, etc. – related to Judea with the appropriate circumspection due to a Roman ally/protectorate.

In other words, "the spirit of the Maccabees" included, beyond martial valor, diplomatic daring based on a broad but humble perception of the international community and the important player within it. Surely there is a modern-day lesson there, to be learned with equal discernment and humility.