By Ervin Birnbaum
The Chanukka story contains a significant completely overlooked angle -- namely its crucial relevance to our very own days. In historic perspective we see two "rights" emerging from Chanukka, that become involved in a titanic struggle with each other. In order to appreciate what the two "rights" are, we need to briefly begin the story several decades prior to the Maccabean uprising.
For clarity's sake we go back to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, signaling the collapse of the huge empire. Two of his generals divided the spoils between them. Ptolemy took the posessions south of Israel, focused on Egypt. Seleucus posessed the territory north of Israel, from Syria to the borders of India. As was so common throughout history, the Land of Israel became the battleground between these two powers. By 200 BCE the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III, also called the Great, wrested the Land of Israel for good from the Ptolemais in the Battle of Banyas. To the Jews in Israel, settled mainly around Jerusalem, it was of little consequence who was the overlord of the Land. Both empires were deeply Hellenized, under the impact of Greek civilization. Both were at peace with Judea, respecting the difference of its traditions and way of life. Josephus portrays Antiochus as friendly to the Jews, lowering their taxes, and letting them live "according to the law of their forefathers", and even resettling 2,000 Jewish families from Babylon in Judea.
Not long thereafter Antiochus the Great became involved in a conflict with a fledgling Eurepean power, the Romans, in his attempt to regain Alexander the Great's European possessions. The Romans would not allow the spread of Seleucid influence in Europe. In the ensuing Battle of Magnesia between the two superpowers in 192 BCE, Antiochus's 70,000 troops were decisively beaten by a Roman force of 30,000. According to the Alexandrian historian, Appian, Antiochus had to yield his 200 remaining elephants (the "tanks" of those days), most of his ships, an enormous financial indemnity and 20 hostages to the victorious Romans. Among the hostages was his son, who eventually became known as Antiouchus IV of the Maccabees.
Young Antiouchus in Rome was royally treated. He was allowed to take advantage of all the splendor of the scintillating and dynamic metropolis. The great forum and the magnificent boulevards awakened his unbounded admiration. The gladiatorial combats and the precision drills of the centurions made the young man understand how a Roman force could beat a Seleucid army more than double its size. Taking in that unbounded power, the skill, dedication and vitality of the Roman Legions, coupled with the political and administrative skills of the Roman Senate and its appointed Consuls, the ceremonials of the Vestal Virgins and its luxurious religious festivities, pervaded him with a sense that no power like the Roman power has ever surfaced on our globe.
Five years after young Antiochus's confinement in his glorious captivity, his father Antiochus the Great died. An elder brother of his was killed. Now came the turn of Antiochus IV to rule. The Romans had released him and offered him royal accompaniment to reach the capitol of the Seleucid Empire, where he ascended the throne.
Antiochus IV returned from Rome with the utter conviction that it is only a matter of time before he will have to face the Romans in battle as his father did. Soon events proved to him that the Romans are taking posession of Ptolemaic Egypt and are treating him, the Seleucid king, as an underling. His experience in Rome taught him that to have any chance of success in face of that monstrous European military super-machine, he must forge his country into a solidly unified front. He was convinced that for this it was supremely important to unite all of his subjects. Such union meant one nationality, one religion, one culture, one loyalty. He had no problem with most of his subject nations. They were idoloters, reveling in the loose morals of the Hellenic civilization that Antiochus enthusiastically embraced and they readily seemed to follow him. Only one nation was radically different: the Jews.
Antiochus IV, also called Epiphanes (the Glorious), was determined.to squeeze the Jews into his phalanx in order to forge a solid wall of resistance against the Romans. He completely reversed his predecessors' lenient policy toward them. The story is well known. He forbade practices of the Jewish tradition on pain of death.Study of the Torah was forbidden. A statue of Zeus ws installed in the Holy Temple. Jews were forced to sacrifice to the multitude of idols placed in the heart of Jewish settlements. Force, oppression, brutality became the order of the day in the obsessive drive of Antiochus to stand up to the might of the Romans with success.
A picture emerges of Antiochus who did not act as a bigot, an antisemite, a racist, driven by unreasonable hatreds, but rather a person who had rational aspirations to safeguard his empire -- an aspiration to which he was logically entitled. How than do we react to the moment when Mattathias and his five sons, gathered in Modin, began the Revolt that leads to years of Jewish resistance in order to safeguard the Jewish People, its Tradition and way of life?
What emerges are two "rights" posited one against another. Antiochus has a right to safeguard his empire. The Maccabbees have a right to safeguard the Jewish People.
What makes this a fascinating observation is that on that score the world changed little in 2081 years, from the day the Maccabean Revolt exploded to this day. For today too we see two rights embraced in a struggle on the question of what kind of a policy to adopt vis-a-vis Iran, a dangerous atomic power emerging on the globe. The USA is sick and tired of being the policeman of the world. Since World War II ended, it was involved in major wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, lost soldiers in Lebanon, men in Lybia. The thousands of caskets of its sons that are shipped home from far-away shores do not fill Americans with pride, but rather with continual questions of despair and disgust of why their young should bleed away in countries they know little about and care about even less. In short, the USA wants no further involvement abroad, even if Iran would be developing atomic weapons. By and large the European nations share this attitude.
Israel, on the other hand, feels threatened in its very existence. Iranian leadership has repeetedly issued statements menacing to Israel, referring to it as the cancer of humanity, as mice, rats and vermin, and calling for its destruction. Such statements must not be taken lightly. In the face of repeated threatening declarations it has become obvious that it is not one person's caprice but rather a national long-range policy that motivates Iran and that posits the idea that the very first atomic instrument produced by them will be unleashed at Israel. Israel is therefore obligated, as an act of self-defense, to do everything in its power to prevent Iran from reaching the capability of producing an atomic weapon.
Centuries back Antiochus Epiphanes wanted to safeguard the peace and security of his empire. Today the USA wishes to guarantee a world that will not claim any further American victims. In order to attain their goal, the Empire of Old and the Empire of Today do not seem to hesitate to sidestep a numerically small people, which happens to be a people shunned, despised and even hated so often in the course of history. Antiochus of old like the USA of today, would be hurt to the quick if accused of bigotry, racism, religious fanaticism, or anti-semitism.
We are dealing with highly cultured and enlightened individuals who are genuinely convinced that they aim solely for the best interests of their people and of mankind. From their point of view, they may be right, despite Heine's prescient warning that where they burn Synagogues today they will burn Cathedrals tomorrow.
But what should Israel say? Because Antiochus wanted to safeguard his empire should the Jewish People allow itself to be erased, its traditions wiped out? The Maccabbees made their choice. They declared in word and deed: Our prople has a right to live. We shall not stretch our neck out for the butcher's knife. Our first concern is our survival. Despite what bigots say, we were never a burden on mankind. We always contributed more than we received. It is our obligation to sustain ourselves, to perpetuate ourselves, to assure our continuity and to look forward to a glorious tomorrow.
Indeed, what should Israel say today, when the powers that reached an agreement with Iran will extend dire warnings to it in days to come that in case it attacks the atomic facilities of Iran it will be the sole one blamed for unleashing a world-wide atomic conflagration threatening the whole globe?
The situation should be crystal clear. Israel has an unquestioned right to take all the steps necessary to assure its national survival. In the light of recent history Israel has learned that it cannot rely on other nations, no matter how cultured and civilized these nations are, to come to its rescue. Iranian leaders have recently made solemn promises to Western powers to cut back in its operations leading to further development of an atomic arsenal. Israel sees these as self-serving promises to secure increased economic cooperation, support and lifting of sanctions from the West. To Israel these promises echo the solemn promises of Hitler made to Neville Chamberlain and Daladier in the Munich Agreement of October 1938. For a scrap of paper carrying the banner of "peace in our time" the Western allies sacrificed the staunchest democracy of the European continent only to be led to a world war that cost mankind 70 million lives and the Jewish People fully one-third of its total number less than a year later.
For lack of alternative, should the chips fall Israel will have no other recourse but to stand up for itself even if it stands alone. Like the glorious Maccabbees so this generation of Jews, will fight for its right to assure its continuity. In the glow of our Chanukka lights we will identify with our precursors who recognized that if there are two rights it is our undisputed obligation to fight for our right.
Rabbi Ervin Birnbaum, founder and director of first Russian Outreach program in Israel, "Shearim Netanya," was Professor of International Relations and History at City University of New York. He is also Rabbi Emeritus at Bet Israel Masorti Congregation in Netanya.