Foreign Policy Blogs

The Meaning of Chanukah

Now that Chanukah has drawn to a close, I wonder, as I tend to do around this time of year, why we celebrate the success of the Maccabean Revolt?  As Joseph Telushkin writes in Jewish Literacy, “[o]ne of the sadder ironies of Jewish history is that the Macabees led a successful revolt against King Antiochus’s antisemitic oppression… only to turn into oppressors of the Jews themselves.”  After recounting the story of the revolt and the subsequent rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, Telushkin continues:

Unfortunately, the Macabees were more noble in opposition than in power.  They had grown so accustomed to fighting that they seemed incapable of working with anyone who disagreed with them about anything.  Simon’s grandson, King Alexander Yanni, executed eight hundred of his Pharisee opponents, after first forcing them to witness the murders of their wives and children.  While the slaughter was going on, Yannai was present, hosting a Greek-style drinking party…

In 63 B.C.E., during a civil war that erupted between two Hasmonean brothers, the Romans came to adjudicate and ended up occupying Jerusalem.  The tragedy was now complete.  The original Maccabees had freed the Jews from foreign rule; their corrupt descendants now returned the Jews to subjugation under an alien (and pagan) power.  The Maccabees had themselves become the kind of Jews that their great-grandfather, had once killed as traitors.

To me, this is the true lesson of Chanukah, and one finds this cycle of events play out in different areas throughout history and today.  The Puritans fled to America to escape religious persecution only to create a community based on repression of religious freedom. The colonists fought for independence, claiming a devotion to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but this notion was at odds, as the Englishman Jeremy Bentham wrote in 1776, with their behavior, namely, to use Bentham’s examples, the invasion of Canada and repression of peaceful dissidents during the revolution.  And more recently, Julian Assange claimed that the WikiLeaks cables would show the U.S. government “turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in ‘client states’,” to which Daniel Drezner shrugged, “[n]ot even the most naive human rights activist would believe otherwise.”  In the same vein, American progressives had their own hopeful Chanukah moment on November 4, 2008, only to see those hopes fall victim to the scourge of systematic forces.  We are surrounded by such stories.  And this relationship between hope and power structures, to me, seems to be Chanukah’s truly significant theme.