Everyone is familiar with the Hanukkah story of the outnumbered Maccabees who defeated the heavily armed Greek forces and then rededicated the Temple with sacred oil that miraculously lasted for eight days.
Less well-known, however, is the back story to the struggle that Hanukkah actually depicts: the fight of the Maccabees not only against the Greeks, but against the Hellenized Jews of Israel. The Hellenists were Jews who not only culturally identified with the Greeks, but actually encouraged them to strike at the essence of traditional Jewish practice.
In other words, as painful as it is to acknowledge, Hanukkah 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 worldview 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 subsequently became the wedge for the attempt to attack and supplant traditional Jewish practice, such as the Temple ritual, study, and commandments.
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, Israel in the Second Temple Era, professor 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 Hanukkah story so important? This is because, sadly, it is very 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 lack public support, seek to influence, change or subvert governmental decisions and policies through the use of 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 entities 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, and dozens more that secure enormous sums from European governments and the U.S.-based New Israel Fund.
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 Hanukkah story has an additional troubling aspect 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 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 Macabbee.
The historic lesson of Hanukkah 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 European governments and 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 to call out the actions of the Israeli NGOs and their enablers. In doing so, we will have internalized the history and hidden significance of Hanukkah.
On this Hanukkah, 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.
Matan Peleg is the CEO of Im Tirtzu.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.