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Would the Maccabees be proud?

by Michael Freund, The Jerusalem Post, December 22, 2011

As Jews around the world gather to celebrate Hanukka, the festival of lights, it is only natural that we look back with pride at what our ancestors were able to accomplish.

Over two millennia ago a small band of freedom fighters rose up against the Seleucid tyrant Antiochus and his despotism, determined to reinstate our national sovereignty and salvage our religious identity. Thanks to Divine providence, Matityahu the high priest and his intrepid sons prevailed, defeating the enemy, cleansing the Temple and reestablishing Jewish rule.

As a result, the Maccabees rightfully earned their place in the annals of Jewish heroism, setting an inspiring example of spiritual resolve and military fortitude for generations of Jews to come.

Tuesday night, as we lit the first candle, I stared at the light and considered what the Maccabees had achieved with one pressing question on my mind: how would they view us? Would the Maccabees, who sacrificed everything for the sake of preserving the Jewish way of life, be proud to see what the Jewish people and the modern State of Israel have become?

From a strictly political and martial perspective, the answer would appear to be obvious.

Surely Judah the Maccabee and his brothers would rejoice to see a reborn Jewish state, free and independent, with a potent military that is the envy of the region. They would undoubtedly marvel at Israel's accomplishments on the battlefield against overwhelming odds, seeing in them some undeniable parallels with their own victories over the Syrian-Greeks.

In the First Book of Maccabees (3:58-59), Judah rallied his troops as they prepared for battle, urging them to "arm yourselves, and be valiant men, and see that you are ready in the morning so that you may fight with these nations that are assembled together against us to destroy us and our sanctuary."

"It is better for us to die in battle," he told them, "than to behold the calamities of our people and our sanctuary."

The IDF is the living embodiment of Judah the Maccabee's fighting spirit, carrying on his legacy of national dignity and self-respect.

BUT AS much as the Maccabees would have taken delight in Israel's prowess, I can't help but feel they would be terribly disappointed by a number of the Jewish state's policies.

Take, for example, Israel's treatment of the Temple Mount, which lies at the very heart of the historical events that Hanukka commemorates. In deference to our Muslim neighbors, Israel imposes a series of shameful restrictions on Jewish visitors to this holiest of sites. Jews ascending the Mount are not allowed to bring a prayer book or Bible with them, nor are they permitted to pray. Indeed, Jews are occasionally detained by police for moving their lips on their Mount, as this could be interpreted to be an act of prayer.

On the other hand, the Muslim Wakf, which effectively controls the site, has done as it pleases, carrying out illegal archaeological digs and destroying priceless relics from Temple times right under Israel's nose.

I think Matityahu and his sons would have a hard time understanding why the Temple Mount they fought so hard to liberate and purify is now routinely debased thanks to a weak-willed Jewish government. After all, it was the restoration of the Temple and its service that was the driving force behind their revolt.

Moreover, the longing for the rebuilding of the Temple is a theme that permeates our Hanukka liturgy. In the first stanza of the "Maoz Tzur" hymn, we say, "Restore my House of Prayer and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering.... then with a song of hymn I shall finish the dedication of the Altar."

Our national apathy toward the Temple Mount is a betrayal of our Maccabeean heritage and flies in the face of everything they fought for.

And then there is Israel's nasty habit of turning over territory to our enemies. Take, for example, the ignominious withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which would certainly have astounded the protagonists of the Hanukka story.

In the year 145 BCE, the Hasmonean king Jonathan, Judah the Maccabee's brother, attacked Gaza and forced its population to sue for peace, as recounted in the First Book of Maccabees (11:62). His brother Simon, who succeeded him, later captured Gaza and pacified its population, which had been agitating against the Judean kingdom. He sent Jews to settle Gaza, and even built himself a home there, sending a clear message that the Jews were there to stay.

Contrast this with our own expulsion of thousands of Jews from Gaza, and the inexplicable forbearance that our government shows in the face of rocket attacks emanating from the area.

The Maccabees would be appalled!

Matityahu and his sons took up arms because Judaism and its core beliefs, as well as the Jewish people, were under assault from both within and without. They were driven by a firm belief in the justness of their cause, which gave them the wherewithal to confront the existential threats facing the Jewish nation. In our own time, even that has eroded, as many of our fellow Israelis seem to have lost sight of the fact that we are engaged in a clear struggle between good and evil.

What ensured the Maccabean success was their obstinate and uncompromising commitment to Jewish values and principles, and it is this trait that we must seek to re-embrace. Enough with retreat, enough with withdrawal and appeasing our foes. Let's learn from the Maccabees and start worrying a little less about what the world might think, and a little more about how to build and defend the Land of Israel.

Just as the candles that we kindle each night stand ram-rod straight, giving off light in defiance of their surroundings, so too must Israel now do the same.

That, perhaps more than anything, is what the heroes of Hanukka would have wanted.