The holiday of Hanukkah, which began this year on December 7 at nightfall, is the first in the Jewish calendar since Simhat Torah, the day on which Hamas’ massive attack on Israel took place this year. Hanukkah is most commonly associated with a victory over foes bent on stamping out Jewish self-expression, a miraculous temple rededication after threats of impurity to Jewish communal ritual, and light brought into darkness.
Harrowingly, these themes evoked in regard to events that occurred around 164 BCE, are exactly the ones that since October 7 have dominated Jewish-Israeli political discourse and public debate about a present-day military conflict between a state (Israel) and an armed non-state actor (Hamas). On the Israeli side, it is easy to take advantage of the history and holiday of Hanukkah in order to feed into the current narrative of “together, we will be victorious”, the slogan broadcast by government agencies in both Hebrew and Arabic. However, Hanukkah is also a holiday that, from its inception, has prompted questions, in the first place about its very meaning: “What is Hanukkah?”, the Talmud’s rabbis notoriously ask when the rules for kindling Hanukkah lights are brought up in the discussion around Shabbat lights (Shabbat 21b). Indeed, the holiday does not appear in any of the books of the Hebrew Bible and, even in the Talmud, the question about its significance appears to come up rather cursorily. Other sources seem to lead us in inconclusive directions, as is the case with the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees (included in several Christian canons): while the former probably constitutes an eyewitness account written in matter-of-fact Hebrew, the latter describes the historical events to celebrate the prevalence of Judaism against Hellenistic rule, yet is ironically written in the Greek language and style.
All in all, whereas the “struggle for the home” common denominator may point to similarities between “those days” and the current ones, one should be careful not to overlook the present situation’s political causes, and bear in mind that they require present-day answers.
It is precisely this complexity of Hanukkah that can help us disentangle the intricacies and inherent dangers of the current moment. Judah Maccabee and his followers’ military victory over the Hellenistic Seleucid empire was neither the beginning nor the end of the story. As part of a revolt that lasted more than two decades, their recapture of Jerusalem did indeed reassert Jewish rule in both political and religious terms (to use modern concepts), and under the Hasmonean dynasty Judea acquired increasing autonomy within a disintegrating Seleucid empire. There is thus a certain parallel with the present-day situation in terms of safeguarding a form of Jewish authority, yet the larger context is quite different. Today’s world order is structured around the principle of sovereign equality of states (Article 2(1) of the UN Charter), of which Israel is one. The fact that the Palestinian issue has remained unsolved throughout Israel’s modern history, has led to the existence of entities like the Palestinian Authority and Hamas right on its borders. With this given, any (path to a) solution needs to be based on the premise that the questions can be solved in a contemporary framework, which does not exclude military operations for self-defense, but also includes rules for dealing with borders and populations other than one’s own. Also, while Hamas’ ideology is clearly religious in nature, its attacks on Israel seem inspired by motives that are as much political as religious, although ambiguity persists (article 16 of the 2017 Hamas charter operates a clear formal distinction between Jews and Zionists, yet the land between the River and the Sea is described in reference to Islam and Christianity only). All in all, whereas the “struggle for the home” common denominator may point to similarities between “those days” and the current ones, one should be careful not to overlook the present situation’s political causes, and bear in mind that they require present-day answers.
Interestingly, as far as present-day Israel is concerned, the Maccabean revolt does offer some useful parallels. While Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV is the traditional villain of the Hanukkah story, historical sources have pointed not only to Jewish imbuement with Hellenism (the central theme of 2 Maccabees), but also to divisions within the population and large-scale corruption among the leaders, with wealthy Hellenized Jews “buying” the position of High Priest from the said villain. Again, similarity does not mean equality, but in any debate on Israel as a country and society on the “day after” the current war, the Hanukkah story should come as a warning for both people and their politicians. Indeed, a polity is able to stand amongst others if its internal workings are sufficiently functional. In the case of the modern State of Israel, the relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish groups currently under its control definitely need improvement. In this regard, the fate of the Hasmonean kingdom can serve as a lesson: after mounting internal tensions, it collapsed following a civil war in 67-63 BCE and yielded to Roman rule, signifying the end of Jewish sovereignty for two millennia.
Any good-faith attempt to bring more light for Israelis and Palestinians will need to include an assessment of the multilayered and interwoven responsibilities of both sides, towards their own population and towards the other. Just as kindling Hanukkah lights is a gradual, day-by-day ritual, such an assessment of responsibilities and any action based on it can only be an incremental process.
In the latter context, it is not surprising that, with the effects of Judah Maccabee’s campaign entirely undone, the rabbis of the Gemara wonder about the meaning of Hanukkah. It is only here that the famous miracle story about a cruse of oil comes in, seemingly as an incentive to observe the holiday and the kindling of its lights. Tellingly, the rabbis not only associate the latter with the political and military events from centuries earlier, but also instruct to kindle the lights according to a precise ritual, by adding one light every day, at the darkest period of the year and during the part of the (Jewish) month of Kislev in which the moon decreases. Beyond the victories of the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean kingdom, the rabbis appear to offer a more lasting meaning for the holiday. As the outcome of the military operation did not extend to their days, its date is associated with a (possibly preexisting) practice of kindling lights in dark days.
In similar ways, it is crucial to consider the Gaza issue also beyond the current military standoff, which has already taken an enormous human and material toll on both sides. In such darkness, the way to bring light is to ensure that future generations do not re-experience these losses and that the most basic and universal right to life is respected for everyone. While the October 7 events constituted one of the bluntest violations of that right, Israel should not remain blind neither to the causes that led to Hamas’ hold on Gaza, nor to the effects that “Swords of Iron” will inevitably have on the Palestinian population in the Strip and elsewhere. Any good-faith attempt to bring more light for Israelis and Palestinians will need to include an assessment of the multilayered and interwoven responsibilities of both sides, towards their own population and towards the other. Just as kindling Hanukkah lights is a gradual, day-by-day ritual, such an assessment of responsibilities and any action based on it can only be an incremental process. It may, however, be the only way to expel darkness in the Israeli-Palestinian arena and make sure that any quiet after the current war outlasts the victory of the Maccabees.
Dr. Alexander Loengarov is a Senior Affiliated Fellow at the Institute for International Law (KU Leuven, Belgium). He managed the European Union’s first general grant schemes for academic exchange with Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian partners. He published commentary on Israeli-Palestinian issues for, amongst others, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israel Policy Forum, and the news sites The National Interest and The Brussels Times. He also worked at the EU’s European Economic and Social Committee; his opinions are his own and do not bind nor represent any EU body.