Hanukkah: The Maccabees in the Zionist Imagination

By Kavon, Eli | Midstream, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Hanukkah: The Maccabees in the Zionist Imagination


Kavon, Eli, Midstream


There was, little upon which Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha am ever agreed. Herzl, the founder of Political Zionism, advocated the establishment of an independent Jewish State backed by the major Western powers. Ahad Ha'am--the pen name of Hebrew essayist Asher Zvi Ginzberg--envisioned a Jewish homeland that would serve as a cultural center for world Jewry and would be a harbinger of a Jewish spiritual renaissance. Ahad Ha'am devoted his life to criticizing the Zionist political establishment and, more specifically, Herzl's attempts to build up a Jewish State in Israel by currying the favor of the Sultan of Turkey and the German Kaiser. In contrast, Herzl, an assimilated Jew whose base of operation was cosmopolitan Vienna, viewed the Hebrew writer as naive and annoying, an Eastern European Jew who did not understand the fundamentals of realpolitik.

Yet, there was one issue upon which both men, despite the vast differences between them, agreed--the importance of the Maccabees of old. Herzl, in the conclusion of his classic 1896 work The Jewish State, calls for the triumph of the modern Zionist movement with the words, "The Maccabees will rise again." Steven Zipperstein, Ahad Ha'am's biographer, quotes from a pamphlet written by Russian Zionist Boris Brandt under the supervision of the Hebrew essayist, in which Brandt states that on Hanukkah, "We celebrate not only the consecration and renewal of the Temple, some two thousand years ago ... but also the renewal and revival of this same Jewish nation, reviving its soul once again for a new life and new and glorious historical activity." Both Political Zionists and Cultural Zionists could find common ground on the issue of Hanukkah's importance to Zionism.

The centrality of Hanukkah and the Maccabees to the Zionist imagination should shock no one. One hundred years ago, Secular Zionists--most Zionists at the time were alienated from traditional Judaism--were searching for models in history that would inspire the growing movement. The Maccabees fought a successful, heroic guerrilla war more than 2000 years ago against the Syrian-Greek Seleucids to found an independent Jewish kingdom in Israel. In its struggle against both British imperialists and hostile Arabs, the modern Zionist movement had discovered the perfect template for modern events in the Hanukkah story. The Zionists had no need to emphasize the miracles of the holiday, miracles so central to the rabbinic tradition. As Yael Zembavel writes in her important study Recovered Roots (U. of Chicago, 1995), in Israel "the Maccabees' success in liberating their people from foreign oppressors has become the focal point of the [Hanukkah] celebration, rather than the divine miracle of the flask of oil and the renewal of services at the Temple." Just as the modern Zionists secularized, nationalized, and politicized many other religious holidays of the Jewish calendar, so did they do the same with Hanukkah.

The Maccabees of the Zionist imagination were brave warriors whom members of the modern movement could emulate. Max Nordau, a close confidant of Herzl and an important Zionist leader, looked upon the likes of the Maccabees and Bar Kokhba as representing the new "Jewry of Muscle." In Nordau's vision, the new Jew would not be the sickly, meek, politically passive Talmudic scholar of the shtetl or the assimilated Jew who had been emancipated in Central and Western Europe. Instead, the Zionist would be physically fit and able to defend himself and his honor against any enemy or persecutor. Nordau, in a bold comparison, equated the ancient Maccabean revolt against the Hellenists with the struggle of the Boers in southern Africa against British imperialism in the early years of the twentieth century. Nordau was rereading ancient Jewish history in the light of the history of the modern world.

It is ironic that the legendary Hebrew poet Chayyim Nahman Bialik, although a follower of Nordau's nemesis Ahad Ha'am, shared the same view of the Maccabees with Herzl's right-hand man. …

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