Growing up, after I found out I was a Jew around seven years old, the story of Chanukkah that I heard consisted of the miracle of long-lasting oil and a brief synopsis of how Jews defeated the Greeks. Though neither detail is incorrect, there is a lot more to what actually led to the Maccabean victory, and some lessons from that time in Jewish history that can be applicable to Jews today and the Jewish homeland’s position moving forward.
Not all occupiers of Israel & Judea were malevolent towards Jews. A few exceptions stand out, including Saladin I of the Ayyubid Dynasty in the 12th century AD, and Alexander the Great.
In 338 BC, Alexander the Great began his invasion of the Persian Empire and shortly afterward, his Macedonian forces conquered the entire Levant, including Israel & Judea. During that time period, Judea had many Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon, thanks to Cyrus the Great who freed the Jews; though not all Jews in Babylon returned, many chose to stay in exile.
From 338 BC – 175 BC, Jews enjoyed freedom of faith and culture under their foreign rulers, first by Greeks and then by Greek-adjacent rulers (Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Empire).
It was during the Seleucid Empire rule (235 – 198 BC), that many Jews learned Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the day in much of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Jews who were upper class and who were engaged in trade, were very much immersed in not just the language of the rulers but the culture as well. Many Jews of that time period had two names: a Hebrew one and a Greek one. Overall, Greek rulers did not impose their culture on Jews, but rather it was the upper echelon of Jews who sought out Greek culture and influences. Hellenization was deeply embedded in those segments of the Jewish population.
All freedoms of Jewish faith and culture were still not compromised even when Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power of the Seleucids in 175 BC. However, Antiochus replaced a Jewish High Priest, Onias II with his brother, Jason, after Jason bribed the Seleucid ruler. Still, there was no issue among the Jewish population as they perceived any politicking to be just that and not an infringement on Jewish rights. Any infighting at that time was among upper-class Hellenized Jews.
Misinformation Sparks War:
During the Sixth Syrian War (170 – 168 BC), war broke out between the Seleucids and the Ptolemaic Egyptians. On his way back from attacking Egypt, Antiochus stopped in Jerusalem and was invited by the High Priest Menalaus into the Second Temple (in violation of Jewish law).
Again, Antiochus went out to fight in Egypt, and Jason heard a rumor that Antiochus was dead. Upon hearing the rumor of his own apparent demise, Antiochus mistook the Jewish infighting among the High Priests as an affront and revolt against his rule and sent an army to defeat Jason and his ‘traitors.’
Thousands of Jews in Jerusalem were killed, many enslaved, the Greek government seized land and the Temple was made the site of a Greek-Jewish offshoot group, which deeply angered the non-Hellenized Jews. A new citadel was built in Jerusalem which was guarded by both Greeks and pro-Seleucid Jews.
Antiochus did not stop there. He issued harsh decrees requiring Jews to eat pork, work on Shabbat, and stop circumcisions, among numerous other suppressions of Jewish faith, culture and customs.
Shrine building became rampant especially in the countryside of Judea. A rural Jewish Priest from Modi’in, Mattathias, ignited the revolt against the Seleucids by refusing to worship Greek gods at the new Greek altar in Modi’in.
Mattathias killed a fellow Jew who had taken his place to worship and offer sacrifice to an idol, and killed the Greek officer who was sent to oversee the sacrifice.
Mattathias and his five sons destroyed the altar and then fled to the nearby mountains.
After Mattathias’ death a year later, his son Judah Maccabee took over and led a ragtag band of rebels, while absorbing other Jewish groups who opposed Seleucid rule. These Maccabean rebels attacked Hellenized Jews fiercely in order to stop Hellenization from spreading widely.
Key Battles Against the Seleucid forces:
- Battle of of Lebonah (167 BC)
- Battle of Beth Horon (166 BC)
- Battle of Emmaus (substantial victory in 165 BC)
- Battle of Beth Zur (164 BC)
It was after the Battle of Beth Zur that the Seleucid troops returned to Syria. The Maccabees re-took Jerusalem, and ritually cleansed the Second Temple for Jewish worship on the 25th day of the month of Kislev (start of Chanukkah each year).
What was interesting is that many Hellenized Jews ultimately supported the revolts as they saw the outsize suppression/oppression from the outside regime.
Yet, battles continued to ignite with both the Seleucid regime (now under a different ruler), and even with still Hellenized and former Hellenized Jews.
160 BC – Battle of Elasa – Seleucid King Demetrius I led an army of 20,00 infantry and 2,000 cavalry to take back the Judean province. The foreign army marched through Jerusalem and massacred Jews in the Galilee. The Maccabees lost control of Jerusalem (to rule, but Jews were allowed to live there), but held on to control of the vast countryside of Judea.
In part, there emerged two rulers of the same land – one Jewish and one foreign.
If you are like me and have wondered how did the Roman army come to be involved with Judea? The answer is that the Judeans invited the Romans. The Judean rulers were desperate to seek international acceptance of their rule, and they found it in Rome in 139 BC, which would prove later to be a fatal mistake. The Romans were more than willing to weaken the Greek states, and so a Hasmonean (Judean Jewish leaders) Roman alliance was established.
The most successful Hasmonean King was Alexander Jannaeus; the Hasmonean Court in Jerusalem accepted minimal aspects of Greek culture including using Greek mercenaries in Hasmonean military campaigns, having Greek and Jewish names, and using coins with both Hebrew and Greek wording. However, the Hasmoneans ensured that the Jewish faith and culture remained central to Judea.
The Hasmonean Dynasty lasted until 37 BC when Herod the Great defeated the Hasmoneans to become a Roman puppet King.
The actual history of the Jewish Civil Wars mentioned above was largely erased by rabbis centuries ago. But, it is not only central to what led to the Maccabean Revolts against a foreign enemy, but also gives a powerful lesson for Jews. Fight as we may within our own tribal nation, we do band together to take on outside evil when it threatens our very existence.
We see it clearly in Israel today. Jews who were fiercely at odds with one another over Judicial Reform (and many other issues), today are serving side by side in Gaza, on the border of Lebanon, and are holding secure numerous moshavim and towns.
And, it also teaches us a lesson that just because aspects of another culture might seem appealing, ie, some Jews conflate Israel with a ‘Westernized country’ — it is anything but; Israel is a firmly Middle Eastern nation, the very fabric of Jewish continuity rests on maintaining the central aspects of our faith, culture, and customs. Contrary to antisemitic lies, Jews are a very homogeneous race, with a shared J1 haplogroup. Very few times in history, have Jews intermarried with non-Jews prior to the 20th century, and so even Jewish genetics passed down, along with our distinct indigenous culture.
What Israel is facing now is not just another war or operation; Israel is fighting for its very survival. It takes one wrong move for a country to be overtaken by enemies either from within or from outside. Just look what happened to Christian Lebanon, moderate Iran, Buddhist Afghanistan, and increasingly, what is happening in many parts of Western Europe.
Israel cannot rely on perceived allies; just like the Hasmoneans wanted so desperately to achieve recognition and applause from the Romans, only to be stabbed in the back not even a century later. Israel can only rely on itself, and Israel will succeed resoundingly so if security is restored not just in Gaza but on the border of Lebanon so that never again 50,000 Israelis will need to be displaced, and throughout all of Judea & Samaria.
A strong Israel is not just essential to Israelis but to Jews throughout the Diaspora. As scary as antisemitism is these days following the Oct. 7th genocide, things would be far far worse if Israel were to be weakened.
On a very personal note, when I visited the hills of Judea in 2018, I had never felt so rooted in my life. I could feel the bravery of the Judean warriors in my veins. I had not felt that anywhere else in the world.
Am Israel Chai! Here is to a long-lasting light for Israel, to its brave soldiers, and for Jews in the Diaspora to uphold a very strong homeland.
Laureen Lipsky is the CEO & Founder of Taking Back the Narrative, a Zionism Education company (www.tbtnisrael.com).