Discover more from Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
If you know Jewish history, Israel's being 74 years old should make you very, very nervous.
Guess how long the first commonwealth survived? How about the second?
The number of candles grows, the lights get ever brighter. It makes little sense, of course, because as the House of Shammai pointed out in a Talmudic discussion thousands of years ago, if the point of the candles is to remind us of the miracle of the oil, then we should start with eight and then decrease gradually to one. After all, when was there more oil in that miraculous cruse? On the first day or on the eighth?
The logic makes good sense, but the aesthetics don’t. Who wants to start Hanukkah with the hanukkiyot (no, they’re not “menorahs”, no matter how many people insist on calling them that) fully ablaze and watch the warmth, the brightness and the beauty gradually diminish? The House of Hillel therefore rejects Shammai’s view, and insists that we start with one candle and increase to eight. Their logic of their “legal” argument is “iffy,” but the sentiment makes sense. They understood, it seems, what we want to feel.
The sages of the House of Hillel also seem to have intuited a deeper implicit message about Hanukkah, one that we all seem to have internalized. The blaze of light at the conclusion of Hanukkah seems to suggest that the rebellion against the Greeks (Seleucids, actually) was wholly successful. The rebellion was entirely just, and it was absolute. Consider once again that passage from the prayerbook that we looked at last week:
In the days of Matityahu, son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the evil Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the statutes of Your will— You, in Your abundant mercy, stood by them in their time of distress, You defended their cause, You judged their grievances, You avenged them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, many into the hands of the few, defiled people into the hands of the undefiled, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent [sinners] into the hands of diligent students of Your Torah. And You made Yourself a great and sanctified name in Your world. And for Your people, Israel, You performed a great deliverance and redemption unto this very day.
When does the deliverance run out? When does the redemption end? They don’t. They endure, as the liturgy would have us say several times a day throughout Hanukkah, “unto this very day.”
The Zionists, though, knew better. They knew well that the redemption had not lasted forever. This classic Zionist Hanukkah ditty, composed by Menashe Ravina in 1936, which every Israeli Jewish kid knows by heart, notes quite clearly that we did not “live happily ever after”:
(Apologies for the kitschy photo montage that accompanies the music, and especially for the appearance of Meir Kahane about mid-way through. This was the only video with the lyrics sung in Hebrew that also had English subtitles that we could find. If you’re aware of a better one, we’d love to know about it.)
Who can retell the things that befell us, Who can count them? In every age, a hero or sage Came to our aid. Hark! In days of yore in Israel’s ancient land Brave Maccabeus led the faithful band But now all Israel must as one arise Redeem itself through deed and sacrifice.
If you were a Zionist in the early part of the twentieth century, it would have seemed rather obvious that the redemption wrought by the Maccabees had petered out. After all, had the victory survived “unto this very day,” there would be no need for “all Israel to arise as one and to redeem itself.” If deliverance had continued, how was it possible that the Jews were living as they were in Europe (little did those Zionists know how horrific Europe would become).
Thus, while the classic liturgy speaks of the rebellion as having restored justice “unto this very day,” the Zionists understood that that was not at all accurate.
Zionist arose precisely because the redemption did peter out.
So, for how long did the Maccabean rebellion really provide some relief from oppression, some semblance of Jewish autonomy? The rebellion itself lasted from 167 BCE to 141 BCE, and it was only in 140 BCE that a Jewish sort-of-sovereign entity emerged. That sort-of-autonomy (sometimes more autonomous, sometimes less) held out until 67 BCE, when Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, brothers who were the descendants of Judah Maccabee and sons of Queen Shlomzion, fought over control (they were each proxies of a foreign ruler) and in so doing split the nation.
Devastation was bound to follow, as it did every time Jewish rulers battled each other. Autonomous sovereignty ended in 67 BCE. And matters would soon go from bad to worse until in 70 CE, the Romans would sack Jerusalem, burn down the Temple, and end any semblance of Jewish power for 2,000 years.
The Maccabees, therefore, bequeathed sovereignty from 140 BCE to 67 BCE, or, for 73 years.
If that number does not give you the chills, it should, because of what came before as well as what came after.
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The Maccabean dynasty was the second instance of unified Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. The first began much earlier, under the rule of King David. While David ruled for forty years, the first seven year—when he ruled from Hebron and not Jerusalem—were not a united kingdom. He thus ruled over a united, sovereign nation for 33 years. His son, King Solomon, ruled for forty years, over that same united, sovereign nation.
But after Solomon, there was a battle for power, and the tribes split into two nations—the ten tribes of the northern kingdom called Israel, the two tribes of the southern Kingdom called Judah. They actually battled each other, at times, these two kingdoms. So the end was virtually inevitable. The north fell in approximately 720 BCE, and those ten tribes became the “ten lost tribes.” The southern kingdom, Judah, fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Jerusalem was razed, the Temple was destroyed, and never again would the majority of the world’s Jews live in the land of Israel (though demographers predict that by 2048, the majority of the world’s Jews will, indeed, live here once again).
So how long had David and Solomon ruled over a united, sovereign kingdom?
It was 73 years, just like with the Maccabees.
That’s what came before. And what came after? Israel is now in its 74th year.
Even without reference to those numbers, there are many Israelis, as there are Diaspora Jews, who worry that the end is at hand. A friend of mine, a religious recent immigrant to Israel, sent me a note he’d sent to a long-standing Israeli friend of his, also religious and open-minded. He asked him:
Are there any Dati Leumi [National Religious] people left in Israel (under the age of 75) who aren't in love with Smotrich and Ben Gvir, and who don't think that the highest Jewish spiritual goals are to go to Hevron for Parashat [Torah portion of] Chaye Sarah or daven on Har HaBayit [pray on the Temple Mount]?
I guess his friend’s response shook him up a bit, because he forwarded it to me. Here’s what his friend, writing in Hebrew, had to say.
Of course there are people like that. There are many of them, and I’m among them. But the number of such people are dwindling. And that’s because the alternative to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in the government is much worse. The alternative is secular people, very progressive, who detest religion and those who do not see in the State of Israel a sacred value.
There are no longer moderate, religious politicians who present an alternative, stable path.
It’s therefore obvious that the Smotrich—Ben-Gvir line that was once considered very radical is now becoming mainstream.
We find ourselves where we do not so much because the Israeli populace has become radicalized (some are, most aren’t), but because no one is offering a vision of an Israel in which the State is considered a sacred value, in which religion is revered (rather than tolerated), in which modern social conservatism (nothing to the left of that will fly in this country) is coupled with openness to western ideas. No one.
And nature abhors a vacuum. Give people nothing else, and they will vote as they did, because, as the gentleman above (whose identity I don’t know) opined, “the alternative is much worse.”
So is Israel swirling the drain? For a host of reasons, most of which I will not belabor here, I suspect not. But some of the basics are obvious. Bibi is as smart as they come, and he is likely to run circles around these ministers, who may ultimately get frustrated when they can’t deliver on their “vision” and quit. Avi Maoz will never be able to enact his program against the LGBT community (unless I’m horribly naïve, which I suppose is possible). When he can’t come through on his “promises,” will he stay in the government? Smotrich (who should not be compared to Maoz in any way) has authority over Judea and Samaria / the West Bank, but the United States has already presented the incoming government with red lines that it dare not cross. The US has already warned the incoming government that if Ben-Gvir goes to town, cooperation between Israel and the FBI will be curtailed.
How much is Bibi really going to risk, especially since Benny Gantz could enter the government and give Bibi a majority even if the radical right parties dropped out?
This headline, which is par for the course these days and which appeared just this morning, has Bibi’s wily fingerprints all over it. How long will the right-wing parties play along with this?
The best news, though, is that even many right-leaning Israelis are appalled at some of the verbiage coming out of the government-to-be, and there is already discussion of million-person marches.
I was chatting with a friend of mine about the situation at hand, when she sent me the following WhatsApp (I’ve erased the name of her husband for obvious reasons):
Working-class Mizrahim are the lifeblood of the Likud party. And what struck my friend who wrote me the note was that her father-in-law had always voted Likud, because (a) that’s what people like him do, and (b) because there was an implicit social contract which held that the people would give the power to the right, but the right would not go haywire. This man now believes that Bibi has violated that social contract. It won’t take many significant legislative moves to the right, I’m hoping, for his wish to come true, for people to take to the streets.
Will that taking to the streets be a good thing? It depends on how it plays out, obviously. But here is what both Bibi and those already planning the mass protests ought to keep in mind:
Eighth decades have never been kind to Jewish sovereignty.
And the end has always been preceded by a massive rift among the people.
If this was all just a ploy by Bibi to get into power so he can stay out of jail and he plans to give little leeway to the foxes he has let into the chicken coup, the optics will be terrible, but the damage could be minimal. But …
But if Bibi is actually prepared to let something more nefarious unfold here, everyone—the government and the people—would do well to take a moment on this, the last day of Hanukkah, and to remember that the sovereignty that followed the Hasmonean revolt, though we sing about it as if it was eternal, wasn’t. It lasted less than a human lifetime.
Sovereignty has never been eternal in Jewish history. In fact, it never lasted even seventy-five years. The question that looms for us now is whether we’ve learned anything at all about eighth decades.
We’d better hope that we have, because last time, it took two thousand years for us to get the chance to build what we now have here. And if we had to wait for yet another opportunity to build something anew?
How many of us truly imagine that the Jewish people would last nearly that long?
On Wednesday, we continue our look at the abject lawlessness in the Negev, one of the issues that helped propel Itamar Ben-Gvir into power. Last week, we spoke with Naomi Linder Kahn, Director of the International Division at an NGO called Regavim, which “acts to prevent illegal seizure of state land, and to protect the rule of law and clean government in matters pertaining to land-use policy in the State of Israel.”
This week, we speak with Matan Yaffe, the co-founder of Desert Stars.
About nine years ago, Matan was ambushed by four young Bedouins while motorbiking in the Negev desert. Yaffe tried to reason with the would-be thieves. But when they pulled out a metal bar, Yaffe pulled out his gun. The gang fled, leaving the 25-year-old former IDF officer physically unharmed but furious and frustrated.
“I knew nothing about the Bedouin apart from the stereotype that they are criminals and drug smugglers,” Yaffe related in an interview.
As Israel21C notes, approximately 250,000 Arab Bedouins live in nine Bedouin municipalities and dozens of herding and farming villages scattered throughout the Negev. Tribal rivalries limit interaction and cooperation between them. The birthrate is high; 63% of Negev Bedouins are under age 17, the high-school dropout rate is 29% and only 8.7% have a university or college degree.
Yaffe realized that the Jewish and Bedouin residents of the Negev “are doomed to live together in one shared space with one shared future. The future of my kids very much depends on the future of the Bedouin kids who live next to me. Something big needed to be done to move the needle.”
In our conversation, Matan shares his personal story, and then describes the route he has taken to make for a better future for both Bedouin and Jews in the Negev.
Our interview with Matan Yaffe will be posted on Wednesday, with a transcript, for paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside.
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