September 25, 2018

Lessons for Hanukkah: How to manage disagreements

Why Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the king of the Seleucid Empire, decided to persecute the Jews of Judea – his new decrees ignited the chain of events that ended with us celebrating Hanukkah – is still a mystery. We know what he did: forced Jews to desecrate the Shabbat, outlawed circumcision, defiled the temple in Jerusalem, made God-fearing people eat pork or die. We also know, with a certain degree of confidence, how things unfolded as a result: a revolt by the Maccabees, a victory, the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty – an independent Jewish State that lasted for some time, but not a very long time.

But we still don’t know why King Antiochus decided to outlaw the practice of the Jewish faith. We can make educated guesses, but not much more than that. Antiochus’ decrees are a mystery because they were an outlier. The Hellenistic culture from which he came was not a culture of such policies. It tended to respect the faith and religion of the nations under its jurisdiction – to let them live and gradually absorb Hellenistic influences. Thus, Antiochus does not seem like an authentic representative of his culture. He is different. He does crazy things. Indeed, some scholars believe that he was crazy. A mentally ill ruler.

But then, other scholars give other explanations to this strange behavior of banning Judaism. There are those who connect his actions with a desire to standardize the calendar in his vast kingdom. There are those who think it was a result of his failed military campaign in Egypt. There are those who think it is all because of his ambition to become a god. Or that it’s because of the Jews’ special reluctance to allow Hellenism to take hold in Judea. There are many explanations, each having its advocates and critics, each having its strengths and weaknesses. The sources from which to learn about this long forgotten period – second century BCE – are limited. They tell us a story, but not always a coherent story, and not always the full story.

One of the most interesting – if unpleasant – theories concerning Antiochus’ motivations argues that the king was in fact indifferent to Judaism and had little against it. This theory views the Jewish High Priest Menelaus and his Hellenistic followers as the culprit behind the decrees. In other words: it assumes that intra-Jewish power struggles were the main reason for the decrees. Hellenistic Jews who thought some Jewish rituals, such as circumcision, were barbaric, and it was ” target=”_blank”>Elias Bickerman, the great scholar of the Hellenistic world, was the first to suggest this theory in his short book ” target=”_blank”>Hellenistic Civilazation and the Jews, and ” target=”_blank”>Israeli Democracy Index that was published earlier this week (by the Israeli Democracy Institute) contains some expressions of this tension. Between last year and this year, for example, there is a significant increase in the number of Jewish Israelis believing that “Human and civil-rights organizations cause damage to the state.” 71% of Israel’s Jews agree with this statement. “In the Jewish sample, there has been a gradual but steady increase over the years in the size of the majority who believe that these organizations are damaging to the state.”

Why the increase? The authors of the study point a finger at “the government’s message of opposition to these organizations”. That’s too easy: the government succeeds in making inroads with this massage for a reason. And the reason is not hard to identify: many Israelis feel that these organizations exclude themselves from the public by their invitation of outside pressure on Israel. Of course, they do it because they believe that international pressure will improve Israel. But Israelis, by and large, disagree. Their level of trust in countries is not very high – as we can see in other survey questions. For example, 81% of Israeli Jews (and 54% of Israeli Arabs) believe “that Israel should fight terror any way it sees fit, without taking into consideration the views of other countries about how it conducts this battle.”

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