September 18, 2019

The book of Maccabees, occupied

At the Dec. 5 meeting of the Los Angeles General Assembly — the utterly democratic body that acts to guide, if not exactly govern, Occupy Los Angeles — a facilitator named Chase posed the following question:

“Should we reoccupy a space? And, if so: Where, how and why — or why not?”

It was just six days after an army of 1,400 Los Angeles Police Department officers in riot gear evicted hundreds of Occupy L.A. protesters from their two-month-old encampment surrounding Los Angeles City Hall. Despite new concrete barriers topped with chain-link fence that now surround all of the formerly occupied spaces, the General Assembly, or GA, is still convening every evening at 7:30 on the City Hall grounds — a square block that protesters now call Solidarity Park.

On this day, however, thanks to the filming across the street of a movie starring Sean Penn, the protesters had to wait a full hour to gather on City Hall’s grand stairway on the west side of the building.

Some occupiers lobbied the film crew to end their shoot early, while others openly considered getting arrested by one of the dozen or so police officers on hand to keep the crowd of protesters on the sidewalk. A few occupiers also discussed the possibility of moving the GA to another location for one night.

“Personally, I think the GA is far more important than where it is,” protester C.J. Minster said, while acknowledging that a rule adopted by the GA in the days before the LAPD raid also would make the meeting difficult to move.

“Any change to that has to be approved by a GA,” she explained. “And if you can’t convene a GA at Solidarity Park, it’s kind of a vicious cycle.”

With the Occupy movement’s protesters in most cities across the country now forcibly removed from their encampments, the question of whether, where and how to reoccupy has taken on considerable urgency. And even though the Los Angeles protesters who attended the Dec. 5 GA probably weren’t thinking about Judah Maccabee — probably not even Minster, who was wearing a black knit kippah — perhaps they should have been.

Chanukah begins at sundown on Dec. 20, and this season it is worth remembering that Judah Maccabee — aka Judas Maccabeus — who led a small band of Jews in a successful armed revolt against the Seleucid rulers of Judea in the second century B.C.E., the act the festival of Chanukah commemorates — is one of Jewish history’s most famously successful occupiers. And the way Jews celebrate this wintertime holiday is shaped by that essential question facing the recently removed protesters — whether to reoccupy.

That isn’t the only parallel between the Maccabees of old and the occupiers of today.

Although Judah Maccabee (whose nickname Maccabeus means “the hammer”) was a freedom fighter, his battle against the Seleucids also pitted him, his brothers and their followers against fellow Jews in an internal struggle — a civil war, even — over the future directions of Judean society and Jewish practice. The Maccabees, who wanted to restore the temple to its traditional practices, fought and killed other Jews who had adopted the Hellenistic ways of the imperial overlords.

Similarly, the Occupy movement — which is, it must be said, a non-violent protest movement — pits groups of Americans with different ideas about the future direction of the country against one another. The occupiers portray the battle as one between the overwhelming majority of Americans (“the 99 percent”) and the rich and powerful of Wall Street (“the 1 percent), a division that, coincidentally, aligns with the Maccabean model, as Hellenized Jews were primarily wealthy Jerusalemites, and those fighting on the side of the Maccabees were poorer, rural Jews.

A protester is arrested as Los Angeles Police Department officers dismantle the Occupy L.A. encampment outside City Hall in Los Angeles on Nov. 30. The nearly two-month-old encampment is among the oldest and largest on the West Coast aligned with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations protesting economic inequality in the country and the excesses of the U.S. financial system.  Photo by Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images

Read closely, the story of the Maccabean revolt includes a few more unexpected parallels to the story of Occupy so far. To be sure, some of these allegorical links may take a bit more intellectual squinting than others to perceive.

Who knew, for example, that according to the second Book of Maccabees, Jews in Jerusalem and Judea first celebrated Chanukah by dwelling in booths? And weren’t those occupiers dwelling in outdoor temporary shelters, too?

I know I’m stretching somewhat: Of course, a sukkah is not a tent. And while we still remember the Maccabean armed revolt 2,000 years after it happened, it’s not yet known whether we will even be talking about the Occupy movement when Americans go to the polls next November .

Nevertheless, this comparison between historical precedent and current events presents Occupy as a movement at a crossroads, facing a choice not unlike the one the talmudic-era rabbis confronted around the first century C.E. when they created our Chanukah observances and began a process of downplaying the Maccabees’ significance.

And as other journalists already have tackled such important questions as whether Jesus would have been an occupier, or if Santa Claus should be the patron saint of the movement, why not indulge the “Maccabees as occupiers” idea, if only as an unconventional way of retelling the story of Chanukah?

Because most Chanukah stories focus on the miracle of the oil that lasted a full week longer than it should have, and not on the Maccabees’ military campaign, a quick recap of the Maccabean revolt — courtesy of the introductions to the first and second Books of Maccabees in the New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha — is probably in order:

The story begins around 175 B.C.E. The Seleucid Empire, which achieved the height of its glory and influence under Alexander the Great in 332-323 B.C.E., was slowly waning. In Judea, the Seleucid-imported Hellenistic culture, a mix of Greek and Semitic practices, divided the Jewish community, appealing to some Jews, but offending those who wanted to hold fast to their traditions.

Enter Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, who prohibited outright the central practices of Judaism — forbidding Jews from keeping the Sabbath, forcing them to eat non-kosher animals and outlawing the practice of circumcision. With the help of corrupt, Hellenizing Jewish high priests, Antiochus’ emissaries to Judea also plundered the city of Jerusalem, stole the temple’s sacred objects and profaned the altar by sacrificing a pig there.

These developments distressed the Jews who wanted to keep their traditional practices, and no one more so than a priest named Mattathias who lived in the town of Modein, outside Jerusalem. Over the next seven years, Mattathias and his five sons, including Judah, led a revolt that led to the death of Antiochus, the reclamation — or reoccupation — of the temple by Jews and the beginning of a century-long dynasty of effective independence for Judea.

Back to modern times: For just about 60 days, Occupy L.A.’s temple was City Hall Park (located just off of Temple Street, as it happens). And if democracy can be seen as the official religion of the United States, the occupiers saw themselves as publicly practicing its central rite — exercising their First Amendment-protected right to free speech. (Whether they had a right to set up a 24-hour encampment — which was initially welcomed by the City Council — is another matter.) It was also not uncommon to hear protesters accusing the American equivalent of Judean high priests — elected officials — of some type of corruption, and of looting the nation’s treasure to further enrich the “1 percent.”

For the sake of argument, let’s go one step further with this analogy of “Maccabees are to Temple-era Judaism as Occupy protesters are to American democracy.”

When Judah and his brothers recaptured the temple, they sent in …

“… blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. …” (1 Maccabees 4:42-45)

The people of Occupy L.A., a self-described leaderless movement, have pursued a similar two-pronged tactic when it comes to cleansing the American democratic process, which they see as having been defiled by unchecked corporate influence.

Some Occupy activists pursue agenda items through existing legislative channels; one speaker at a recent GA urged protesters to contact elected officials to express their opposition to the National Defense Authorization Act. In short, they haven’t discarded all aspects of American democracy — but by establishing their own representative body on the steps of City Hall, Occupy L.A. is sending a clear message: The “altar” of democracy in the City of Angels has been profaned, so we have established a new one in its place.