Chanukah 5777

In a very clever analysis of the electoral college vote in the Times the other day (click here), Nate Cohn made passing reference to an obscure, long-since forgotten bit of American history called the Toledo War, an almost bloodless conflict in 1835 between, of all unlikely combatants, Ohio and Michigan over a strip of land that included (obviously) the city of Toledo. There were no deaths. Ohio won. Sort of. Not even really. It was more of a draw. Unless you’ve actually lived in Toledo, you’ve probably never even heard it mentioned. (Having said that, Cohn’s use of it is very clever.) But it got me to thinking about other wars, American and otherwise, that no one seems ever to remember even taking place. King Philip’s War. The Sheepeater War. The Jaybird-Woodpecker War. The Quasi-War. The War of Jenkin’s Ear. The Sonderbund War. The Anglo-Zanzibar War, known at least to historians as the world’s shortest war. The Syro-Palestinian War.

Come again? Syria and Palestine went to war? Well, not exactly. But forgotten though they may be, and more or less by all, the five Syro-Palestinian Wars still constitute the background to the events of the so-called Chanukah story to the extent that not knowing about these wars almost definitely means understanding the story of the Maccabean Revolt at least slightly incorrectly.  So, as Chanukah approaches and our thoughts turn towards the first third of the second century BCE (or am I projecting?), I thought I’d write about those specific wars and then point to their latter-day echo in the world today.  It was, to say the least, a long time ago.

When Alexander III of Macedon, known forever more as Alexander the Great, died at the ridiculous age of 32 in 323 BCE, he had managed to conquer more or less all of the civilized world that was known to him to exist, something no historical personality before or since has ever managed. And he was motivated, other than by the wish to be king of everything, by the specific philosophy of life today called Hellenism. In somewhat of the same way the British (and the French and the Belgians, etc.) felt they were doing something positive and reasonable by unilaterally establishing their empire by force and then forcing European values and practices on the lands over which they ruled, Alexander felt that Greek civilization—then at its highpoint in terms of the richness of its cultural output—was not merely the culture of a specific country (and, for that matter, not even his country), but rather the greatest expression of human creativity and industry the world had ever seen. And so he set himself to bringing that culture to the world…by conquering the empires and nations that got in his way or wished to resist his onslaught. His boyhood tutor, Aristotle, would have been proud!

And then he died, leaving behind no obvious heir. (He did eventually have a son, but the lad was born after Alexander died and both the boy and his uncle, Alexander’s half-brother—who was the only other possible heir to the throne—were murdered in the years following Alexander’s death.) And so the stage was set for violence. Whether it is true or not that Alexander, lying on his deathbed, answered merely “the strongest” when asked who should succeed him, the contest to see who exactly that was going to be began as Alexander breathed his last. The generals, called by historians the Diadochi (from the Greek word for “heir”), basically went to war with each other, each determined to assassinate the maximum number of Alexander’s other generals and thus, if possible, to become the emperor of is vast domain. The wars went on for years. When the dust settled—and we’re talking about a lot of dust—four of Alexander’s generals had acquired almost all of his kingdom as their personal fiefdoms: Ptolemy became king of Egypt, Seleucus became king of Syria (which included more or less all of what we would call the Middle East), Antigonus became king of Macedonia, and Lysimachus became king of Asia Minor, where Turkey is today.

The story of these wars is incredibly complicated. I remember trying to master all the details when I was preparing for my oral examination in ancient history back in graduate school and finding the sheer number of battles and personalities almost impossible to keep straight. Some details stay with me still. Others, I’m sure I’ve forgotten. But one particular figure, almost universally forgotten today, is a pivotal personality in the story I want to tell.

Seleucus, the first ruler in the dynasty that eventually led to King Antiochus IV ruling over the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, was an interesting personality: devoted fully to the Hellenism that had so potently motivated Alexander in his quest to rule the world, but famous for the tolerance and liberality he displayed with respect to the various cults and religions of the peoples over whom he ruled. And it wasn’t just a matter of tolerance either: Seleucus himself appears to have embarked on a policy of integrating himself and his people into the citizenry of the lands he ruled. He himself married a Bactrian princess (Bactria was roughly where Afghanistan is today) in 324 BCE and he encouraged his officers and officials to marry locals as well.  And he adopted and adapted local customs as well, making them part of Seleucid culture.

How the Jews fared under Seleucus is not known exactly, but we can assume that he pursued the same liberal policy in their regard that characterized the way he governed the rest of his empire. He himself was assassinated in 281 BCE, but he was replaced by his son, Antiochus, known to history as Antiochus I, who adopted and followed most of his father’s policies, even going so far as personally to sponsor the reconstruction of the famous Esagila Temple in Borsippa, about twelve miles south of Babylon.

Things went less well with the neighbors to the southwest. At first, Seleucus and Ptolemy, the newly crowned “pharaoh” of Egypt, got along. But that didn’t last and, by the time of Antiochus I, the neighboring kingdoms had undertaken a long series of border wars known to historians today as the Syrian-Palestinian Wars. It was basically a football game that lasted for well over a century…and Israel was the football.  And so began a period of great turmoil in which the Jews of Israel ended up living in a different empire every few years. Indeed, control over Israel changed hands five times in the course of the third century BCE, the decisive event finally being the Battle of Panium (fought at the foot of Mount Hermon, north of the Golan Heights), which marked the permanent end of Ptolemaic Egyptian rule and the formal inclusion, yet again, of Israel into the Seleucid Empire.  And there was a sixth war between the Seleucids and Egypt as well in 170 BCE when Ptolemy VI declared war on Antiochus IV, the villain of the Chanukah story.

Given the degree to which ancient history in general is either undertaught or ignored entirely in American high schools, it’s hardly surprising that these personalities and even the names of their empires are basically unknown to most today.  But just from my brief summary, it should be clear just how wrong it would be to tell the story of Chanukah in a vacuum, as though the only newsworthy events of the day had to do with the Temple in Jerusalem.

Antiochus IV, the bad king in the Chanukah story, was a megalomaniac and probably a bit unbalanced. On the one hand, he acclaimed himself as a god, shamelessly referencing himself as a divine being on the coins he had struck in his own honor. But he was also in the habit of showing up unannounced and unprotected in public bath houses to prove just how much of a common man he truly was. He also occasionally put his own name in when municipal offices were vacant and seeking applicants, something like the president of the United States applying for an open position in the Washington D.C. city hall.

I mentioned that there was a sixth war with Egypt, but not that it didn’t go well at all. And that really is to say the least: it ended up with the king’s public humiliation when he was met on his way to conquer Egypt (again!) by a single Roman statesman, one Gaius Popillius Laenas, who ordered him in the name of the Roman Senate to turn around and go home…or consider himself also to be at war with the Roman Republic. Antiochus, shaken, said he’d think about it. Laenas, unimpressed, unsheathed his sword, used it to draw a circle in the sand around Antiochus, and told him to make his decision before leaving the circle, whereupon Antiochus agreed to withdraw. That was in 168, a scant four years before Chanukah. And so, desperate for support at home in the wake of that kind of public mortification, Antiochus decided to curry favor with the peoples over whom he ruled, starting in Israel with those most likely to be supportive of him and his policies, those eager to embrace Hellenism and to transform the ancient religion of the Jews into something modern, something consonant with Greek values, something that would encourage Jews to feel part of the larger world and not apart from it.

And now starts the part of the story we all know. The Jews whom Antiochus chose to support had their followers. But the “regular” Jews weren’t with them. And when the Maccabees left Modin and embarked on a rebellion against the Seleucids that could conceivably lead to Jewish autonomy within the empire, they themselves were probably more successful than they anticipated being. And the rest, as we all know, is history.

So everything changes and nothing changes. Here we are, thousands of years later. The players back then other than Judah the Maccabee himself are all long forgotten, as are the names of most of their gods and their national states.  And yet…the world is still a huge football match and the Middle East is still the football. This is surely true of Israel. But it’s even more true of Syria. Indeed, when we look at the misery of Syria, what do we see if not millions of “regular” people on the ground paying with their lives (or, at least, with their sense of security and wellbeing) for the right to be the ball in someone else’s game? The key players in Syria, after all, are hardly the Syrians—whose leaders, including President Assad, are only stand-ins for the real players on the field: Iran, Russia, Turkey, and ISIS.  But no matter how many times the pendulum swings back and forth between potential victors and losers… it’s only the people on the ground who pay the price.

I wish you and all your families all a very happy, satisfying Chanukah.  We’ll be splitting our times between our family here and our family in Toronto, but we too are looking forward to lots of crispy latkes and lots of fun. I wish that for you all too!