Tonight is the first night of Chanukah. Modern celebrants (including Senator Hatch) focus on the miracle of the Menorah, which tradition tells us stayed lit for eight days on a single day's oil. However, Chanukah is also the political story of a few determined Maccabees leading an uprising against the much stronger Seleucid Empire.
Though the events Chanukah commemorates took place over 2,000 years ago, the historical story of the Maccabees provides useful lessons for our modern era. From the Seleucids, we see how not to fight a guerrilla insurgency. From the Maccabees, we learn how to rally a people and a nation.
Here are Chanukah's five geopolitical lessons:
1) Corrupt governments propped up by outsiders are inherently unstable. Josephus Flavius recounts that the Maccabee rebellion was triggered in large part by the Seleucid governor, Antiochus, who installed a series of corrupt and unqualified High Priests in exchange for bribes. This malfeasance led to widespread discontent among the local populace, whose taxes went to support the operation of the Temple and the Priests' upkeep. The discontent born of this corruption fomented rebellion.
Currently, Afghanistan ranks below only Somalia (which has no functioning government) as the most corrupt country in the world. The mayor of Kabul has been sentenced to four years in prison for graft, but is still on the job. Hamid Karzai recently won another term in an election widely seen as deeply corrupt. In Afghanistan, we are the Seleucids: Massive military force cannot prop up a deeply corrupt regime indefinitely. If we want to end the insurgency, we must clean up the corruption.
2) Insurgencies feed off charismatic leaders. Over two millennia after his death, Judah Maccabee still captures the popular imagination for his daring and courage. Josephus recounts that Judah's major accomplishment in the early years of the rebellion was staying alive. Judah eluded capture by Antiochus's forces, and employed guerilla tactics to win small but significant victories.
In the modern fight against terrorism, the United States should not create figures like Judah, charismatic leaders for the other side to rally around. President George W. Bush did exactly the opposite: He promoted the cult of Bin Laden after September 11th, focusing the world's attention on one man who was wanted "Dead or Alive." Such pronouncements give guerilla insurgencies a guiding symbol.
3) Rebuilding symbolic structures matters. The literal meaning of Chanukah is "rededication." Josephus recounts that Judah found the Temple in ruins, defiled and destroyed by Antiochus's military forces. Judah recognized the spiritual and political imperative to rebuild the Temple as a symbol of strength and unity. The Maccabees quickly rededicated the Temple, giving the holiday its name.
In contrast, our desecrated buildings are now but four stories tall. It has been eight years since the destruction of the World Trade Center. Freedom Tower could have been a symbol of our resilience and confidence, but has instead become a model of bureaucratic inefficiency and political bickering. Rededication of symbolic structures is not easy, but it is essential and it must proceed faster.
4) Israel was an independent state when much of Europe was untamed wilderness. The Maccabee rebellion successfully re-established the independent state of Israel in 160 B.C. This highlights an important historical fact: The modern State of Israel is not a post-Holocaust reparation to the Jewish people, but rather the restoration of an ancient independent state of the Jewish people.
There should be an independent Palestinian state created alongside Israel via an internationally supported peace process. Nevertheless, the Maccabees remind us that the history of Israel began long before Auschwitz.
5) The world marches on. Judah's enemies, the Seleucids, were a remnant of the mighty Greek Empire. From a broader geopolitical perspective, the key story of Chanukah involves neither Judah nor Antiochus. At the end of the rebellion, in 161 B.C., Judah entered into a mutual defense treaty with a fledgling but promising nation-state: Rome. Rome's emergence is the greatest geopolitical story of Chanukah, and it can easily be lost at the periphery.
For us, even as we confront difficult decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq, we must not lose sight of the broader political ebbs and flows of the world.
In the story of Chanukah, Judah the Maccabee is many things: revolutionary, guerilla leader, warrior, and statesman. In the modern view, he is both an adversary and an ally: He builds a state, but knocks down an empire. In all his roles, Judah has much to teach us.