Hanukkah’s Zionist Legacy

Hanukkah’s Zionist Legacy

For about a half year, I’ve been locked in an epic e-mail argument with David McReynolds (retired leader of the War Resisters League and the Socialist Party candidate for US President in 1980 and 2000) and a few of his comrades. All are vehemently anti-Zionist, and some quite vile about it. What follows is one of my responses in this dialogue, which also attempts to place Hanukkah and Zionism in historical context. – R. Seliger

I want to comment on a mistaken idea that came across in one message that the Jews only had a “kingdom of Israel” for two centuries. But even speaking as a Zionist, I don’t believe that the Jews’ origins in the ancient land of Israel provides full justification for modern political Zionism. The only moral justification for Zionism as the quest for a secure homeland was the unacceptable situation of harsh antisemitism that the Jews experienced in most lands where they lived – especially in Europe.

However, when the Jews’ national culture transformed into a mostly religious culture during nearly 2,000 years of diaspora, the revered memory of the ancient homeland and the time of national sovereignty provided Zionism’s spiritual basis. This became important when some Jews advocated various schemes for establishing some refuge or “homeland” for the persecuted masses of Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century ( e.g., Patagonia and Uganda). When Theodor Herzl himself, desperate for some place of refuge during these years of mounting antisemitism in Europe and widespread impoverishment and pogroms in Russia, embraced the British notion of a Jewish homeland in Uganda, his own World Zionist Congress overwhelmingly rejected it (and him) in favor of the original vision of Palestine. Herzl had to publicly repent before the Congress to regain leadership of the movement.

The tenure of the Hebrew tribes in ancient Israel, and then of what became the Jewish people, was much longer than two centuries (add a thousand years and you’re closer to the truth). First, there are the years (probably more than one century) of the tribal Hebrew confederation that had no king. Then there’s the united kingdom of Saul, David, Solomon and one of Solomon’s sons; this united kingdom did not last long, being split into the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of “Israel.” It’s probably the two-century existence of the northern kingdom of Israel that is mistakenly being taken as the “only time” that the Jews were sovereign in ancient Israel/Palestine.

The northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah (whose capital was Jerusalem) remained another couple of centuries until destroyed by the Babylonians. It is from Judah that the Jewish people take their name.

The Jews survived captivity and exile in Babylonia and were permitted to return under Persian rule; a large diaspora Jewish community remained in Mesopotamia voluntarily, but returnees rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and rebuilt a political community under Ezra and Nehemiah. A couple of centuries later (around 300-200 BC), after Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire, Judea (as it came to be called) was fought over by the competing Greek dynasties in Syria and Egypt (Cleopatra was the last of the Greek rulers of Egypt). It was during this confusing time of dynastic warfare that the Jews rebelled under the leadership of the Hasmonean priestly family (the famed Maccabees, celebrated during Hanukkah).

The Hasmoneans eventually established their dynasty as rulers of the kingdom of Judea and conquered all or most of what came later to be known as Palestine. The Hasmoneans were rotten dynastic rulers and during the last century BC, their rule ended violently when Herod married into their family and maniacally murdered the last of them, including his son and his beloved wife.

Soon after, Judea fell under Roman rule – not by war, but the Romans cleverly infiltrated their influence until an exhausted Judea fell into their hands like ripe fruit. In the first century of the Common Era, the Jews launched a massive rebellion that was brutally put down and Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed (this is also the time of the famous mass suicide at Masada); and Jewish prisoner-slaves built the Coliseum in Rome. A large Jewish population remained, however and they again rebelled in the 130s AD under a talented military leader known as Bar Kochba. Again, however, after a long, hard fight, the Jews suffered catastrophe. And this time, the Romans eradicated the name of Judea, renaming it Palestine.

The mass killings and forced expulsion of the Jews by the Romans in both wars, but especially the last – what we would now call ethnic cleansing – mostly depopulated “Palestine” of its Jews. Still, Jewish communities have returned over the centuries, especially to Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed. (A significant Jewish population was massacred by the Crusaders upon their conquest of Jerusalem.)

To reiterate my point before this historical discourse: ancient history does not justify Zionism, but it establishes the spiritual basis. The Jews would never have thought of Palestine as a potential place of refuge, without the memory, preserved by the Jewish faith, of the ancient homeland(s).

By | 2006-12-21T05:19:00-05:00 December 21st, 2006|Blog|4 Comments


  1. Seth Kulick December 21, 2006 at 10:22 am - Reply

    Is your long email exchange with McReynolds and others publicly available? I would really like to see that. I looked on the web but could not find it.

  2. Ralph Seliger December 21, 2006 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    McReynolds has often posted comments from our debate on his moderated Socialist discussion list(s). But he’s much more dispossed to posting bon mots from his anti-Zionist comrades, than my responses — which he includes occasionally, while usually making clear that he disagrees. He indulges me and occasionally preaches that while Meretz supporters are wrong to be Zionists, that our hearts are in the right place. You can ask McReynolds for access to his list(s) by e-mailing him (dmcreynolds@nyc.rr.com).

  3. Anonymous December 29, 2006 at 4:40 pm - Reply

    this is a fascinating issue. I can accept that Judaism was ONCE a national identity. and that , perhaps, it’s also now one again, however self consciously it’s been re created. The real question I think for me at this point is: is this good for Judaism? is Nationalism itself something that engenders compassion for all people, for the world, for each other, and Jewish values generally? Is this what we really want? Is religion not compromised when it becomes mixed up with nationalism? You can say Israeli Judaism isn’t religious. but of course, it is at least partially, and in it’s manifestations, seems to have a negative impact on Jewish ethics. At the end of the day, we may have made a faustian bargain. I hear Zionists extoll the idea that at last Jews are ‘normal’ , like everyone else. (is that good?!) and at other times, talk about Israel as a ‘light unto the nations’. you can’t have it both ways, and in fact, it seems that the existence of Israel has engendered a lot of antisemitism around the world as Jews are targets for those whose issues (often justifiably) are with the state of Israel. Clearly the Zionist dream of Jews moving to Israel has not been realized, and that if it were, Israel would be even less viable as a state than it is.

  4. Bruce January 2, 2007 at 4:44 am - Reply

    You say that “[t]he only moral justification for Zionism..was the harsh antisemitism that the Jews experienced…in Europe.

    And “ancient history does not justify Zionism, but it establishes the spiritual basis.”

    Allow me to respectfully disagree.

    What you call “ancient” history establishes more than a spiritual connection…it establishes a physical one.

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