The First War of National Liberation

(First published in Jewish Ideas Daily, Dec. 21, 2011 )

This is the 2,179th anniversary of the world’s first war of national liberation.  There have been many since.  To a surprising extent, such wars have followed the pattern first established by the Maccabees.  They, like later heads of independence movements, were leaders of a people conquered and occupied by a great empire.  They fought to claim the right of national self-determination.

Resentment of foreign rule may simmer for a long time, but war is often remembered as beginning in a dramatic incident. In Switzerland, this memory belongs to William Tell. He was the national hero who in 1307 refused to bow to a hat belonging to the Hapsburg governor, which was set on a tall pole in the center of Altdorf for the sole purpose of forcing Swiss freemen to genuflect to it. Tell’s defiance sparked the fight for Swiss independence.

The story about Tell may be true, but it was not recorded until the 1560s. The Jewish “William Tell” moment occurred in the Year 167 B.C.E., when a priest named Matityahu (Mattathias) refused an order to make a sacrifice to a Greek god. Matityahu’s story is better documented than Tell’s, since it comes from the Book of First Maccabees (not the later II, III, and IV Maccabees), a text actually written in the Maccabean period.

At the time, the wealthy and powerful Jewish residents of Jerusalem had made a “covenant with the Gentiles”: They followed Hellenistic ways, had their circumcisions surgically effaced, and built a Greek gymnasium for training in Hellenistic sports, literature, ethics, and philosophy. But the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes upset the equilibrium, ordering that Jewish texts be destroyed and Jews forced to eat pork and break the Sabbath.

Matityahu, with his sons, fled Jerusalem for his ancestral village of Modi’in. There, a Seleucid officer ordered him to make a public sacrifice to Zeus. Matityahu refused. “I and my sons and our kinsmen,” he said, “shall follow the covenant of our fathers.”

Other Jews had said as much: “Many Israelites strongly and steadfastly refused to eat forbidden food. They chose death in order . . . to keep from violating the Holy Covenant, and they were put to death.” What made Matityahu a great leader was the fact that he refused to accept the necessity of choosing between violation of Jewish law and death. Instead, he chose to vindicate the Jews’ right to determine their fate as a nation by organizing an army and driving the Seleucids from the land of Israel.

After Matityahu refused to make the pagan sacrifice in Modi’in, another Jewish man stepped forward to make the sacrifice—and Matityahu “slew him upon the altar.” He then killed the Seleucid officer, destroyed the altar itself, and fled with his sons into the hills, shouting, “Everyone who loves the law and stands by the covenant follow me!”

Suddenly we are on familiar ground: the modern war of national liberation. There are no prophets in the book of Maccabees, and no miracles. This is the story of a man and a nation, faced with the awful choice of watching their nation die or risking their own death, who take their fate into their own hands and fight for their right to be governed by Jewish rulers under Jewish laws—the right we call national self-determination.

Most aspects of the Maccabees’ ancient war are uncannily familiar. Not the Seleucid army’s elephants, of course; but the Greek war machine was beaten by Matityahu’s untrained volunteers, just as modern wars for independence often feature well-equipped imperial armies fighting ad hoc forces. Other familiar patterns are also there in I Maccabees. The Jews convened national assemblies, much as modern liberation movements do. They struggled to form a unified command structure. They sought aid from the Seleucid’s rival great powers, Rome and Sparta.

The Maccabean war was also just as messy as modern wars of national liberation. The Jews fought against a great empire; but Jews also fought other Jews for principle and power, Jewish Hellenizers against Jews who stood for the ancient covenant.

Despite these ambiguities, the victories won under the leadership of Matityahu and his five sons produced two centuries of autonomous Judean government, giving Jewish intellectuals the time and opportunity to cement an enduring Jewish culture. Without those two centuries of self-government, it is doubtful that Jewish identity would have withstood two millennia during which Jews in Israel lived under foreign occupation and most Jews lived in exile.

The Book of Maccabees is found in the Coptic, Orthodox, and Catholic Bibles; but few Jews have ever read it. Though it was written in Hebrew by a Jew, it survived antiquity only in Greek translation. This is because it is a very dangerous book. To read Maccabees is to risk being persuaded that peoples like the Jews had and have rights to national self-determination. Acting on such an idea, by starting a war of national liberation, is a perilous thing to do.

In August 2009, the government of Sri Lanka finally put down the war of national liberation that the Tamil people had waged against the central authorities for 35 years. As the government drove the losing Tamils from their homes, it kept journalists away, so no one can say how many were killed. Hundreds of thousands now live in exile, and their prospects within Sri Lanka are bleak.

Jewish leaders struggling for a Jewish future in the second and third centuries knew about such consequences. Large-scale Jewish uprisings aimed at national liberation had failed in the years 70, 115, and 132 C.E., with horrific results. Matityahu was well aware that the idea of a right to national self-determination was the most dangerous idea the Jews could possibly have entertained.

Hanukkah, the holiday that celebrates Judean independence, was tamed in later years by focusing on its purely religious aspects. The Book of Maccabees was not added to the Jewish canon. Hebrew copies were not made.

But this incendiary text exists. Pick it up and read it. I dare you.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.