Golda Meir holding a menorah in the Poalei Zion tableau of “Jewish Rebirth” in Milwaukee, May 18, 1919 — exactly 29 years before the actual birth of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 (Source: State Historical Society of Wisconsin)

From the very beginnings of the Zionist movement, the story of the Maccabees would serve as an inspiration. As Theodore Herzl wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again.” Vladimir Jabotinsky similarly declared, “Yes, they have arisen—the children of those whose ancestor was Judah, lion of the Maccabees.” Similarly, Ahad Aham, founder of cultural Zionism, proclaimed, “We celebrate not only the consecration and renewal of the Temple, some two thousand years ago—but also the renewal and revival of this same Jewish nation, reviving its soul once again for a new life.” David Ben-Gurion also believed Hanukkah is a major festival celebrating Jewish freedom.

The tale of the Maccabees, however, did not just serve as an inspiration for the Zionist movement but it also was incorporated into contemporary Zionist literature. For example, Leon Uris’ book Exodus, which did much to promote Zionism within popular culture and to convince people to support Israel, referred to the Etzel and the Levi as “Maccabees,” as a way to allude to the fact that the “New Jew” was a direct descendant of the Ancient Hebrews. According to the character David in Exodus, “Our very existence is a miracle. We outlived the Romans and the Greeks and even Hitler. We have outlived every oppressor and we will outlive the British Empire.” Thus, the example of the Maccabees was utilized to its fullest as an example of how the Jewish people could succeed to gain independence once again.

Hannah Szenes, the famous Hungarian Jewish Zionist poet, in a poem called Hanukkah, made a similar point: “It is Chanukkah and the candle flames fare; And all Jewish hearts beat, throb, bear; We recall the image of heroes; the disappeared ancient peoples; the period of pharaohs, the Greek oppression; neither could break our will for expression; we took the Torah, took it with us; we drew faith from it into all of us; we walked through the plains hungry and thirsty; but G-d was with us, so we were never lonely; And we who stem from such ancestry; should not despair but continue to fight; as we are reassured by the candle light; do not quail Israel, there is still hope.”

In 1912, Zerubavel, a distinguished Jewish poet and Labor Zionist leader, proposed that Zionists should utilize Mod’in as a site of pilgrimage and to identify with it as part of the Zionist struggle to establish an independent Jewish state. Like Szenes and Uris, he saw a direct link between modern Jewish heroes who were fighting for Israel’s independence at that time and the Maccabees. Indeed, since the end of 1903, school children did make pilgrimages to Mod’in during Hanukkah. In addition, Shaul Tchernichowski, a prominent Hebrew poet of the early 20th century, wrote, “Where are they, the holy ones? Where are the Maccabees? All Israel is holy. You are the Maccabee!

Indeed, such declarations by Zionist leaders and poets have also made their way into Israeli music. For example, the popular Hanukkah song Mi Y’Malel was written in the early 20th century by Menashe Ravina. This song proclaims, “Who can retell the things that befell us? Who can count them? / In every generation a hero or sage came to our aid! Hark! At this time of year in days of yore; Maccabees the Temple did restore; and today we sing a song of praise; to the heroes of our own days.”

It is not surprising that Hanukkah is a major theme in proclamations by Zionist leaders and made its way into Zionist literature, Zionist poetry, and Israeli music. As the Israeli scholar Mordechai Nisan claimed, “The exceptional story of the Maccabee rebellion and victory against the Greek Syrian Seleucid Empire, beginning in 167 BCE in the foothills of Samaria, provided Theodor Herzl in 1896 CE with an inspiring model for the modern Jewish national renaissance. Some fifty years later, as Herzl predicted, Zionism became a concrete physical reality with the political founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Ever since, Maccabee has become a household word in Israel, referring to such sundry things as beer and basketball.”

As these texts demonstrate, there are many parallels between the establishment of Israel and the Maccabean Revolt. According to Nisan, “The Hasmoneans were zealots for Torah and Zion when they launched their fight for freedom against the Greek imperialists in Judea. In the 1940s within British-mandate Palestine, a small but principled Brit Ha-hashmonayim namesake movement propagated a similar campaign against foreign rule in Eretz-Israel. Time had not altered the basic parameters characterizing Jewish existence in the homeland.”

By Rachel Avraham

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