A week before Chanukah, Israeli soldiers set up a 15-foot tall menorah in Gaza. As the holiday arrives, menorahs large and small will be lit in enemy territory. Lights will flicker along tanks and from across rubble-strewn battlefields. Out of the darkness of the Jihad, there will be light.The Jewish holiday commemorating the resistance of the Maccabees, a conservative religious family from the hinterlands of Israel, has always had a special resonance in Israel. In the northern parts of Israel that have often come under Hamas rocket attacks, the shells and debris of the rockets have been repurposed into menorahs symbolizing darkness becoming light. As public menorah lightings in America and Europe are canceled to avoid triggering the rage of Islamists and leftist allies, preparations are underway for a bigger Chanukah than ever in Israel. 300,000 Israelis have been displaced from their homes because of the war that began with the Hamas invasion of Israel on Oct 7. The war brought an end to tourism and hotel rooms around the country are full of refugees from the war who are living out of the contents of their suitcases. Children who have spent two months in wartime and horror need something to celebrate. In city squares, voices will ring with the classic Chanukah children’s song, “Banu hosech legaresh” or “We came to drive back the darkness” in defiance of the long solstice night.
In Modiin, the hometown of the Maccabees where the revolt against the Syrian-Greek Empire’s war on Judaism originated, people have been forced to head for shelters after rocket warnings sounded, but it’s not stopping them from preparing menorahs in every home and square. Or from continuing to donate supplies, everything from toothbrushes to cans of tuna, for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and the soldiers mobilized to fight the Islamic terrorists.According to the European Union, the Maccabean city is actually an “illegal settlement” on land that belongs to the Muslim invaders, and not to the Jews who had fought an empire to free it over 2,000 years ago. Chanukah reaffirms the history of Modiin and the rest of Israel. History hits differently in Israel. This is where King Antiochus IV Epiphanes dispatched his armies from Emmaus or Hama, a West Bank city favored by the invaders because of its hot baths, where the Romans would later settle and rename the country “Palestine” and the city “Nicopolis” or “City of Victory”. The thousands of invaders, according to the Book of Maccabees, brought along slave traders and chains expecting to capture and sell the Jewish population around Jerusalem into slavery. The historical echoes of Hamas taking hostages are not hard to find, and they’re not just symbolic. The Maccabean uprising proved incomplete. Its leaders were betrayed and killed. The man behind the scenes, Antipater, was rewarded by Rome with a kingship for his son Herod. Herod, the son of Antipater, an Edomite, and his mother, a Nabbatean Arab, became the first Arab ruler of Israel. The last Jewish king of Israel, a grandson of Simon the Maccabee, was dispatched by Herod to be crucified in Rome. The Herodians and Rome turned to Arab mercenaries to maintain their rule. After Herod died, the foreign Arab mercenaries were unleashed to eradicate entire Jewish villages. And during the Jewish Revolt against Rome, the Arab fighters took a special delight in disemboweling Jewish refugees fleeing from the fighting. Chanukah is a reminder that history isn’t a progressive arrow leading ever upward, but a circle which comes around again and again. Israeli soldiers are fighting battles on the same plains and hills, sometimes along roads, where the ancient kings struggled with the Philistines, the ancient European colonists whose name was given to this place by Rome, and which was adopted much later by the Arab Islamic settlers. Here, past, present and future blend together. Zionism was the assertion that history was not a one-way street. It’s an idea central to Judaism. That is why Jews celebrate Chanukah, to commemorate a revolt that briefly brought freedom before being ground under by Roman and Herodian tyranny, and the miracle of a flask of oil that lasted for eight days as a reminder that G-d and His will are unbounded by the confines of time. Beyond all the children’s parties and gatherings, in Jerusalem, Zedekiah’s Cave, which King Solomon used as the quarries for the building of the First Temple and later used by Jews fleeing the Babylonian invasion, will have extended hours. Among its advantages, it’s underground. And it also showcases the thousands of years of Jewish history that Islamists and leftists deny. Two thousand years later, they are once again preparing for war in Modiin. But Israel is not just living for war. The city, like all Israeli cities, is busy with blood drives and relief efforts. Some have opened their homes to the refugees from cities under fire. Families that have never met each other before are sleeping under one roof. People are cutting back on their shopping to be able to buy food and clothes for those in need. Others go to hospitals to cheer up the wounded. While we so often dwell on the darkness, this is a season in which light drives out the darkness. Politics is all too often a study of evil. And it is vitally important to know evil in order to fight it. But we must not forget that while soldiers fight on in Gaza, the lights of life are being lit across Israel and the world. Over 2,000 years ago, the Maccabees entered a ruined temple and found nothing clean or pure in it. The Syrian-Greek invaders and their Jewish collaborators had made a point of defiling it. Much as Hamas had made a point of blowing up the synagogues of Gaza and defiling the corpses of the dead. Instead of despairing, they lit the one flask of oil they found and watched it burn, miraculously, for eight days in a menorah of wood that they had cobbled together. In that light among the darkness, they felt the presence and the love of G-d. In opposition to the cult of death that governs in Gaza and across the Muslim world, the essence of Jewish resilience is to be found in that hope and faith. After the October 7 massacres, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of charity and a renewed interest in religion by many secular Israelis who had previously dismissed it as backward nonsense. The Chanukah lights will come after tens of thousands more have taken to lighting Sabbath candles every Friday night. They come after a nation that had been torn between the religious and the secular, over judicial reform and politics, remembered it had a common enemy. No one knows what the future will bring. We light a candle not because we know, but because we hope. Israel is the place where Jews were massacred and nearly exterminated by Babylon and Rome, but it’s also the place where lights were lit for thousands of years, sometimes in homes and sometimes in hidden caves, always remembering that miracles can always happen. Some miracles are obvious, while others are hidden. Survival is itself a miracle. Whether you see the fact that over two thousand years later Jews in Israel are still fighting for their survival as a tragedy or a miracle is a matter of perspective. Only the dead know peace. Life is struggle. The gift of life is not freedom from evil, but the opportunity to fight against it. Chanukah carries forward the light of a two-thousand year old fight against evil. It is a reminder that even out of the worst possible darkness and despair, light will still come.