I'm preparing this blog post at the end of Hanukkah 5776, which is in mid-December 2015, Christian style, or near the start of the month of Rabi' al-awal, 1437 A.H., i.e., counting, as Muslims do, from the Hijra of Mohammed.
I use the different dates not because they're important in themselves, but just to remind Christians that the scientifically-calibrated Gregorian calendar may be the best-est, most accurate, most convenient calendar, but that it's the Gregorian calendar and a calendar, not the calendar and the only one around. All God's children — or at least Abraham's — got calendars and reckon time, but not all in terms of A.D., Anno Domini, "in the year of our" — or the — "Lord."
I'm also recycling below much of a blog from "a Yule Tide" in 2009, in which additional American troops were "gearing up for the war in Afghanistan," and I asked readers to momentarily contemplate the much discussed "true meaning of Christmas and wonder what The Prince of Peace might think about that move," continuing what we used to call in the Vietnam era, a dirty little war. I noted that, applying What Would Jesus Say?, "hawks can always cite Jesus's saying he came not to bring peace 'but a sword' (Matthew 10.34)" — and noted that "truth be told, we humans have never been keen on 'Blessed be the meek' and 'resist not evil,' or turning the other cheek to be hit, or more generally like the peace-love-dove bits of Jesus's Sermon on the Mountain (Matthew 5.1-7.27). The kick-ass Christ as The Rider on the White Horse of the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse 19.11 f.) is the more relevant figure for most folk, most of the time, but He doesn't have a holiday.
No, Christmas is the time of the Christ-Child and the paradox of unimaginable power getting itself incarnated in a helpless infant.
Now in another time of tribulations (and this time with Donald Trump moving US political discussion toward open belligerence), now in a time of civil war in Syria, with the Great Powers and a number of lesser ones joining in — now is a time to again consider, as some might have in 2009, one true meaning of Hanukkah.
Among other things, Hanukkah celebrates a successful insurrection (167-60 B.C.E.) by a movement led by religious zealots, first for an end to imperial suppression of their religion and then for national liberation and a return to religious purity: a struggle to get the Greeks of the Seleucid Empire out of Judea, and to get the Greekified, elitist Jewish collaborators out of power or dead — and achieve a truly sovereign, fully independent, rigorously Jewish state.
According to my old history book (Joseph Ward Swain, The Ancient World, volume 2 [© 1950]), if not according to my old rabbis, the struggle in Judea "was first and foremost between Hellenized and non-Hellenized Jews" — richer, better educated city-folk following newfangled Greek ways, versus those supporting the old ways — "with Greek troops supporting the former and the populace following the latter faction" (p. 202).
It was a struggle that was probably classic back in the time of the Maccabees and certainly to become classic: state terror by the imperial Seleucid authorities alternating with rebel terrorism against collaborators and a "king's officer" here and there, followed by the rebels' fleeing to the hills. Soon, "[A]ll who became fugitives to escape their troubles joined them and reinforced them. They organized an army, and struck down sinners in their anger," i.e., Jews who accepted Greek culture, "and lawless men in their wrath; the survivors fled to the Gentiles for safety …" (1 Maccabees chs. 1-2, esp. 2.23-25, 2.43-44).
And when the Seleucid Empire ran into difficulties elsewhere and couldn't suppress the rebellion, the traditionalist Jews got religious liberty restored, then the execution of a Hellenized, collaborating high priest, and, fairly soon — if only for a while — "complete national independence" (Swain 203-04).
There's a moral here for superpowers: Keep your troops out of local conflicts, especially when those conflicts involve religion and nationalism — to say nothing of tribal rivalries; and stay out of wars in localities that may have strategic locations but really aren't worth fighting for. And do not try to impose your modern ways on others, however superior your ways might be or clearly are.
As was said back in the 1960s, "'To liberate' is a reflexive verb": with a few blatant exceptions, you don't liberate others, people liberate themselves. However much Americans might have wanted to liberate Afghan women from Taliban zealotry, we could at most help those women with their own struggle. However much some worthy rebels might want to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and crush ISIL, there's only a limited amount of help we in the "Zionist-Crusader godless West" can do to help them.
Most Afghans were happy to see the Taliban removed from power in 2001-02, but they became increasingly unhappy the longer we foreign infidels stuck around. Afghans are as tribal and faction-ridden as the ancient Jews, but the Afghan peoples have always managed to cooperate to expel a truly foreign occupation.
Ditto in Iraq, at least of late.
The Seleucids were one of the successor states to the empire of Alexander the Great, with a center of power in what is now Syria; and the Seleucids had their problems in Afghanistan, as did Alexander before them and the Persians before that. Afghanistan is "the place empires go to die" — the British and Russian more recently — and the best rule there is to get in if you must; do what you can to achieve some limited goals; and then get the hell out. If you can help the Afghans from a distance (which you should if you've killed a fair number of their people), do so generously.
In a nastily ironic variation on a historical theme, the religious zealots of "the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" — which includes Syria — are attempting to establish a political entity larger than Judea under the dynasty that arose from the Maccabees, and a state with ambitions that go beyond those of the Seleucids: a Caliphate that could, in theory, reach from Spain to Indonesia, and more immediately would include large hunks of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Back in 2009, I repeated the rule that Great Powers like the US as much as possible should keep our troops out of countries where they're not wanted, and should avoid sending troops to fight for one faction or tribal grouping against their rivals. Not unless one has time, resources, money, and troops to spare: lots of all of them. And America is running short.
For a happy Hanukkah 5776, Lessons in Foreign Policy, aspect, we're should consider the probability that we Americans are like the Seleucid Empire in being over-extended, stressed, and in no position for an invasion of "the Levant" and a protracted war to suppress modern fanatics who make the Maccabees look like a Unitarian-sponsored Scout troop. At the same time, precisely because ISIS is both so vicious and viciously attractive to fanatics, we will need to do something the Seleucids would not do: cooperate with the other established states to contain ISIS and resist it with a light enough touch that it will "burn itself out" in a military/social parallel to the horrific ways highly lethal diseases "burn themselves out."
Neither we, the British, French, Russians, nor for that matter the Iranians or Saudis (or the Israelis) have much skill with delicate touches, and the phrase is grotesque when it includes air-delivery of high explosives and training teenagers to kill people. Still, President Obama has the right instincts: as much as possible avoid putting military units in places where they'll be targets for fanatics and where they will produce more fanatics by killing fanatics (plus the inevitable deaths, wounding, and maimings summed up in the obscene euphemism, "collateral damage); indeed, avoid putting them in places, e.g., Saudi Arabia with its holy places, where their mere presence is a provocation..
Like Christmas and other mid-winter holidays, Hanukkah offers hope that once the days get short enough, the sun will return for longer stays and spring will come. The history behind Hanukkah reminds us that figurative winters of warfare can be pretty damn long and deadly.