Israeli researchers announced last week that they believe they have found the Jerusalem fortress of Antiochus IV, the Hellenistic king who is the villain of the Chanukah story. If they are correct, the Acra, as it is called in Greek, stood in Jerusalem’s City of David. It controlled all access to the Temple Mount — at a time when the Second Temple actually stood — and cut off the holy site from the southern part of the city.
Coming so close to Chanukah, the announcement lends new credibility to the ancient story, which began in 167 B.C.E. when Antiochus outlawed Jewish sacrifice in the Temple and rededicated it to Zeus. After three years of a revolt led by the Maccabees, the Jews were able to recapture and rededicate the Temple, for which Chanukah is celebrated. But the revolt didn’t end until 141 B.C.E., when Jewish forces led by Simon Maccabee conquered the Acra after a siege.
It’s hard to avoid drawing parallels between those long-ago struggles and current events. But such parallels need to be drawn with care. There are those who have pointed out that at a time when some prominent Palestinians are again declaring that there is no historical connection between the Jews and the Land of Israel, along comes Antiochus to remind the world that he built his fortress as a defense against Jews. So long as there are those who deny the Jewish people’s claim to both Israel and the Temple Mount, it is appropriate to trumpet the supportive discoveries of archaeologists in order to silence historical revisionists.
But support of historical fact doesn’t delegitimize certain Palestinian claims to the land. Indeed, outright denial of those claims will get us nowhere. And there is nothing inconsistent about certain overlapping claims to the land being advanced by both parties.
There is, however, another lesson we can learn from the Chanukah story. Making Antiochus the sole enemy ignores the reality that then, as now, human relations are fluid and politics is not binary. As in our day, the Jewish community 2,100 years ago was deeply divided. The Jewish revolt was also a Jewish civil war. Hellenized Jews who supported the king joined Antiochus’ soldiers in defending the Acra. And in the process they fought against other Jews.
Although we are descendants of the Maccabees, the Acra, which Jewish forces razed, is a reminder that things are not as simple as the stories we are told as children. Even as we continue to debate rights, entitlements and claims to the Land of Israel, we do well to keep in mind the lessons of the past, and do our best to avoid making some of the same mistakes.