maccabean revolt and conflict in palestine today

Would you like Maccabees with that? — iii

Sunday 31 March 2024 5:26 PM

One of the enriching opportunities afforded by modern day biblical or theological studies is field trips to biblical lands. These may include modern day Turkey and Greece, for instance. But for a range of obvious reasons Christians are most especially drawn to the geographical region history names as “the Holy Land”, known today as Israel and Palestine. For some the appeal is archaeological or historical in an academic study or research sense; for others devotional, with motivations such as “walking where Jesus walked”; for others all of the above. Quite a few western Christians have now visited Israel/Palestine on that basis at least once; some several times.

Given the confined purpose of such visits, one might easily depart the land none the wiser on the current day political situation, than prior to the visit. But thankfully it’s increasingly common for at least some exposure to the local people and their lives to form part of the tour program. My wife and I have been just once, over 30 years ago. Current cultural or political life was not on the planned itinerary, but thankfully our tour group leader was able to arrange at short notice a single private evening listening to a Palestinian Christian tell something of their and their people’s story. 

That in itself was not enough, at least for me, to properly grasp the life of the Palestinian people, beyond a general sense that their lives were not rosy under Israeli governance. But walking down the street in daylight could not fail to expose us to more. Literally the night before we arrived in Jerusalem, there’d been a tragic incident in the Old City where a crazed young Palestinian man had run amok with a knife, killing three Jews. The following day we witnessed at quite close range a band of perhaps ten young Jewish men roaming the perimeter of the Old City, all of them armed with assault rifles. The sense of vigilanteism was palpable. We then learned that all Israeli citizens aged between 18 and about 60 were ipso facto IDF reservists and entitled to carry military issue weapons, whilst in contrast no Palestinians had legal access to arms of any kind. We learned also that, as a matter of policy, the young assailant’s parents and family could expect their home to be bulldozed, leaving them homeless. And meanwhile checkpoints out of the West Bank were closed for several days, meaning Palestinians working in the Old City couldn’t get to work to feed their families.

That was just a small taste for us sheltered middle-class western Christians, in just a few days. A clue at least that the lives of the two people groups resident in the land known as Israel were not equal. Looking back half a lifetime later, with greater understanding and awareness of what happens when such inequity persists between peoples, quite apart from the thoughts and emotions that arise for me as we all continue to hear the shocking news reports out of Gaza — I chide myself that through the past three decades I’ve remained undecided or “neutral” on what’s commonly called “the Palestinian question”.

This is Part 3 of an intended 3-part series of pieces on this vexed subject now confronting us with such intensity. The first two were published on 8 and 12 February, and my intention was that this third piece would follow in a similar timeframe. Yet here we are over 6 weeks later. I could pass this off as simply “life gets busy”. That wouldn’t be entirely false; our lives have been hectic lately. But in truth I’ve found the ongoing conversation on this subject still more vexing, confronting and divisive, most of all with fellow Christian disciples. This has made part 3 of the three, much harder to write. That may mean I’ll say less here about the Maccabean rebellion than I had intended.

To recap — In Part 1 I introduced the thought that the 2nd century BC Maccabean revolt may offer some insights on the current Gaza conflict, promising to elaborate in this, Part 3. I then provided a very concise overview of the largely political process that led to the formation of an Israeli state in Palestine, finally introducing the event known among Palestinians as the Nakbah.  Then in Part 2 I reflected on truth-telling as fundamental to Christian discipleship (following the One who called himself “The Truth” (John 14:6)), as well as an essential in meaningful reconciliation, linking in brief to post-Apartheid South Africa and Australia’s own Uluru Statement, and summarising at more length Ilan Pappe’s critical title, "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine" (2006). My closing seed thought ahead of this (now seriously delayed!) Part 3 piece was around how we might respond were we to find ourselves and our communities subject to a protracted foreign military occupation. 

And so at last to my title theme - The Maccabees. In very brief the Maccabean Revolt was a Jewish Nationalist rebellion against the foreign control of the then Seleucid Empire (201-164 BC). Though lacking the firepower of modern warfare, the Maccabees under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, could fairly be identified as terrorist revolutionaries of their time and place. The place was the same: ancient Palestine. The cause was the cultural, religious and political independence of the Jews, the people of Israel. The rebellion took various forms on various scales militarily, leading ultimately to the end of the Hellenic Seleucid occupation. Among the particular targets were the widespread imposition of Greek religious artefacts and traditions on Hebrew life. And to that purist cause fellow Jews were not entirely off limits. So for instance it was not beneath the Maccabees to sack a Hebrew town where Greek religious objects were on prominent display and the people too compliant with the occupation.

So the Maccabean revolt of the second century BC and the contemporary struggle of Palestinians, notably through groups like Hamas, exhibit surprising parallels and unexpected resonances. Examining these echoes can offer insights into the cyclical nature of unrest and even the potential for a path to peace in the region.  Much like the ancient oppression faced by the Jews, modern Palestinians contend with the prolonged Israeli occupation of their territories. Rashid Khalidi, a prominent Palestinian historian, captures this sentiment, stating, "Historical injustices echo through time, and the plight of the Maccabees finds a reflection in the struggles of contemporary Palestinians."

Were I hypothetically in a position to advise the leaders of Israel, I might appeal to them to contemplate this piece of their own people’s history. I’d hope they may engage the thought that the Maccabean revolt's roots in occupation could mirror the grievances fuelling present-day Palestinian terrorism. Could not the prolonged military presence in Palestinian territories serve, even if inadvertently, as a breeding ground for discontent, mirroring the conditions that incubated the Maccabean revolt? It should be a surprise to no student of Israel’s history if the prolonged presence of military forces, checkpoints, and territorial disputes exacerbates tensions, pushing certain factions toward radicalisation.

As well as documenting the history of the current occupation of the Palestinian Territories, South Africa's recent submission to the ICJ similarly emphasises the need for a just resolution that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. And of just such order is the moral imperative of the very Scriptures Christians inherit from and share with our Jewish friends. For just one instance Isaiah 1:17 implores, "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow." Applying this wisdom to the current context, might not all God’s people pray and advocate for justice, empathy, and an end to prolonged suffering?

Surely such a course offers far more hope for beginning, continuing, and enduring peace than Israel’s present stated aspiration to destroy Hamas. For even if Hamas is destroyed, the Maccabees will not stop speaking from beyond the grave. And so if nothing changes, terrorism will rise again.