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Monday, December 14, 2009

What is Hanukkah about, what is history about and what is David Brooks about?

David Brooks seems to have created a bit of a stir with his article about the "true" history of Hanukkah. His main controversial but more or less unarguable points are that the Maccabees were "fanatics" who along with their good deeds also did brutal things like forced circumcision, and who revolted against a "superior" Hellenistic civilization, and that the "miracle" of Hanukkah (or "Hannukah" or as some people spell it, "Honnoker") was an invention of religious authorities. .

What Brooks writes is basically more or less true according to recorded history, but recorded history is not always unbiased, and it is certainly not true in a larger sense. Those who compare the Maccabees to current "hard core" settlers are off the mark. The Maccabee revolt was a revolt against foreign oppression, not a revolt against a Jewish government by Jews living as free people. That is the main point that seems to have escaped Brooks. The issue was not eating ham or not eating ham, but rather who makes the decisions in the land of Israel, the Jews or the Seleucid kings. There are other nuances that Brooks missed.

The Seleucid empire of Antiochus was not an enlightened Greek city state, but an Asian despotism of the usual kind that had assumed some of the superficial trappings of Greek culture. There was no great academy in the Seleucid state and there were no philosophers or writers of great literature or splendid architects fostered by that society. It was neither Athens nor Sparta nor Corinth.

Taken out of context, the forced circumcisions practiced by the Hasmoneans are barbaric. But in history, context is everything. When Pliny wrote to Trajan concerning the troublesome Christians, it was considered a hallmark of Roman tolerance that Trajan agreed that those Christians who recanted their faith would not be "punished." The other side of that judgment is of course that those Christians who were steadfast in their faith would be "punished." The "punishment" was death. Circumcision in that context seems to be a fairly mild remedy for religious deviance. The Maccabees, from their point of view, had no choice. The Seleucid rule had split the Jewish people. Those who remained uncircumcised would be lost to the Jewish people. It would be absurd to practice the mores of the 2nd century BC in the twenty-first century, but it would be equally absurd to judge force the mores of the twenty-first century on the Maccabees.

The Maccabean revolt, explained in terms that the New York Times would understand and endorse, was "legitimate resistance to occupation." The fate of Jewish traitors was no different from the fate of French collaborators with the Nazis at the hands of the Maquis. If you liked the American Minutemen, the Maquis and the Partisans, you should love the Maccabees. If you liked Benedict Arnold and Quisling, you will shed many tears for the collaborators killed by the Maccabees.

Brooks should also consider that the things that you are liable to read in the ancient history books, they ain't necessarily so. This cuts in many more directions than he might imagine. Our main source for the doings of the Maccabees and the history of that period is Josephus Flavius. Flavius seems to have been as precise as he could be about material facts that could be checked, but was probably very misleading as to motives and events that could not be checked. He was both a Pharisee and therefore opposed to the Maccabean/Hasmonean dynasty, and a Hellenizer anxious to please his new Roman masters. He had many axes to grind and he ground all of them in his books. Like all ancient histories, they should be treated with respect, but with skepticism.

The "miracle" of Hanukkah was no doubt the Pharisee way of attempting to make a secular celebration "kosher." Later, they took more drastic steps, because any display of national feeling was dangerous. They replaced the feast of Nicanor, celebrating a victory over the Seleucid general, with the fast of Esther, marking the probably mythical events of Purim, and more or less suppressed Hanukkah entirely. The Pharisees were careful to serve their Roman masters in suppressing anything that related to inconvenient manifestations of national spirit.

Brooks should keep in mind that every nation and every faith has edifying miracles associated with their history. Is Brooks going to write next about the issue of George Washington and his cherry tree, or are we going to be treated next to a scientific discussion of whether Jesus Christ was really born on December 24, whether or not there is a Santa Claus and whether or not virgins can give birth to male children, in honor of Christmas? I don't think so. If Brooks is really daring, he can take up the question of flying horses, and examine the story of Muhammad's night journey to Jerusalem on his flying horse (pretty good horse) al Buraq from the point of view of equine aerodynamics, refueling problems, wind resistance etc. It is a poor idea to look a gift miracle or miracle horse in the mouth.

It is very unlikely that Brooks or anyone else will take up subjects that are offensive to the Christian and Muslim religions, or question the national myths of other peoples, or that the New York Times would publish such stories. Why is the Jewish religion different from all other religions, and why is the Jewish people different from all other peoples?

There is a perhaps more to Brooks' innocent-seeming meanderings about Hanukkah than appears at first sight. For Hanukkah, more than any other modern Jewish holiday, was adopted by the Zionist movement as the Zionist holiday. If the Maccabees were benighted fanatics fighting "progress" and enlightenment, then how would David Brooks characterize Theodor Herzl? Is Brooks' article really about oil that lasts or doesn't last eight days and forced circumcision. or is it really about Zionism, Herzl and Ben-Gurion?

Ami Isseroff

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

To the people of Sderot and Ashkelon: Grim Restraint and Fierce determination

In these days, it is important to remember: Arab terror attacks are not new, and casualties are not new. We have seen much worse times in this country. This personal account of the Ben Yehuda Street Bombing of1948 reminds us of the essentials. In the bombing, over fifty people were buried in the wreckage and destruction wreaked by Arab terror.

The letter was not written by a spinmaster, a blowhard politico or a Zionist "Hasbara" master. It was written by an American young lady, a student in Jerusalem in 1948, who had joined the Haganah. She arrived on the scene of the bombing and set up a first aid station.

Zipporah Porath wrote:

I am becoming like the Jews who live here: every shock and sorrow nurtures you to grim restraint and fierce dedication.

That is something to think about for the frenzied op-ed writers, who tell us every day that the sky is falling. A 60 year old lesson in being an Israeli, 101, from a young student and new immigrant. This is what we do when the sky really does fall!

Ami Isseroff

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Silver Platter - a Memoir of 1948

A memoir of Palestine 1948 - immigration and defense
This is a memoir of Aliya Bet Ha'apala (illegal immigration) and fighting in Israel's War of Independence. It is one man's story. Together with other such stories (Memoirs of a Palmach volunteer, 1948, Was there Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine in 1948? it tends to disprove the claims of Israeli superiority in the war, and other myths that were circulated about unwilling immigrants who were forced to come to Israel from the DP camps of Europe. It also counteracts the fabricated notion that the war was initiated by "Zionists" for the purpose of "ethnic cleansing" of Palestine. The author fought to defend a kibbutz that was attacked by the Egyptian army.

Israelis, like everyone else, were not perfect, and some of the mistakes and frictions of the early years are evident in this story. It might be much "nicer" to provide a prettified version of events, but we want to relate history, not to reinvent it, as some others are doing.

The title, The Silver Platter, is a reference to the famous poem, "The Silver Platter," written by Natan Alterman soon after the United Nations Partition decision in 1947, an advance tribute to the youth who would fall in the coming war.

Ami Isseroff

The Silver Platter

Shlomo Ramon


Where we came from

We were born 1928 and 1929, as Wenzelberg and Glaser, respectively. Greta`s family lived in the Polish city of Bielsko in Polish Silesia, but she was born in Vienna, so that her mother would get proper care after a fist stillborn child. I was born in the ski town of Zakopane in the Polish Tatra mountains.

We lived in our towns until the outbreak of WW2, when our parents had the sense to escape the invading Nazis by going to the east of Poland – each unaware of the existence of the other. This saved our lives, but it meant being exiled by the Soviets to the Urals or Siberia. We were forced to stay out there, in the frozen wastes, until almost the end of WW2.

The Soviets then restored our Polish citizenship, and we were allowed to go "where we pleased" within the Soviet Union. By some chance both our families selected a town placed on a major rail line, named Chu in central Kazakhstan By that time Greta was already a full orphan and I had lost my father. She had to work for survival. I went to school and worked part time. We became acquainted while I was working as cinema projector operator and could get her in to see a movie for free.

Back to "homeland"

By the end of 1945 we were allowed to return to our homeland –Poland. The trip was in a cargo train and lasted 5 weeks, as train had a very slow priority on the system. The cargo cars were equipped with large shelves for sleeping and even had a cooking stove- to heat up whatever food could be scavenged in the railway stops. Greta travelled as a part of a group organized to join a kibbutz in Palestine, and I was with a mother and young brother.

When the train crossed the border, it became very clear that the "homeland" did not want us back. People were yelling: " What? the Soviets take our coal in a train and use the same train to send us Jews! " Some people were pulled off the train and murdered. When we got back to Krakow, my mother decided to stay for a while – to try to sell some family real estate. I joined a "kibbutz group" intended to join kibbutz Neveh Eitan in Palestine.

I understood the hard way that I have no fatherland and had better look for a new one. Prior to that time, we were not a Zionist family and I had no idea that Jews are a nation and should have a state of their own too.

Long way to Palestine

After passing through Slovakia our group arrived at a temporary DP (Displaced Persons) camp in Salzburg. We registered as DPS under false names so as to receive the DP benefits: food and lodging. Our instructor (Madrich) who came from Neveh Eitan to prepare our group for kibbutz life, organized all aspects of our daily life. There were other temporary camps in Austria: Vienna, Innsbruck, and other places.

There were also permanent DP camps, mostly in Germany, where people grouped waiting for their immigration visas to other countries.

From Austria our group went (illegally of course) to Italy to wait for our clandestine ship. First we went to a very nice place called Bogliasco, on the Genoa seashore. It turned out that the British knew all about us and no ship would be allowed near the place by the British Navy. So we went to the south, to place called Metaponto near to Bari to wait for our Aliya Bet (illegal immigration) ship.

Eventually we did board the Hayim Arlozorov (ULUA - See SS Ulua -- the story of underground Aliyah, by Arie (Lova) Eliav, am Oved, 1977;
In Hebrew: Hasfina Ulua, Sipuro shel Arthur, Hotza`at Am Oved, Tel Aviv, 1977. (dedicated to Tanya)

Most of illegal immigrant ships were barely floating wooden vessels. Hayim Arlozorov was the first very solid steel ship, originally built as naval escort during WW1. Our group of immigrants to be ("maapilim") first boarded the Rosa, renamed "Shabtai Losinki" on 2/47 from the bay of Taranto in South of Italy. The ship had no luck. A couple of days after sailing, there was a hole in ship`s bottom and it barely returned to Taranto in danger of sinking. All the maapilim descended and began to wait on the shores of Matponto for another ship. Meanwhile, the Rosa was repaired and eventually discharged several hundred ma`apilim in Palestine, next to Nitzanim. One of the members of the Jewish crew was Moti Fein (later Hod) my future CO in the IAF.

The ship Uloa arrived a couple of weeks later and anchored a couple of miles from the shore. The water was shallow there –the only way to board was by sailing from the shore to the ship in rubber boats, which we did. The ship had come all the way from Sweden , where it took on 700 ma`apilim, mostly women survivors of Bergen Belsen who were allowed to enter Sweden after liberation.

The Uloa was in bad shape. It had survived a heavy storm in the Atlantic and had very little food and drinking water, not much room either. The crew commanded by Lyova Eliav (Arthur) loaded most of us plus some food and water. Lyova met his future wife Tanya among the ma`apilim.

In addition to the 700 or so and people from Sweden there were about 700 more boarded in Metaponto. The"Swedish" passengers threw most of their suitcases and belongings over the board to make some room for the "Italians". The ship had no passenger facilities at all, except for the crew, all maapilim were loaded into ship cargo holds. Holds were outfitted with 5 or six layers of wooden floors, separated by about 50 cm in height and leaving only a few passages. On the planks they put mattresses. We were told to get on a mattress, stay there and not move around except for going to toilet. Using toilets was another exercise in torture,, There was no flushing water and very long wait – queue arranged by special detail. We were fed, rarely, sandwiches that were brought to our mattresses. No one was allowed on the topside to prevent the Brits seeing us, but in retrospect it only prevented us from getting some fresh air and forced people to vomit on the mattresses or in passages – adding another horror. Women were separated from men.

The ship was jam packed and sailed east, towards Crete. It was soon intercepted by Royal Navy ships – five destroyers. The Brits were never able to board because of our active resistance. They forced the ship to sail in the direction of Haifa harbor, but the captain Arazi steered her toward Bat Galim and beached her on the ground rocks there. The crew tried to scuttle the ship by opening the scuttlecocks, but the Brits boarded and prevented the scuttling.

I shall never forget my first view of Mount Carmel and the beach crowded with locals from Bat Galim who tried to help us get down. Some people tried to swim ashore but were fished out by the Brits.

The ship was there for many years, part of the Bat Galim view, until dismantled for salvage.

The Brits took all us forciblu to their deportation ships to Cyprus anchored in Haifa harbor, such as Empire Rival.

Continued here

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