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THE MACCABEES of ancient Jewish history were the Jewish Taliban, the Hebrew ISIS. They were fighting, in the name of religious orthodoxy and cultural purity, against a foreign culture (Hellenism) that had seduced their people — and when the army of that foreign culture became overbearing (the Syrian Greeks, or Seleucids), the Maccabees took up arms and began to kill in every direction.
I cannot escape this analogy during Khanike. However many progressive spins I give to the holiday — RESTORE OUR TEMPLE, THE EARTH! — POOL RESOURCES SO THAT THE LIGHTS MAY BURN! — SELF-DEFENSE MEANS PEACE-MAKING! — the peshat, plain meaning, of the story is summed up in the war cry of Mattathias, the Jewish priest who sparked the 2nd-century BCE uprising, and whose sons led it: “Let everyone who has zeal for the Torah and who stands by the Covenant follow me!” This as he kills a Jew who is serving the foreigners. (Mattathias’s supposed tomb in Israel is shown at right)
It is this plain meaning of the story — advocacy of religious violence — that seems to have convinced the rabbis who compiled the Talmud, and whose civilization had been nearly destroyed by two abortive uprisings against Rome, barely to mention Khanike.
So what would I have done, had I been either a Hellenistic Jew (that’s me) or a Seleucid citizen watching my country’s failing invasion of Judea? I’d be shouting: Seleucid Empire, out of Judea! Leave those crazy fundamentalist Hebrews alone!
WHICH BRINGS US to America, 2015. As I watch progressive friends trying to reckon with our national insecurity (and rooting for Bernie while praying for the election of Hillary Clinton), I fear that we are so detached from the peshat, the plain meaning, of current events that the right is going to successfully repeat their electoral victory of 2012 — yes, the Republicans, who, despite being the most goddamned motherf($*#&@ obstructionists to anything and everything that might have helped working people, managed to win the votes of a lot of those people and become the Congressional majority.
Unbelievable, right? But it can happen again, with the likes of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
First, on the issue of guns: When my local sheriff in the Mid-Hudson Valley, New York, Paul Van Barclum, responded to the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California by urging licensed gun-owners to carry their weapons in public, progressive groups began calling for his resignation. (Their/our fear: That clumsy, licensed gun-toting racists will kill brown-skinned people for acting “suspiciously” in shopping malls.)
At the same time, they/we want our country to throw open its doors to refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and other war-torn lands. (Their/our faith: That excluding refugees is heartless and racist and unAmerican.)
At the same time, they/we are opposed to intrusive snooping and scrutiny by the government. (Their/our fear: That America will eventually go fascist and use the snooping to put us in concentration camps.)
The peshat (plain meaning) of the whole mess becomes: Since the whole Middle Eastern mess is our fault to begin with (their/our belief: to blame anything but imperialism would be racist), we’d best just stand and take the punishment. If we get caught up in a terrorist incident in a shopping mall, tough noogies. (What are you doing in a shopping mall, anyway?)
Compare the power of this with BAN ALL MUSLIMS or CARPET BOMB THEM UNTIL THE SAND GLOWS and you begin to see why, indeed, Hillary may not be tucking us into bed on those cold nights in January, 2017.
I’ve already had my say on progressives and gun control as a losing electoral issue. If I were licensed to carry, which means trained in the use of guns at least to some extent, I might, indeed, be part of Paul Van Barclum’s vigilante squad. I don’t want the world to be armed and bristling and suspicious, but I also don’t want schoolchildren or shopping mall pedestrians to be gunned down by heartless terrorists with nobody to defend them. And I don’t want the only defenders to be rightwing bigots! In any event, I would never call on the sheriff to resign; I would instead call on him to make sure he works overtime to train and retrain or those permit-holders, and that he’s ready to prosecute, and prosecute hard, anyone who abuses being armed in any way whatsoever.
I’ve also had my say on the refugee question, but I’ll repeat the relevant statement:
Maintain strict controls on immigration from countries that suffer from radical fundamentalist movements — but more importantly, I would have the U.S. offering asylum and assistance in escaping to all women and children willing to flee the sexism and de facto slavery of their homelands. Our peace dividend would pay for resettling them. Asylum instead of war — that’s what a civilized country offers.
This argument demands action, not passivity — but it’s not the action of BAN ALL MUSLIMS, it’s the action of BE MERCIFUL, BE CHRISTIAN (so to speak), BE AMERICA, AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!
As for the wars in the Middle East themselves, we should be making the most nationalistic appeal possible by saying: WHAT HAS $3 TRILLION IN WAR EXPENDITURES GOTTEN AMERICA OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES? What might that expenditure have bought in the way of infrastructure, green technology, job development, health care, and so, so much more? I would make that figure, and those calculations, part of the national dialogue in every possible way.
My fellow Americans on the left, we need to develop actual policies about terrorism and war that go beyond tough noogies. Otherwise, BAN ALL MUSLIMS will win, and we’ll be checking out the airfares to Canada, or the cost of riding a camel train to the Seleucid Empire, once again.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.