Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig – Maccabi Tel Aviv as a Metaphor for Israeli Hanukkah: Then & Now
As is well known, the Maccabees first revolted against the Jewish Hellenizers (who today would be called assimilated Jews) and only afterwards against the Seleucid (Greek) empire that served among the Judeans as the cultural model for those Hellenizers.
The Maccabee military victory was basically shunted aside by the Talmud’s rabbis, in favor of the miracle of lights in the Temple (probably a myth, given that in neither of the two Books of Maccabees is there any mention of the eight-day, burning oil lamp miracle). In short – as the Shabbat Hanukkah Haftorah declares – the motto of Hanukkah for Jews in the Diaspora, declared the Rabbis, was to be henceforth: “Not by Power, nor by Military Strength – but rather by My Spirit, says the Lord”.
Until the advent of modern Zionism in the early 20th century. At that point it became clear that to fight anti-semitism and to establish an independent Jewish state, Jews would have to once again rely on physical might. As part of this goal to produce the “New Jew” (as opposed to the weak Diaspora Jew stereotype), athletics became an important part of the Zionist ethos. To that end, athletic clubs were established in Diaspora and in Palestine – the two largest sports conglomerates being Maccabi and Ha’Poel (the Laborer).
In Israel today, these two meta-clubs still exist and maintain a somewhat friendly, competitive relationship. However, Maccabi is by far the most successful, specifically the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team – considered to be Israel’s “national team” and a true European powerhouse.
But what precisely is Maccabean about Maccabi today? As Israelis are wont to say: hafukh al hafukh, i.e. the opposite of what one might expect.
This team is made up of more non-Jews than Jews, and that’s been the case for several decades. Of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with this from an athletic perspective (even sports has undergone massive globalization), but it says a lot about where Israeli society stands on the issue of secularization – the modern Hellenism (or “Americanization” if you will). Israelis are justly proud of this team, but clearly it does not stand for traditional Jewish values when most of the stars are Gentile.
Indeed, as opposed to the impression that most non-Israeli Jews have about “religion and state” in Israel, the general trend (increasing in strength lately) has been towards greater secularization! Restaurants are open on Tisha B’Av; movie theaters and malls are open on the sabbath; Tel Aviv and its sister cities have begun running free bus service for its residents on the sabbath; secular cemeteries have sprung up all over (even cremation is rearing its head); a quarter of all Israeli weddings now take place without Chief Rabbinate involvement; and the list goes on and on.
This is not to say that Israel has become a “non-Jewish” state. Just as “Maccabi” Tel Aviv is spelled differently from the “Maccabees” but still retains the essence of its namesake, so too Israeli society expresses its connection to Judaism in several “traditional” ways: the Passover seder is almost universally celebrated; a seeming oxymoron called secular “kollels” (schools of Jewish learning) have sprung up all over the country; among the non-religious there is a huge demand for lectures on the Bible and on Judaism generally; almost every tweenager has a bar- (and increasingly too, bat-) mitzvah; here too the list goes on and on.
What to make of all this? The early Zionists had it right – and wrong. They were correct that the Zionist movement would produce “new Jews”, able to defend themselves and their country while emphasizing secular values such as science and humanism; they were wrong in thinking that this would ultimately eliminate all vestiges of “irrelevant Judaism”.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, then, is a metaphor for Israeli Jewishness: not exactly the glorious past of anti-Hellenistic Maccabee-ism, but also not an assimilated society leaving traditional Judaism behind. Indeed, modern Hanukkah in Israel seems to be a case of burning the candle at both ends.