Jewish Journal

The book of Maccabees, occupied

by Jonah Lowenfeld

Posted on Dec. 14, 2011 at 12:03 pm

By Steve Greenberg

By Steve Greenberg

At the Dec. 5 meeting of the Los Angeles General Assembly — the utterly democratic body that acts to guide, if not exactly govern, Occupy Los Angeles — a facilitator named Chase posed the following question:

“Should we reoccupy a space? And, if so: Where, how and why — or why not?”

It was just six days after an army of 1,400 Los Angeles Police Department officers in riot gear evicted hundreds of Occupy L.A. protesters from their two-month-old encampment surrounding Los Angeles City Hall. Despite new concrete barriers topped with chain-link fence that now surround all of the formerly occupied spaces, the General Assembly, or GA, is still convening every evening at 7:30 on the City Hall grounds — a square block that protesters now call Solidarity Park.

On this day, however, thanks to the filming across the street of a movie starring Sean Penn, the protesters had to wait a full hour to gather on City Hall’s grand stairway on the west side of the building.

Some occupiers lobbied the film crew to end their shoot early, while others openly considered getting arrested by one of the dozen or so police officers on hand to keep the crowd of protesters on the sidewalk. A few occupiers also discussed the possibility of moving the GA to another location for one night.

“Personally, I think the GA is far more important than where it is,” protester C.J. Minster said, while acknowledging that a rule adopted by the GA in the days before the LAPD raid also would make the meeting difficult to move.

“Any change to that has to be approved by a GA,” she explained. “And if you can’t convene a GA at Solidarity Park, it’s kind of a vicious cycle.”

With the Occupy movement’s protesters in most cities across the country now forcibly removed from their encampments, the question of whether, where and how to reoccupy has taken on considerable urgency. And even though the Los Angeles protesters who attended the Dec. 5 GA probably weren’t thinking about Judah Maccabee — probably not even Minster, who was wearing a black knit kippah — perhaps they should have been.

Chanukah begins at sundown on Dec. 20, and this season it is worth remembering that Judah Maccabee — aka Judas Maccabeus — who led a small band of Jews in a successful armed revolt against the Seleucid rulers of Judea in the second century B.C.E., the act the festival of Chanukah commemorates — is one of Jewish history’s most famously successful occupiers. And the way Jews celebrate this wintertime holiday is shaped by that essential question facing the recently removed protesters — whether to reoccupy.

That isn’t the only parallel between the Maccabees of old and the occupiers of today.

Although Judah Maccabee (whose nickname Maccabeus means “the hammer”) was a freedom fighter, his battle against the Seleucids also pitted him, his brothers and their followers against fellow Jews in an internal struggle — a civil war, even — over the future directions of Judean society and Jewish practice. The Maccabees, who wanted to restore the temple to its traditional practices, fought and killed other Jews who had adopted the Hellenistic ways of the imperial overlords.

Similarly, the Occupy movement — which is, it must be said, a non-violent protest movement — pits groups of Americans with different ideas about the future direction of the country against one another. The occupiers portray the battle as one between the overwhelming majority of Americans (“the 99 percent”) and the rich and powerful of Wall Street (“the 1 percent), a division that, coincidentally, aligns with the Maccabean model, as Hellenized Jews were primarily wealthy Jerusalemites, and those fighting on the side of the Maccabees were poorer, rural Jews.

A protester is arrested as Los Angeles Police Department officers dismantle the Occupy L.A. encampment outside City Hall in Los Angeles on Nov. 30. The nearly two-month-old encampment is among the oldest and largest on the West Coast aligned with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations protesting economic inequality in the country and the excesses of the U.S. financial system.  Photo by Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images

Read closely, the story of the Maccabean revolt includes a few more unexpected parallels to the story of Occupy so far. To be sure, some of these allegorical links may take a bit more intellectual squinting than others to perceive.

Who knew, for example, that according to the second Book of Maccabees, Jews in Jerusalem and Judea first celebrated Chanukah by dwelling in booths? And weren’t those occupiers dwelling in outdoor temporary shelters, too?

I know I’m stretching somewhat: Of course, a sukkah is not a tent. And while we still remember the Maccabean armed revolt 2,000 years after it happened, it’s not yet known whether we will even be talking about the Occupy movement when Americans go to the polls next November .

Nevertheless, this comparison between historical precedent and current events presents Occupy as a movement at a crossroads, facing a choice not unlike the one the talmudic-era rabbis confronted around the first century C.E. when they created our Chanukah observances and began a process of downplaying the Maccabees’ significance.

And as other journalists already have tackled such important questions as whether Jesus would have been an occupier, or if Santa Claus should be the patron saint of the movement, why not indulge the “Maccabees as occupiers” idea, if only as an unconventional way of retelling the story of Chanukah?

Because most Chanukah stories focus on the miracle of the oil that lasted a full week longer than it should have, and not on the Maccabees’ military campaign, a quick recap of the Maccabean revolt — courtesy of the introductions to the first and second Books of Maccabees in the New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha — is probably in order:

The story begins around 175 B.C.E. The Seleucid Empire, which achieved the height of its glory and influence under Alexander the Great in 332-323 B.C.E., was slowly waning. In Judea, the Seleucid-imported Hellenistic culture, a mix of Greek and Semitic practices, divided the Jewish community, appealing to some Jews, but offending those who wanted to hold fast to their traditions.

Enter Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, who prohibited outright the central practices of Judaism — forbidding Jews from keeping the Sabbath, forcing them to eat non-kosher animals and outlawing the practice of circumcision. With the help of corrupt, Hellenizing Jewish high priests, Antiochus’ emissaries to Judea also plundered the city of Jerusalem, stole the temple’s sacred objects and profaned the altar by sacrificing a pig there.

These developments distressed the Jews who wanted to keep their traditional practices, and no one more so than a priest named Mattathias who lived in the town of Modein, outside Jerusalem. Over the next seven years, Mattathias and his five sons, including Judah, led a revolt that led to the death of Antiochus, the reclamation — or reoccupation — of the temple by Jews and the beginning of a century-long dynasty of effective independence for Judea.

Back to modern times: For just about 60 days, Occupy L.A.’s temple was City Hall Park (located just off of Temple Street, as it happens). And if democracy can be seen as the official religion of the United States, the occupiers saw themselves as publicly practicing its central rite — exercising their First Amendment-protected right to free speech. (Whether they had a right to set up a 24-hour encampment — which was initially welcomed by the City Council — is another matter.) It was also not uncommon to hear protesters accusing the American equivalent of Judean high priests — elected officials — of some type of corruption, and of looting the nation’s treasure to further enrich the “1 percent.”

For the sake of argument, let’s go one step further with this analogy of “Maccabees are to Temple-era Judaism as Occupy protesters are to American democracy.”

When Judah and his brothers recaptured the temple, they sent in …

“… blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. …” (1 Maccabees 4:42-45)

The people of Occupy L.A., a self-described leaderless movement, have pursued a similar two-pronged tactic when it comes to cleansing the American democratic process, which they see as having been defiled by unchecked corporate influence.

Some Occupy activists pursue agenda items through existing legislative channels; one speaker at a recent GA urged protesters to contact elected officials to express their opposition to the National Defense Authorization Act. In short, they haven’t discarded all aspects of American democracy — but by establishing their own representative body on the steps of City Hall, Occupy L.A. is sending a clear message: The “altar” of democracy in the City of Angels has been profaned, so we have established a new one in its place.

Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus” is displayed in the Nantes Museum of Fine Arts.

If you think I’ve taken this analogy too far (presenting Occupy protesters as priestly cleansers, for instance, could seem somewhat ironic, given their challenge in gaining access to showers as well as toilets), you’re not alone.

“I think the entire comparison is absurd,” Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes told me when I called to describe my premise. Taking the Maccabees, who were engaged in a “self-liberation movement,” and comparing their attachment to the temple, “the religious central space of the Jewish people ... with the modern-day Occupy L.A. movement and any location that it would seek to occupy as a symbolic space is to completely minimize and trivialize the historic significance and the timeless spiritual significance of Israel, of Jerusalem and of the Temple Mount to the Jewish people.”

Even rabbis I contacted who are sympathetic to the Occupy movement weren’t totally on board in drawing parallels.

“I don’t want to stretch things out so that they are unrecognizable,” said Aryeh Cohen, an associate professor at American Jewish University and a member of the Occupy L.A. Interfaith Leaders Support Network — although he did say that the way 1,400 LAPD officers in riot gear evicted a few hundred unarmed, non-violent occupiers from the encampment did echo the Chanukah story.

“The Maccabees were opposing the whole empire,” he said, and referred to the paragraph added to daily prayers on Chanukah that praises God for delivering “the many into the hands of the few” and “the wicked into the hands of the just.”

“The few, in this skirmish, were not victorious over the many,” Cohen said, but added that the story of Occupy isn’t over. “In the end, the just will come out victorious.”

The Occupy protesters are still trying to advance their multifaceted agenda, despite having been evicted from their home base.

Many activists, including at least a dozen Occupy L.A. protesters, showed up at City Hall on Dec. 6 to support a City Council resolution calling for a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s recent so-called Citizens United decision, which has opened up new avenues for corporations to attempt to influence elections.

“The way I see it, we’re seven-and-one,” said Brian Seligman, a 41-year-old Occupy L.A. protester who was at City Hall when the resolution passed the council in a unanimous vote. Seligman has been keeping what he calls a “score card” of recent legislative and other developments in which he sees the influence of the Occupy movement at work.

He cited another example: “The banks rescinded their monthly debit card fees,” Seligman said. “I don’t think that would have happened if people like us hadn’t been marching outside the banks and making them lock their doors over it.”

Seligman is a United States Marine Corps veteran and has been part of the Occupy movement “since day one” and spent many nights downtown sleeping in a tent. I met him, his wife and their two children last week at their two-bedroom apartment in Simi Valley. The living room was strewn with toys, karate equipment and many papers, including an unopened bill from the gas company.

Since the raid, Seligman said, it is sometimes hard to make the nearly 50-mile drive downtown to attend GA meetings. But he remains very involved in Occupy L.A., in part because the family was, when I visited, hosting a homeless fellow protester, 30-year-old Joshua Taylor.

“My No. 1 fear in life is being homeless,” said Taylor, who is also a veteran of the Marines. “Now, because of Occupy, it’s not so bad, actually. It’s not so bad.”

Taylor was arrested when LAPD raided the Occupy L.A. encampment just after midnight on Nov. 30; he has been sleeping on the Seligmans’ couch since his release on Dec. 2.

Like many protesters who have spoken publicly or published accounts of their imprisonment, Taylor claims the LAPD officers mistreated the protesters in custody. Taylor said LAPD officers left protesters locked on a bus, handcuffed, for eight hours without offering them food, water or the opportunity to use the bathroom.

The rough treatment didn’t stop once they were formally booked into the jail. “They wouldn’t tell us what time it was,” Taylor said. “There was no clock. It was so disorienting, and we didn’t know what was going on. The lights were on constantly.”

According to news reports, 16 official complaints have been filed with the LAPD regarding the raid and subsequent arrests.

Joshua Taylor at the Occupy L.A. media tent. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Taylor and Seligman are reminders of why protesters felt frustrated enough to move into tents on the lawns around City Hall in the first place.

Before he joined Occupy L.A., Taylor, who is the first member of his family to graduate college, was living on his mother’s couch and working as a car salesman at a dealership in Lancaster. He graduated from California State University, Northridge, in 2010 with a degree in political science and $40,000 worth of student debt. He does not have a job, and after submitting applications everywhere from the local Goodwill store to McDonald’s, he doesn’t express much hope about finding one.

“Most of my friends either have no job, or have a job but still can’t survive,” he said. “Every single one was getting assistance from one family member or another.”

Like nearly every Occupy protester I’ve talked to, Taylor sees unchecked corporate power in government as a major problem, and when he debates with people who oppose the movement, he often asks them a series of two true-or-false questions.

“I say, ‘Hey, true or false: Corporations have way too much influence over our government,’ ” Taylor said.

“Well that’s true,” he said, answering his own question, before moving on. “‘True or false: It would cost you $1 billion to become President of the United States.’ ”

“You show me a person with a billion dollars who’s going to become president,” Taylor said, and then trailed off, not finishing the thought — but his message was clear: Any politician who can raise that kind of money is going to be accountable to corporate interests.

Seligman, who used to make $80,000 a year working as a computer engineer, has been disabled since his car was hit by a drunk driver on Christmas Eve two years ago. His family now lives mostly off his Social Security benefit, about $1,200 a month.

Seligman said food gets scarce in his household near the end of the month, and the family has had to depend on donations. While Occupy L.A. was still at City Hall Park, Seligman could eat at the food tent, “which freed up more stuff for the family.” Sometimes the whole family would come downtown to eat, too.

On Thanksgiving, Seligman’s son’s school sent the boy home with a turkey dinner for the family.

Seligman said he’s optimistic about Occupy’s potential to have an impact. He and Taylor are organizing other military veterans who took part in Occupy L.A. to stage a march from Miracle Mile to Beverly Hills on Dec. 17. Seligman should be easy to spot; he’ll be the one wearing a suit, carrying a sign that says, “Corporations: Take a trillion dollars out of the bank, invest in the USA so we can have jobs to buy your stuff so you make profit.”

But he doesn’t hold out much hope for a big Chanukah celebration for his family this year.

“We’ll light candles,” Seligman said. “My old Sunday school teacher — who is now my kids’ Sunday school teacher — invited us over one day for latkes.”

When Seligman and his family — and perhaps Taylor, if he’s still staying with them — light Chanukah candles this year, they will be participating in a millennias-old ritual that is the creation of rabbis who, scholars believe, were profoundly uncomfortable with the story of the Maccabean revolt. 

In the talmudic era, the rabbis decided to make the oil miracle the primary focus of their explanation of the holiday of Chanukah, most likely for political expediency.

In her essay “Omitting the Maccabees,” Rachael Turkienicz, a professor at York University in Toronto, suggests these rabbis — who may also have been responsible for excluding the Books of Maccabees from the Hebrew Bible — likely played down the military victory because they were uncomfortable lionizing the successful revolt against the Seleucids. After all, they were living in the immediate aftermath of another failed revolt, the first Jewish war against the Romans, which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 C.E. 

“The Romans would certainly not look kindly upon the popularization of such a text,” Turkienicz writes, “since it might very well reintroduce the concept of revolt to a population desperately trying to survive the devastating outcome of its own failed attempts.”

Today, the Occupy protesters are living their own version of what happened to Chanukah in Jewish history.

No doubt, had he been faced with the question, “Should we reoccupy a space?” Judah Maccabee and his troops would have answered with an unequivocal, “Yes.” They would have torn down the barriers around Solidarity Park, gone nose-to-nose with the LAPD — and, more than likely, they would have tried to kill anyone in their way, or died trying.

The non-violent Occupy protesters clearly aren’t doing that, but they also aren’t really following the non-confrontational model of the rabbis of the talmudic era either. Even before all of the 292 people arrested during the LAPD raid of Occupy L.A. had been released, another group from the local movement headed south to the city of Norwalk, where they disrupted an auction of foreclosed homes.

On Dec. 6, the group occupied two different L.A.-area homes in various stages of foreclosure, part of a nationwide effort. They also joined an occupation of ports up and down the West Coast on Dec. 12.

By dispersing to occupy sites all over town while also meeting nightly at City Hall, Occupy L.A. is attempting to balance the two conflicting impulses Jewish leaders have followed when it comes to Chanukah.

By continuing to assert their claim on Solidarity Park, Occupy L.A. echoes the defiant Maccabees who retook the temple. And by occupying spaces elsewhere — retaining their identities as occupiers even without the most visible symbol of their occupation — they act in a pragmatic and creative way reminiscent of the rabbis of the Talmud, who, rather than continue to fight, instead remade their religion into one that did not need a temple.

It’s clear that Jews, including some of the greatest rabbinical minds in Jewish history, have had differences of opinion when it comes to the Maccabees. No doubt, the opinions of Jews about today’s Occupy protesters are similarly divided.

No matter which side of the debate you come down on, as you light candles this year, spare a thought (and maybe a latke or two, or some gelt) for fellow Americans and Jews who are hurting. Whether they’re the visible occupiers or the silent strugglers, in these dark economic times, they could all use a little light.

Happy Chanukah.

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