What Israel Can Learn from the Hasmoneans

The Forward, December 19, 2019.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Israel is locked in conflict over how to treat non-Jewish people living in the land. Stark divisions are growing between radically different visions of what being Jewish means. Tensions are rising as lines blur between religious and civil authority. And the nation’s relationship with the world’s dominant superpower grows both closer and more fraught.

Welcome to 100 BCE.

I’m referring to the Jewish people’s most recent previous experience with statehood before the modern State of Israel: the Hasmonean Kingdom, created in the 160s BCE after the Maccabean revolt, and ending in 63 BCE when Pompey the Great converted Judea into a Roman province.

Mark Twain never actually said this, but nonetheless it’s true: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” If you look at the history of the Hasmonean Dynasty, you’ll see obvious similarities between then and now — similar structural problems that have Israel faced in both eras. As a people that prides itself on learning from out past, we need to ask the question: Given that the structural issues are so similar, are we repeating the same mistakes of the Hasmoneans, or are we learning from them?

To confront its problems, the Hasmoneans made four shortsighted and disastrous decisions that led to the loss of Jewish independence for two millennia:...

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