In 175 B. C., an insecure, despotic ruler came to power. He was narcissistic and known for a level of extravagance and display that bordered on the bizarre. Despite his occasional ability to captivate his subjects by appearing gracious, he was said to have, in his heart, a cruel tyrant’s contempt for his subjects. Political positions under him were easily bought; he installed unqualified cronies in high positions and quickly turned on one if another offered him more money for the same job. He was quick to anger, nicknamed “the madman,” and it wasn’t long into his reign that he began curtailing civil liberties, restricting the freedom of religion, and pillaging his subjects’ resources for his own profit.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes seized rule illegitimately over the Seleucid Empire, including Judea; the kingship was meant to have gone to his nephew, but he took it by force. He allowed bribes to drive his appointments of the high priest several times and plundered the treasury of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for its gold. In a fury about a humiliating loss in Egypt, he cracked down in Judea, outlawing observance of the Sabbath and ritual circumcision and defiling the temple by erecting an altar to Zeus there, complete with pig sacrifice. He sent his officers to slay and destroy, with an agenda that was less about Hellenism — that is, the demand that the Judeans assimilate into the kingdom’s dominant Greek-influenced culture — than it was about denationalization, a full eradication of their way of life.
As Hanukkah begins, the parallels between that ancient story and what’s happening in U.S. politics are hard to ignore. There are the questions around Donald Trump’s rise to power — his connections to Vladimir Putin and possible Russian interference in the election. There’s his cabinet, stacked with donors and those whose positions on everything from minimum wage to immigration, public schools, privatization and the environment could affect us in devastating ways. Trump’s pursuit of his own financial gain seems to be pointing us toward a kleptocracy, collusion with brutal regimes and terrifying shifts in foreign policy. He threatens freedom of speech, assembly and the press, as well as American Muslims‘ free exercise of religion, among his other authoritarian tendencies. Trump may very well sack the temple of our democracy and social safety nets. Like Antiochus, he could eradicate the way of life that has defined this country.
Antiochus’s regime was, needless to say, terrifying and devastating for the Judeans, who had to decide whether to be martyred — as many were — or to submit to his demands. A small handful of zealots chose a third option, however, protesting his decrees and the complicity of some of their fellow Judeans. After an initial skirmish, the Maccabees ran for the hills and, soon, were engaged in all-out warfare with the massive Seleucid army. They were outmanned and underarmed; many of the Maccabean soldiers didn’t even have swords and armor. But they made use of their superior knowledge of their terrain: They were light, quick and mobile, relying on ambush techniques and superior tactical skill. Slowly, painstakingly, they beat back the Seleucids and eventually gained their freedom.
The miracle of Hanukkah is that an outnumbered, weaker minority was brave enough to resist a repressive regime — to fight back, against all odds. They held fast to their ideals and pushed back against the narrative that their faith was a just target for oppression. Their smart thinking and intimate knowledge of their own country was enough to outmaneuver a government bent on maintaining power through force.
It’s likely that some, if not all, of the things that many of us fear about the Trump administration will come to pass. If so, our acts of nonviolent resistance may be painful. We may have times of uncertainty and literal or metaphorical cold and hunger. We’re going to have to be smarter and more savvy than we have been, to be resourceful and make use of all the assets we have — perhaps not by hiding in caves but by building coalitions, developing protest strategies, creating novel uses for technology. and engaging civic processes and the legal system in new and innovative ways. Black Lives Matter activists are nimbly shifting approaches to focus on local reform and coalitions with other marginalized groups. Houses of worship, universities and cities are declaring themselves places of sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. More than 1,000 employees of tech organizations have pledged to refuse to use their skills to the detriment of immigrants or American Muslims. Phone calls to members of Congress are already way up, and some former Capitol Hill staffers have put together a public document explaining how to best use local representatives to frustrate Trump’s agenda. Crowdsourced guides for helping vulnerable populations cope with Trump’s policies have popped up around the Web. New apps, agendas and tools are emerging everyday. We are going to have to be quick, light and strategically flawless, and we are going to have to settle in for the long haul.
Before going into the Battle of Emmaus, Judah Maccabee addressed his soldiers, urging them to fight valiantly. “For,” he said, “it is better for us to die in battle than to see the evils of our nation and of the holies. Nevertheless, as it shall be the will of God in heaven, so be it done.”
We will need to be brave. We will need to resist.
We will have to make the miracle ourselves.