WikiLeaks, Revolutions and the Maccabees

If you’ve tried to follow the saga of WikiLeaks and the Great Diplomatic Document Dump, you’ve probably noticed how easy it is to get lost in the morass of detail. Even after filtering by the press, it’s hard to see the memos as anything more than a random jumble of gossipy tidbits, peppered with the odd news flash, often confirming something we already knew.

But if you stand back and look at the collection as a whole, the tidbits form shapes and patterns that might change our view of the world in some important ways.

There’s also an echo in there that points us toward a new way of thinking about Hanukkah, believe it or not. But let’s take things one at a time.

For starters, the leaks teach us that the Iranian nuclear threat isn’t just an Israeli obsession, but a worldwide alarm. An awful lot of people thought the global nature of the threat was just Israeli spin; now it’s out there in black and white. That’s important.

But for my money, one of the documents’ biggest surprises has to do with rogue nations and global hot spots. In published accounts of the documents, a handful of countries keep emerging as perpetual troublemakers — unpredictable rogue regimes that frighten their neighbors and worry world leaders. The names are mostly familiar ones: Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Libya, Sudan.

Here’s what’s surprising: The common denominator among these regimes has nothing to do with religion. Some are ruled by religious fundamentalists, but others are run by secular leftists and some by outright wack-jobs. What these regimes do share is a ruling culture defined by revolution. Specifically, they’re all governed by self-styled revolutionary regimes, some established years ago by young idealists ousting a dictatorship. And they all degenerated sooner or later into rank despotism, fueled by fanaticism and megalomania, sustained by state terror swathed in revolutionary jargon.

Of course, there are other trouble spots where the problem isn’t too much state power but too little: Somalia, Congo and perhaps Pakistan come to mind. What’s especially striking about the degenerate revolutions, though, is how large a shadow they cast on the post-Cold War, post-9/11 landscape. No less striking is the ease with which Iranian fundamentalists and Venezuelan or North Korean socialists toss aside their ideological fervor to make common cause. It’s striking, too, how unanimous the major powers prove to be in their alarm over these regimes.

This trans-ideological world alliance of revolutionary thugs is something new under the sun. It’s a modern by-product of globalization and technology. There’s nothing new about revolutions descending into madness, though. We saw it a century ago when the Russian Revolution gave birth to the Soviet state. It happened a century before that when the French Revolution gave way to the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic empire. Looking further back into history, the same process overtook the Maccabees.

Yes, the Maccabees — Judah and his four brothers, the revolutionary heroes of ancient Israel. We are now celebrating the 2,175th anniversary of their timeless victory in 165 B.C.E. (some scholars say 164), when they liberated the defiled Temple in Jerusalem from the Syrian-Greek imperial forces and lit that famous oil lamp. Their exploits are retold in Jewish tradition as a seminal moment when the faith was redeemed and the nation’s independence was restored. It’s often called history’s first successful revolutionary war of national liberation, paving the way for the likes of George Washington and David Ben-Gurion.

We don’t talk much about what happened after the lamp was lit, though. In fact, the rededication of the Temple did not end the war. Fighting continued for another two decades, claiming the lives of one Maccabee brother after another. The last surviving brother, Simon, was finally acclaimed prince of an independent Jewish state in 141 B.C.E. Thus began the century-long reign of the Hasmonean dynasty of Simon and his descendants. It was a century riddled with enough assassinations and palace intrigue to put the Medicis to shame, along with endless foreign conquest and repeated civil wars.

Simon himself was murdered in 135 B.C.E., along with two of his sons, by his son-in-law. Among his descendants and heirs, one murdered his own mother and four of his brothers; one succeeded his brother and then murdered the brother’s entire family, and two apparently drank and debauched themselves to death. One of them held a banquet for 800 leading rabbis and then crucified them before slaughtering their horrified wives and children.

Three Hasmonean kings waged long, bloody wars of conquest and forcibly circumcised entire conquered populations (the males, that is). Two brothers fielded armies against each other to claim the crown, and then invited the Roman general Pompey to come and settle their dispute. Pompey agreed and proceeded to occupy the country in 63 B.C.E., ending Jewish sovereignty just 102 years after Judah’s Temple victory.

The lesson usually drawn from the Hanukkah story is one of courage and sacrifice in defense of freedom. Coupled with the miracle of the oil, it makes for a wonderful yarn. It has inspired countless generations of rebels and martyrs. We like to think, too, that it captures an essential truth about who we are. That’s not wrong, but it’s not the whole story. Behind the legend of Judah Maccabee was a real person who lived in history, did his deeds and set the stage for everything that followed.

Judah didn’t live to see the closing acts, though. He died young and remained forever frozen in memory as the gallant, uncorrupted youth. Only Simon got to grow old and get a glimpse of what he and his brothers had wrought. Yes, they blazed a trail for history’s George Washingtons and other freedom seekers, as we remember each year. WikiLeaks reminds us of the others who followed, the wretched Mugabes, Ahmadinejads and Kims. It’s something to think about.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at and follow his blog at

This story "WikiLeaks, Revolutions and the Maccabees" was written by J.J. Goldberg.

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J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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