בינה בפייסבוק בינה באינסטגרם צרו קשר עם בינה במייל

On Hanukkah, Military Might and the Power of Spirit

Did you hear that Avishag is making Aliyah and joining Tzahal?As an Israeli-American child in the diaspora, this was not an uncommon line to hear.  My parents would speak of their friends from the army. I’d hear stories ranging from combat tales to silly nicknames and pranks in the bunks. It would feel really close to me, yet also far away. For Jewish Israelis the army is generally the next step in life after high school. For many Israeli-Americans it’s a turning point in their identity. To go to college and to pursue the American dream? Or to go to Israel and complete the Israeli right of passage. As a confused 18-year-old fresh out of high school, I decided to do neither. I did come to Israel, but not to the army. Instead, I came to Israel to join a Mechina (pre-army program).Specifically, I came to Mechinat BINA as part of BINA Gap Year in Tel Aviv – a decision that would forever change my relationship to Israel and to my Jewish identity.

This week, we celebrate Hanukkah – a holiday that recalls the story of the Jewish people at a time when they fought to preserve their autonomy and identity in the face of an oppressive military force. The morals of Hanukkah resonate with us to this day: bravery, resilience, rebellion, independence. 

These are morals that became especially relevant (not unintentionally) with the advent of Zionism. In the eyes of many Zionists, just as the Jews fought against the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE, so did they fight against many armies in the 20th century.  Throughout history, we have seen the Jewish people struggle to maintain their community and culture in the face of militancy and control. Today, we are faced with the same struggle, except the conflict doesn’t come from outside – it comes from within. 

Israel is a country that has been in conflict for over 70 years. Since the state’s founding, military conscription after high school has been mandatory for most Jewish citizens. This leads us to ask ourselves: how does this affect our culture? How does this affect our society?

The answer is all encompassing. So much of the culture, politics and society in Israel revolves around the army. Many of our politicians are former generals. Much of our economy is based on high tech developed in the army, and weapons and security sales. Our poetry, music, and art is filled with military themes. Even our language is filled with army slang (what do you call someone in Hebrew who is super talented? A totach – a cannon). And, what about young people? Youth movements are in many ways modeled after army discipline. I hear of more and more young adults attending “army fitness” programs as part of their after-school electives. Teens aren’t asked what they want to do in life, or what they want to study after high school – they are asked what they want to do in the army. 

Of course we can also recognize the benefits of the military to Israeli society. It is a unifying force, a cultural meeting point for different sects in society, an opportunity for social mobility and a maturing and disciplining force. We should, however, recognize those values for what they are and not intrinsically tie them to the military. At the end of the day, it is peace that we want. War and conflict and military might are not our end-goals. I think of the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Thus He will judge among the nations

And arbitrate for the many peoples,

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares

And their spears into pruning hooks:

Nation shall not take up

Sword against nation;

They shall never again know war.

(Isaiah 2:4)

What will happen when we finally beat our swords into plowshares? What will our society look like? What will our culture look like? The early visions of Zionist thinkers, such as Ahad Ha’am, imagined Israel as a place for the rejuvenation and reinvention of Jewish culture. What does that culture look like when we separate it from the army?

We learn about two different miracles in various tellings of the story of Hanukkah. The story told in the Books of Maccabees focuses on the battles against the Seleucid-Greek Empire and the military successes of the Maccabees, the heroism of Judah and the tyranny of Antiochus. Meanwhile, the Talmud’s telling of the story focuses on the miracle of the oil burning in the Menorah. When we celebrate Hanukkah today, we rarely dress up as the Maccabees and reenact their battles. Instead, we light our Hanukiot and bring light into the world. We’ve made the choice to celebrate the light and not military might. Is it therefore possible to do the same with Israeli culture? 

When I came to BINA as a participant five years ago, I learned that the answer can be balanced. Mechina means “preparation” in Hebrew. Conventionally and bureaucratically, this meaning is taken as preparation for the army. However, the head of our mechina would often tell us that the preparation wasn’t for the army, but rather for life. In fact, while some of the process focused on educating about the army and preparing to serve, most of it didn’t have anything to do with the army. It had to do with studying our heritage and our society, contributing to our community, thinking critically and celebrating our culture. Mechina, somewhat paradoxically, taught me that my Israeliness wasn’t what army unit I served in, rather it was reading poetry by Yehudah Amichai, and listening to Ehud Banai on a Saturday morning. It was cooking Persian rice with my grandmother, and Argentinian steak with my uncle. It was black coffee by the Jordan River. It was having Kabbalat Shabbat with my friends and afterwards going to dance to Balkan Beatbox. It was helping your neighbor when they’re in need and yelling at them when they are being a nudnik (annoying). 

The rebellion of the Maccabees is an important part of the story of Hanukkah, but it should not be the only part. It is possible to maintain an army without making it a core tenet of our identity. It can, and should, be possible to conceive of “Israeliness” that doesn’t depend only on militarism. It is essential that we raise youth with broader senses of identity, spiritual sustenance, critical thinking skills and the tools not just to fight for wars, but to build frameworks for peace, as well. 

Long before the story of Hanukkah, the prophet Zechariah envisioned God speaking to him and saying:

Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ (Zechariah 4:6)

If Israel is to succeed, it cannot be because of its might alone. It must have an independent spirit that is alive and kicking. That is a choice that we make – through our education, our actions and through the stories that we choose to tell. 

// Yonatan Shargian is an alumnus of BINA Gap Year and Mechinat BINA and recently served as Madrich (counselor) of BINA Gap Year. He is enlisting in the IDF this month.

More articles

Parshat Shmini -A Silent Minute for the Bird

Parashat Shmini is named after the day on which the dedication of the Tabernacle reached its climax. After a week of precise and detailed preparations, Aaron and his sons bring the divine presence into the Tabernacle. At that height of the moment, a great tragedy occurs. The young priests Nadab and Abihu, the two chosen sons of Aaron the priest, sin in forbidden work and disobey the laws of the sacred service. They are punished for their actions and die. […]

קרא עוד…


God Is In The Details – Parshat “Tetzaveh”

“Torah shows us that the truth, both the divine and ours, is found in our faith in the power of the connection of opposites.” This week’s parashah explores the power in the connection of opposites. Ran Oron, reminds us that “In these days of turmoil in our hearts we must insist on the power of connection.” […]

קרא עוד…


Want to stay up-to-date? Sign up now for the BINA newsletter >>