The bargain the Maccabees didn’t take (and we shouldn’t either)

Paul Ehrenfest was one of the great minds — albeit one of the lesser-known ones — in the “golden age” of theoretical physics. He worked with luminaries like Ludwig Boltzmann, John von Neumann, Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, who was one of his closest friends. While he didn’t produce any major breakthroughs, the Ehrenfest theorem is still taught in physics courses around the world. 

Like many German and Austrian scientists of the time, Ehrenfest was Jewish; and like many Jews of the time, he also struggled to be accepted by the society in which he lived. He was extremely disturbed by Nazi antisemitism. He couldn’t understand how entire societies could descend into hatred, and he felt that something needed to be done to wake Germany out of its trance of intolerance. 

In 1933, two months after Hitler’s accession to power, he had a morbid idea. He wrote to his friend Samuel Goudsmit: What if a group of eminent, elderly Jewish academics and artists collectively commit suicide, without any demonstration of hatred or issuance of demands, in order to prick the German conscience? Goudsmit wrote back in a fury that the idea was incredibly stupid: A group of dead Jews can do nothing, and their deaths will merely delight their Teutonic haters.

Goudsmit was obviously right, and Ehrenfest’s idea might have more to do with his depressive tendencies than the effectiveness of his proposed tactic (he ended up killing his son and committing suicide months later). And yet, variations of Ehrenfest’s suicide-for-pity bargain are still alive among Jews today: the ubiquitous claim that Israel shouldn’t respond to murder, rape and terror for fear of losing the world’s sympathy is merely the decaf version of Ehrenfest’s proposal. 

To be fair, those ideas have a shred of logic. We know, as Dara Horn’s book posits, that “people love dead Jews.” It’s Jews who want to live who pose a problem. The world would love for the role of the Jews to continue serving as a proverbial canary in the coal mine, with our deaths alerting a wicked world of the dangers of its wickedness. 

This suicide is not necessarily physical but often spiritual, with Jews “killing” a part of themselves to be accepted by a hostile society. Casting away our Zionism to be accepted in progressive circles, for example, or buying into a spurious hierarchy of oppressors and oppressed to be considered enlightened. Of course, this is not new. Throughout our history, such a bargain was proposed to us many times. Abandon your Judaism, they’ve said, in part or in total, and we’ll accept you. Convert to Christianity, they’ve said, and all the opportunities of Europe will be opened to you. Henrich Heine, who together with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller is one of the best German poets of all time, was one of those Jews who accepted the trade, saying, “Berlin is well worth a mass.”  

That bargain was offered to Jews during the times of the Maccabees. If only Jews would shed their Judaism, said Antiochus, they could become an integral and prosperous part of the Seleucid Empire, the dominant culture of the time. And yet, the Maccabees said no. First, they refused to kill their Judaism, and then they refused to be slaughtered. They knew that the “Greek conscience” wouldn’t be pricked by their helpless deaths, so they took to the mountains of Judea and fought back. They knew that the real test of acceptance was not for gentiles to see Jews die or submit, but to create a world in which Jews assert themselves and live proudly and freely. 

They knew that a solidarity that requires physical or spiritual suicide is not solidarity at all. 

As history has proven again and again, the Ehrenfest proposal of Jewish acceptance was… well, suicidal. History has shown that when Jews shed their identities to be accepted, acceptance wasn’t ultimately given at the cost of those identities. Yes, some Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism and attained important ecclesiastic posts; but in 1499, a mere seven years after the mass conversions, the Statutes of Purity of Blood were introduced, determining that conversion didn’t cleanse Jews of their ignominy. Discrimination and persecution of “New Christians” ensued. In a similar vein, Henrich Heine did get to Berlin, but when the Nazis came to power they destroyed his tomb and his books. And they tried to destroy his legacy as well, claiming that his most popular poem, “The Lorelei,” was a traditional song without a known author. 

The Maccabees understood that a life of Faustian bargains is a life on probation, and they decided to break the perverse cycle of existential blackmail by asserting their identity and their freedom. 

Any similarity with current events is, of course, not coincidental.    

Jews that denounce Israel to be accepted in progressive circles are asked to cut pound after pound of flesh to prove their bona-fides. If and when they hesitate to justify, “understand” or “contextualize” mass murder or rape, they’re excluded.

We are faced with a world that seems to like us only when we are passive victims and self-flagellating supplicants. Like Sephardic conversos, only by admitting to the wickedness of our beliefs can we be granted an ephemeral acceptance. Like Jews under the Seleucid yoke, we can be temporarily left alone only if we renounce key elements of our identity. Like in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella or Antiochus, some believe that the sacrifice is worth it, that the conditional welcome they receive in the Olympus of high-mindedness merits the compromise. Others are so far gone that they don’t feel they are sacrificing anything at all. The tragedy is not only that they betray their own people, but that they don’t realize the futility of their aspiration, because conditional acceptances are always withdrawn eventually. 

If the world doesn’t accept Jews who reject suicide, who defend themselves and assert who they are, then it doesn’t accept Jews at all. 

This Chanukah, let’s take a page from the book of the Maccabees. Let’s assert our right to be who we are, to live like free people in our land. Let’s reject the fleeting succor of hypocritical sympathies and the bear-hugs of the haters. Let’s stand up for ourselves, unapologetically. 

Andrés Spokoiny is the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.