To defend a civilisation, you need education

December 11, 2004
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 11th December 2004

The Jewish community is in the midst of celebrating Chanukkah, our festival of lights. Although the events it commemorates are very ancient — going back almost two centuries before the birth of Christianity — its message remains powerful and of our time.

On the surface, Chanukkah is about one of the great battles for religious freedom. In the third and second centuries BCE, Israel had come under the rule of the Alexandrian Empire — first the Ptolemies in Egypt, then the Seleucids in Syria. One Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV, sought to force the pace of Hellenisation.

Under one High Priest in Jerusalem, Jason, members of the priesthood spent more time on athletics than serving God. Under his even more Hellenised successor, Menelaus, a statue of Zeus Olympus was erected in the Temple precincts. The public practice of Judaism was banned. This was all too much for Jews who remained loyal to their faith, and a small group, led by an elderly priest, Matthias, rose in revolt.

Within three years, they had defeated the Seleucids, re-established Jewish sovereignty and rededicated the Temple. It was a stunning victory, and had world historical consequences. It was the beginning of the end of Greece as an imperial power. Yet, if this had been all, there would be no Judaism today, no Christianity and no Islam.

The reason is that the military victory did not last. Within a century, Israel was again under foreign rule — this time, that of Rome. Less than 150 years later, after a disastrous rebellion, Jerusalem was defeated and the Temple lay in ruins. Documents from that time tell us that there were many Jews who believed that Chanukkah could no longer be celebrated. It was null and void. The earlier triumph had been replaced by tragedy.

It was then that a minor detail of the rededication took on new significance. Searching among the debris of the desecrated temple, the Jews discovered a single cruse of oil with its seal intact. This allowed them to light the Temple candelabrum, the Menorah. Miraculously, it lasted eight days, until new oil could be prepared. That became the basis of our custom of lighting a candelabrum in our homes for eight days at this time of the year.

The Menorah symbolised something quite different from military victory. It represented faith, hope, loyalty, courage. Jews began to understand that the real clash between Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece was not political but cultural. To defend a country, you need an army. But to defend a civilisation, you need schools.

Recalling the biblical emphasis on education, Jews set about creating the first system of publicly funded, universal education in history. By the end of the 1st century, it was complete. Jews became the people who predicated their survival on the house of study. Their heroes were teachers, and their citadels, schools. From that day to this, they made education their highest communal priority. It allowed them to do what no other nation has done — preserve their identity intact across almost twenty centuries of exile, dispersion and powerlessness.

Chanukkah tells a story that speaks to our time. In recent years the news has been dominated by ethnic conflict, terror and war. History, however, suggests a different narrative. In the short term, violence makes the headlines. But in the long term, it is not what counts. What makes a difference is what we teach our children. Civilisations survive less by the strength of their weapons than by the force of their ideals and their ability to hand them on to future generations.

What is the contemporary world teaching its children? In developing countries, there are vast swathes of illiteracy. In conflict zones, children are being taught to hate those with whom they must one day learn to live. In far too few are they being taught the principles of freedom, responsibility and respect for difference. The message of Chanukkah is simple. What lasts is not victory on the battlefield, but the candle of hope we light in the mind of a child.