Hanukkah for generations has been the easiest, happiest of holidays; mostly associated with gifts, dreidels, latkes and sufganiot. Very few would have thought that there could be anything contentious about this celebration of the desire for Jewish autonomy in the second century B.C. But such is the reality of the Middle East that even the most innocent holiday gets tangled up in politics.
Christopher Hitchens has a piece in Slate subtly entitled "Bah Hannukah." His argument is a delicate as a meat-axe: "The holiday celebrates the triumph of tribal Jewish Backwardness." While Hitchens can at times be amusing, this piece is less than enjoyable because it sees no complexity in history, and gives a simplistic message: there are the forces of light, and those of darkness, and even though Hanukkah is supposed to celebrate light, it really celebrates the forces of fanatical, bigoted darkness.
Hitchens shows his characteristic recent weakness of painting political reality in black and white terms, leaving little room for actual complexity. Nevertheless one part of Hitchens' message is worth listening to: religion must be kept out of politics as far as possible, because its impact, more often than not, is to turn soluble conflicts into endless tragedies.
David Brooks is the opposite of Hitchens: he is one of the most nuanced political and cultural commentators of our times, always willing to challenge simplistic conceptions on both the right and the left. He has written a subtle piece in the New York Times whose spirit is summarized in its ending: "There is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices."
Brooks points to the tragedy that the Maccabeean freedom fighters in due time would become an oppressive regime; that the result of their fanatical purism was an eclipse of scholarship in Israel. The reactions to Brooks' piece have, by and large, been positive, and many readers thank him for his illuminating comments. But there are also those who complain that he has spoiled Hanukkah for them, because he has marred this simple holiday with emotional and moral complexity. And you might well ask: why indeed should something as simple as Hanukkah been dragged into the quagmire of contemporary events? Shouldn't the Hanukkah miracle be left alone as a source of joy?
The answer is that innocence is difficult to maintain in the Middle East, and, worse, that in the name of innocent belief countless lives are dragged into misery and death. Brooks writes that, "Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses." His point is not exclusively aimed at Jewish fanaticism: "They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first." This jibe seems to be directed at Iraqi insurgents and Taliban fighters at least as much as against Jewish Fundamentalism.
Brooks has refrained from touching upon the tragedy that will forever darken the most innocent children's song about Hanukkah: the IDF chose to call last year?s war in Gaza "Operation Cast Lead," alluding to the Hebrew song in which children sing of receiving a dreidl of "Cast Lead." The Gaza war has hurt Israel's standing in the world enormously: Israel is still reeling from the impact of the Goldstone report and has to deal with side-effects like the arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni in the United Kingdom. Because Israel is busy with damage control, for the time being there is no real space for public discussion about what the Gaza war means for Israel itself. But the song will be forever tainted with heavy associations.
The Gaza incursion took place because Hamas, by casting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in religious terms, has created a situation in which, in principle, there can be no compromise. The situation was exacerbated with the relentless pounding of Israel's South with Qassam rockets and with Hamas? cynical use of the civilian population as a shield for their fighters and weapons. They are an unadulterated example for the "angry, bearded religious guys" of Brook's piece for whom there are no ethical bounds to achieving politico-religious goals.
The last weeks have shown similar examples in Israel, where religious authorities have basically denied that the state's legal authority applies to them. Unfortunately we have our own share of those who, in the name of religion, do not shy away from any moral and political cost to realize a vision of the greater Israel governed by Halakha; the result has been that Defense Minister Barak had to sever ties with them.
Should we then take Hitchens advice and simply see religion as the source of all evil in the world? As opposed to Hitchens, I don't think that the world will turn into a good place if all religions were to disappear; the greatest horrors in the 20th century were perpetrated in the name of secular ideologies. Along with Brooks, I am far too realistic about human nature to think that irrationality will be wiped out if the world would be composed of nothing but atheists.
Are we then left with nothing but Brooks' elegiac conclusion that there is no way out of moral complexity, and that we are stuck in endless ironies? Brooks' call for modesty and his insistence that there is no magic formula to create paradise of earth is to be lauded; human affairs will always be conflict-ridden. But it would be wonderful if rituals like Hanukkah could remain unadulterated sources of joy and celebration for children and adults. The ongoing tragedies running from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Middle East show that the only way to achieve this is to get religion - all religion - out of politics to the greatest extent possible.
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