The most appealing cultural markers are those that act as a mirror for our deepest held values. But the wider the mirror, with space for more of us to crowd in, the less likely it is that we will agree on the content being reflected back. Hanukkah is like that. There are at least two very different messages that can be taken from the story. Which one will win out in today’s Jewish political and social climate — and does it matter?
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With Hanukkah’s powerful symbolism of the few prevailing against the many, there are those who see the story as embodying a social justice imperative. Such is the message my friend Joel Westheimer, a noted civic democracy activist in his own right, told a crowd of people at his family’s Hanukkah party the other night in Ottawa. In his short speech, Westheimer spoke about Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the ongoing systems of injustice which the collective should endeavor to overturn.
And then there are those who seek to use the Hanukkah narrative to underscore a siege mentality. There is of course the issue of assimilation captured in the story, a fear that has since transformed from the threat of forced assimilation to the fear that the Jewish people are willingly withering away their own identity through intermarriage or sheer apathy.
There was of course the siege mentality embodied in hardliner Ariel Sharon’s infamous attempt to assert his country’s Jewish identity in the face of contested territory by hosting a housewarming party (chanukat ha-bayit, in a play on words, whether conscious or not), held in the Old City in 1987, an event which some say help sparked the first intifada.
These same siege-mentality ideas are embodied by the contemporary advocacy group “United With Israel.” Its website features a short Hanukkah essay subtitled “It’s All About Saying Thank You.” There, it says, “Our precious Israeli soldiers are modern day Maccabees. Surrounded by Arab and Islamic countries, Israel stands alone – a small beacon of democracy in a unfriendly, tyrannic Middle East.”
It continues, “As nations threaten to wipe Israel off the map, shootings, stabbings and suicide bombings show the face of Israel’s enemy within. But the Nation of Israel will prevail – and defeat the enemy. Good always triumphs over evil. The light of our faith will emerge from the darkness of death and destruction.”
Surely there is a way to bridge these two views: prevailing against those who despise us, encouraging Jewish vitality, all while seeking systemic change where the suffering are silent. But all too often, anxiety around the former obscures possibilities for the latter.
For example, as Israeli soldiers are sent on a variety of missions — from staffing checkpoints to oversee Palestinian freedom of movement to operating the life-saving Iron Dome missile interceptor system, are we asking how Israel can do its part to reshape the existing reality of enmity? In other words, we need to constantly ask to what ends are these young people being asked to sacrifice life and limb.
And as we fret about assimilation and the threat to Jewish continuity in North America, are we sufficiently attuned to the value proposition inherent in the Jewish mission? Pushing our children to remain Jewish for its own sake may simply not be enough. Instead, there may need to be clear and obvious justice-seeking outcomes to attract them to a system of rituals and narratives that, as we can see, can often be shaped to conform to the values of the observer.
“In every age a hero or sage will rise up and help us,” goes the old Hanukkah song. The question is: What will we want him (or her) to help us with? This year, I urge readers of The Fifth Question here at Haaretz to consider the shamash candle as a social justice helper, looking for uncommon heroes where they might not have been thought to exist, and illuminating important debates about what messages we seek to act on from our collective narratives.