I love Hannukah

Hannukah 2013I love stuffing my face with latkes and donuts—you can’t beat a holiday dedicated to fried food.
I love the smell of Hannukah candles burning. It evokes childhood memories of celebrating at my grandparents’ house, all the cousins playing together while the grownups drink whiskey and discuss politics.
I love playing dreidl with my non-Jewish friends and laughing at them struggling to differentiate between נ and ג.
But mostly I just love a good story, and Hannukah comes with a great story. It’s got an oppressive occupying army, and a brave guerrilla struggle, and a miraculous victory against all the odds.
Like all good stories, it develops and adapts as circumstances demand. The version I grew up with was all about nationalism and military might and God’s greatness:
The Greek military (technically they were Syrian but why let historical accuracy interfere with the story), led by King Antiochus, had occupied Judea. Antiochus forced the Jews to worship Greek gods. He placed a statue of Zeus in the temple of Jerusalem, destroyed the holy oil used to light the Menorah (the seven-branch lamp in the temple) and demanded that Jews sacrifice pigs to the Greek gods (not kosher and mean to pigs). In the town of Modi’in, one brave man named Mattityahu (yup like the rapper) the Hasmonean and his five sons stood up to Antiochus and led a rebellion. They became known as the Maccabees. They lived in caves and ate carob and had a bunch of military victories until they liberated the temple itself. They cleaned out the temple and were ready to rededicate it, but all the holy oil had been desecrated. After much searching our illustrious heroes found one tiny jar of oil, enough to burn for one day. It would take eight days to make more oil. They lit the lamp anyway (I never understood why they didn’t just wait a week til they could get more oil) and miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days.
You can see how this story fits into Israel’s nationalist narrative: The brave pious warriors fighting for Jewish self-determination, the cruel and powerful enemy that surrounds the Jews on all sides, but most of all the way the Jews won against their enemies, not because they had the support of the world’s largest superpower, but because they had God on their side.
Luckily I am a champion at tactical reading. If I don’t like a story I just rewrite it in my head. What resonates with me about the story of Hannukah isn’t the nationalism or religious zealotry. It’s the idea that people will always resist economic and cultural colonisation, and that eventually they will win. This is an important message, particularly in relation to the current Israeli colonisation of Palestine.
There’s another important lesson we should learn from the Hannukah story. The Maccabees defeated Antiochus and established a Hasmonean dynasty that ruled for a hundred years. Eventually the Hasmonean regime became as oppressive as Antiochus had been and began persecuting the rabbis. I read this as a warning about the dangers of nationalism. The Maccabee rebellion was motivated by Jewish nationalism, not by a desire for liberation. What started out as a movement for freedom from oppression eventually became oppressive towards others. Again, there are obvious parallels with the Zionist movement.
The lesson I take from this story, is that solidarity should be based in ethics, not identity. If my solidarity is with the Jews because I am a Jew, then I will stand with Jews against anti-Jewish oppression, and I will also stand with Jews when they oppress others in the name of Jewishness. If this is the basis of my politics, then I cannot expect solidarity from anyone who is not Jewish.
However, if my solidarity is with the oppressed against the oppressors, then I will stand with Jews against anti-Jewish oppression, and I will stand against any Jews who oppress others—even if they do so in the name of Jewishness. It means I stand with diaspora Jewish communities against anti-Semitism and I also stand with Palestinians against Zionism and I expect solidarity from both Jews and non-Jews in that stand.
If I were writing a sappy daytime TV special about a group of kids who go on a magical quest to discover the true meaning of Hannukah, this would be the conclusion: Hannukah is about resistance to oppression, it’s about decolonisation, and it’s about the dangers of nationalism and fanaticism.
Chag sameach.

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