Can Anti-Zionism Reconcile Itself With Hanukkah?

My friend’s husband, David Abitbol, answered my question almost effortlessly by immediately replying, “Actually, quite easily”. Over the past week, I have seen countless arguments and debates online across different social media platforms between different Jewish (but also some non-Jewish) creators and how their beliefs fit into Hanukkah, namely secular vs. religious and Zionist vs. anti-Zionist.

The Internet bounces between being a blessing and a curse, although this time I thought that seeing all these varying, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives on a holiday that to the non-Jewish world sees as a non-controversial staple of Judaism conforms with the famous phrase, “two Jews, three opinions”. What most people don’t know, however, is that the Hanukkah story can present the secular or religious explanation for the success of the Maccabean Revolt and the holiday itself as celebrated today harbors so many different interpretations on what it should represent in our present-day world.

If you’re familiar with the topic and are aware of the many nuances that each perspective on Hanukkah has, then you recognize that it would be nearly impossible for me to comprehensively sum them all up in a few short paragraphs. If you didn’t know that Hanukkah could be controversial, or are wondering how your personal ideologies can fit into Hanukkah, then I’ll try my best to give a general overview without getting too much into the theatrics.

First up, we have the traditional, mainstream religious take on the historical story of Hanukkah, which I’m assuming is the most well-known understanding of the holiday. Essentially, as recorded in the Talmud and as described by the blessing for the lighting of the hanukkiah/menorah, the Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah to commemorate the miracles that God performed during the re-consecration of the Temple in Jerusalem, attributing the miracle of the Temple’s hanukkiah oil lasting for eight days when it was only supposed to last for one to God.

Popularized by the socialist-Zionist movement in the early 20th century, we have the coined “secular” interpretation of the Hanukkah story. Instead of focusing on the divine miracle and the God of Israel’s intervention to re-consecrate the Temple dedicated to himself, the strength and improbable victory by the Maccabees serves as the Hanukkah miracle worth commemorating. Rather than recounting the Hanukkah story with the oil lasting for eight days, the secular narrative would tell the story as a miraculous uprising at the hands of human beings, while still lighting the hanukkiah/menorah with a Maccabean prayer that praised the military success of the Maccabees. This prayer replaced the traditional blessing, as practiced today, as recited when lighting the hanukkiah/menorah.

Expanded upon through the pre-1948 Zionist reinterpretation, Hanukkah became a nationalistic myth that supported its political agenda of having Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Israel (Hebrew for “the land of Israel”). Diasporic Jews no more, the Jewish community known as the Yishuv saw itself as a group of Hebrews who had returned to their land after two-thousand years of exile. Most specifically, the socialist-Zionists of the early 20th century wanted nothing more than to physically connect with the land through active and enthusiastic cultivation, which they believed would emancipate them from the imposed lifestyle that Jews faced in Europe through religious practice and societal roles. These socialist-Zionist communities came to be known as kibbutzim and they reinterpreted nearly all religious holidays, including Shabbat, to match their socialist ideology. Prior to the celebration of Israeli independence after the establishment of the state, Hanukkah also played the role as both a memorial day for those in the Yishuv that died in attacks or armed combat (either against the British or the neighboring Arab communities) as well as a patriotic display in support of founding an independent Jewish state.

And concluding with the group that stands against this version of the rededicated Hanukkah story, along with much more, is the anti-Zionist Hanukkah story. Similar to its counterpart, the anti-Zionist rededication of Hanukkah is a nuanced affair with a variety of dissonant interpretations within the movement. Nevertheless, critiquing Israel in the spirit of their interpretation of the holiday finds itself at the forefront of the discussion and how the Maccabees during their rule did not have total support from their fellow people because they forcibly ruled over Judea, were power-hungry, participated in military conquests to conquer more land, and eventually ended up sympathizing with Hellenistic culture; despite the fact that they originally revolted against the Greek empire because they had tried to force Jews into incorporating Hellenistic practices into their culture as well as religion by including pagan worship/sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. 

Even though many other perspectives and versions of these perspectives on Hanukkah exist, the above descriptions are not by any means all inclusive, these are the most common ones that I have heard over the years. Watching all these interplaying takes on the most recognizably Jewish holiday brewed a good amount of tension, occasionally boiling over into divisive, heated disputes. Those that align with the religious perspective tended to combat those faithful to the Zionist interpretation, since the secular Zionist narrative usually focuses on the efforts of human beings in making the modern state of Israel a reality while more religious circles do not incorporate the non-divine aspects of Hanukkah as part of the miracle. The anti-Zionist following can overlook the enthusiasm behind the Maccabean Revolt as a military movement to establish Jewish sovereignty over Judea from under the Greek empire and counter with a discussion on how the Maccabeans fought against assimilation, but they were also not unanimously supported by the Jewish community in Judea at the time because of their political corruption and disregard for religious tradition involving Temple leadership. Then, a number of conflicting details from different camps within the Zionist interpretation can lead to many debates on what the general Zionist Hanukkah story is, with little to no consensus and Ben Gurion himself rejecting the glorification of the Maccabees all together because they were eventually defeated by the Romans. Nonetheless, I think the disparity between interpretations and viewpoints can cultivate a deeper, more enriched appreciation for Hanukkah in the Jewish “spirit” of divergent opinions. So to answer my question, and in a way echo David’s response, can anti-Zionism reconcile itself with Hanukkah? Yes, of course it can, just like all the other ideological perspectives.

About the Author
Catherine Szkop is a first generation Polish American with Jewish roots from the US, specifically Michigan, currently living in Israel as a graduate student in Jewish Studies focusing on Medieval to modern Polish-Jewish history as well as Israeli sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She decided to move to Israel in order to connect with her Jewish ancestry and with the people who come from many different backgrounds, but all live in this small, yet dynamic region.
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