Chanukah and Antisemitism: Lessons for Our Time

As a child, I was raised on a steady diet of stories of and fears about antisemitism. My parents and grandmother talked about it, suspected it in people they dealt with, and prepared me to encounter it continuously throughout my life.

But I experienced a different reality. Although there were several notable exceptions to this general rule, in my own life I grew up believing that antisemitism was essentially a part of history, not a contemporary problem. My parents’ fears and suspicions of antisemitism, I thought, were almost quaint, understandable but irrelevant leftovers from another era.

For the next generation – which  includes my 20-something aged children – antisemitism was even more remote. Ancient history discussed by old people, fossils from long ago.

But something has changed in recent years, and we all must shake off the complacency we’ve allowed to set in – no matter our generation or whether antisemitism has personally affected us.

The threat that we grew to regard as a distant memory has roared back in tragic fashion. How shocking it is to suddenly live in an America in which antisemitic thoughts can be expressed aloud and spread through online platforms, where swastikas are now routinely spray painted on homes and Jewish institutions, where Jews are murdered on Shabbat in a synagogue, and where the president of the United States tolerates and even encourages this type of hatred.

We find ourselves in the middle of Chanukah, a holiday that provides an opportunity for respite but also a lesson on how to grapple with this new wave of hatred. We must look back at our history even as we look forward into the future. The Maccabees rededicated the Temple after it had been violated by the Assyrian Greeks, so that they could freely resume their religious practices. At this time of growing anti-Semitism, white supremacy, hate and intolerance, we have to rededicate ourselves to maintaining the freedoms that make this country truly great, to the freedoms that we should all be able to enjoy.

This isn’t just about confronting antisemitism; it’s about making sure that all people can experience true freedom. That means freedom of religion, freedom to control our own bodies and reproduction, freedom to express our sexual and gender identities in whatever way we want, and freedom from inequality rooted in racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and all other forms of discrimination and hatred.

Of course, Chanukah is also about military might and violence, the triumph of the Maccabees in a battle for their survival. Today, many Jews are uncomfortable with that aspect of the Chanukah story, and rightly so. As a people who have lived long enough to know that bloodshed never brings true peace and safety, we know we must find a better way through difficult times. Violence is not the answer.

The response to synagogue shootings must not be fear, hatred, or anger. Instead, let’s have pride that we are a people with our own customs and traditions despite all the times in history when it was not safe to be so distinctive. Let’s take pride in the values that we share with other good people who want a world of peace and safety and co-existence. Even as we plan for greater security at synagogue and Jewish schools and other institutions, let’s find ways to be welcoming and inclusive places of refuge and celebration for all. Chanukah reminds us to be the light in the darkness, to joyfully celebrate our particular identity as Jews without fear, and to share the light with others.

The rabbis taught that Chanukah was about miracles, and the miracle is that we are still here, that generation after generation and despite it all, we still exist, that we still light the Chanukah candles and say the blessings and continue to pass that joy on future generations. This Chanukah, let’s show our gratitude for this miracle by rededicating ourselves to our highest values: tolerance, equality for all, loving the stranger, seeking peace, and illuminating the darkness with sparks of hope and joy.

About the Author
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief strategy officer for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the publisher of CCAR Press.
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