Hey! Where’s Your Maccabee Spirit?

This year's annual National Menorah lighting ceremony on the Ellipse, near the White House, in Washington, D.C. organized by American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) with various dignitaries and thousands of spectators in attendance. (Sabrina Soffer)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Jewish sages wisely crafted the Hanukkah blessing to ensure that future generations kept its candles burning through eternity. For millennia, Jews around the world have lit their menorahs reciting “Ba yamim hahem ba zman ha zeh,”—literally, ‘in those days in these times.’ While we traditionally commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, this blessing digs deeper. It’s a calling to shape a bright future drawing upon the parallels between past and present.

2021 witnessed a peak in antisemitic hate crimes in the United States, with a whopping 2,717 incidents, spewing well into this year. Sickening depictions of Nazi swastikas and Jews on gallows shamefully dress up American cities and virtual billboards across social media. Harassment and street assaults on Hassidic Jews mount daily. Vicious anti-Israel attacks on US college campuses, including such prestigious liberal grounds such as UC Berkeley, Tufts, George Washington University and Cornell are unremitting. And how can we forget about Kanye’s infamous Twitter thread, “I’m going defcon 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” or his idiotic remarks of “I like Hitler,” on infowars. The list goes on. 

Greek vandalism of Jerusalem’s second temple and their restriction of Jewish practice may not equate to the realities of contemporary antisemitism in the United States. But while the means were different, the ends and general sentiments teem with similarities. Indeed, what happened then—“in those days,” strongly reverberates now— “in these times.” 

The Selucid Greeks neither intended to eradicate the second Temple nor exterminate Jerusalem’s Jewish population, just as there is no similar mission to do so in America. The Greeks appreciated the Jews for their societal contributions and high intellect but regarded their ‘type’ as anti-normal. Hence, they attempted to Hellenize them by outlawing the Jewish practices of Shabbat and Brit Milah among others, and translating the Torah into Greek as means to assimilate the Jewish population.  

The Greek’s appropriation of the Torah into a mere philosophical text was looked upon as a sign of tolerance and acknowledgement by many Jews of the time. As a result, about a third of Jerusalem’s Jewish population willingly surrendered their Jewish identities and assented to Greek culture. 

Not unlike the actions of the Hellenists, recent antisemitic activity in the United States presents itself as a surreptitious means to strip Jews of their identity. Those ancient Jews willing to comply with Greek orders are not much different from many American Jews bending to the pressure of today’s antisemites. A 2021 American Jewish Committee survey reports that fears of being targeted have led 40 percent of the American Jewish population to alter their behavior. This trend is most visible in American youth whereby 50 percent of students across US campuses have masked their Jewish identities, and many, their love for Israel. 

While fear is understandable, the oil miracle and Jewish survival did not occur without brazen human defiance. In the Hanukkah story, only a vigilant minority sensed the Greek’s manipulative assimilation tactics and understood that tragedy loomed if its population remained silent. 

Apathy, lack of courage, and the increasing timidity of today’s Jewish America has inevitably given antisemites the upper-hand. All the while, a country priding itself on diversity, equity, and inclusion has allowed an unabashed incursion upon its own constitutional rights of religious expression and freedom of speech. American Jews have failed to use these inviolable rights to fend against the attacks upon them. They’ve failed to understand that strong and overt Semitism—a proud anti-assimilationist stance involving public display of Jewish identity—is highly effective in combating the fast spreading cancer afflicting this country. 

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the Executive Vice President of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) and his father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, the Executive Chairman of the International Chabad Organization, lighting the national menorah. (Sabrina Soffer)

Overt Jewish pride, however, is not entirely sufficient to counteract today’s most insidious and dominant wave of antisemitism in America: Anti-Zionism. Indeed, some anti-Zionists would be unbothered or even appreciate someone wearing a Jewish star around their neck; some may have deleted Kanye West’s music from their playlist or erased his image from their upper arm tattoos. Some Anti-Zionists are themselves Jews, who while ignorant and misinformed, seek to cancel Israel in the name of ‘social-justice.’ 

The story of Hanukkah, whereby the Greeks held a cultural high-ground as they assimilated Jews runs parallel to the radical anti-Israel movements that have swept a bulk of contemporary progressives into an existential war against Israel for a ‘moral cause.’ This perception of morality is entirely misguided, as their social justice mission presents a fabricated one-sided narrative that overlooks history, distorts facts, and conceals the crimes inflicted upon Palestinians by their own corrupt governments. 

On college campuses, organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace have many times teamed up with Students for Justice in Palestine in hostile anti-Israel protests. The recent demonstration at George Washington University’s Hillel building this past October was one such event backed by this alliance. Young Jews engaged in these activies don’t seem to understand that opposing Israel’s right to exist refutes the notion of Jewish self-determination; they fail to realize that anti-Zionism is effectively a deceptive repackaging of antisemitism cleverly devised by pro-Palestinian political groups. They are simultaneously being conned  into abandoning the beauty and truth embedded in their own culture and history. 

I’m willing to give these anti-Israel Jews a pass and not accuse them of antisemitism. I must, however at the very least, find them misinformed and gullible to notorious propaganda from pro-Palestinian groups like BDS who have very effectively manipulated reality under the guise of progressive values and legitimate humanitarian causes. However, I will say that condoning anti-Israel rhetoric the likes of “there is only one solution, intifada revolution,” or “from the river to the sea,” is antisemitic: These slurs suggest violence and the total eradication of Israel and its Jewry. 

To reverse this inbreeding of antisemites, we must illuminate the world with not only strong Semitism, but with an informed and educative offensive. Jewish pride presents itself as hollow and can be easily outmaneuvered if a true understanding of Israel and facts are lacking. Notable Jewish philosopher, Maimonedes, once wrote, wisdom is that which adds to [an individual’s] inner potential [power] and takes [one] from the level of disgrace to the level of honor” (Mishna 17: 18-21). 

Acquiring objective facts and deep insight to both sides of a situation is the education that imbues us with Maimonedes’s analysis of wisdom. Wisdom emerges from open-mindedness, listening, along with a willingness to accept all relevant facts. “Full potential” for society, and individual “honor” is actualized when truth-seeking is prioritized, historical facts are sustained, and the principle of agreeing to disagree rings true. 

This Hanukkah season in America, as you prepare to give and receive gifts, consider adding this to your list: Gift yourself the knowledge about Israel’s history and its Jewish tradition to pass on to others. Book exchanges aren’t obsolete yet, are they? Pick up books like Noa Tishby’s ISRAEL: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth, or Einat Wilf’s The War of Return—two of my favorite reads of late.

Meeting renowned author and Special Envoy for Combatting Antisemitism and Delegitimization of Israel, Noa Tishby, at the National Menorah lighting ceremony. This is the most meaningful Hanukkah gift I could ever receive! (Sabrina Soffer)

It’s difficult to discuss or nearly impossible to cultivate productive solutions to the antisemitism epidemic without this perspective. Make a point to explore a variety of news sources—particularly those from the Israeli perspective—and compare them to what’s disseminated on common media outlets or on college campuses. Initiate conversations with those likely to disagree with you, and allow them to enlighten you with their insight or differing view. Learning how to apply knowledge is the epitome of human power. In the words of Hellen Keller, “the highest result of education is tolerance.”

A physical revolt like that of the Maccabees may not be the recipe to combat today’s antisemitism, but the courage, determination, and robustness of the Maccabean spirit is. The American Jewish spirit must not fade but rather reignite in order to battle the myths that propel Jew hatred. American Jews have an obligation to shine a light on Israel’s truth—its diversity, its code of ethics, its many contributions to the betterment of this world. Most important, however, is American Jews’ realization that the security of international Jewry is critically dependent upon a strong State of Israel.

The word Hanukkah is synonymous with dedication and education. Strong, informed, and educative semitism clearly requires a certain chutzpah, an audacity brought upon an informed offensive campaign on mainstream and social media and other forums. Judah and the Maccabees reclamation and rededication of the second temple marked a major victory to ensure Jewish survival. Today, more than ever, American Jews have a duty to display moral individualism and stand up for Israel to ensure the continuity of their legacy.

About the Author
Sabrina Soffer is an undergraduate student at the George Washington University where she is double majoring in Philosophy & Public Affairs and Judaic Studies. She is the former commissioner of the George Washington University's Special Presidential Task Force to Combat Antisemitism and the Vice President of Chabad George Washington. Most recently, Sabrina was a speaker at the American March for Israel in Washington D.C. She is also the author of My Mother's Mirror: A Generational Journey of Resilience & Self-Discovery, a dual-perspective memoir that offers creative, narrative-based tools based on the USC EDGE Center award-winning Self-Ex Guide, authored by Sabrina and her mother.
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