Alan Abrams

How Israel’s new president (almost) ruined my Hanukah

Hanukah really is special here in Israel. I love how much my young kids are into it and come home from a day at Gan singing the Hanukah songs they learned there. And I love how even potentially depressing places like a hospital’s hallways are brightened up by people bringing their kids, many of whom are off from school for the holiday, with them wherever they go. I love the joy and celebration in the air.

But Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, Israel’s new president, came pretty close to ruining the holiday for me.

We live in highly politicized and polarized times, yet I’ve mostly been able to experience Hanukah as free of that, as a beautiful Festival of Lights that, as the Talmud instructs us, is much more about the candles and the miracle of light than it is a celebration of the military victory of the Maccabees and the possibility of building a new Temple.

But Herzog nearly trashed all that on the first night. He politicized the holiday in a particularly intense way by choosing to light the first candle in perhaps the most contentious Holy site in all of Israel — the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. In the Bible, we are told that Abraham purchased a burial plot there to bury his wife Sarah. Abraham himself, along with his son Isaac and Isaac’s wife Rebecca are also said to be buried there. 

Muslims also believe the site is the resting place for Abraham and for Isaac, and say that Muhammed visited there on his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. Much of the worst violence between Muslims and Jews has occurred in Hebron amid the conflicting claims that it belongs to Jews or Muslims. So, no matter what he might have said when he was there, Herzog, with his mere presence on a holiday that can be understood as celebration of Jewish military power, communicated a triumphalist message — the message that this contested spot belongs to the Jews.

That’s a message that tastes bitter in my mouth. It would be difficult for any amount of sweet, sugary Hanukah Gelt or sufganiyot to overcome that bitterness. I desperately want to go back to my previous innocence, the innocence of Hanukah being a Festival of Lights characterized by kids joyfully playing with dreidels.

Why did he do it? After all, there’s no connection between the Hanukah story and Abraham. Hebron is just not a place naturally linked to Hanukah.

HaAretz’s Anshel Pfeffer says that it was a political move, that Herzog is already working to become prime minister after being president by appealing to the right. Noah Efron on the latest Promised Podcast agrees that it was a smart political move that allows Herzog to broaden his appeal beyond the leftist realm he comes from (although Efron does not read Herzog’s move quite as cynically as Pfeffer does).

I don’t claim to understand Israeli politics nearly as well as either Pfeffer or Efron, but I know something about spirituality. And I know that all of our holidays and traditions have the potential to be understood as calls for peace, love and light, or as calls for war and darkness.

Mr. President, you chose war and darkness at a time you should have chosen light. You plunged a hot knife into the heart of my love for Judaism and the Jewish tradition. But, as wounded as I am by your actions, you did not put out the light of my love. Nor did you quelch my hope for peace, and, more specifically, my hope that you can come to see the error of your ways and to become the president-for-peace that you should be. May it come soon and in our time.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.