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Susannah Dainow

Loaded Words: Militarism, Self-Defence, Chanukah

Militarism. A word with connotations of aggression, dictatorship, darkness. For some Jews, Chanukah’s rededication of the Temple after the Maccabees wrestled it back from the much larger Seleucid Greek army smacks of this unsavoury quality. This is particularly true for Jews who identify as left or progressive. Drawing a direct line of connection between the perceived militarism of the holiday and the war that will likely last through this Chanukah season and beyond, some Jews may come to feel at odds with this part of their history and wish to distance themselves from it in an effort to be perfect peaceniks.

They aren’t alone. Scholars have argued that the Talmudic rabbis’ refusal to include the Maccabees’ story in the Jewish Bible suggests a discomfort with the military’s role in the holiday. The rabbis may have objected to Chanukah’s focus on humanity’s action rather than G-d’s, and thus retooled the account from a raucous rededication of the Temple into a story about miraculous eight-day oil. (For more, see My Jewish Learning at https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/transforming-hanukkah/) Indeed, the customs that most of us associate with Chanukah today – candle lighting, dreidl spinning, deep fried foods – originate not with the apocryphal account of the military victory but either with the Talmud or with minhagim (customs) evolved over the centuries since the Seleucids.

In our current context of the Israel-Hamas war, the left often uses words like militarism, with its dark connotations, to shut down conversations about Israeli security and policy, whether consciously or not. Among progressives, being accused of militarism is akin to getting kicked out of the club, and that’s a vulnerable position to be in, both socially and politically. Since excusing myself from that club after the deafening silence following the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in 2018, I have often felt politically homeless, so I know the costs are high. I gather from conversations with other Jews of my generation and from reading online that this feeling is not uncommon for those who generally regard themselves as progressive, but who feel ousted from progressive circles due to their Zionism. Where do we belong in a time when weighted words are simultaneously tossed around like playthings and used against us?

When considering the word ‘militarism,’ there are two issues: one is how to balance the use of loaded language, and the other is how to balance the pursuit of peace with the necessity of self-defence. Our liturgy is replete with the dream of peace, but also the historical realities of war and conquest. Chanukah, as one example, originates as such a story. From Jewish textual inclusion of both the deep desire for a heavenly peace on earth and the all-too-human phenomenon of war, we can conclude that both surviving states of conflict and longing for states of tranquility are part of the experience of the Jewish people. Through the Chanukah story, apocryphal though it may be, Jews continue to recognize the necessity of self-defence to our survival. When we light our chanukiyot in celebration tonight, what we are celebrating first and foremost is successful Jewish self-defence. No contemporary dream of peace for Israel can be achieved without this imperative.

The necessity of self-defence does not equate to a militaristic approach to state-building and does not preclude peace; indeed, for Israel, self-protection is essential to peace. This may seem like a paradox; like many paradoxes, it is also deeply true. Luckily, our tradition teaches us the skills for holding opposing truths at the same time.

The Jewish left, however, does not see it this way. For them, immediate ceasefire, regardless of the return of the hostages, and a restart of peace negotiations for an establishment of a Palestinian state are the way forward. There is an unmistakable desire on the part of Jewish progressives to opt out of the necessities of the struggle for Jewish existence. The left’s position does not recognize that the stated mission of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, among others, is to destroy Israel and Jews everywhere. We have seen all too clearly how these terrorist groups have backed up their mission statements. In their ideological commitment to utopian ideals, the Jewish left risks ignoring the dire straits of current Israeli and Jewish reality.

Peace is of high value for the Jewish people. We are meant to face Jerusalem three times a day and  pray for peace. We emphasize shalom bayit, peace in the home, and hold it as one of our core goals. And, the Jewish people knows, if you will it, it is no dream.

The problem is, we can’t will it alone. A ceasefire with Gaza was in place on October 6. Hamas rockets were fired into Israel on December 1, during the so-called pause in fighting that began on November 24. A one-sided peace is not only impossible, but a dangerous delusion.

Peace is also a dream. It is, in a very real sense, aspirational. It presents in our tradition as possible but nebulous, contested, and highly difficult to achieve due to the competing needs and desires of so many in any given community, not to mention the opposing pressures within ourselves. We need G-d’s help to achieve this exalted state of being; that’s why we pray for it so much.

In the context of the current conflict, peace is something that the vast majority of the Jewish people wants, but we can’t have it if it comes wholly at our expense. As Golda Meir famously said, “If the Arabs put down their weapons today, there would be no more violence. If the Jews put down their weapons today, there would be no more Israel.” This situation is not one the Jewish people, or the world, can allow to come into being.

But what to do about the profound disagreements and rifts among the Jewish community on the issue of militarism versus self-defence? Ours is a tradition of machloket, of argument for the sake of heaven. Disagreement is holy within Judaism, even as – perhaps because – we deeply value community, klal yisrael. We know that ours must be a big tent, like Abraham’s open tent, allowing space for a diversity of thought based in common principles, and eschewing buzzwords and defensiveness. As one Toronto rabbi put it to me recently, we don’t expect agreement from Hillel and Shammai on interpretations of the Torah; why should we expect it of our contemporary political conversations? The modern-day Jewish community must allow for a variety of opinion as our ancestors did, and must work to hold the multiple truths of this diversity, lest we splinter apart.

And yet, there is a hunger to be recognized by those Jews who disagree with our politics. It hurts more to be in opposition with family, the people who are supposed to understand. I have often found myself frustrated or downright dismayed with the Jewish left, among whom I used to count myself. I remind myself here that these points of view have their truths as well. Jews who are more hawkish may be insensitive to the suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians in the conflict, and less willing to take steps to minimize this suffering. When we speak of the conflict, how do we speak of it? Do we pay due attention to the thousands of lives lost in Gaza, or are they just subjects of statistical debate? Do our hearts go out to the parents of the premature babies needing incubators, especially but not only because Hamas refused Israel’s offers of help? We pray for the hostages but we must also pray for civilians trapped in Gaza and used as human shields by their own government. This is part of the pathway to compassion; this is part of the pathway to peace. I write this in part to remind myself of the truth of such recognition. Remembering the humanity of those on the other side of the conflict is a difficult balancing act, but one that we, as Jews with the ethical commitment of our peoplehood, must balance. And we must do so without abandoning our own right to life.

And yet the Abrahamic tent does not mean we accept every possible viewpoint, or that our openness knows no limits. We are each of us free to set our own boundaries, to draw the proverbial line in the sand of what we cannot countenance; the tensions and connections between individual and group boundaries are part of the complexity of community, but we can start with being clear on our own limits. For me, my boundary is political points of view that would support my people’s destruction; this includes demanding further ceasefire without concomitant release of the rest of the hostages and violent pro-Gazan protest that threatens Jews whether physically or rhetorically. (I am furthermore skeptical about the long-term impact of hostage-for-terrorist exchanges even as I recognize their present necessity. I am worried about setting precedents for reoccurring Hamas attacks and about the long-term impact these freed terrorists may have.)

It seems absurd to have to say something as basic as “I am against my own people’s destruction.” And yet, I find the North American left too often entertaining, or full-on endorsing, just that. We need only look to the pro-Hamas-induced violence erupting all over the world; we need only look to the hate-filled graffiti sprayed across so many of our institutions, including the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre that I grew up with in Toronto. We cannot hold that which would destroy us. Too often we are asked, or told, to do just that.

A month ago I attended a session of the Toronto chapter of the Jewish Studio Project, a community-based art program out of Berkeley, California. Although we were all deeply affected by the crisis and we all had political opinions, participants didn’t get into the specifics of their politics and we didn’t try to convert each other. Instead, we sat together and talked and made art and grieved. When one woman showed up late wearing a shirt that proclaimed, “Jews for a free Palestine,” she was greeted with the same support and warmth that everyone else had received. This is what I mean by an Abrahamic tent: spaces where we can be together as Jews, in connection and in community, with room for all our deeply-held beliefs. Spaces where we can sit, grieve, and even celebrate. I want this for us for Chanukah 5784.

Being in a big tent doesn’t mean wishy-washiness. It means strength and conviction and the ability to show up for others in community. I know who I am and I know what I believe. I can also hold two opposing truths in my mind and heart, however painful it may sometimes be. I can listen to, and even love, the clamour of klal yisrael.

About the Author
Susannah Dainow is a writer and recovering lawyer based in Toronto, Canada. She writes fiction, essays, and poetry, often with a Jewish lens. Currently, she is at work on Aliyah, an intergenerational Jewish family story that explores Israel-Diaspora relations.
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