Chanukah and Christmas traditionally fall around the same time each year, and the holiday season is often used as a chance to bring people from around the world together in peace. The last time the first night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve occurred on the same night was four decades ago, and so on the night of December 24, 2016 the Holy Land was filed with religious zealots from all nations buzzing about Jerusalem. Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, is a democracy, and allows all three of the major religions who lay claim to its holy sites to practice openly; unlike many of its neighbours in the Middle East and Europe. Judy White, a Christian tourist explains, “I was in the region and decided it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to Bethlehem at this time of year. I’m living in Amman (Jordan) at the moment for work. I’m originally from London and so I travelled across the border to go to Bethlehem. I went to the Church of the Nativity, the Gratto,and Major Square, and tried to follow the festivities for Christmas .”
Chanukah commemorates the Jewish people’s successful rebellion against the Greeks in the Maccabean War in 162 BCE. According to legend, the Greeks were trying to impose their culture and values on the land of Israel, then called Judea. The “enlightened” Greeks waged war on the Jews threatening to destroy Judea and desecrate Jerusalem’s Holy Temple if the Jews did not assimilate. The Chanukah holiday commemrates the battles and miracles that preserved Jewish life despite unbelievable odds. Those who study Jewish history are able to make connections to present day struggles the State of Israel still faces.
While the holiday season may be filled with joy to the world, it has often been used as a blood libel and incitement to commit anti semitic action. According to historian Ken Spiro, “Historically any events that are connected with Jesus’ life in the Christian life cycle always have negative anti Jewish violence connected to them. The Christmas time of December 25 until Jesus’ circumcision day January 1 would often be an excuse against the Jewish people in Europe, so what people don’t realize is how many of these “happy days” are actually connected in negative ways with ominous violence towards the Jewish people,” Spiro said.
This year, a very special group of Jews joined together from White City Tel Aviv and journeyed the Old City of Jerusalem to “ bring in light to the start of Chanukah!!” according to Adam Shabbs, a guest who flew in from America. White City Shabbat’s goal was to give a historic tour and full Shabbat experience to young professionals at the very place where the Chanukah happened. The Western Wall Tunnel tours opened its doors to the group who learned the history of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, brick by enormous brick.
Aliyah Schneider, from Tel Aviv, remarked “I had heard the stories and even been to the Tunnels before, but going at the this time, with the first night of Chanukah motzei Shabbat helped me connect the history to the spirituality and it was very inspirational.”
One of the objectives of the Shabbaton was to bring Jewish people from from all backgrounds together in unity. Just before the conclusion of Shabbat, Jews from around the world gathered to pay tribute to the modern day Maccabees for third meal to sing songs, hear d’var Torahs and revitalise their roots and traditions. Elyakeem Kinstlinger, a new immigrant from New Jersey now living in Jerusalem was invited to lead chavrusa learning, “This is my favorite thing to do. Go to the old city for Shabbat. Daven Carlebach at style, learn with new friends at a 3rd meal overlooking the Temple Mount. How else could I get access to all of this if I didn’t know anyone in the old city.”
Ironically, just as Jews from around the world were preparing for Shabbat and Chanukah in Jerusalem, several world leaders were preparing a resolution that questions the rights of Jews claiming Israelis had ““no legal validity,” in building Jewish settlements in disputed territories. Originally the sponsored by Egypt, then pushed forward by New Zealand, Malaysia,Venezuela, and Senegal, Resolution 2334 was passed by a total of 14 countries and in an astonishing act of policy, not vetoed by the United States. Tensions in the Middle East flared up when an outraged, Prime Minister of Israel B.B. Netanyahu stated, “The resolution passed in the UN yesterday is distorted and disgraceful, but we will overcome it,” Netanyahu said during a lighting ceremony for the first candle of Hanukkah in front of wounded IDF soldiers, disabled veterans and terror victims. “The resolution determines that the Jewish Quarter (in Jerusalem) is occupied territory. It determines that the Western Wall, the Kotel, is occupied territory. There is no greater absurd than that,” he said.
Backlash from the bill has sparked great controversy globally, and has inspired many Jews to take a closer look at their roots in Israel and the history of the land. “As we were doing Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel a resolution saying this occupied Palestinian territory was being passed. As we were ushering in the holiday in which the Macabees emerged victors over saving Jerusalem, the world decides Jerusalem doesn’t belong to the Jews,” contended Deborah Danan, co-director of White City Shabbat.
One glaring paradox of assimilation of non-Jewish cultural influence in modern times, is the name commonly used to celebrate New Years in Israel. Throughout major Israeli cities, many party goers on December 31st can be seen wearing red and white Santa hats and referring to the holiday as “Sylvester.” Ken Sprio enlightens students as he teaches, “Sylvester is a European reference to New Year’s and they’ve actually adopted the term in Israel. It’s named after Saint Sylvester from the 4th century, 324 when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. Sylvester was the Pope and leader of the Roman Church who oversaw the Council of Nicaea, making it the official state religion. His death date is associated with New Years. It’s sort of like a yahrzeit in Judaism. It never entered American consciousness, but it gives it a Christian reference to the day. There was a great deal of anti Jewish violence connected to it so it’s sort of like making a L’Chaim to the guy who brought Christianity to the Roman Empire, and therefore so much suffering to the Jewish people in history.”
Many young Jews have responded to the increasing attacks on their homeland and heritage with increased learning and acts of kindness to counteract violence. This past Friday, December 30, JNF Future offered young professionals from Tel Aviv a chance to see the actual sites where the Maccabean wars occurred, while at the same time raising money for the restoration of post fire lands hit by terrorism earlier this month. “The world seems to be saying we don’t have a claim to our land, and unless you know the facts and see the proof with your own eyes, it’s very hard to argue logically rather than with just an emotional response, ” Michal Albin reasoned, ” I can’t control what the world ignorantly says about my people, the best defense is to be a witness to our living history and learn to teach it.”