Today marks the start of Hanukkah – a time when Jewish families gather together to celebrate the miracle at the heart of the “Festival of Light.”
On Hanukkah, Jewish communities around the world remember how the Maccabees, a small native group of Jewish rebels in ancient Israel, defeated the occupying Syrian-Greek Empire and prevented the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. With the remains of the Jewish temple in ruin, and enough oil only to light the besieged temple flames for a day, the lights miraculously burned brightly for eight full days. The liberated Jewish inhabitants of the land would go onto self-govern for over a hundred years in the area until the arrival of the Romans. Now known as the Festival of Lights, this story tells a familiar tale of the attempted elimination of the Jews and of their rights in their homeland. It tells a story of their success against the odds and their determination to hold onto their collective religious and national heritage.
This year, for Jews around the world, this time of joy and togetherness is marred by the terrible events which occurred two months ago today, when Hamas launched its murderous assault on southern Israel, attempting – just like the Syrian King some 2,200 years ago – to deny and extinguish the rights of Jews to live freely in this land.
For the families and friends of the more than 1,200 Israelis brutally murdered by Hamas terrorists, this Hanukkah will no doubt heighten their sense of loss and bereavement, a tale all too familiar to this ancient community.
This is, of course, worse still for the families anxiously awaiting news of their 137 loved ones taken hostage more than 60 days ago and who still remain captive in Gaza. For them, the story of Hanukkah – which literally translates as ‘dedication’ – is unfinished and unfulfilled. The lights may still burn as they remember past endurances but, for these families, the lights will shine more dimly than ever.
We think of the heart-wrenching plight of Liora Argamani, who has brain cancer, and last week recorded a video in which she appealed for the release of her daughter, Noa, from Hamas captivity in Gaza.
We imagine the feelings this Hanukkah of 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz whose husband, 83-year-old Oded, is still in the terrorists’ hands. We pray for Rimon Kirsht Buchshtav, whose husband, Yagev, is still held by Hamas. We think of 17-year-old Noam and 13-year-old Alma Or, whose father, Dror, remains in captivity – and whose mother, Yonat, was killed on 7 October.
Even among those hostages now released – several of whom we have met through ELNET UK, the UK affiliate of the European Leadership Network – we think of the children who returned home as orphans and those forced to leave their sole surviving parent behind with Hamas.
We are also mourning those Jewish hostages deemed too burdensome by Hamas and left to die in captivity. We remember Yehudit Weiss, who was receiving treatment for breast cancer and was found dead near Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, along with the body of the murdered 19-year-old army reservist Noa Marciano. We now know that the oldest Israeli hostage, 85-year-old Aryeh Zalmanovich also died in Hamas captivity.
We should not forget, too, the high price Israel is being forced to pay for the hostages’ release. Much of the media talks about the Qatari brokered deal to free the hostages in return for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons as if there were some moral equivalence.
But this simply isn’t the case. Among those Israel has been forced to free is the prominent Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi who was arrested after posting on social media in the wake of 7 October: “We will slaughter you and you will say that what Hitler did to you was a joke, we will drink your blood and eat your skulls.”
Others released by Israel include those convicted of violent crimes, including attempted murder, inflicting serious bodily harm, and hurling firebombs. A number of released prisoners belong to terrorist groups, including Hamas.
We can only hope, just as the Jewish community would have in this same stretch of land over 2,000 years ago, for the Israeli survivors still held alive by their tormentors. Among these are over 20 women, 10 people aged over 75, and the unknown fate of Shira Bibas and her two sons, 4 years and 4 months old, who Hamas claim to have been killed.
Amid the current darkness, there is, appropriately for this festival, one shard of light. Hanukkah is a celebration of victory over those who ordered the Jews to abandon their religion and desecrated their Temple in Jerusalem. It is a story of Jewish suffering, resistance and triumph. These ripples of history are touching the Jewish community once more.
More than 2,000 years later, we’ve seen the Israeli hostages display similar qualities in the face of adversity. Yocheved Lifshitz, for instance, directly challenged Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar when he came to meet his captives, asking him how he wasn’t ashamed of himself, while 72-year-old Adina Moshe argued with the terrorists, asking them to release another older, more sickly hostage in her place.
For all its brutality and savagery, Hamas will never break the spirit and resilience of the Israeli people.
As we think of the hostages tonight, that’s something we’ll be celebrating this Hanukkah.