Reclaiming Hanukah From the Occupation

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December 14, 2009

Last Hanukah, Israel “celebrated” with a lopsided war on Gaza, one which, whatever else may have resulted from it, did enormous damage to Israel’s international standing. That war, Operation Cast Lead, was named after a Hanukah song.

Hanukah is the story of a war by pious Jews against an oppressive Seleucid Empire that controlled, one might say “occupied,” Jerusalem at the time. Modern scholarship contends that the war the Maccabees were fighting against the community of Jews who had assimilated into the Hellenistic culture and religion of the Seleucids.

Hanukah can thus be seen as a celebration of both a war of liberation and of a triumph of religious traditionalism over assimilation. That made Hanukah the most appealing Jewish holiday in Zionist thinking, as it embodies the two driving forces of early Zionism, the urge to liberate world Jewry from the yoke of anti-Semitism, and to give a distinct identity to the majority of Jews who, at that time, were quickly embracing secularism and assimilating into Euro-American culture.

The Hasmonean Dynasty, which emerged from the Maccabean victory, was short-lived and its reign was marked by conflict. In the end, the dynasty came ever more under the thumb of Rome, and the story of the last “Jewish state” before modern times ended in destruction and dispersion.

Circumstances are vastly different today, but the lesson of the Hasmoneans and their successors – that something other than military might, zeal, stubbornness and cleverness is needed to create and sustain a state – is one that everyone concerned with the Israel-Palestine conflict would do well to review.

According to the Hanukah story, following the destruction of the Temple, calamity came about because of the communal infighting the people of Judea had been involved in for so long.

Maybe that ingrains in more noble Jews a deep-seated fear of conflict with other Jews. But the anti-Israel crowd doesn’t care about that. The modern anti-Zionists of the settler movement care nothing about the welfare of the Jewish people or of Israeli citizens. They care only about their fervor—religious, nationalist or both – for the possession of the West Bank.

Perhaps they regard themselves as modern Maccabees, working to defend Jewish tradition and identity against the secular Israeli state, which they view as being analogous to the Hellenized Jewish community empowered by Antiochus, the Seleucid emperor.

But they are not traditionalists at all. They are a radical departure from the spirit of Zionism, which valued, above all, the creation of a Jewish and democratic state that would be a safe haven for Jews, a national center, and a state that would serve as a democratic example to the rest of the world.

The settlers defying the extremely limited “freeze,” together with their Knesset support staff, and supporters abroad, are putting Israel’s future at risk. While mainstream Jewish groups in the US debate whether J Street is a bona fide pro-Israel organization, they make few statements, if any, about the settlers. They are the opponents of the state of Israel. Those who are silent about these extremist settlers are tacitly supporting them.

Israel is in dire need of some Hanukah presents. In eight days, we traditionally give our children and loved ones a present each day. So here’s a list of Hanukah presents Israel’s supporters should find a way to give her.

  1. Jews around the world, especially in the United States, should dedicate themselves to opposing groups that are supporting settler agitation. When groups like the Hebron Fund have enough legitimacy and strength to hold a fundraiser at the New York Mets’ home field, something is amiss.

  2. Begin to organize to support not only the 10-month settlement freeze but for it to become a permanent moratorium on creating facts on the ground before an agreement Israel and the Palestinians.

  3. Take a good look at what the Palestinian Authority has done. Salam Fayyad has dramatically reduced corruption and the PA, as acknowledged by many Israeli military leaders, has done its job in reining in terrorists on the West Bank. This should have led to more than the removal of many (but far from all) checkpoints in the West Bank. They’ve done good work and should be commensurately rewarded.

  4. Support and work with the Obama administration to organize the existing agreements (the Clinton Parameters, the results of the Taba talks of 2001, the Geneva Initiative, etc.) into a new package which Obama can present as the American vision of the end of the conflict.

  5. Support Palestinian unity. The Ramallah government has long been comfortable in its position and, though current circumstances have made the status quo less palatable for them, everyone knows that a true peace cannot be made with a fractured Palestinian leadership.

  6. Demand that Arab states make concrete commitments to start normalizing relations with Israel. A few steps at the outset, if they accompany substantive moves on Israel’s part, can grease the wheels of the process.

  7. Start making it clear that Israeli democracy should encourage dissent and protest, but that a democratic society does not empower its citizens to actively undermine the government’s foreign policy decisions. Israel is confronting a grave internal threat in the settlers, and it’s time for Israel’s supporters to make it clear that this situation can’t be tolerated.

  8. Commit to taking back Zionism from those who believe that it means nothing but seizing more and more land. Zionism, at its best, was a nationalist movement that, if it didn’t quite take a universal view of human rights, did take clear stands about minority rights and equality before the law. Decades of conflict and the rise of Jewish fundamentalism have eroded that idealism, and this is reflected in current Israeli politics. Those forces, though much smaller in number, are passionate and zealous, and exert a massively disproportionate influence on Israeli and Jewish politics.

This Hanukah, there is a fork in Israel’s road ahead. Is it going to confront the fundamentalists who threaten to turn the state into a theocracy, as its Justice Minister advocated last week? Or is it going to strive to find peace in secure borders, with a shared Jerusalem and good relations with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world?

Who can say for certain whether Israel, even with full dedication to those latter goals, can ever attain them. Much depends on the willingness of Arab leadership to commit to such goals as well. But the best gift Israel can get this Hanukah is the decision by its supporters to take back the political landscape from those who value land over lives, and who would spill more and more blood, Israeli and Arab alike.

This Hanukah we can avoid the fate that awaited at the end of the Hasmonean dynasty. But, only if we are willing to start matching a zealous support of Israel against those settlers who are trying to destroy it. Only if we make it clear that it is not J Street, or even more radical left-wing groups, that are working against Israel, but those who are funding and politically supporting people that Jeffrey Goldberg, hardly a left-winger, compares to a Jewish Hezbollah.

If we can do these things, many happier Hanukahs are ahead.

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