On Chanukah and Extremism

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December 2, 2010

When I was a kid I loved Chanukah. Every one of those eight nights my family lit a tableful of menorahs, which is about as safe as it sounds. We opened the blinds and let the light shine out onto the sidewalk. We hung out with friends, opening presents and playing or watching the candles die down. And we sang.

There are beautiful Chanukah songs, with melodies by Handel or stirring words about justice and freedom. There are traditional psalms like Al Hanisim. “Eight Days of Chanukah,” a childhood favorite, is none of these. Not to be confused with Senator Orrin Hatch’s release of the same title, “Eight Days of Chanukah” is an obscure track off of a Chanukah CD my parents bought when my brothers and I were little, ostensibly set to the tune of a Russian-folk song.

“Eight Days” tells what I took as a kid to be the Chanukah narrative: (1) The glory days of the ancient Temple are threatened by the tyrannical Syrian Greeks; (2) The Maccabees successfully drive the tyrant Antiochus from the land; (3) The Maccabees rededicate the Temple, thanks to a lone jar of oil which miraculously keeps the Temple flame burning for eight days and nights.

Even as a child, I knew that Chanukah is a post-biblical, religiously unimportant holiday, and that the part about the miraculous oil was added later, possibly to remedy God’s conspicuous absence from the story. But I understood Chanukah to be about Jewish resistance to oppression, a righteous rebellion against a powerful enemy that confirmed the strength of the Jewish people and our right to a national existence. In “Eight Days,” we sang: “those days in history, still live for you and me, let’s keep the flame forever shining bright.” The Maccabees made us proud, and not just in an Adam Sandler, let’s-list-famous-Jews kind of way.

This message jibed with what I was hearing in school, in youth groups, at camp and at synagogue about Israel, the strong Jewish nation that again and again defeated larger foes in the face of an existential threat. Even the dreidel pitched in. One of its faces, I learned, changes in Israel to account for a more locationally accurate four-word acronym: A great miracle happened here.

I learned only later that the story doesn’t end happily with a miracle.

The true story of Chanukah does begin with rebellion against an oppressive empire’s anti-religious edicts, culminating in the reconstitution of the ancient Jewish state. But Act Two, the Maccabees in Government, is a military and political tragedy, a story, in David Brooks’ words, of “tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.” The larger story reads, in retrospect, like an ill-fated anticolonial struggle: Fundamentalist freedom fighters (backed by foreign powers) wage an insurgent campaign, oust the occupiers, and achieve self determination. Left in the colonizer’s wake: internal cleansing campaigns against Hellenized political and cultural rivals (e.g., Jews named Jason), and ultimately a corrupt and authoritarian Hasmonean theocracy. Once the Maccabees are in power, it becomes hard to see who the good guys are.

I am not saying, as Christopher Hitchens nearly did, that the Maccabees are the Taliban, nor am I suggesting that commemorating their victory is akin to celebrating that of the Afghanistan Mujaheddin over the USSR. I just think I should have been taught what happened after the righteous revolt, after the oil burned for eight nights; I should have been told about the Jew-on-Jew persecution, for example, and the steady slide into a theocratic failed-state which was easy pickings for the Romans a century later.

The Rabbis created a nice midrash about God’s approval of the Maccabean rebellion itself, but Act Two is hard to interpret as anything but bad karma. Maybe that’s why those rabbis avoided it. But the cautionary tale about mixing power and extremism seems right for our times, and worth remembering this Chanukah.

In the Chanukah story, the Maccabean revolt kicks off when Mattathias, the Maccabee patriarch, kills another Jew who is about to bow down at a Greek altar. Mattathias, the Book of Maccabees tells us, was acting in the tradition of the biblical priest Pinchas, who had killed a Jew for consorting with a Midianite woman and joining a cult of Baal. Mattathias then exhorted “all who are zealous for the law and faithful to the Covenant, follow me.”

Those words eerily parallel Moses’ upon his return from Mount Sinai. After the golden calf incident, Moses drew a line in the sand, saying “Whoever is on God’s side, join me.” When the Levites stepped up, Moses ordered them to draw their swords and “kill brother, friend and neighbor.” Today, Moses’ and Pinchas’ actions are used to justify Jewish extremism. Pinchas was cited by Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. Moses’ words adorn billboards sponsored by Israel’s powerful extreme-right Shas Party.

Such extremism is starkly at odds with pluralism and rational debate. It says you’re either with us or you’re against us, or rather, you’re either with God, or an apostate. That fundamentalist reasoning animated the Maccabees’ fight for religious freedom, but it also justified their reign of violence and repression. When we celebrate Canukah without thinking about what those who followed Mattathias wrought, or without asking when and how the Maccabees lost the moral high ground, we are missing an opportunity to probe our values as Jews and as Americans c. 2010.

Peter Beinart’s recent article, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, raised this question in terms of the relationship between American Jews and Israel. As Israel has grown more powerful in the half-century-plus since its War of Independence, its moral position (and that of its defenders) has become fraught and complicated. Yet Israel’s coalition government hinges on hard-liners from parties like Shas, who display little commitment to ideas like equal citizenship and religious tolerance, let alone a two-state solution. American Jewish organizations like AIPAC, Beinart argues, have, in their unequivocal support for Israeli government policy, ignored a growing tension between liberal democratic values and rising Israeli extremism.

I can confirm that the yoke of extremism is turning off droves of young American Jews. I went to an AIPAC student leaders conference as a freshmen in college. I watched a law student from Albany unabashedly advocate blocking U.S. aid to the Palestinians before a packed ballroom and felt appalled and marginalized. More broadly, though, a “line in the sand” on Israel is also feeding an irrational mistrust of moderate, pro-Israel groups like J-Street.

But our inability coherently to cope with extremism extends beyond the Israel-America relationship.

Just ask George Soros, the recent subject of a two-day Glenn Beck-sposé entitled, “the Puppet Master.” Drawing extensively on anti-Semitic tropes worthy of Henry Ford’s The International Jew, Beck cast Soros as the power behind the dark forces who are the focus of his program. Beck offensively twisted Soros’ role in supporting democracy movements in Eastern Europe into a tale of world domination, (inadvertently) echoing Soros-themed anti-Semitic propaganda created by the Iranian Security Service.

Across the spectrum of American Jewish political thought, alarm bells should be ringing. A far-right conspiracy theorist who spends days on a major news channel telling Americans that their way of life is threatened by a conspiracy engineered by Soros, the International Jew? Beck’s paranoid style may play well with the John Birch Society, but make no mistake: it is bad for the Jews (and America).

But Beck covered his tuchus. “I’m probably more supportive of Israel and the Jews than George Soros is,” he told his viewers. And he produced evidence: a letter by Abraham Foxman of the ADL calling Beck “a friend of the Jewish people and a friend of Israel.” Beck deservedly took flack for his insensitive treatment of Soros’ experience during the Holocaust, but avoided responsibility for exploiting anti-Semitic themes to advance an extremist political agenda.

The point about Beck is not a side-show. As Jewish Americans, our obligation to America as a polity is central. For us to be anything less than full-throated, for any reason, in the face of rising extremism at home seems an indefensible shonda.

I have started a new Chanukah tradition in my house. As we get through the first round of Chanukah songs, I take five minutes to interrupt and harangue my family about the intolerance of the fundamentalist Maccabees. Our guests are mostly used to this by now, as I’ve been doing it for the last few years.

I do it because the larger Chanukah story is too important to ignore. Chanukah is about the triumph of zealots over both external tyranny and internal pluralism. It is about the unintended consequences of strategic strange bedfellows. It is about heroic acts of rebellion by an oppressed Jewish people, but also violent acts of aggression by a Jewish state. It is about the dangerous combination of extremism and power.

As Jews and Americans, we face hard questions: How do we discuss, let alone resolve, difficult conflicts between Zionism and liberal democracy? How do we respond to the resurgence of extremism in America? What responsibilities come with our privilege and power?

We should not ignore the parts of Chanukah’s history that help us get at these questions. Yes, they are the darker parts. But if there’s one thing we are supposed to do on this holiday, it is light candles. Let’s keep the flame forever shining bright.

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