As we light the first candle of Hanukkah tonight, we recall the miracle that happened to our ancestors in those days and in this time. The lights of our Hannukiyot, are perfectly poised to give us hope in dark times, provide light among the increasingly literal and metaphoric darkness, and offer us an opportunity to reflect on who we are as a people.
Tonight, and for the next ensuing 8 days, the question of identity comes to the forefront. For many North American Jews, Hanukkah is the ideal Jewish counter to the winter solstice holiday season (especially as it overlaps with Christmas this year) having adopted the gift-giving ritual and offering a message of light and joy.
Hanukkah this year, comes just a week after the U.S. President issued an Executive Order stating (among other things) that “discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] violation when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin”, reminds us that we are indeed a people striving for a need to preserve our self-determination and fight for religious freedom. This caused a stir with many Jews reacting in diametrically opposed ways. Some were angered by the attempt of the President to further categorize Jews as a group based on national origin as the central aspiration of so many American Jews was to shed their particularistic national identity in favor of a flawless integration in American society. And as Rabbi Jonah Pesner correctly pointed out expressing our reason for caution, that “throughout Jewish history, categorizing Jews into a separate group has led to othering and sometimes violence. ”
Others, however, were pleased with the EO as it sought to combat antisemitism and recognize the Jews as a people and not just a religion. Of course, the context and pre-text force us to raise an eyebrow as many are suspicious of anything originating from this particular president seeing this order days after his blatantly antisemitic remarks to the Israeli-American Council’s convention.
While there is little question that the State must be responsible for Jewish protection at the hands of extremists as we have seen in Pittsburgh, Poway, Charlottesville and the streets of Brooklyn, Paris, and many more places, the question of delegitimization of Israel is less clear in contemporary discourse. Prof. William Kolbrenner explains in the context of the Executive Order that :
“Those advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement who claim no connection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism have their own definitions of both antisemitism and Judaism. For them, religion, revolves around faith, as it does for Christians, but not the distinctly Jewish conception of nationhood – so that the State of Israel is seen not as a genuine expression of Judaism, but a cynical colonialist grab for power. This is one thing Trump gets right – Judaism is a nation before a religion in the Christian sense.”
Kolbrenner continues that, “those who advocate BDS, however, having determined what Judaism is, can go ahead and deny any connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, calling out the Jewish State as colonialist because they insist that religion, and therefore Judaism, must be determined by faith alone.”
This is the great perplexing identity conundrum for many Americans and American Jews alike. Of course, the word ‘national/nationality” is loaded with connotations that can both separate Jews from American national identity, potentially align us with problematic Nationalistic trends, and ascribe unwanted particularistic characteristics.
However, to those progressive humanists who hold up the ideal of the exilic, cosmopolitan, and universalist Jew, Zionism is an affront to their image of the Jew of the past, for whom home was never actual, but always ideal. For them, Jews lose their authentic identity when they coalesce into a nation. For them, the warrior Maccabees are a relic of the past and now our Hanukkiyot shine brightly and harmoniously in the windows next to the glowing lights of our Christian neighbors.
The question for many American Jews is whether we can identify as a people, as a nation, and as loyal Americans.
Today, Israel is the symbol of our modern-day Hanukkah. Israel, that was born of the efforts of several generations of pioneers who set up the foundations of the State. Israel, that provided a home and a shelter to the survivors of the Nazi genocide and to those who were expelled from the lands where their families lived for millennia in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere. Israel, that became the place of ingathering for our People and the symbol of our resilience and has become a source of pride for so many around the world is now the place that needs our constant re-affirmation and dedication. Tonight is the time for us to take a moment to affirm the complex relationship we have with our own identity, and our relationship with the nation-state of the Jewish people that is a miracle and both gives light and needs the light of others.
!חג אורים שמח