Happy Hanukkah? Thanks, but not for me

Israel/Palestine
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Soliders in the Israeli military celebrate Hanukkah. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson Facebook page)

Every year since I left Israel, at about this time of year, well-meaning, polite people wish me Happy Hanukkah. But I don’t celebrate Hanukkah because it is a festival that offends my values and ethics. People tend to think that it’s some kind of a Jewish version of Christmas, but they are wrong.

The festival of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem as part of a successful rebellion against the Greek occupiers in Judea during the period 175 to 134 BC. After Alexander’s death the Greek empire was divided and Judea became part of the Greek Seleucid Empire, which also included Syria. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, turned Jerusalem into a Greek-style polis, built a gymnasium, turned the Jewish temple into a temple for the Greek god Zeus, and brutally suppressed Jewish religion. Practices like reading the Torah, circumcision and observing the Sabbath were banned and punishable by death.

The rebellion led by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers was run as a guerrilla war against the Seleucid army but initially involved murdering Jewish collaborators who adopted Hellenic culture and religion. This guerrilla war involved many battles and in the end Judea was able to establish itself as a Roman client state and free itself from the Greeks. During one of the battles a band of rebels was able to overcome a small Seleucid garrison guarding the temple. They took it back and rededicated it as a Jewish temple. The word Hanukkah is derived from the root of the Hebrew word ‘inaugurate’ or ‘dedicate’.

This event is celebrated in the festival of Hanukkah as a miracle from god with a few myths thrown in. One of those is the myth of the little can of consecrated olive oil that was found in a corner of the temple, and that miraculously lasted eight days allowing the Menorah to be lit for the eight days of the celebration. The Bar-Ilan University professor who taught us about Hanukkah as part of a unit on Jewish festivals said no one knows who made up this myth, but it stuck. It is told every year to little children in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world, as a way of conferring divine blessing on the successful rebellion against the Greek occupation forces.

The problem I have with Hanukkah (and many other Jewish festivals) is that I refuse to celebrate a blood bath, glorify war or justify murder of anyone, even in the name of our own liberation or survival. Many Jewish festivals are based around stories of our deliverance from oppression, and triumph over those who wished to annihilate us or just gave us a hard time. To my taste, too many of them rejoice in the killing of others and justify what we did in the name of the survival of our Jewish identity. (I don’t celebrate Passover either, because I can’t rejoice in the death of all the eldest sons of Egypt, or Purim where Hamman and his ten sons were murdered for plotting to kill the Jews.)

Growing up, I learned so many stories about how our people resisted occupation and subjugation. They weren’t always about battles and wars. Sometimes they were just about the human spirit resisting subjugation regardless of a horrible cost. One of the goriest stories, and one that as a child I found also deeply moving, was about Hanna and her seven sons who were brutally murdered one by one in front of her because she refused to eat pork. We were taught in no uncertain terms that one does anything to be free, one does not bow to occupiers and one does not tolerate oppression or any attempt to subjugate our religion, our way of life or our national character.

Given the realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, I find the hypocrisy of Hanukkah intolerable. It’s OK for us Jews to celebrate (hugely and spectacularly) our efforts to liberate our own people from occupation, no matter the cost, no matter who lives or dies on our side or the other. But it is not OK for the Palestinians. No-one condemns Judas Maccabeus and his rebels as terrorists. They are revered as freedom fighters with a just and even divinely decreed cause regardless of their brutality. The Greek occupiers are despised venomously in the story of Hanukkah, but no-one thinks there’s a problem with Israel being an occupier.

Of course at this point supporters of Israel are likely to say that the comparison is unfair. Israel isn’t an empire like Greece was; it is only trying to be a safe haven for the long persecuted Jewish people. But do the reasons behind occupation and colonisation matter when their evils and crimes are the same?

Another thing that is revealed in the documents behind Hanukkah is that there was horrible and bloody infighting within the Jewish community itself during that period. There was corruption and endless intrigue in relation to the position of the High Priest and his relatives, collaboration with the Greek occupiers, power, status and money. This is the kind of dynamic that happens when a people are under occupation, the power struggles that go with that and the different approaches to dealing with the occupation. It’s never pretty.

So when people criticise the Palestinian people, I stay out of it and I always think to myself, What do you expect? This is what happens when people are under occupation. They are responding as human beings have always responded under similar circumstances, including us Jews. Why should the Palestinians be held to a different standard than the Jews back then, or the French during the Nazi occupation, India during British colonisation, the Scots or any other occupied group throughout human history?

The problem is never with the response; it is always with the occupation. Colonisers and occupiers are not benign. They are cruel and exploitative, and there is nothing the colonised and occupied can do that will ever be right. No occupier ever tolerates any resistance, peaceful or violent. They crush them both because they interrupt and threaten the agenda of the occupier. Occupied people can do nothing right when dealing with a force bent on taking what they have and destroying them if they get in the way of it.

I used to like Hanukkah as a child because it’s fun for children. You get to light pretty candles, sing really nice, albeit gory, traditional songs (Maoz Tzur is positively shocking if you know what the words mean), and eat yummy sweet, fatty food, like fried potato patties (latkes) and jam doughnuts (sufganiot). (Both of these are traditional Eastern European dishes, not really Jewish as such, but Israel has always been dominated by Ashkenazi culture.) So when I gave up all of this years ago, it was a little sad, but it’s been a worthwhile sacrifice to make so I can live according to my ethics.  

It’s time for Jewish supporters of Israel around the world, and in particular for Israeli Jews, to wake up and see the terrible irony of celebrating Hanukkah while Israel occupies the Palestinians. Why can’t they see that they are playing the part of the Greeks and that the Palestinians are responding the same way the Jewish rebels did back then? If Jewish culture glorifies and celebrates our rebellious and uncompromising spirit, why does it condemn that same spirit in others?

Avigail Abarbanel was born and raised in Israel. She moved to Australia in 1991 and now lives in Scotland. She works as a psychotherapist in private practice and is an activist for Palestinian rights. Avigail is the editor of Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012). Her website.

About Avigail Abarbanel

Avigail Abarbanel was born and raised in Israel. She moved to Australia in 1991 and now lives in the north of Scotland. She works as a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor in private practice and is an activist for Palestinian rights. She is the editor of Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012).

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