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Choosing the Chanukah Miracle: On Olive Oil and Occupation

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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In the small town where I grew up, we were one of only a tiny handful of Jewish families. Every year of high school my mom would cook up hundreds of latkes for me to bring to school to give out in all the classes that observed Christmas, as our tradition tells us that we must perform “Pir’sumei Nisa”, spread the miracle of Chanukah. This article is an extension of that custom.

Our tradition tells us that following the victory of the small group of Jews known as Maccabees over the Syrian king, Antiochus, and his army, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to refuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. The miracle of Chanukah is that the olive oil burned for eight days, the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil. A moral of the Chanukah story is that the Jews were able to renew their faith in the aftermath of oppression, and rebuild the ruins of their Temple, restoring oil to their lamps and faith to their hearts. When I was little I used to imagine the impossibly challenging task of rebuilding everything after it had been smashed to the ground. How would children find their blankets and teddy bears? How would their parents rebuild the massive Temple and find all the sacred objects and ornate decorations?

This holiday season, returning to these questions, my mind wanders to the Palestinian families in Gaza. A year after the devastating 22-day Israeli assault, Operation Cast Lead, families in the Gaza Strip are still living in pup tents. Because building materials are denied entry into Gaza, even those who may be able to afford reconstructing their homes and shops often can’t. And what about their sacred dwellings? During the assault, 52 mosques and churches were the target of Israeli fire. The ongoing siege of Gaza has created what is becoming commonly referred to as the world’s largest open air prison, but despite the crippling blockade that denies access to basic living necessities such as critical medicines or concrete for construction, or creative essentials for learning like crayons, pencils and construction paper, the Palestinians are steadfast in their determination to hold onto their land and their culture. Palestinians living in Gaza find creative ways to practice their faith and maintain their spirits even inside this “prison”.

So too the Jews throughout our history of persecution have found ways to persevere, and the Chanukah story, in its popularized form (however riddled with complexity), is just one example of this. The modern-day custom of Chanukah includes abundant gift-giving, and this year I found myself wondering how to translate this spirit of liberation into my choice of gifts. Jewish law is clear that what we buy—and how it is produced—are ethical questions. For advice I turned to the Bible. Leviticus 19:16 says: “Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor.” After reading this, I decided not buy products that profit from the killing or oppression of my neighbors. I started with the homeland closest to my heart: Eretz Yisrael. Interpreting this line from Leviticus, I realized that I cannot in good conscience buy products made in the Occupied Territories, as Israeli corporations manufacturing in this area are profiting from the occupation, which is both immoral and illegal (All Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population in the territory it occupies.”)

For the women on my Chanukah gift list this year, I’d been considering a fancy face cream or bath salts. When I first visited Israel with my temple’s confirmation class during the summer of 1998, I gleefully floated around in the Dead Sea, and afterward purchased Ahava Dead Sea mud to bring home to my mom and girlfriends as the perfect Holy Land souvenir. While in Israel this past summer on a CODEPINK Women for Peace delegation, another Jewish activist, Medea Benjamin, and I took a day trip to visit the Ahava factory. We discovered that the company’s main factory and its visitors’ center are located in the Israeli settlement of Mitzpe Shalem in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank. After finding out that the mud used in Ahava’s products was excavated from Occupied land, and that by labeling its products as “Product of Israel” Ahava was misleading consumers about their actual provenance, I decided I could no longer in good conscience purchase these cosmetics, and I joined CODEPINK’s boycott of Ahava, called Stolen Beauty. Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb recently summarized Ahava’s violations of international law and bad business practices by simply saying, “Ahava is not kosher!”

After scratching Ahava Dead Sea mud from this year’s Chanukah list, I wondered what to buy instead. I wanted to find a product that would promote justice, and make my favorite ladies’ skin sparkle too, and I’m happy to report that I’ve found it: Dr. Bronner’s lotions, body balms, and soaps, which, to my surprise, include the essential element of Chanukah: olive oil. Not only does Dr. Bronner’s not exploit the occupation of Palestine, they actually work towards justice for Palestinians by sourcing their olive oil from fair trade farms in the West Bank. In early 2007, Dr. Bronner’s began sourcing 90% of their olive oil needs from Palestinian producers near the West Bank town of Jenin. There, as their website reports, “the trading firm Canaan Fair Trade was founded by Palestinians who support peaceful co-existence with Israel and see profitable olive farming as one means of improving Palestinians’ economic situation.” The balance of Dr. Bronner’s olive oil comes from Sindyanna, a Fair Trade Jewish and Arab cooperative run by women, and from the Strauss family farm in Israel.

The Bronner soap business began in 1858 when Jewish entrepreneur Emmanuel Heilbronner began manufacturing soap in the basement of his family home in the Jewish quarter of Laupheim, Germany. The Nazis nationalized the soap factory in Heilbronn during the 1940s and “Dr.” Emanuel Bronner’s parents Berthold and Franciscka were deported to and eventually murdered in the death camps, the former in Auschwitz and the latter in Theriesenstadt. The family that has descended from Jews who perished in the Holocaust has avowed to speak out against injustice, and to support peace wherever possible. And it’s not just about the virtue of peace for Dr. Bronner’s – their products are also certified organic and fair trade. Now that’s what I call kosher soap!

Refusing to purchase Ahava Dead Sea products, and choosing instead to buy Dr. Bronners soap, is one way I’m choosing to extend the miracle of Chanukah through my purchasing power and to the people I love. But it’s only one of many ways to spend consciously and add a little something extra into our packages: justice.

As people who have benefited from the successes of social justice struggles, from labor rights movements to religious tolerance laws in decades past, it is our obligation to support the human rights of people around the globe, and that must include our neighbors in Palestine. This year the first night of Chanukah coincided with International Human Rights Day, December 11. International Human Rights Day was marked in Israel for the first time last Friday when thousands of people participated in a human rights march that began in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv and concluded with a rally in front of the Tel Aviv Museum. According to Ha’aretz, “The march featured human rights organizations, Arab rights’ advocates, gay and lesbian activists, migrant workers, environmentalists and feminists, united under the slogan ‘No Way.’” The protest highlighted the continuing erosion of democracy in Israel and the lack of equal rights for many of the country’s citizens, and the dire need to restore these principles, should the state of Israel want to sustain itself.

The story of Chanukah is about restoring the Temple and bringing in light in times of darkness. This year we can restore the light by sharing stories of liberation when we gather nightly around the menorah, investing in ethical businesses, and taking actions to alleviate the oppression of peoples around the world.

"They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again know war." – Isaiah

Rae Abileah is a national organizer with CODEPINK Women for Peace and is a delegate on the Gaza Freedom March, a nonviolent march in Gaza on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, calling for the siege of Gaza to be lifted. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Rae Abileah
About Rae Abileah

Rae Abileah is a social change strategist and member of Jewish Voice for Peace who participated in the 21st Presbyterian General Assembly ( She is a Jewish-American of Israeli descent and lives in California. This month she traveled to Israel/Palestine to co-lead the 50th Interfaith Peace Builders delegation ( She can be reached at rae [at] and @raeabileah.

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