This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
During Hanukkah we typically think Festival of Lights and the Maccabean Revolt, of sacred oil and the struggle against foreign oppression. Historical and apocryphal, we ready ourselves for eight nights that set us apart from Christians in North America and Palestinians in Israel. We relish our separateness. Jewishness persists.
Yet Hanukkah represents only a symbolic apartness. In our daily life, assimilation to the state and to power is now the Jewish norm. Most Jews live within the protective umbrella of the North American and Israeli empires. These empires are protected by militarized engines of injustice, toward native peoples, those of African descent, Palestinians. Though this assimilation has been true for decades, our awareness is growing. Thus the recent explosion of our Jewish indigenous, the prophetic.
Especially after the Holocaust and the state of Israel created in its shadow, the reemergence of the prophetic was unexpected. Holocaust ideology and theology were constructed and new Jewish institutions emerged, all to reorient Jews to the demands of empowerment and, for the recalcitrant, police Jewish dissent. This makes the prophetic today, as in ancient time, costly. Even so, the prophetic essence of Jewishness persists.
Just days before Hanukkah, Jews were presented with a very odd gift, from President Trump no less, in the form of his Jerusalem Declaration: the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the promise of a US embassy there. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York celebrated. So did the Anti-Defamation League. Others like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow were outraged. They want to return Trump’s Jerusalem gift unopened.
In North America and Israel, Hanukkah has a dual constituency. On the one hand, Hanukkah is celebrated by Jews who relish, benefit from and enable empire – Constantinian Jews. On the other hand, Hanukkah is celebrated by those who seek community, inclusion and equality – Jews of Conscience. These constituencies are at odds.
There is another constituency, Progressive Jews, but Trump’s Jerusalem gift may finally doom its existence. Michael Lerner exemplifies the weakness of Progressive Jews with his reaction to Trump’s Declaration, affirming the establishment of the state of Israel as a Jewish national liberation struggle and holding fast to his outdated “two rights/two wrongs” politics of mutual recognition and mutual repentance of Jews and Palestinians. A prominent Jewish Studies professor, Zachary Braiterman, who has consistently championed the two-state solution, posted the following more relevant funereal comment about his former two-state position: “Jerusalem is the end of the line. If Palestinian leadership demands full equal rights as citizens of the State of Israel, it’s time to say yes.”
Much of the commentary on Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital fails to mention this historic moment. For decades, Jewish progressives held the Israel line. Though they argued against the Jewish establishment’s “Israel right or wrong” policies, they targeted Jews of Conscience with accusations of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hate, especially when Jews of Conscience raised the BDS banner. For the last decade or so, Progressive Jews have been on the defensive, holding on for dear life, losing more and more of their argument about Israel as a liberal democracy and losing more and more of their constituency, some moving toward Constantinian Jewishness, others crossing the line and becoming Jews of Conscience. As Jonathan Cook writes, Trump’s green light will further embolden the secular and religious far-right in Israel. In turn, this will occasion further, perhaps rapid, settlement expansion, in Jerusalem and the West Bank and, among other factors, continue the shift in Israel to a more strident messianic religious sensibility. The Netanyahu years have challenged Progressive Jews greatly. The combination of Trump and Netanyahu has decimated them.
As we celebrate Hanukkah this year, the Jewish civil war intensifies. President Trump has only made the obvious more so. With Progressive Jews in a state of collapse, Constantinian Jews and Jews of Conscience are moving in radically different directions. Much is at stake, indeed the very meaning of what it means to be Jewish.
The Jewish civil war is hardly a passing phenomena. Neither side of the Jewish civil war will convert the other. The war between Constantinian Jews and Jews of Conscience is permanent.
This Hanukkah, Jews of Conscience have a choice. To abandon Hanukkah, and other Jewish holy days, Passover comes to mind, as lost to Constantinian Judaism. Or Jews of Conscience can wrestle with these holy days and stake our claim. Hanukkah as light in a dark time and as a site for struggle against assimilation to the state and power is ripe for Jews of Conscience to observe and hold high. If we are to do this, however, the historical and apocryphal must give way to our present crisis. Mindful of history and myth, Jews of Conscience must make Hanukkah our own, in a liberationist framework, in the context of Jewish empowerment, the Jewish civil war and the collateral damaged parties to this conflict, native peoples, those of African descent, Palestinians. Rabbi Lynn Gotlieb voices the view of many Jews of Conscience:
As I get ready for Hanukah, Palestinians are protesting in the streets of Jerusalem and throughout the occupied territories as the result of another brutality in the ongoing physical, cultural, economic and spiritual erasure of Palestinians by Israeli society and government. Moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is yet another blow in the 70 year war of attrition against Palestinians. I am reminded of Hasidic tales about people of good will who fall asleep on their way to redemption because they cannot resist drinking from the well of hubris and thus, unleash a series of disasters. Are we awake yet? Jerusalem must become an international city of peace. That is the only way forward for humanity, and for the people of Jerusalem.
Can we wrestle Hanukkah from its conformity to power, its North American competitive Christmas showmanship and domination of Palestinians? Is it possible to remake Hanukkah to serve as a focal point for a Jewish theology of liberation? We need to be brutally honest here. Simply to play Hanukkah as a clash with Constantinian Judaism is bound to fail. Constantinian Hanukkah has too much going for it to play with its symbols – only. The danger of religious calendars, including our own, is that they normalize conformism and dissent. God forbid, we end up replicating the endless and already lost Christian struggle to redefine what the “real” Christmas is.
As often in Jewish history, and in the history of Christianity and Islam, Jerusalem is the flashpoint. Yet, seeing Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration as an end game, as if Trump’s Hanukkah gift came from out of the blue, is a mistake. When celebrated, it gives him too much credit. When lamented, it places too much blame on him.
Jerusalem has been in stalemate since the formation of the state of Israel: West Jerusalem colonized by Israel since 1948; East Jerusalem colonized by Israel since 1967. Trump’s Hanukkah gift comes at the end of this colonization. It gives a green light to the final phase of Judaizing Jerusalem.
As Jews, we watch the annual parsing of Christmas with bemusement. We know the same discourse will return next year. We know neither side is going anywhere. If we’re not careful, Hanukkah can become like that, too. Perhaps it already is.
As with Christmas (and Easter), Hanukkah (and Passover) are shattered and in ruins. They are infected with atrocity. They will never be, they should never be, whole again. The challenge is what to do with our shattered fragments. What is left of these holy days? What is to be gleaned from them? What has to be left behind?
To glean – garner, collect, gather, scrape together – Hanukkah. Indeed, what is left of holiness after atrocity? Hanukkah is not the same – as it was. It cannot be reclaimed – as it was. Does Hanukkah’s shattered fragments say anything to us today? A crucial test: What do the shattered fragments of Hanukkah say to those we oppress?
In the end, though, it is up to us. What does our celebration of Hanukkah say to and about us? Taking the tradition as it is, even with delightful rabbinic twists and turns, means our refusal to acknowledge the emergency we are in. As Jews, we dwell in the abyss of injustice. Should our celebrations be transformed into mourning rites?
However we observe the Jewish holy days, our celebrations should not be publicly performed if they symbolize ruin to others. This is what Jews said, quite rightly, to our Christian neighbors about their theology of salvation after the Holocaust. On Hanukkah, in relation to Israel and the Palestinians, the same challenge must be applied to us.
We have arrived at the end of ethical Jewish history. As with Jewish life in general, the Hanukkah story can only be seen through this frame. The end is difficult to admit, let alone to live. Yet it is here that we become free. Since we are not returning to a tradition infected with atrocity, we are free to chart our course.
We are not alone. There are many others, from all walks of life, geographies and faith traditions, who have reached their end as well. When Jews remember what has been lost, we are joined by a mixed multitude who have experienced similar loses. As fellow exiles, perhaps we can advise each other that none of us are going back. We can only move forward together.
The prophets have always gathered light in the darkness. This is the prophet’s vocation. As Jews of Conscience, with other people of conscience, we must be light-gatherers. On Hanukkah, as we light the Hanukkah candles, perhaps we can gather enough light to keep Jerusalem and our human journey going for another year.