Hannukah Without the Taliban

In a country occupied by a Western power, the locals are faced with a choice. Some have opted to reconcile their own traditions with those of their occupier, borrowing from Western ways that open the path to philosophy and science, and integrating themselves into a wider culture. Others fiercely resist, waging a bitter and bloody war not only on the occupier, but also on those in their own community who seek to collaborate or integrate with the occupiers who are denounced as defilers.

If this were contemporary Afghanistan-Pakistan, you’d know who was whom, right? But before you bite into that latke or sing the dreidel song, you may want to consider that in Judea in the second century BC, the Taliban role is played by the Maccabees. And it is the Maccabees, of course, who are lionized in the Hanukah tale.

In fact, they pretty much invented the holiday to celebrate their victory over the Greeks and all Jews who would embrace their ways, the “Hellenizers.” Hanukah is not mentioned in the Torah. It’s not really a religious holiday at all — the bubbemeis about an oil lamp burning for eight days was tacked on as an afterthought, and a way of smuggling God into what was a ritual celebrating a very temporal insurgent military triumph. Being what my son archly calls a “J-theist”, I’m not about to start trafficking in Biblical miracles (not that Hanukah is mentioned in the Jewish bible), but you have to figure that making a stash of olive oil burn for eight days while replenishments are cold-pressed and consecrated is uh, small potatoes compared with, you know, parting the Red Sea and such like. So the Jewish god really gets involved in such quotidian “miracles” as extending the life of fuel oil in to enable the proper observance of rituals in his honor in a temple recovered from defilers? You’d think if he cared enough to intervene at all, he might have prevented the defilers from taking over in the first place.

But let’s not even bother with quibbling over the details — and for more, here’s a really entertaining take on the same story by the militant atheist Christopher Hitchens (my own atheism, or J-theism as my son calls it, sees no good purpose served by militant proselytizing of skepticism, but that’s another story) — ithe Hannukah tale is a silly story. But it’s the idea of celebrating the nationalist and xenophobic version of Jewish identity enforced by the Maccabees that disturbs me.

There is, of course, a spectacular irony in the celebration of Hanukah in its contemporary incarnation as a kind of kosher Christmas that has everybody saying “Happy Holidays” to avoid giving offense. (I shouldn’t complain, would we even have South Park if it wasn’t for the fact that so many American Jews treat a Christmas tree as if it were the equivalent of a burning cross placed on their front lawn?). The irony, of course, is that celebrating Hanukah as a major religious holiday is the ultimate triumph of latter-day Hellenization. It hardly exists as a serious religious holiday — even when I was growing up in South Africa, the likes of Simchat Torah and Succoth were far more important. Yet today, in America, it appears to rank up there right after Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur and Passover as important Jewish holidays. The point, of course, is that this has only been done to compete with Christmas, to adapt Jewish tradition to make it fit the rhythms and rituals of the wider, non-Jewish society.

And most of us are de facto Hellenizers, living according to the ways of the wider society and integrating our Jewishness within that. So what to make of this Jewish holiday that celebrates an austere, inward looking, nationalist identity politics. (Frankly, if only most Jews knew how little Christmas really has to do with Christianity, they may not have been so spooked by it. The Catholic Church was nothing if not Hellenistic, in this respect, endlessly bending and adapting itself to incorporate the pagan rituals of those it was trying to convert.)

But don’t get me wrong; I love Hanukah. I love it mostly because I’m a sucker for lox-’n-latkes and the communion around their consumption.

It does strikes me, though, that the Hanukah story is so patently Disney, and its purpose so negatively nationalist, that we need to consider just what it is about our Jewish identity that we want to celebrate. If I’m going to light eight candles in affirmation of my Judaism — boiled down, in a nutshell to Rabbi Hillel’s famous thumbnail definition of the faith, “That which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others; all the rest is commentary” — I don’t want to honor the Maccabee Taliban or their latterday incarnation who’re just as keen to police Jewish identity and enforce fealty to the nationalist vision that is modern Zionism. I want to honor those that exemplify an expansive, ethical Judaism that connects with a universal community of values and uses justice as its only benchmark.

Working with the format of eight candles, here’s a draft list of eight Jews for whom I’d be happy to light a yahrzeit candle to honor their contribution to enriching our identity through connecting it with and enriching a wider humanity. (There are, of course, hundreds more — send in your own!) But the point is that if you’re going to do Hanukah, think about what kind of Jew you want to be…


1. Marek Edelman

I can think of no greater example than Marek Edelman of a Jew whose life so eloquently combined the three essential principles of Hillel: That which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others; if I am not for me who is for me?; and, If not now, when?

A time comes in the life of every people, Nelson Mandela in 1961, when it faces but two choices: Submit, or fight. Marek Edelman confronted that choice head on in 1942, as a young activist of the Jewish Socialist Bund in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Together with others of the left and Zionist organizations (the Bund was anti-Zionist), he helped form the Jewish Fighting Organization that organized the heroic (and the word is not used lightly here) uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto against the liquidationist plans of the Nazis. His account, The Ghetto Fights, makes gripping and moving reading, and negates the myth that Europe’s Jews went meekly to the slaughter. He survived the uprising and the ghetto’s liquidation, escaping with assistants from the leftist partisans of Poland’s People’s Army to become a leader of the underground, and eventually participate in a second heroic rising, the 1944 general Warsaw uprising. In the ultimate triumph over Nazi designs, he chose to remain in Poland after the war, and kept fighting the good fight — from 1976 onwards, he became a labor activist, and eventually in 1980 a leader of the Solidarity movement that helped end authoritarian rule in Poland. As he noted of his early affiliations, “The Bundists did not wait for the Messiah, nor did they plan to leave for Palestine. They believed that Poland was their country and they fought for a just, socialist Poland, in which each nationality would have its own cultural autonomy, and in which minorities’ rights would be guaranteed.” And he remained true to that vision.

He watched, disgusted, as Israel pummeled the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in the Second Intifada, until he could contain his outrage no longer: In a move that infuriated the Israelis, who have constructed an elaborate — if ersatz — claim to be the heirs to the defenders of the Warsaw Ghetto, Edelman wrote a public letter to Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader then on trial for terrorism in Israel. It was the Palestinian fighting organizations, Edelman said, not the Israelis, who carry the mantle of the Warsaw Ghetto’s resistance. As Hillel said, that which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others. Edelman died last October.


2. Baruch Spinoza

The original secular Jew, the glorious apostate who not only gave us the ethical and rational foundations of contemporary Western philosophy, but also invited us to recognize Judaism’s god as so abstract as to make it equivalent simply to the connectedness of everything — nature and the universe. In other words, to see in Judaism’s abstract monotheism a move away from polytheistic traditions that empowered tyrants and an invitation to atheism (an invitation I’ll happily accept). He recognized religion as a human creation, and sharply criticized the idea of any people claiming to be the chosen of god. Of course he was excommunicated and his books were burned — an experience with which those deemed overly critical of Israel in the contemporary era are metaphorically familiar. But he didn’t relent, nor did he seek solace in any other religious community. Quite unique for his time, he chose to live as a free-thinking person of ideas.


3. Albert Einstein

As a Central European Jew coming of age in an era of swirling anti-Semitism, Einstein was initially an enthusiastic proponent of setting up a Jewish refuge in Palestine. But his Zionism was tempered by a hostility to nationalism. And the reality that a Jewish state would have to be built over the resistance of the indigenous Arab population gave him pause: “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state,” he said in 1938. “Apart from practical consideration, my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain — especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state.” This put him ultimately in the camp of the likes of Martin Buber, who believed that the Jewish values of the Zionist project required that it create a unitary democratic state with the Palestinians, rather than a separate Jewish state. “The State idea is not according to my heart,” Einstein said in 1946, in answer to a question about whether resettling Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Palestine required a separate Jewish state. “I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with narrow-minded and economic obstacles. I believe it is bad. I have always been against it.” When the state was created in 1948, they offered Einstein the presidency. He declined. What he had imagined as a refuge from persecution had turned into simply another vessel for the nationalism he despised. In the final media interview published before his death, Einstein lamented, “We had great hopes for Israel at first. We thought it might be better than other nations, but it is no better.”


4. Martin Buber

The early Zionist philosopher who moved to Palestine in 1938 was one of the most prominent advocates, in the years before Israeli statehood, of the idea of a single, binational state for Jews and Arabs founded on the basis of equality. The partition of Palestine, he said, could only be achieved and sustained by violence, which he abhorred. For Buber, the Zionist idea was premised on it fulfilling the Biblical injunction to be a “light unto the nations.” But the dominant strain in the Zionist movement was the opposite, to make the Jews “like the nations.” In this schema of “normalization,” the Jews simply had to acquire a territory and a common language, and the rest would take care of itself. He saw this as a reflection of a longstanding tension inside Judaism: The powerful consciousness of hte task of maintaining truth and justice in the total life of the nation, internally and externally, and thus becoming an example and a light to humanity; and the natural desire, all too natural, to be ‘like the nations.’ The ancient Hebrews did not succeed in becoming a normal nation. Today, the Jews are succeeding at it to a terrifying degree.” He advocated Jews and Arabs creating a single democratic state in Palestine in 1948. And he warned that those who sought simply sovereignty for a Jewish majority state of Israel were making war inevitable. Referring to the Arab population of Palestine, he asked, “what nation will allow tiself to be demoted from the position of majority to that of a minority without a fight?” He warned that the the path taken in 1948 would extinguish the progressive potential of the Zionism he had embraced.


5. Ray Alexander

As a young activist in the South African liberation movement, I’d come to know of Ray Alexander as a living legend who, as a young immigrant from Latvia had set about organizing women workers in the food canning industry in Cape Town, and had dedicated her life to their struggle. A lifelong communist, she was now living in exile in far-away Lusaka, but maintaining a central role in the leadership of the liberation movement as an active member of the ANC’s Revolutionary Council. When I finally met her, in 1989, I couldn’t believe how this icon of the struggle sounded exactly like my bubba, speaking English with a thick, thick Yiddish accent . Like me, she had started her political life in the Zionist movement, and recounts her political evolution in this extensive historians’ interview. I love this tale from her days as a teenager in Latvia in the 1920s: “Earlier, at school, I had been a Zionist with my older sister Getty and brother Isher. I often helped the Zionist organisation with office work. When the Jerusalem University was opened — it was in 1926 — the Zionist organisation made a big celebration of it. They invited our school to send a speaker. I was chosen. I prepared my talk on higher education. I made an observation that we are celebrating the opening of the university in Jerusalem, but if there would be a university opened in Timbuktu we should celebrate it as much. Because wherever a university is opened, it is a big candle to lead to a better understanding between human beings. My teacher in algebra was a very strong Zionist, she did not approve. She came over to me after I finished speaking and she said: ‘How dare you compare Timbuktu to Jerusalem. Do you know where Timbuktu is?’ I said: ‘Yes, it’s in Africa, central Africa.’ I said to her: ‘What’s your objection to Timbuktu ? People are living there too.’ ”


6. Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel, the great chronicler of America’s story spent his life collecting and amplifying the voices of ordinary Americans on the issues that defined their life and times; it was as if he lived the Brecht poem “Questions From a Worker Who Reads” (Who built the seven towers of Thebes? / The books are filled with names of kings. / Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone? / In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished / Where did the masons go? … Caesar beat the Gauls / Was there not even a cook in his army? Philip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears? etc.) Studs Terkel’s life was spent chronicling the history of our times through the lives of the ordinary Americans who made it, taking to heart every verse of Woodie Guthrie’s. “This Land is Your Land”. And Studs’ work for me captures the very essence of a tradition that gave ordinary people the potential, by teaching them to read and write (albeit for purposes of studying the Torah), to understand and make their own history.


7. Joe Slovo
When Joe Slovo died, the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party, of which he was the Secretary General, wanted to put a single word epitaph on his headstone: “Mensch.” The only problem was that it would not be understood by the Party’s African working class rank and file. But it was absolutely true. A nice Jewish boy from Joburg who became the best-loved white person in South Africa because of his unfailing commitment to the liberation struggle, Joe personified for me the idea that the calling of a good Jew in South Africa was to fight for justice for all — the mainstream Jewish organizations in South Africa missed the point, choosing quiet quiescence and occasional quiet pleading in response to some especially noxious instance of anti-Semitism. Joe knew that anti-Semitism in South Africa was part and parcel of the racist colonial order, and the best place to fight it was out in the forward trenches of the national liberation movement. He may have been the movement’s most senior ideologue and one of its top strategists, but when I had the pleasure of meeting him in the late 1980s, we ended up playing Jewish geography.

8. Primo Levi

I wept with joy when I first read Primo Levi (The Periodic Table on a flight from Johannesburg to London in 1989). His was, for me, a matchlessly inspiring example of being Jewish in the world rather than separately from it. A man of science and ethics, fully integrated into Italian society and its most progressive elements, he found himself in Auschwitz not as a result of a Nazi roundup of Italian Jews, but because he was a captured in the course of his work as an anti-Fascist partisan fighter. When the Germans occupied Italy in 1942, he responded as a Jew — not in any narrow, tribal sense (indeed, he never identified as such) but in the expansive, moral sense; in other words, he responded as any decent person with a love of justice and freedom, by joining the partisan underground. Not any separate Jewish organization, but the partisans bound by a common, universal ideology of justice and freedom, in which any Jew should feel comfortable. As did a lot of Italian Jews of his generation: The filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, most famous for The Battle of Algiers, and also a partisan, was once quoted as saying “I am not an out-and-out revolutionary. I am merely a man of the Left, like a lot of Italian Jews.” Yet, once captured as a leftist partisan, it was the Nazis who reduced Primo Levi’s identity to that of a Jew, in a “racial” sense. His writing — by far the most compelling tales of life and death in Auschwitz — chronicles the Holocaust experience with both scouring emotion and the cool eye of reason, always seeking its universal meanings and implications. His audience, always, is a global community of likeminded rather than one defined on any narrow nationalist basis — Zionism had little use for Primo Levi; his work was only translated into Hebrew after his death. Indeed, he seems to resist the temptations of nationalism — of allowing the Nazis to succeed in defining him against his own instincts — remaining intensely universalist in his outlook, although deeply rooted in its specificity: He loved Italian Jewry and its unique history, of which he was an exemplary product. Also, while he writes what for me are the most profound and compelling first-hand accounts of — and meditations on — life in the camps, he is at once the quintessential Holocaust writer but never simply a Holocaust writer. He returns continually to explore the magic of science and humanity in everyday life and work, the ethics and values that took him, as an Italian Jew, into the mountains with the anti-Fascist partisan resistance. The profound effect of the Holocaust on Primo Levi’s life was central to his work, but his life continued after the Holocaust. It did not end his life, literally or figuratively — he went on exploring the universal human condition, a vital presence in the wider world for whom he saw the Holocaust, and his own experience of it, as a teaching moment whose meanings were universal.

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