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Chanukah Candles Shed Light on Mideast Conflict

by Ira Chernus on Dec 19, 2000

Ira Chernus

         It will not be easy lighting Chanukah candles this year.  Like all
Jews, I grew up hearing the story of the brave young freedom fighters, the
Maccabees, who miraculously freed their homeland from the tyrant, Antiochus
Epiphanes, and his army of foreign occupiers. I learned that today's
Israeli soldiers, like the Maccabees, were fighting for Jewish survival.

         Now the descendants of the Maccabees are the occupiers. They use
tanks and helicopter gunships against Palestinian youngsters, who see
themselves fighting to free their homeland. As I light the candles, I will
think about how many ways the story of the past can be told, and how each
telling casts a different light on the tragic conflicts of the present.

         The Chanukah story that Jewish children (and adults) hear is only
half true. The other half is the story of elite Jewish leaders who invited
Antiochus Epiphanes' troops into Jerusalem.  Those leaders saw political
and personal profit in turning Jerusalem into a Greek city-state. And they
saw no reason not to.  For well over a century, Jewish assimilationists had
been touting the virtues of "going Greek." The Maccabees who opposed them
fought for cultural as well as political independence.

         Today many Palestinians fear that Yassir Arafat and the
Palestinian Authority are playing the same role as the Jerusalem elite of
long ago. Israel's former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said it
clearly:  when Arafat signed the Oslo Agreements, he was agreeing to be
Israel's "subcontractor," to suppress the radical Palestinian nationalists.
Israel's mantra-like calls for Arafat to "end the violence" are demands
that he play his designated subservient role. If he succeeds, he gets to
rule his own country, under the tutelage of the former occupier.   There
are many Palestinians determined to prevent this cozy arrangement. Like the
Maccabees, they see themselves fighting a cultural civil war against
radical assimilationists.

         Israel also faces the seed of a cultural civil war within its own
borders, this time between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.  The Orthodox
resist inroads from Reform and Conservative groups, headquartered in the
United States. So the Israeli rift spills over into Jewish life here. Most
U.S. Jews find the Orthodox too intolerant, too alien from the ways of
modernity. If they understood the full history behind Chanukah, many would
see the Maccabees as forerunners of Orthodoxy and side with the
assimilationists.

         Can Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak, and his advisers ignore
this growing conflict, as they plan their daily responses to Palestinian
rock-throwers? Surely they know that nothing brings people together like a
common enemy. But in the United States, the "rally round the flag" effect
has been limited.  Jewish organizations defend Israel publicly. But the
passion  from ordinary Jews is missing. Instead, there is an eerie
quiet.  This past Yom Kippur, I published a column, distributed throughout
my state of Colorado, calling on U.S. Jews to repent for Israel's killing
and U.S. Jews' deafening silence. I expected a storm of protest. I got only
more deafening silence.

         There must have been plenty of silent Jews back in the Maccabees'
day, too, Jews who did not take sides. Because they were silent, they left
no historical record. Perhaps they saw the scales pretty evenly balanced in
the cultural civil war, with right and wrong on both sides.

         Many U.S. Jews today face a similar quandary. They have no devout
religious motives for supporting Israeli policies. They worry about the
growing power of Orthodoxy in Israel. Even more, they worry about moral
right and wrong. They know that there can be no moral equivalency between
the occupier and the occupied, that centuries of oppression cannot justify
turning the tables.  Once you gain power, you shoulder new moral
obligations. You cannot erase that by retelling the half-truth story of
Chanukah, as if Israeli Jews were still an oppressed minority.

         The old tale of a tiny people fighting for its life is starting to
wear thin. Four of ten U.S. Jews already support Palestinian sovereignty
over East Jerusalem, if it will bring real peace. That number is bound to
grow as the toll of dead Palestinian youth grows. Already, some Jews light
the candles, not to celebrate Jewish power, but to celebrate the rights
of  oppressed people everywhere who resist oppression.

         But the habit of stifling doubts and supporting Israeli policies
dies hard. We have been told, practically from birth, that today's Israeli
soldiers carry on the brave tradition of the Maccabees. The candles, the
presents and the pride are all mixed together in some beyond-the-rational
part of our brain. When facts collide with feelings, it is not surprising
that so many of us simply stay silent. But as the death toll mounts,
that  silence, like lighting the candles, will surely not be easy.


Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.