Chanukah Candles Shed Light on Mideast Conflict

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.