In a period of great darkness, Jews worldwide are preparing to celebrate Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights that begins Thursday night. Yet some are trying to extinguish those lights.
In Williamsburg, Virginia, the organizers of the Second Sundays Art and Music Festival, LoveLight Placemaking, canceled a scheduled menorah-lighting ceremony, citing the Israel-Hamas war. As National Review reported:
Shirley Vermillion, the festival’s founder, cited logistical challenges and sensitivity to the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict as reasons for the cancellation. ‘The concern is of folks feeling like we are siding with a group over the other …. not a direction we ever decide to head,’ Vermillion said. She emphasized the festival’s inclusive nature and mentioned scheduling conflicts as well as a reluctance to have the festival engage in religious activities.
After an outcry, the organizers made matters worse when they suggested “that the lighting could go forward only if they could get an Islamic group to participate, or if they could hold it under a banner calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.”
This is like telling Irish Catholics that they couldn’t hold a St. Patrick’s Day parade unless they first issued a statement regarding the Irish Republican Army, or arranged to have Anglicans participate.
No religious group should face a political test before being permitted to publicly celebrate its faith. Nor should the public celebration of one faith be dependent on the participation of practitioners of a different faith.
As the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula stated: “We should be very clear: It is antisemitic to hold Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s policies and actions, and to require a political litmus test for Jews’ participation in community events that have nothing to do with Israel.”
Sadly, the incident in Virginia isn’t a one-off occurrence.
In Great Britain, a London suburb canceled a Hanukkah menorah-lighting ceremony, supposedly to avoid “inflaming tensions” related to the Israel-Hamas conflict. A Canadian town decided not to display a menorah for the first time in 20 years. In a town in Maine, a Star of David in a holiday display was replaced with a dreidel.
Then again, maybe those who are uncomfortable with Hanukkah in the context of the Israel-Hamas war have a point. After all, the menorah doesn’t celebrate religious liberty only in the abstract—it celebrates a particular military victory in the battle of Israel’s indigenous Jews against the “settler-colonialist” Seleucid Greeks, who sought to eradicate Judaism.
Hamas denies any Jewish connection to the Jewish homeland. The light of the menorah celebrates Jewish sovereignty in the Promised Land.
The First Book of Maccabees records that when the Seleucid King Antiochus VII demanded that the Jews hand over Jerusalem and other cities they had liberated, Simon the Hasmonean sent back this apt reply:
We have neither taken foreign land nor seized foreign property, but only the inheritance of our fathers, which at one time had been unjustly taken by our enemies. Now that we have the opportunity, we are firmly holding the inheritance of our fathers. (I Maccabees 15:33-34)
But more than a military victory, Hanukkah celebrates a victory in the war of ideas between the Greeks’ pagan worldview and those who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Greeks imagined gods in the image of man, whereas the Jews believe God created man in His image, meaning that all humans are created equal and that life is sacred. The pagan gods were capricious and generally indifferent to human affairs. The Jews believe that God loves us and loves justice, that history has a purpose, and that God intervenes in history on the side of justice.
The Talmud records that when the Jews drove back the Greek forces and rededicated the Holy Temple that the Greeks had defiled, they could find only one pure jar of oil to kindle the menorah, enough for only one day. But miraculously, the oil provided light for eight days—a sign of God’s providence—and hence Jews annually celebrate an eight-day festival during which they kindle an additional light each night.
Originally, the menorah was supposed to be kindled outside one’s home, to publicize the miracle of the oil. Later, after Jews were expelled from their land and often lived among a hostile population, the menorah lights were kindled indoors.
Fifty years ago, after another surprise attack on Israel on a Jewish holy day, Yom Kippur, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, launched a campaign to host public menorah lightings worldwide.
The Hanukkah lights “demonstrate at once even to the physical eye … that the light goes on in the Jewish home even when it is dark and gloomy in the outside world,” the Rebbe wrote. Even, and perhaps especially, when under attack, he added, a “Jew must not permit himself to be overawed by the darkness outside, but must illuminate his home,” not resting there but letting “the light shine forth ‘outside.’” As the Rebbe often reminded us, even a little light expels a lot of darkness.
Since then, public menorah lightings at city halls and public monuments—including the White House—have become a regular feature of Hanukkah celebrations in America and worldwide.
In a 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, President George Washington famously assured the “Stock of Abraham” that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Washington concluded his letter by beseeching the Father of All Mercies to “scatter light and not darkness in our paths.”
Although bigotry again is rearing its ugly head, producing cracks in America’s commitment to religious liberty, the United States remains a shining city on a hill and a beacon of freedom to other nations.
So long as religious liberty in America is protected and cherished, Jews will continue to illuminate the streets with the light of the menorah.
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