Hanukkah: Complex Holiday for Complex Times

Once again, Jewish people will kindle light for peace for all.

Lansing State Journal, December 10, 2006

After the Jewish people had dwelled in the land of Israel for more than 1,000 years, the Seleucid Greeks occupied the land and outlawed Jewish religious practices. Their defeat by the Maccabees, a local band of Jewish warriors, is commemorated at Hanukkah.

But that’s not the whole story. Roughly 1,800 years ago the rabbis in ancient Israel decided not to base the celebration upon a military conquest. They prescribed that we read from Zechariah at Hanukkah, “Not by might, not by power, but by the spirit.” They emphasized the miracle that after the Temple was restored, there was only enough oil to burn for one night; and yet the Temple lights burned for eight days. This miracle sustained the optimism, faith and determination of the Jewish people in exile.

In the last century, a new miracle occurred. Three years after the end of the Nazi Holocaust, the State of Israel was established. While there had been a small Jewish presence there throughout history, it was in the early 20th century that refugees from European oppression poured into British-held Palestine.

In 1917, the British government endorsed “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” in the Balfour Declaration. In 1948, the dream came to fruition.

Like Hanukkah itself, our story is complex. Israel has suffered repeated attacks from its Arab neighbors.

Following an unprovoked invasion in 1967, Israel occupied Arab lands along its borders to protect itself from future attacks. This occupation has endured nearly 40 years. These years have seen repeated terrorist attacks against innocent Israeli civilians; with each attack, attempts to negotiate a return of occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state get sidetracked.

In the interest of security, Israel has taken decisive military actions, resulting in yet more suffering, bloodshed and desire for revenge. New attacks bring new reprisals; new reprisals bring new attacks. Moderate voices in both camps are drowned out by shrieks of revenge.

Still, we remember: “Not by might, not by power.”

Both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered immeasurably at one another’s hands. We pray for the day we can dwell alongside our Palestinian brothers and sisters in peace. Despite tragic events driving our communities apart, the Jewish community continues to stand up vigilantly for the rights and safety of our Islamic neighbors, as we did following the Sept. 11 attacks.

And we remain confident that when Israel’s neighbors recognize her right to exist, when the killing of Jews is no longer glorified in Arab schools, when terrorism is denounced once and for all, the occupation will quickly end.

Hanukkah, which falls on the evening of Dec. 15 this year, is a complex holiday for complex times. We kindle a light in the darkest time of year, and recognize a glimmer of hope. Could Israelis and Palestinians lay down their arms, mourn their losses together, and join in creating a safe and peaceful future? Or is there too much darkness for a tiny light to penetrate?

Perhaps. But at Hanukkah, I pray for a miracle.

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