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Modern relevance of Hanukkah

In a global resurgence of the far-right where minority cultures are under sustained attack, Hanukkah instills hope that the oppressed can trample the oppressors

Modern relevance of Hanukkah

Beginning December 22, Jews around the world are celebrating Hanukkah — the eight-day festival that commemorates Jews' successful struggle for self-determination from ancient Greek imperialism. A brief summary of the history behind this holiday echoes many struggles of the 20th and 21st centuries:

In 200 BCE, King Antiochus III took control of Judea, incorporating it into his Seleucid Empire, one of the empires that succeeded the conquests of Alexander the Great. He promised Jews respect for their ancestral religion and customs and they lived peacefully under this imperial power for some time. But in 175 BCE, Antiochus's successor, King Antiochus IV, invaded Judea and, according to the traditional version of the story, began an all-out assault on Jewish culture and religion, trying to force his own Hellenistic culture on Jews as he was trying to do in other parts of the empire.

Jews revolted, under the leadership of a family named the Maccabees (from the Hebrew word for "hammer," the nickname of Judas "the hammer," one of the early leaders of the revolt). By 165 BCE, they had defeated the Seleucid army and taken possession of Jerusalem, the seat of the Temple that was central to Jewish religion and culture.

A Jewish legend recounted in the Talmud, the great compendium of Jewish law and lore that took shape around 600 CE, recounts that upon their victory, Jews wanted to relight the sacred lamp in the Temple that had been desecrated by Antiochus but found only enough oil for one night. Miraculously, however, that little bit of oil lasted eight nights. This legend is the basis for celebrating Hanukkah (which means "re-dedication") over eight days.

Hanukkah, then, celebrates a people's victory in a struggle for national and cultural self-determination against an ancient form of imperialism. The modern celebration of Hanukkah naturally tends to focus on aspects of the struggle we would today call "religious," including the story of the miraculous oil. It's important to remember, however, that in ancient Judea, as in pre-modern societies generally, what we today see as the distinct realms of politics, culture, and religion were so deeply intertwined as to be inseparable. Jews have always reinterpreted the meaning of their foundational stories, including the Hanukkah story as well as the Exodus, to meet the present realities they face. It's impossible for me, for instance, as I'm sure it is for many progressive Jews, to light the Hanukkah candles without thinking of the victory of people of Vietnam over US imperialist aggression.

So, it's very much in accord with Jewish tradition to let this holiday remind us of the many struggles for self-determination, including cultural as well as political self-determination, in this time when people of minority cultures are under sustained attack. Reports from the FBI and from such organisations as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Council for American-Islamic Relations have shown a sharp rise in racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic hate crimes and incidents — beginning, not coincidentally, with the start of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Nor is this upsurge limited to the United States: It parallels a worldwide resurgence of the far right. The right-wing nationalist government in India has been relentlessly attacking Indian Muslims and is at this moment stoking outrage with a citizenship bill that deliberately denies citizenship to Muslim refugees. The Orbán regime in Hungary is notoriously anti-Semitic. And, in Great Britain, where there has been a strong movement favouring multi-culturalism, the Conservative Party has become more and more a voice for Islamophobia, to the point that many British Muslims are considering emigration in the wake of the recent Conservative election victory.

Assaults of this sort are, unfortunately, taking place in countries not generally considered to be prey to the ultra-right. In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, once highly regarded for a courageous stand against the Burmese military junta, has become an apologist trying to cover up a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya Muslims.

Perhaps saddest of all from a progressive perspective, China, governed by a Communist Party, has, according to many reliable reports, been engaging in a fierce campaign against the religion and culture of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, including the confinement of hundreds of thousands in what Chinese officials term "re-education" camps where former detainees and their families have testified, people are brutally punished for practising Islam and other aspects of their culture, including even using their own language.

In a world like this, the message of Hanukkah — that oppressed people must and can unite and win victory over their oppressors — is more relevant than ever. Right now, the most urgent struggle in the US is the struggle to defeat Trump and Trumpism in the 2020 elections, a major part of the global struggle against the resurgent ultra-right. As we light the Hanukkah candles or see them in our neighbours' windows, let us think about how we can contribute to that victory.

Courtesy: People's World. Henry Millstein is a long-time peace and labour activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union. Views expressed are strictly personal

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