This Hanukkah let’s celebrate Liberalism and Zionism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-3-10

Let’s face it.  Although Hanukkah’s basic plot has not changed for 2,000 years, the Hanukkah we know and love is a twentieth-century invention. Hanukkah’s themes of heroism and power, both physical and spiritual, were Zionist ideas; traditionally, the Rabbis thanked God for the eight-day oil miracle. When the Zionist revolution reevaluated Judaism a century ago, the Maccabees’ story proved that Jewish history was not just about anti-Semites oppressing us and rabbis teaching us but our own warriors defending us. The Maccabees were hometown heroes, rooted in Israel’s ancient soil, willing to fight, if necessary, for their homeland, their beliefs, their freedom. At the same time, our festival of lights became our popular response to the seasonal malady of Christmas envy. Boasting eight nights, meaning eight gift-giving opportunities, Hanukkah helped Jews trump their Christian neighbors.

Considering that pedigree, this Hanukkah we should celebrate the happy marriage of liberalism and Zionism. We can fight the trendy claim that liberalism and Zionism are increasingly incompatible without doing violence to the Maccabean story.  Emphasizing a liberal-Zionist rift, in a world fighting the dark clouds of Islamic totalitarianism, ignores the shared enlightenment past of both Zionism and liberalism, as well as the light liberal Zionism can generate today.

Celebrating liberalism and Zionism can help revitalize both ideologies. In embracing Zionism, modern liberals will remember how central nationalism has been to liberalism’s greatest triumphs. Great liberals from John Stuart Mills to John Kennedy were great nationalists, just as great Zionists from David Ben-Gurion to Menachem Begin were great liberals. America’s Constitution, providing bedrock guarantees of personal freedom, begins with “We the People,” valuing the collective entity to achieve national greatness while protecting individual rights. Similarly, the French revolution did not stop at “Liberte” and “Egalite” but sought “Fraternite” too.

Hanukkah celebrates national liberation and a fight for individual rights. In the Maccabean indignation against Greek-Assyrian oppression that gives the story its propulsive power, national and individual sensibilities reinforce one another. Antiochus is the quintessential dictator whose power requires suppressing individuals’ spirits while squelching the Jewish national soul. These simultaneous assaults become untenable. The Maccabean fight for self-dignity and national pride become one, igniting the revolt.

This revolt is not just any proto-liberal-national revolt. It is a Jewish revolt, on Jewish soil, in our ancient homeland, circa 168 B.C.E. Today, 2200 years later, with Palestinian leaders questioning our ties to the Temple, with the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel rejecting our character as a nation and our links to the land, Hanukkah reaffirms the Zionist idea of establishing a Jewish national homeland in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.

As a national holiday, Hanukkah reinforces Judaism’s dualistic nature. Just as a jelly doughnut requires jelly AND dough, so too, Judaism needs its national AND religious character. Hanukkah does not celebrate the dedications of every temple, wherever it may be scattered throughout the four corners of the earth; but all Jews, wherever we live, celebrate the one temple, built in Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s eternal capital.

And yes, all this thinking about liberalism and Zionism should sensitize us to the Palestinians’ plight, should spur us toward guaranteeing Israeli Arabs full equality and dignity, while affirming our story, our values, our rights to be in Israel and our rights to live in peace. The impossible odds we face in squaring those circles today are nevertheless less daunting than the Maccabeans’ even more impossible odds in confronting the great empire of their day. They understood the essential Zionist message that we must be strong physically and spiritually, that our values are as valuable a part of our arsenal as our more conventional weapons.

Ultimately, the current belief that Zionism and liberalism are at odds comes from forgetting both ideologies’ true characters and misreading world affairs. Palestinian propagandists have spread the Occupation Preoccupation. The double illusion that solving the Palestinian problem is the keystone to world peace and that the settlements are the great obstacle to that peace, blames Israel disproportionately while obscuring some of the greatest threats to Zionism and liberalism today. This week’s Wikileaks prove that even many Arabs recognize Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah as greater threats to world peace. Last week’s Islamist attempt to blow up a Christmas tree-lighting celebration attended by 10,000 Oregonians mocks the illusion that Islamist terrorists’ anti-Western bloodlust would be satisfied by any kind of Mideast compromise. Israelis should seek a true, mutual peace for their own souls, sanity and safety not out of any delusion that solving a minor regional conflict can solve the world’s major headaches.

There is yet another added bonus that can result from rededicating our commitment to both liberalism and Zionism this Hanukkah. Both modern liberalism and modern Zionism struggle with the tension between materialism and altruism, the selfishness of the “I” and the self-sacrifice of the “us,” the desire to take and the need to give. As Hanukkah, like its seasonal partner Christmas, has degenerated into what the historian Daniel Boorstin called “festivals of consumption,” the question “what did you get” has eclipsed the more important holiday questions “what does this mean?” and “did you grow?”

Traditionally, during Hanukkah Jewish communities rededicated themselves to Jewish education. In that spirit, parents gave children “gelt” or coins to sweeten the experience of Torah study. In the early 1900s, many Jews used Hanukkah as an opportunity to donate the modern equivalent of the “shekel,” the Biblical coin representing the power of responsibility, the importance of being counted, to the Zionist cause. This Hanukkah let’s remember the best of both the liberal and Zionist traditions. This Hanukkah, let’s look for opportunities to give not just get. This Hanukkah, by doing that, we can redeem not just these two noble movements, but ourselves.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The author ofWhy I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. giltroy@gmail.com

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