Hanukkah: A holiday rooted in struggle against imperialism
The Spoils Panel on the Arch of Titus in Rome depicts a line of Roman soldiers parading objects looted from the Temple in Jerusalem after their victory over the Jews. Among the objects the relief displays are the Temple menorah, the table of the showbread, trumpets, and sacred cups. The Jewish rebellion against Roman imperial rule and eventual retaking of the Temple are the foundation of the Hanukkah observance. | Wikipedia

This week, starting Dec. 22, Jews around the world are celebrating Hanukkah, the eight-day festival that commemorates the 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 B.C.E., 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 the Jews respect for their ancestral religion and customs, and the Jews lived peacefully under this imperial power for some time. But in 175 B.C.E., 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 the Jews as he was trying to do in other parts of the empire. (Some modern scholars have argued that the drive toward Hellenization was actually instigated by a Quisling faction among the Jews themselves and that Antiochus invaded to support them, but even in this account, this is a story of imperial domination.)

The 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 B.C.E., they had defeated the Seleucid army and taken possession of Jerusalem, 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 C.E., recounts that upon their victory the 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 the people of Vietnam over U.S. 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 organizations 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 of Narendra Modi 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 favoring 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 practicing Islam and other aspects of their culture, including even using their own language.

In a world like this, the message of Hanukkah—that an 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 U.S. 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 neighbors’ windows, let us think about how we can contribute to that victory.


Henry Millstein
Henry Millstein

Hank Millstein is a long-time peace and labor activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union.