The Hanukka story – check your motivation

Jews in the Diaspora deal with this question every day; it goes to the essence of their identities.

December 17, 2017 22:25
4 minute read.
The Hanukka story – check your motivation

Celebrating Hanukka with the Jewish community of Lisbon. (photo credit: MINISTRY OF DIASPORA AFFAIRS/SCREENSHOT)


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The Hanukka story, the one we learn as children, tells of the heroism of the Jews who, led by the Maccabees, stood up to the Antiochus the wicked Greek king who wished to destroy all spiritual traces of Judaism. It is about a light that should have lasted one night but lasted eight. Yet as we learn more about the Hanukka story we can see that it is multifaceted. The main message of the story does center on preserving Jewish independence, freedom and identity, but the story also contains politics and infighting and divisions within the Jewish community.

At the time of the Maccabees, Israel was on the border of a continuing struggle between the Seleucids (ancient Greek Hellenist empire) and the Ptolemies (Egyptian empire). The Greeks were looking to consolidate and strengthen their borders. When Antioch IV came to power he instituted a number of laws banning central Jewish practices. It appears that the Greek political agenda was to absorb the Jews into the empire and forcibly align their values and identities with Greek culture. If the citizens of Israel identified as Greeks they would be far more likely to be loyal to “their nation” Greece then if they were simply subjects of a far-off empire.

There were Jews who subscribed to this thinking, and the fight between the Hellenist Jews and the Maccabees was fierce. The Hellenistic Jews sided with the Greeks and were furious with the Maccabees and their followers for stirring up trouble and proclaiming their anger at the anti-religious laws.

At one point Alcimus, who was the Jewish Hellenist high priest, went to Demetrius the Seleucid (Greek) king to ask for intervention to help fight the Maccabees. This, in turn, caused a whole new round of fighting.

It is an issue Jews have had to deal with in every generation; the concept of loyalty to their religion or to the state. Jewish citizens have often been suspect, with critics arguing that their allegiance to religion comes first. Is a French Jew a Frenchman first or a Jew first? The Dreyfus trial was an exercise in looking into this concept.

The whole question becomes murkier for Jews around the world when Israel is raised. If there was a war, which side would you take? The expulsion of the Jews from Muslim countries when the State of Israel was declared was a clear directive from those countries of how they viewed Jewish dual loyalty.

Jews in the Diaspora deal with this question every day; it goes to the essence of their identities. The psychological effect on the Jewish people is profound; some turn deeper into Jewish practice and beliefs, while others try to assimilate completely to prove their loyalty. The line is not black and white but covers a huge gray area.

In Germany, from 1921 to 1935, the Association of German National Jews was led by a man named Max Naumann. According to the historian Robert S. Wistrich, the association’s aim was “the total assimilation of Jews into the German Volksgemeinschaft, self-eradication of Jewish identity, and the expulsion from Germany of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.” Until its dissolution by the Nazi government in 1935 it supported Hitler and campaigned against the Jewish boycott of German goods.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight our judgment may be harsh, and yet we still see Jews fighting against Jewish interests in the name of human rights and liberal agendas.

When Jews support the boycott of Israel and delegitimize its existence, and Jewish studies scholars sign a petition protesting a US president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, when organizations such as B’Tselem spread hatred of the institutions of the State of Israel, we are facing Hellenization, an attempt to suborn our Jewish identities to another culture. This is not about legitimate criticism of Israel, which can even be essential to a democratic state, but about checking the motivation behind such criticism.

When the motivation behind Jewish anti-Jewish/Israel criticism is that the critics are uncomfortable with part of their Jewish identity and wish to be accepted by others, something goes askew. We are used to hearing that we should “check our privilege,” but perhaps as Jews when criticizing others we should check our motivation.


The fight is old and tired and yet it goes on. A fight to tell ourselves and others that it is OK to be Jewish, it is OK to stand up for Jewish people and the State of Israel. That fighting against each other is not the answer to gain acceptance from others. The Maccabees fought for Jewish identity not to be subsumed by the Greeks and their culture. As we light the hanukkia this Hanukka, and the lights glow from one window to the next, let’s take it as a message from one Jew to the next to take strength from one another and take pride in our identity as Jews.

The author is a licensed mediator (UK and Israel) residing in Jerusalem. She specializes in mediation for English speakers.

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