Chanukah is always special, but this year the holiday took on added significance for me. Yes, it was the first time since 1978 that the first night coincided with Christmas Eve, but truth be told, save for having more time to shop for gifts for my kids, I didn’t really give the confluence of the holidays much thought at all. (And actually, we don’t do the presents-every-night thing. With a family our size, such a strategy could quickly break even the most liberal of budgets!)
The Festival of Lights has long been associated with dispelling darkness. It takes place when daylight is in short supply. In accordance with Beit Hillel, we add a candle to the menorah on each successive night. And rabbinic commentaries stress the power of the menorah to illuminate the darkness of night.
Throughout our people’s history, in the darkest of hours even, our ancestors have found ways to kindle the menorah. At last year’s Chanukah parties at the White House, one of the menorahs featured was crafted by an artist who, as an inmate at one of Auschwitz’s sub-camps, secretly fashioned them out of nails as a way to keep his spirits up. And a 1931 photograph making the rounds on Facebook shows a tiny menorah in a window staring down a Nazi flag on the building across the street.
Driving down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, around City Hall and east on Market Street Monday night in the annual menorah parade organized by Lubavitch of Philadelphia, you might not have noticed the darkness that, although quintessentially and qualitatively different from that which descended upon Europe in the 1930s and gave birth to the Holocaust, still exists in the world. The train of cars, each with a bright candelabra atop its roof, finished their journey, well past nightfall, in the middle of Independence Mall for the lighting of a giant 30-foot-tall menorah by Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who just steps away in 1974, held the first public menorah lighting in the United States.
Such public displays of Jewish pride would have been unthinkable decades ago, and downright dangerous in other parts of the world in all but the last 20 years. But this week, capitals throughout Europe, South America and Africa hosted similar celebrations. In being able to publicly celebrate Chanukah, and to block rush hour traffic in order to do so, speaks volumes about how far the Jewish people have come. And yet, our homeland is being assaulted in a manner unseen for close to 40 years.
On Sunday, Shemtov’s son, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), seemingly called out the Obama administration for refusing to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria a “flagrant violation [of] international law.” That he did so at the National Menorah Lighting in front of the White House and on the heels of a speech from Adam Szubin, an acting undersecretary at the Department of the Treasury, drew headlines such as these: “Rabbi rips into Obama at National Menorah Lighting” (New York Post) and “Rabbi uses National Menorah lighting to trash Obama UN move” (FOX News).
The younger Shemtov’s comments may have been taken out of context, but the passion and urgency behind them were certainly justified. Although the Security Council resolution doesn’t carry the same weight as one that can be enforced through sanctions or military power, it encourages continued Palestinian intransigence as well as a precedent in cases that might be decided by the International Criminal Court. Whereas the White House has long argued that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in negotiations, the net effect of last week’s Security Council action will likely be the delay of any agreement.
Already this week, a Palestinian official was telling CNN that he held Israeli sovereignty over West Jerusalem in doubt, based upon the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan that called for what is today Israel’s capital to be an international city. His claim, just days after the U.S. refusal to use its veto, as it has in the past, represents an expansion of Palestinian negotiators’ maximalist claims.
Dark days indeed.
But the message of Chanukah isn’t just that light dispels darkness; the holiday’s power lies in its ability to transform the darkness into light. In the immediate aftermath of the Security Council vote, some well-meaning but misguided members of our community took to social media to blame pro-Israel members of the left for voting for Obama and thereby planting the seeds from which sprouted the White House’s betrayal of the Jewish state. That’s like saying anyone who voted for Reagan in 1980 set the stage for his administration’s stabbing Israel in the back at the Security Council in 1981, when it unanimously excoriated Jerusalem for destroying Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.
The fact is, although the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump appears to be very pro-Israel — he has promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and his nominee for ambassador to Israel is a supporter of the West Bank community of Beit El — recent history is full of American presidents ultimately sacrificing Israeli interests in the pursuit of the holy grail of Middle East peace. That’s why trying to pin the blame for presidential actions on one side of the Jewish community or the other is so dangerous, and actually allows the darkness from without to creep within.
No, the proper response is to find ways to unite the disparate elements of our community. Defense of Israeli interests should not be a partisan issue, and it shouldn’t be a wedge with which to split us apart. Those on the left and the right might have legitimate differences as to strategy, to technique and to rhetoric, but the light that animates them all is their embrace of their Jewish identities and their love of the Jewish land. This is our chance to answer the darkness by appealing to the light inside of us all.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.