Feature image by Natalia Ganelin via Getty Images
To agonize over the meaning of Hanukkah for the first time this year is to buy into the big lie being peddled by the Israeli government, the American government, and Zionists around the world that violence in Palestine began on October 7.
Growing up, Judaism and Jewish tradition were told to me through the lens of a victim complex. I was taught Jews were the chosen people — biblically chosen to be in covenant with God — and felt confused why God’s chosen people always seemed trapped in the book of Job. From the Passover story to the Purim story to the Hanukkah story to more contemporary examples like Russian pogroms and the Holocaust, it seemed like everyone always wanted to kill the Jews. And yet, we triumphed and lived on.
The violence of these stories and historical fact were not ignored, but they were simplified for a child’s consumption into tales of victory. Even as we learned of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, we were also fed a narrative of Hitler’s failures and of the allied powers of the U.S., France, and Great Britain winning a noble war against fascism.
It’s fitting that the six-pointed star associated with Judaism is named the Star of David, because so many of our stories are told through a David and Goliath framing. The Jewish people suffer, and then, against all odds, we survive — we win. Pay no attention to the nuance of these stories and historical moments. Pay no attention to the rest of the Torah that documents David’s horrific violence once he was declared King.
I reconnected with my Jewish faith in my early twenties when I realized the oversimplified Judaism of my childhood was, actually, counter to the fundamentals of Jewish teaching. My temple’s approach to Reform Judaism was not increased inclusivity, but rather a reduction of Judaism to simple traditions and community based on bloodline. That didn’t have to be the case.
Especially once I came out, I found Jewish community where people leaned toward the questioning of the Jewish religion. My Hebrew school curiosities that had been written off as precocious annoyance turned out to be a fundamental part of my religion. For me, and so many Jewish people, the lack of certainty, the encouragement of complex discussion, is what connects us to our faith.
On Friday night — Shabbat, the second night of Hanukkah, and the 36 year anniversary of the First Intifada — I entered into one of these complicated Jewish spaces with a sigh of relief. Making Mensches and Kolot Anti-Zionist Minyan hosted an anti-Zionist Hanukkah Shabbat in Manhattan. Over a hundred people — Jewish and otherwise — gathered for a potluck and a ritual.
Since the Hamas attack on October 7 and the resulting increase in Israeli violence against Palestinians, my relationship to Judaism has felt fraught. I can remind myself the Israeli government does not represent all Judaism, but it’s difficult to hold onto that fact when I’ve spent the last two months having upsetting conversations with Jewish family — even more upsetting than ones I’d already been having with them about Israel for nearly a decade. It’s difficult to hold onto Judaism’s separation from Israel when the United States government is funding Israel’s genocide of Palestinians under the guise of fighting antisemitism.
I’ve been inspired by the actions of Jewish organizers over the last two months. I’ve also grown frustrated with the limits of Jewish identity as an authority in opposition to genocide. Yes, I feel an obligation to speak out against the Israeli government when my religion is their excuse for violence. But I also feel an obligation to speak out against the Israeli government simply as a human being. Furthermore, I don’t think Jewish voices should be centered in a moment when Palestinians are being murdered. I understand it strategically, but I still find it grotesque — especially as the weeks drag on, the violence increases, and the same circuitous debates continue.
At the event on Friday, one of the leaders, Elana Lipkin, began by discussing the Hanukkah story as one that can be particularly challenging for anti-Zionist Jews, because it is celebrated by many as a tale of Jewish people reclaiming Israeli land. But, Lipkin suggested, it can just as easily be celebrated as a tale of any resistance movement fighting back against colonial oppression. Religion and religious texts often act as Rorschach tests: People choose an interpretation that connects with their values.
What strikes me most about this obvious reframe is the decentering of Jewish people as uniquely oppressed. It’s possible — nay, necessary — to honor the realities of antisemitism in history and in the present without pretending as if we’re alone in our experiences of oppression. It’s also important to acknowledge that a group being oppressed does not mean it can’t also be an oppressor.
What would Judaism look like without self-victimization? It would mean moving beyond the idea of us as a chosen people — chosen for misery or chosen for greatness — and looking to these stories for inspiration of resistance. Not a uniquely Jewish resistance but a resistance we can support and encourage from any oppressed people. It would also mean an admission of the possibility that Jewish people can act as oppressors, whether we’re talking about the Israeli occupation of Palestine or the bigotry held by Jewish Americans who have run toward assimilation and white supremacy.
To gather for an anti-Zionist Jewish celebration is to do so for ourselves. It’s to create a space where we’re free to practice our traditions away from those in our larger community who are using these same traditions as an excuse for violence. But its importance for fighting the ongoing violence shouldn’t be overstated. Lipkin said, “Tonight we rest and heal. Tomorrow the struggle continues.” I appreciated this acknowledgment that we were gathered to celebrate Hanukkah. The anti-Zionism of the event didn’t mean we were doing anything in the struggle other than taking a moment to relax and reflect, a moment that in itself is a privilege.
After the Shabbat prayers, but before the Hanukkah songs, we split into small discussion groups to talk of questions ranging from what brought us to this space to how the fight for liberation can be made sustainable. There is value to intracommunity discussion that does not center itself. We gather not only to celebrate our Jewish holidays but so we can discuss difficult topics outside of the public sphere.
Jewish people who have lost or weakened relationships with family due to conversations about Israel may have experienced and be experiencing grief — it is not a grief equal to those who have lost family at the hands of the Israeli government. As human beings, we likely mourn the immense loss of life we’re witnessing from afar, but that mourning should not pull focus from those in mourning for their loved ones. This Shabbat was a space for that lesser grief, that lesser mourning. It’s important to find that in friends and in community so we’re better equipped to fight for other oppressed people without falling into the belief that our feelings, as Jews, as Americans, are somehow most important.
The most impactful moment of the night was a speech given before the Mourner’s Kaddish. The speaker raised the point that in Jewish tradition we sit shiva for the first seven days after a death to provide support to those who are most grieving. To say the Mourner’s Kaddish for the lives lost in Palestine, when their loved ones were not given time to grieve, when they weren’t allowed to practice their own mourning rituals in a time of peace, when the violence continues even as we gather, is a grossly insufficient use of our own traditions.
And yet, after this powerful speech concluded, we said the Mourner’s Kaddish. Because it was Shabbat. Because that is our tradition. Because people in the room were grieving their own losses. Because Judaism is about holding multiple truths at once. Because we were grieving. Because we are grieving.