A FEW years ago, with good intentions but woeful misjudgment, the Catholic News Service tweeted out a greeting for the Jewish festival of lights.
"Hanukkah began at sundown," it read. "Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate!" Accompanying the tweet was a photograph of the Arch of Titus in Rome, which celebrates the defeat of Judea and the sack of the Temple in Jerusalem by Roman legions in 70 CE. A relief on the arch shows soldiers triumphantly holding aloft artifacts plundered from the Temple, most prominently its great golden menorah.
The news service quickly realized its blunder. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple during a much earlier conflict — the Maccabean revolt against the religious tyranny of the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century BCE — so an image of the Temple's later devastation was wholly inappropriate. The tweet was deleted and the news service apologized.
Yet in retrospect the Arch of Titus does symbolize a key message of Hanukkah, one intensely relevant amid today's rising tide of antisemitism and hostility toward Israel: However genocidal and powerful their enemies, the Jews and the Jewish faith have endured. Under Antiochus IV, the Seleucids (also called Syrian-Greeks) were determined to replace Judaism with the pagan culture of Hellenism; under the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus, Jewish ties to the Jewish homeland were to be crushed forever. Two millennia later, those emperors are dust and their grandeur lies in ruins. But the Jews and their religion still live, and their bond with the land of Israel is as indissoluble as ever.
Hanukkah arrives this year amid a terrible eruption of Jew-hatred. The horrific pogrom of Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists murdered, tortured, raped, and kidnapped some 1,400 residents of southern Israel, was the bloodiest massacre of Jews since the end of the Holocaust. The reaction in much of the world, and especially in many bastions of elite culture and higher education, has been an unprecedented wave of antisemitic vituperation, intimidation, menace, and glee. The director of the FBI testified on Oct. 31 that antisemitism in the United States was reaching "historic levels," and the crisis has only worsened since then. In many US communities, on college campuses, and overseas, Jews feel threatened to a degree unprecedented in generations.
In a Capitol Hill hearing room Tuesday, there was a particularly chilling indication of how normalized antisemitism is becoming.
The presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania were repeatedly asked whether "calling for the genocide of Jews" would violate the policies of their schools. None would answer yes. The significance of their equivocation was captured by Representative Kevin Kiley, a California Republican.
"I don't think you're a person of any kind of prejudice yourself," he said to Harvard president Claudine Gay. "But you clearly seem to believe that the forces of antisemitism are a constituency that needs to be catered to."
Throughout history, the "forces of antisemitism" have expressed themselves in three different ways: They have targeted the religion of the Jews, the physical existence of Jews, or the national state of the Jews. In America and the West today, they focus their enmity on Israel, the world's only Jewish country. By contrast, the revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucid emperor Antiochus 22 centuries ago — the events commemorated at Hanukkah — was a response to explicitly religious persecution.
Antiochus had proclaimed himself the manifestation of the Greek God Zeus and demanded that his subjects make him the highest focus of their worship. But in Judea, faithful Jews balked. Loyal to their Torah and their one God, they rejected Hellenism, with its network of pagan gods and its cult of the body. In response, Antiochus embarked on a campaign to destroy Judaism. He forbade Jewish services in the Temple. He punished observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, and the study of Torah — mainstays of Jewish religious life — with death. He declared the Temple to be a shrine to Olympian Zeus and ordered Jewish leaders to defile the holy place by sacrificing swine.
In his acclaimed history of Jerusalem, the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore conveys the savagery of the repression. "Those practicing the Sabbath were burned alive or suffered a gruesome Greek import: crucifixion. An old man perished rather than eat pork; women who circumcised their children were thrown with their babies off the walls of Jerusalem. The Torah was torn to shreds and burned publicly; everyone found with a copy was put to death."
This was the first instance in Jewish history of religious antisemitism. Its aim was neither to exterminate the Jews nor to drive them from their land. It was to replace their monotheism with the idols and gods of Hellenistic paganism. In 167 BCE, a rebellion to reclaim Jewish religious autonomy began when an elderly priest named Mattathias refused a Syrian order to sacrifice to an idol. When a Hellenized Jew stepped forward to do so, Mattathias killed the man and dismantled the altar. Then he and his sons — led by Judah Maccabeus, a nickname meaning "the Hammer" — organized a guerrilla war against the empire. Eventually the Temple was reclaimed and restored. Ever since, Jews have celebrated the festival of Hanukkah to mark the victory over religious persecution.
In later centuries, there would be many instances of such persecution. Jews in Europe were slaughtered by Crusaders en route to the Holy Land, viciously demonized by Martin Luther when he launched the Reformation, humiliated by Mohammed's followers when they conquered the Middle East, and smeared by Charles Coughlin, an antisemitic American priest and radio celebrity in the 1930s.
Whether the antisemites chanting "intifada, intifada" on US campuses or ripping down pictures of kidnapped Israelis realize it or not, Hamas hates and kills Jews first and foremost out of hatred for their religion. The name Hamas is an Arab acronym for "Islamic Resistance Movement," and the organization's founding covenant explicitly and repeatedly proclaims the destruction of Israel to be a religious obligation. It proclaims itself a "wing" of the Muslim Brotherhood and stresses that its "program is Islam," from which "it draws its ideas, ways of thinking, and understanding of the universe, life, and man." Hamas teaches its adherents that they serve Allah by killing Jews, which helps explain why the most gruesome barbarities of Oct. 7 were accompanied by shouts of "Allahu Akbar" (Allah is most great).
Yet the promise of Hanukkah and of Jewish history is that Hamas will ultimately fail and fade into oblivion. Those who seek to destroy the Jews have been responsible for oceans of suffering and death. But none of them has outlasted the Jewish people. The Seleucids today are virtually forgotten. The Arch of Titus is an antiquity for tourists to gawk at. Hamas, too, will disappear in time. And long after it is gone, Jewish families will continue to kindle the Hanukkah menorah, celebrating the Festival of Lights at the darkest time of the year.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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