This Chanukah, Celebrate Christmas Instead
The Maccabees would have murdered me, so why are they still being venerated as heroes?
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Black Sheep is a publication for stories with a valuable perspective people don’t want to hear—and this story by my co-founder Jake is certainly one of those. I was nervous to publish any critique of Judaism because it’s yet another subject viciously guarded by tribalism, now more than ever after the October 7th tragedy. Overnight, any criticism became “tone-deaf,” which is collectivist-speak for “True or not, we don’t want to hear this.”
But the truth isn’t meant to be pursued only when it’s convenient and popular, and that’s what The Black Sheep is for.
Running a publication dedicated to highlighting unpopular but important perspectives is a unique challenge. While our mission is to increase appreciation for black sheep, our supporters will always be in the minority by design. A story like Jake’s comes with both a personal and professional risk. That’s why we rely heavily on passionate black sheep to fund our ability to publish unpopular but important perspectives. If you enjoy this essay, support us to help keep us going.
In the year 141 BC—2,164 years ago—the Jewish state declared war on Gaza. The residents of Gaza had suffered a decades-long religious conflict with those who had come to rule the Jewish state, who were notably far-right for their time. The religious identity of the Gazans had made them unwelcome within the borders of the Jewish state, and many like them had needed to flee from their homes to neighboring territories for safety. Trapped in a walled city and surrounded, the residents of Gaza begged the Jewish leader for a ceasefire.
The similarities to today are striking. But there was a key difference: it was Jews who were under siege in Gaza. Their fellow tribesmen who had taken control of the Jewish state were on a mission to eliminate those they viewed as insufficiently dedicated to maintaining their traditions. Cosmopolitan Jews of the time had adopted practices of popular Hellenistic (Greek) culture. Often this was done while retaining much of Jewish practice, much like contemporary non-Orthodox Jews have retained aspects of their Judaism despite melting into modern culture, but that was insufficient for the zealots in control of the Jewish state.
Those zealots were the Hasmonean family, also known as the Maccabees. The war on Gaza described is told in The Book of Maccabees 1, 13:41-49.
This is the true story of Chanukah. Chanukah isn’t a holiday about eating latkes and giving gifts. Its cultural role as “Jewish Christmas” is a recent—and American—invention.
In the early 20th century, following the mass immigration of European Jews into the United States, Jews rapidly began to adopt American traditions, including Christmas. As of 1904, It was common for American Jews to have Christmas trees and for their children to sing carols in school. But although Christmas had already established itself as a secular holiday—more focused on Santa than Jesus—Jewish religious leaders were uncomfortable with Jews adopting Christian traditions, as were American Zionists who relied on Jews’ maintaining a cohesive identity to raise money to support their comrades in Palestine.
To compete with the draw of Christmas, they promoted Chanukah, which from a religious perspective had been considered a lesser holiday. Falling during the same season, Christmas’s gift-giving, decoration, and merriment could be shoved into Chanukah. This would help Jewish parents satisfy their children—staving off jealousy of their non-Jewish peers—while still serving the goal of keeping Jews distinctly separate from them.
Despite its less violent manifestation, this modern history is the direct legacy of the holiday’s ancient history and thus inseparable from it. Chanukah is first and foremost a holiday about the preservation of Jewish identity above all else. This drive is one of Judaism’s most fundamental traits. It’s been highly successful at doing it, surviving as a distinct religion and ethnic identity to a degree unmatched by any of its Iron Age peers, and despite numerous brutal attempts to end either the Jewish faith (eg. the Spanish Inquisition) or the Jewish people (eg. pogroms or the Holocaust).
However, for black sheep, a group’s self-preservation as a group (meaning the maintenance of the ideas that bind the group together—no matter how wrong they may be—for the binding’s sake alone) comes at a cost to its individuals.
The introduction of Hellenistic culture into Jewish life began with Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea around 332 BC. According to Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, Alexander was—by conquerer standards—extraordinarily kind to Judea. He permitted that they would pay no taxes every seventh year, and that their leadership would be allowed to continue all of their religious laws. However, what was good for the preservation of religious law was not always equal to what was good for Jews. Judea was a theocracy controlled by the priesthood, and, according to Josephus, merely being accused of eating non-kosher food or breaking the Sabbath would force Jews to flee to neighboring nations for safety.
Following the death of Alexander, the empire was split into competing centers of power. The Seleucid Empire controlled most of Western Asia, and the Ptolemaic Kingdom controlled Egypt and North Africa. Judea was situated directly in between, making it of substantial political importance to the conflict.
A general attitude of friendship from both powers towards Judea continued for many generations, although Judea would also suffer from being a central location in wars between the two. Josephus writes of Antiochus II (the great, great, great grandfather of Antiochus IV, the villain of the Chanukah story) sending gifts to the Jewish people, exempting the Jewish leadership from certain specific taxes, and exempting the commoners from all taxes for three years. According to Josephus, Antiochus II not only continued to allow the priesthood’s legal rule over Judea, but helped enforce some of the priesthood’s laws. A later king, Seleucus III, is credited by Josephus for bringing “the Jews out of a state of poverty and meanness, to one that was more splendid.”
There were 157 years between Alexander’s conquest and the beginning of Antiochus IV’s reign. Given this time and the positive relationship between the Jews and their Greek sovereigns, it makes sense that substantial cultural exchange would have occurred. But cultural exchange was seen as a threat by many traditionalists. Maccabees 1, 1:14-17, recounts, “In those days went there out of Israel wicked men, who persuaded many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us: for since we departed from them we have had much sorrow.’ … whereupon they built a place of exercise at Jerusalem according to the customs of the heathen and made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen, and were sold to do mischief.”
According to The Book of Maccabees 2, 4, that “place of exercise” was a gymnasium, built under the Jewish High Priest Jason. Jason advanced the Hellenization that had already begun, gaining citizenship for Jews within the Seleucid Empire, encouraging Jews to wear Greek clothing, and generally overseeing an “increase in the adoption of foreign ways.” Jason, the brother of the previous High Priest, came to power by the appointment of Antiochus IV after Jason had promised the Seleucids an increase in tax payments. Nonetheless, both he and Antiochus were described as popular. Antiochus was cheered on “magnificently” by the city of Jerusalem, and Josephus describes Jason as being supported by “the greater part of the people.”
However, amid a resource-draining war between the Seleucid Empire and the Ptolemaic Kingdom, Antiochus replaced Jason as High Priest with the family’s third brother, Menelaus, who allegedly promised even higher tax payments. According to Josephus, Menelaus’s Hellenization of Judea went further than Jason’s. Menelaus wished to make Judea fully Greek and discard Jewish tradition from the nation’s governance entirely. Maccabees 2 claims both Jason and Menelaus’s Hellenization involved persecution of religious Jews, but an Israeli historian has argued there’s substantial reason to believe that’s not true.
The conflict over Hellenization escalated in response to a broken game of telephone. While Antiochus was at war in Egypt, Jason came to understand that Antiochus had died, enabling Jason to start a revolt to take back the high priesthood from Menelaus. But Antiochus was not dead, and mistakenly interpreted the revolt as a Jewish insurrection against Seleucid rule. To demonstrate his continued power, according to Maccabees 1, 1:55, Antiochus declared that “whosoever was found with any the book of the testament, or if any committed to the law… they should put him to death.” At this point many converted from Judaism out of fear, and many others were slaughtered.
All of the major surviving documentation from the conflict was written from a perspective favorable to the Maccabean revolt. Maccabees 1 and Maccabees 2 are believed to be writings produced by the Hasmonean court. Josephus’s book The Antiquity of the Jews is the remaining major source on the conflict, but his history is unfortunately muddled with fiction intended to serve as apologetics for Judaism to his Roman readership. No significant documents survive from the Seleucid perspective, nor the Hellenist Jewish faction opposed to the Hasmoneans. As such, it’s unclear how reliable descriptions of them and their actions are. For example, Maccabees 2, 9:5-12, recounts the death of Antiochus with a comedic grossness,
But the all-seeing Lord, the God of Israel, struck [Antiochus] an incurable and unseen blow. As soon as he ceased speaking he was seized with a pain in his bowels for which there was no relief and with sharp internal tortures— and that very justly, for he had tortured the bowels of others with many and strange inflictions. … And so the ungodly man’s body swarmed with worms, and while he was still living in anguish and pain, his flesh rotted away, and because of his stench the whole army felt revulsion at his decay. Because of his intolerable stench no one was able to carry the man who a little while before had thought that he could touch the stars of heaven. Then it was that, broken in spirit, he began to lose much of his arrogance and to come to his senses under the scourge of God, for he was tortured with pain every moment. And when he could not endure his own stench, he uttered these words: “It is right to be subject to God, and no mortal should think that he is equal to God.”
In a prayer to abate his illness, Antiochus allegedly vowed to “become a Jew and… visit every inhabited place to proclaim the power of God” (Maccabees 2, 9:17).
However, if even 10% of what these books say of Antiochus’s reign of terror is true, it was a catastrophic horror for Jews. The Books of Maccabees describe infants being murdered because their parents had circumcised them (Maccabees 1, 1:59, Maccabees 2, 6:10), Jews being burned to death for keeping the Sabbath (Maccabees 2, 6:11), and Jews being tortured in an attempt to compel them to eat non-kosher food, and then being murdered for refusing (Maccabees 2, 7). Josephus describes Jews who refused to give up Judaism as being “whipped with rods,” “torn to pieces,” and "crucified while they were still alive.” Whatever of this is true, what appears certain is that a war goal of the Seleucids involved limiting the practice of traditional Judaism.
In this context, a revolt against Antiochus was well justified. But opposing evil is insufficient to make one good, and the Maccabees did not merely fight against Antiochus and his forces. According to both Josephus and Maccabees 1, 2:24-26, the first person killed by Matthias, the patriarch of the Maccabees, was a Hellenized Jew in the midst of being forced by Antiochus’s minions to offer an animal sacrifice to the Greek gods.
What message did the Hasmoneans intend to send to their subjects by encoding in their book, Maccabees 1, that the first person they killed was a Jew giving a heretical sacrifice under duress? It’s a direct threat to their tribesmen: do not cross our orders no matter what, no matter how fearful you may be, or you will pay the consequences.
The recounted killing cannot be considered a merely religious matter because the Hasmoneans considered themselves entitled to change Jewish law as they saw fit. Maccabees 1, 2:32-44, recounts a story of a group of Jews being slaughtered by the Seleucids because they refused to fight back on the sabbath in violation of their faith. In response to this event, the Maccabees decree that they will fight on the sabbath regardless of the traditional rules. That’s a fine and reasonable change to make to survive, but notice it’s only the changes to survive that defy the Hasmoneans which are a capital offense. Furthermore, after their rule was established, the Hasmoneans combined the position of High Priest with the position of King in direct violation of religious law.
Claims to divinity have long been understood as a means to power, and the Jewish priesthood was no different. Following the Babylonian Exile the High Priesthood became an explicitly political position, not that there was ever a substantial distinction between religion and state in antiquity. Much of the story of the Books of Maccabees is of the power struggle to gain the High Priesthood, and Josephus describes the luxuries that the position provided.
Although enmeshed in an apocryphal story of Alexander the Great meeting the Jewish High Priest and entering the temple, Josephus describes the priests as being clothed in “fine linens” better than the Jewish masses, and the High Priest as wearing a crown and a plate of gold. He also writes of the Pharaoh Ptolemy II sending ornate golden furniture to the High Priest, as well as silver, money, fine linens, and a crown. Josephus even describes one Jewish High Priest, Onias II, as “a great lover of money,” “covetous,” and that “nothing… made him ashamed.” While Jason and Menelaus’s promise of increased tax payments to Antiochus may have appeared to be a betrayal of their people, it’s unclear that the High Priests before or after them did anything less selfish when they held control of the people’s money.
What the Maccabees admitted to doing to gain power ought to disgust at an equal level to Antiochus. While conquering Judea they destroyed Hellenized Jews’ religious sites, slaughtered them, and forcibly circumcised their orphaned children (Maccabees 1, 2:46-47, 3:8).
Josephus quotes Matthias on his deathbed as telling the Maccabees that they shouldn’t “be carried away with those that, either by their own inclination, or out of necessity, betray [Jewish law],” to use “all force and necessity” against them, and to be willing “to die” in this mission. Indeed, even after forcing the Seleucids out of Judea, the Maccabees sentenced all Judeans who violated Jewish religious law to death.
Following the death of Antiochus IV, his son Antiochus V continued the war, but in a diminished state due to his father’s major losses. However, the remaining Hellenized Jews begged Antiochus V to aid them, so the Seleucid Empire hired mercenaries to fight specifically to defend them (Maccabees 1, 6:23-30, & Josephus). Seemingly less brutal than his father, Antiochus V’s army allowed defeated Maccabean battalions to surrender in exchange for security guarantees, with no mention of their being forced to give up their faith.
Facing wars on multiple fronts and running thin on resources, the Seleucids made peace with the Maccabees, formally allowing them to live according to their religion in exchange for mutual security guarantees (Maccabees 2, 13:23, & Josephus). The Seleucids also executed Menelaus (the context of his execution differs between Maccabees 2, 13:3-8, & Josephus); in his place as High Priest was appointed Alcimus, a moderate Hellenizer in the vein of Jason.
However, despite making peace with the Seleucids and gaining their freedom, the Maccabees did not stop killing the Hellenized Jews, and they forced Alcimus out of power. Alcimus explained this to the Seleucids, who re-entered Judea and returned him to power (Maccabees 1, 7:4-9; Maccabees 2, 14:3-13; & Josephus). Alcimus achieved widespread popularity amongst the Jewish masses following his return. But the popularity of a Hellenizing High Priest motivated renewed Maccabean violence. Maccabees 1, 7:22, explains that they “went out into all the coasts of Judea round about, and took vengeance of them that had revolted.”
According to Josephus, Alcimus’s High Priesthood came to an end when he died of a stroke. The Hasmonean leader Judas Maccabee would take the High Priesthood for a short time and ally Judea with Rome, but then die in battle. His death revitalized the hopes of Hellenized Jews, who reassembled to defend themselves with Seleucid assistance, while the traditionalist faction gathered around Judas’s brother Jonathan. But the Seleucids, tiring of being drawn repeatedly back into war in Judea, went behind the Hellenized Jews’ backs and made a treaty with Jonathan to recognize his rule.
The civil war with the Hellenized Jews finally ended when, per Josephus, “Jonathan [took] the opportunity of this quiet state of things, and… punished the wicked and ungodly, and by that means purged the nation of them.”
After being clearly established as the ruling power in Judea, the Hasmonean dynasty continued to involve itself in frequent expansionist wars during which they conducted forced conversions to Judaism similar to the forced conversions to the Greek religion of Antiochus IV. The Hasmoneans also destroyed the temple of the Samaritans, a neighboring group of Israelites that had a schism with Judea some centuries earlier and whose temple on Mt. Gerizim was described as being equally as grand as the one in Jerusalem. The day of the Samaritan temple’s destruction was made a holiday for Jews during which it’s forbidden to mourn the dead.
And this is only what the texts favorable to the Maccabees record. It will remain forever unknown what they didn’t want to have remembered.
I’m not the first writer to recognize that the story of Chanukah is at odds with the practices of all non-Orthodox Jews, as well as those, like myself, who have chosen to leave the faith entirely. Some contemporary Jewish writers, such as Newsweek’s Senior Editor-at-Large Josh Hammer, have reveled in this connection. Hammer appalling writes,
there are two options for American Jews: (1) Be a Maccabee and defiantly tell the world that, against all the odds, we are still here and that our nationhood will never be extinguished; or (2) be a Hellenized Jew and a fifth column… The destruction of the Jewish people would… never come from “abroad,” but only from within. And such a destruction could only transpire if the Maccabees relent to the tyranny of the Hellenizers.
But perhaps some readers are chafing, “Sure the Maccabees had some problems, but why talk about this now while the Jewish state is fighting a very different war?”
Because to many Jews—including those in Israel’s current government—the true story of the Maccabees is not some forgotten relic of the past, but an openly discussed guide for how to act in the present.
Those not following Israeli politics before October 7th may be unaware that Netanyahu barely squeaked into power in Israel’s last election in 2022. It was the fifth election in four years, and no party managed to form a stable majority coalition after the prior four, as is required by Israel’s parliamentary system. For Netanyahu’s Likud party to build a governing coalition, rather than compromise with his opposition, he aided the furthest-right parties in Israel with their electoral strategy, which saw a surge in support, and invited their leaders into his government.
By “far-right” I don’t mean “anti-government extremists” or whatever else the American Left wants to label far-right, but radical Jewish identitarians—radical even within the already identitarian context inherent to Zionism. One journalist who writes for The Times of London, The Jewish Chronicle, and The Jewish Star, defended the three most famous of Netanyahu’s far-right appointees, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, and Avi Moaz, by comparing them to the Maccabees. She wrote,
the people they most resemble are the Maccabees. They were Jewish religious zealots who fought the Hellenised Jews because the Hellenisers were adopting Greek universalist precepts and, as a result, taking a wrecking ball to Jewish practices such as circumcision and Shabbat observance. But the Maccabees fought and defeated the Jews’ Greek oppressors. While being rightly excoriated for violent extremism, the heroes of the Chanukah story saved the Jewish people from tyranny. It may be that today’s Maccabean Three are channelling Jewish history once again.
The Maccabees were not apostles of peace. … The Maccabees regarded those overly-assimilated Jews as traitors to Judaism and dealt with them accordingly. … Ring any bells? Today, many diaspora Jews (and liberal Israelis) are hyper-ventilating over the likely inclusion in the new Israeli government of three men whose agenda has distinct echoes of the Maccabees.
Avi Moaz, whom Netanyahu had promised to put in charge of school curriculum and a new office of “Jewish identity” (Moaz has since resigned claiming Netanyahu reneged on this promise), has made this comparison himself. Last Chanukah after singing a song named “We Came to Expel the Darkness,” Moaz stated, “We celebrate the victory that the Creator brought about through the heroism of the Maccabees against the Greeks and their collaborators, the Hellenists.” Moaz continued by using the story to attack “liberal” Reform Jews, a non-Orthodox religious movement, saying “The spirit that the Greeks and the Hellenists tried to instill in the Jewish people is the real darkness… Anyone who tries to harm real Judaism is the darkness… Anyone who tries to create a new so-called liberal religion is the darkness.”
Moaz’s political vision involves returning Israel to a theocracy that puts Jewish law “above all,” arguing that “the state’s Judaism must be apparent in every corner of its life,” and recognizing this will require “purging, cleansing, and toppling.”
Bezalel Smotrich, the administration’s Minister of Finance, has similarly called to “restore the Torah justice system” and for Israel to “go back to conducting itself the way it did in the days of King David.” Smotrich has said that all Arabs—not even limiting himself to Palestinians—are “my enemies,” and that he wants to keep Israeli Jews separated from their Arab neighbors to such an extreme extent that he would even segregate hospital maternity wards, arguing “it’s natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie down next to a woman who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby twenty years from now.” Smotrich believes that “someone who wants to protect the Jewish People and oppose mixed marriages is not a racist. Someone [who] wants to let Jews live a Jewish life without non-Jews is not a racist.”
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the administration’s Minister of National Security, is the head of the “Jewish Power” (Otzma Yehudit) party. Ben-Gvir is a proponent of “Kahanism,” the philosophy of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahanism too calls for Israel to be governed according to Jewish law, and openly advocates for Jewish Supremacy. Kahane believed that any Jew who engages in sexual relations with a person of a different religion should be imprisoned. Ben-Gvir attended a memorial celebration of Kahane while serving in the current government, and Otzma Yehudit is the direct ideological successor to Kahane's party, Kach. Kach fell apart after being declared a terrorist organization by both the Israeli and U.S. governments in 1994, following the mass shooting of praying Muslims by party member Baruch Goldstein. Ben-Gvir kept a picture of Goldstein hanging on his wall as recently as 2020. Ben-Gvir also serves in the leadership of another contemporary Kahanist group, Lehava, which in Hebrew is an acronym for “Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land.”
Lehava opposes Jewish assimilation into any outside culture, which has led it to call for a ban on Christmas celebrations in Israel. Lehava founder Bentzi Gopstein has supported burning Christian churches in Israel, explaining that in his view Christians are “vampires” and that “if Jews cannot be killed, they can be converted. We must remove the vampires before they drink our blood once again.”
And all this without even mentioning their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is as draconian as you’d expect. Getting into the details of their support for a one-state solution featuring varying degrees of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians wouldn’t be germane to a discussion about Jewish theocratic zealots enforcing conformity upon other Jews who wish to live differently, but what is germane is the harm they’re willing to cause to anyone of their tribe who would get in their way.
Ben-Gvir first came to prominence as a Kahanist activist in the 90s when he ripped the Cadillac Insignia off of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car, who was negotiating the historic Oslo Accords. Ben-Gvir said into a news camera “We got the car, we’ll get to Rabin too.” Rabin was indeed assassinated by a Jewish radical within weeks.
Smotrich, whose ministry entrusts him with a large role in administrating the occupied West Bank, has called for a “Jewish State from the river to the sea… not open to discussion or negotiation” (sounds awfully familiar). In his efforts to make the peace process fail, Smotrich has lobbied for his followers to understand that “the Palestinian Authority is a burden, and Hamas is an asset… It’s a terrorist organization, no one will recognize it, no one will give it status at the [International Criminal Court], no one will let it put forth a resolution at the U.N. Security Council.” While Smotrich survives, liberal Jewish peacemakers were killed in the blowback that his tactics brought on October 7th.
Unfortunately, the strategy to leverage Hamas as a reason to avoid making peace with the Palestinian Authority is not limited to Smotrich and his particularly edgy band of theocrats; it’s the stated policy of Netanyahu himself. Netanyahu, a career-long supporter of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, told members of his Likud party in 2019 that, “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas… This is part of our strategy – to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.” But Israeli leadership’s cynical strategic use of Islamists as a bulwark against more moderate Palestinian groups did not begin with Netanyahu, but decades prior; Israeli officials have bemoaned that “Hamas… is Israel’s creation.”
Go back in time through the history of Zionism and you will find example after example where the goals of a narrow Jewish nationalist vision came at the expense of Jewish people around the world.
During the collapse of the USSR, when many Soviet Jews wanted to emigrate to the United States, then Likud Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir lobbied the George H.W. Bush administration not to admit Jews as refugees so they’d be forced to settle in Israel instead. Shamir deemed past Soviet Jews’ decision to emigrate to the U.S. as an act of “defection.”
Decades prior in the pre-Israel British Mandate of Palestine, Shamir was a commander in the Jewish terrorist group Lehi. Lehi’s founder Avraham Stern met with the Nazis during WWII and offered “to actively take part in the war on Germany’s side” in exchange for the Nazis sending Europe’s Jews to Palestine. From the beginning of the Nazi’s rise, many Zionists saw Hitler’s doctrine as advantageous since it could help boost Jewish immigration to Palestine. These Zionists invited Nazi Party officials to visit Zionist settlements, which the Nazis did.
Looking even further back, in 1903 the British offered the World Zionist Congress territory in Uganda where they could establish a nation for Jews to emigrate to escape Eastern European pogroms. However, the Zionist Congress rejected the offer out of an attachment to Palestine, leading a minority of Zionists led by Israel Zangwill (who I wrote about previously in The Black Sheep) to depart the movement and form a competing organization named the Jewish Territorial Organization which sought to create a state anywhere it could to quickly provide safety to persecuted Jews. But the mainstream Zionist movement’s competing efforts hindered theirs and the Territorial Organization fell apart in 1925 before it could create a refuge from the coming Holocaust.
When you hear voices in the United States declare that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” including Congress (who in their endless efforts to increase government power have apparently decided to nationalize dictionary services), consider all of the stories above and ask whose interests that statement is serving. Are they most concerned with preserving Jewish individuals, or preserving the Jewish collective?
Israel is not going away anytime soon. Whatever their past misdeeds, the Zionist’s biggest goal has already been achieved, and we live in a reality in which millions of Jews were born in Israel and deserve their right to life and safety as much as anyone else, including Palestinians. To be clear, regardless of Netanyahu’s role in bolstering Hamas, they have a right to defend themselves when attacks like October 7th happen.
But things didn’t have to be this way. It’s time to stop the multi-millennia-long destructive cycle that enforced Jewish identitarianism has caused.
Jewish assimilation into surrounding cultures has a long history. The Hellenistic Jews of Hasmonean Judea may have been slaughtered, but the same instinct that arose in them to pursue their own happiness over their group membership has arisen again and again. This instinct is written about in an almost exclusively negative manner by Jewish writers, who have described it as a “silent holocaust.” I remember being taught as a teenager in Jewish school that German Jews believed they had integrated into Germany in the early 20th century, but the Nazi’s racialist policies and the Holocaust proved that assimilation was and always would be a failure. They were always seen as Jews, and we would always be seen as Jews too.
This was a selective telling of history, little different from the Hasmoneans’ biased texts documenting their own time’s assimilationists. If you need proof that Jewish assimilation has a successful track record, just look at all the people who take DNA tests and discover their Jewish ancestry. Now ask yourself who exactly that Jewish ancestor was and what they did. It’s estimated that there are 200 million living descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews alone, including almost 25% of all Latinos and Hispanics. Compare that to the estimated 16.2 million people still identifying as Jews today.
Those who want to assimilate into the mainstream society of their time don’t tend to write long diatribes about it, they just do it. I am uncommon in that respect. It’s also the case that assimilated populations have little cause to keep texts circulating for generations about why assimilation is the right way. Meanwhile, those who oppose assimilation very much have cause to keep their argumentation alive.
This Chanukah, if you are Jewish, I hope you will take all this history into account. To their credit, many contemporary Jews have tried to redefine their practice of Chanukah away from the truth of the holiday’s past. But it’s difficult to credibly separate that past from Judaism’s broader tribe-preserving mission. And if one is to distance themselves from a holiday’s core values, why celebrate it at all?
Ayn Rand, a noted ex-Jewish atheist, wrote of Christmas,
The secular meaning of the Christmas holiday is wider than the tenets of any particular religion: it is good will toward men … The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas”—not “Weep and Repent.” And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form—by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance. … One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.
The moral philosophy of Rand’s Objectivism encourages individuals to live in that “benevolent, non-sacrificial way.” As you consider the celebration of Chanukah, also consider what it’s asking of you. Think about what sacrifice it wants you to make, and who—or what—that sacrifice is benefitting. Or if it’s benefiting anything at all after over 2,000 years of Jews living in diaspora from an Iron Age theocracy with the political goals of its priestly class.
If you like the Christmas traditions of benevolence and cheer, if you like the idea of taking part in something positive shared by millions of your countrymen, it’s here for you. There’s no need to separate yourself simply for the sake of remaining separate. You can bring your latkes and sufganiyot if you’d like.
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