Every Jewish child learns the same Hanukkah story that I learned long
ago. When the land of Judah was occupied by a foreign emperor and
his army, a tiny band of courageous freedom-fighters resisted.
Though far outnumbered by the tyrant’s armies, they won a miraculous
victory for national liberation.
As we light the candles in 2001, this story is irrelevant and
dangerous. It is time to find a new story for Hanukkah.
The old story assumes that, in every contest, the Jews are the weak and
vulnerable side. With its half a dozen victorious wars, Israel has
made this premise, and thus the whole story, irrelevant. If anyone
had any doubts, the events of recent months have proven that the idea of
the Jews as a tiny, beleaguered minority no longer holds true.
Israel now plays with the Palestinians the way a cat plays with a
cornered mouse. Beyond the dead and wounded (the ratio of
Palestinian to Israeli wounded in the last 14 months is about 30 to 1),
beyond the humiliations that every Palestinian has endured, there is the
constant uncertainty. When Palestinians are free to live their
daily lives with no Israeli checkpoints or tanks at the street corners,
they know that it is merely by Israel’s good graces.
Even the slightest joys of ordinary life cannot be taken for
granted. The occupier can bring back the troops and tanks at any
moment. Everything is at the whim of the young menmany still really
boyswho wear the Star of David and carry the guns.
The most public uncertainty and humiliation falls to the man who is the
ultimate mouse in the corner: Yassir Arafat. Unless he
prevents every single Palestinian from harming a single Israelian
obviously impossible taskhe is branded a supporter of terrorism.
When he makes efforts to stop the violence, imposing the police state
tactics that the Israelis demand, it naturally stirs resentment among
many Palestinian. Hamas and other groups opposed to Arafat get a
big political boost. Some pollsters claim those groups already are
more popular than Arafat. The outcome in the West Bank and Gaza is
But the outcome in Israel is perfectly predictable. No matter how
much Arafat dances to the Israeli tune, Sharon will condemn it as
insufficient (and the Bush administration will not demur).
Nothing Arafat can do will get him out of Israel’s clutches.
In the Israeli newspapers, some commentators explain that this was
Sharon’s plan from the day he became prime minister. Keep Arafat
twisting and turning. No matter which way he turns, squeeze him
until he bleeds, politically, so badly that he loses effective
control. But make him weaken Hamas so that it cannot get control
either. Keep all Palestinian leaders so feeble that none can lead
effective resistance to Israel’s occupation.
For decades, Israeli policy has been guided by the principle of keeping
the opposition divided. There are many credible reports that Israel
built up Hamas precisely to divide the Palestinians politically.
Now, no matter which way the Palestinians turn politically, they will be
condemned and attacked by Israel. The cat will simply play with the
mouseuntil the mouse rolls over and abandons itself to permanent
But most Jews cannot see the true power relationship. They repeat
the old Hanukkah story, insisting that they are still the vulnerable
mouse and the Palestinians the predatory cat. To most Jews (and
many non-Jewish Americans) the tactics of the Sharon government look like
just another Hanukkah: a tiny people bravely fighting back against
unjust efforts to dominate them. In that light, the continuing
occupation, the growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and
the tanks and gunship helicopters all seem morally justified.
The old Hanukkah story is dangerous, because it helps Israel perpetuate
an occupation that, anywhere else, would be branded a moral
outrage. The old story is dangerous because the longer the
occupation continues, the longer Israelis as well as Palestinians will
suffer and die. If this cat-and-mouse game is, in fact, Sharon’s
plan, he is sacrificing his own people to his political goals:
keeping Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory and preventing a
genuinely independent, fully sovereign Palestinian state.
If we want to help Israelis and Palestinians achieve lasting security, we
can tell a new story as we light the candles this Hanukkah. We can
tell a story about what happens whenever foreigners try to dominate
someone else’s land.
In this story, the lesson is that resistance to occupation always
triumphs in the end. The occupying army was wasting its time.
All the bloodshed was in vain. The occupiers would have been far
wiser to withdraw gracefully. It was just common sense. They
could have saved so many lives on both sides. Because the
freedom-fighters would not give up, no matter how long the battle went
The word hanukkah means “a new dedication.” This year, how
about a new dedication, if not to peace with justice, than at least to
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. firstname.lastname@example.org