Tuesday marks the first of the eight nights of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that recounts the Talmudic story of the Maccabees' victory over the armies of King Antiochus IV. Under Antiochus' rule, the Israelites had been forced to worship idols, and their holy temple was desecrated.
When the Maccabees finally achieved victory, they rededicated the defiled temple and lit the sacred eternal flame. As the story goes, there was only enough oil for one night, but miraculously, the oil stayed lit for eight. During Hanukkah, Jews light the menorah for eight nights to remember this miracle and the Israelites' triumph over oppression.
This story has long been an inspiration to Jews as a parable of the "few against the many," of illumination over darkness. Sadly, as we begin our celebration of Hanukkah, we are faced with a glaring irony in Israel and Palestine: While we rejoice in the Festival of Lights, Israel continues to threaten to literally shut the lights out in Gaza.
Although Israel supposedly disengaged from Gaza more than two years ago, its 1.5 million residents have been under a near total siege since June 2007. Gaza's borders -- land, air and sea -- are controlled by Israel. All major entry and exit points have been sealed, making it almost impossible for residents to work. Access to vaccines, dairy products, fresh foods and clean water have been severely limited since June 2006, when Israel shelled Gaza's main electric power generator.
In September of this year, the humanitarian crisis deepened when the Israeli Cabinet authorized further cuts of fuel and electricity. Israel justified this move by saying it was a response to Qassam rockets fired into Israel by militants in Gaza. But Israel's actions amount to collective punishment of civilians -- a violation of international law.
In just the past four months, 10 Gazans have died as a direct result of being denied medical attention, a basic human right. As one young Palestinian mother, Laila el-Haddad, wrote in her blog: "We are prisoners constantly waiting and helplessly hoping for decisions to be made that determine whether (we) live or die -- both figuratively and literally."
The situation in the West Bank is not much better. Residents there are subject to daily humiliations at hundreds of checkpoints throughout their territory. In addition, Israel continues to build the Separation Wall, which cuts Palestinians off from each other. It also continues to expand settlements on expropriated Palestinian land, despite the supposed freeze on such activity. In September, Israel took over a five-square-mile area in the West Bank, east of Jerusalem, where it plans to build 3,500 houses, a hotel and an industrial park.
The lessons of Hanukkah seem forgotten by Israel as it has taken on the mantle of the oppressor.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Jews of conscience must speak out against human rights abuses committed by Israel in our name. As American citizens who end up funding the Israeli occupation through our taxes, we also are obligated to speak up and act. There are a number of ways to directly help people in Palestine. One can donate to organizations that provide humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, such as Middle East Children's Alliance, or join local groups like Madison Friends of Jewish Voice for Peace or the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project.
Through these groups you can buy Palestinian olive oil and crafts and find out about lectures, films and related events.
Each night of Hanukkah, Jews light one more candle, gradually illuminating our homes with a brighter and brighter flame. Let this inspire us to shed light upon the plight of the Palestinians.
Tsela Barr, Judith Laitman and Haley Michaels Pollack are members of Madison Friends of Jewish Voice for Peace.
© 2007 Capital Newspapers