Hanukkah’s lesson about antisemitism on the Left
There’s a popular joke that every Jewish holiday can be summed up as “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” It’s an aphorism that’s especially apt for the two rabbinic holidays on the Jewish calendar, Purim and Hanukkah, which we’re currently celebrating. In the Purim story, Haman wished to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire, and was foiled by a miraculous turn of events. Similarly, in the story of Hanukkah, the king of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ordered the Jews to abandon their faith for Hellenistic ideals, but the Maccabees mounted a successful revolt and restored traditional religious practices to Judea.
These two holidays also represent two different kinds of antisemitism. While both stories involve the draconian decrees of antisemitic leaders against their Jewish subjects, there is a notable difference in their methods: Haman was not interested in the Jews abandoning their faith; his hatred was directed at the Jews as a people. By contrast, Antiochus offered the Jews a way out: Hellenize — in other words, be like us — and we will accept you; otherwise, face death.
And these two forms of antisemitism have served as a template for antisemitism throughout the ages. Haman’s ideological progeny were men like Bogdan Chmelnizki and Adolph Hitler, who wished to kill all Jews regardless of their beliefs. By contrast, Antiochus’s ideological progeny were the Spanish Inquisition and others who forced Jews to choose between their faith and death, people who predicated their hatred for Jews on Jewish beliefs, rather than on the Jews themselves.
Thankfully, in today’s western world, the notion that it’s okay to kill those who are not like you or who do not think like you is considered reprehensible. Likewise, the idea that it’s okay to exclude someone or discriminate against them for being different is condemned. But for some reason, to exclude those who think differently is increasingly legitimized by too many on the far Left. Such ideological purity requirements are all too often applied to Jews, resulting in an antisemitism that is comparable to the outright rejection of Jews.
Take Zionism. For the overwhelming majority of American Jews, Zionism is not merely a political ideology but an expression of their religious identity. And yet, for many on the far Left, extreme liberal values must replace certain Jewish values for Jews to be accepted in their spaces. Jews are all too often faced with an ultimatum: Renounce your traditions relating to your people’s history and your connection to the Land of Israel, or risk exclusion from spaces representing other causes you believe in.
While anti-Zionism might not necessarily equal antisemitism, the move of forcing Jews to renunciate a part of themselves is all too familiar to us from our tradition. And it happens all too often. Jewish students are increasingly being told they cannot be considered allies to minorities and other marginalized groups or be a part of progressive and social justice groups because they support for Israel. Examples are legion of the systematic exclusion of Jews from left-wing spaces because Jews are essentially “white European colonial victimizers” who, in a shocking twist of irony, cannot possibly fathom what being a victim could be like.
The delegitimization of any form of dissent by the far Left is not only hypocritical and bad for our national discourse; in the most extreme cases, it is also racist and antisemitic. The far Left has created an environment which fosters a double standard when it comes to antisemitism: Haman’s antisemitism is correctly deemed reprehensible, but the antisemitism of Antiochus is legitimized.
Sadly, there are a small minority of Jews who have adopted this modern form of Hellenism. These Jews not only give a platform to people like Marc Lamont Hill and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, both of whom have shared Hamas’s genocidal call to free Palestine “From the River to the Sea;” they give them a platform to discuss antisemitism, no less. And just as Antiochus could have pointed to Hellenized Jews as “proof” he was not antisemitic, these figures can point to anti-Zionist Jews like Jewish Voice for Peace to justify their views.
These individuals have no obligation to subscribe to Zionism. Nevertheless, to delegitimize the right of Jews to identify as Zionists is no less antisemitic than Antiochus denying Jews the right to believe in Judaism.
One can attempt to distinguish the actions of some on the far Left from the blatant, Hamanesque antisemitism of some on the far Right, but at the end of the day, both are equally wrong in their demand that Jews sacrifice what makes us Jews in order to join, survive, and thrive.
Benyamin Moalem is a former foreign law clerk to the deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel and a Chicago-based attorney.