Throughout the recent explosion of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric all around the world, the Jewish people have felt particularly vulnerable, isolated and hurt. Everyone of significance, it seemed, was against us. Countless politicians, UN delegates, celebrities, business magnates, academicians and many others lined up to censure Israel for its many grave injustices and alleged crimes against humanity. Even the American president, the leader of a great nation, would not come forward with the type of clarity and strength that the Jewish state so desperately wanted to hear. (Who can forget President Barack Obama’s half-hearted comments following the Har Nof massacre, as if both sides were equally responsible for the latest outbreak of barbarism and bloodshed?)
Yet, I suspect that the individuals whose anti-Israel stance bothers the Jewish people most are not those listed above. They are people like Gerald Kaufman, a British Labour Party politician who continually lambasts Israel for its Nazi-like (!) treatment of the Palestinian people, or Jon Stewart, the popular political comedian who routinely blasts Israel for its harsh policies (to the point where even Hillary Clinton had to rush to its defense).
Such people, we say, are “self-hating Jews,” individuals who are deeply conflicted by and largely troubled with their Jewish identity. They are not at peace with themselves as members of the Abrahamic progeny and seek to unshackle their burdens of Jewish lineage by acting in a manner that is hurtful to their brethren.
Leaving aside the terminology for now, it is clear that “self-hating” Jews like these have existed throughout our nation’s history. Whether they attempted to mislead their brethren with false ideologies and a new moral standard or simply looked to ingratiate themselves with their antagonistic overlords by acting as informers and offering up their brethren instead, these Jews have been a collective thorn in our side for millennia.
One historical chapter captures this tension particularly well. It is the period that witnessed the Hanukka miracle. Among the Jewish ranks at that time were Hellenists, people who were enamored with Hellenistic (Greek) culture and ideology and sought to integrate such thinking and practice throughout the Jewish homeland. Things came to a head in 174 BCE, when the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV accepted a sizable bribe from Jason, the Hellenized brother of the high priest Onias III, and proclaimed him the new high priest in Judah.
Jason’s ultimate intention was to convert Jerusalem into a Greek polis, to be named Antioch. This required that Greek political and cultural institutions be introduced into the city. He had a gymnasium erected near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, within direct sight of the Temple itself. This gymnasium would serve as a center of Hellenistic education and athletics, where nudity and immoral behavior was the norm. Pagan statues and altars were present as well; sacrifices were offered to Greek gods prior to the commencement of sporting events.
These changes attracted many Jews, particularly Jewish youth. Many priests were also influenced by this new culture, neglecting their sacrificial duties in favor of these new centers of diversion.
Jason had no intention of financing his position from his own personal funds. Taxes were collected at an even higher rate to help pay for the high costs of Hellenization, not to mention the king’s military campaigns. Jason and other Hellenists thus became identified not only with their political and cultural changes, but for increased taxation as well.
In an almost humorous twist, certain Hellenists accused Jason of not taking his reforms far enough. Three years after replacing Onias, in 171 BCE, he would also be removed from office. Menelaus, a non-priest, offered an even larger bribe to Antiochus, and had himself appointed as the new high priest. In order to pay the enormous sum, he and his brother Lysimachus robbed the Temple and sold off many of its golden vessels. Onias was murdered when he protested this greedy behavior. Scores of Jews were killed in Jerusalem when Lysimachus and his soldiers, fearing an anticipated revolt, fell upon the people. Lysimachus died in battle, but Menelaus was able to maintain his standing, which he used to further Hellenize the Jewish people.
The “self hatred” demonstrated by Jason, Menelaus and their Hellenistic ilk was not personal self-loathing. Rather, their hatred was directed at their religious brethren, who they felt an obligation to enlighten regarding the ways of Greek thought, mannerisms and practice.
In some basic ways they succeeded, at least at first. There is no question that Antiochus was bent on promoting increased Hellenization among his Jewish citizens. However, he never would have attempted such a sweeping and torturous campaign against the Jewish religion on his own initiative. Only after witnessing the strong assimilatory interests of Jason and his cohorts did he shift his Hellenizing efforts into high gear.
The reason that we celebrate Hanukka is because a small band of fiercely loyal, committed and satisfied Jews rose up in opposition to the Hellenists and the Seleucid occupiers. Though small in number, they understood that they must engage in a winner-takes-all battle for the preservation of their Torah and its eternal values.
Self-hatred speaks to an inner dissatisfaction with one’s nation and its values. Combating such thinking and action requires self-affection, a deep sense of appreciation for one’s calling, purpose and uniqueness. It demands a connection that is so fundamental that one would be willing to give his life for it. In the end, it was this commitment that carried the day and delivered “the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah” (from the “Al Hanisim” prayer).
This Hanukka let us remember that our success in combating self-hatred and anti-Semitism has never emerged from our ability to win the political battles or convince others to our way of thinking. Rather, we are at our best when we hunker down and reaffirm our own commitment to the identity, beliefs and values that we cherish and would give everything to maintain. Let us hope that at this time of great national celebration and joy that the true light of truth and freedom will shine brightly throughout the world in a way that even our greatest enemies will be forced to acknowledge it.