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Jewish Journal

Chanukah— the pink elephant of Annapolis

by Judea Pearl

December 20, 2007 | 7:00 pm


I spent the last week of November in Israel and watched the Annapolis show unfold through the lens of Israeli TV. As expected, everyone in Israel watched that show with both nervous curiosity and cynical dismissal.

But the event that truly captured the public imagination and managed to elevate people's spirit above the mundane was one that occurred 200 miles away from Annapolis, in a place called Lake Success, and it took place 60 years ago, Nov. 29, 1947.

This year, Israel celebrated with royal fanfare the historical U.N. partition vote that paved the way for her creation. Ambassadors of the 33 countries that voted in favor of the 1947 partition were invited to a widely televised event in Rishon LeTzion, as were family members of the U.N. ambassadors from those nations, and the country immersed itself in a sober, yet inspiring historic reflection of its past, present and future.

As one who was privileged to personally experience the outburst of joy that seized world Jewry on Nov. 29, 1947, I was somewhat dismayed to discover, upon returning to Los Angeles last week, that this event passed virtually unnoticed in our community, including in the pages of this paper. Laboring to understand, I realized that another historical event, perhaps of no less impact, was also forgotten by the pages of this Journal -- the Balfour declaration, whose 90-year anniversary fell on Nov. 2, 2007.

World Jewry, so I concluded, must be splitting before our own eyes into two camps, the history-minded and the history-mindless, and for some strange reason the former tends to concentrate in Israel, the latter in the United States. Thank God, I consoled myself, that we still have Chanukah to unite us -- how forward-thinking it was for those rabbis who canonized a chunk of Jewish history as a religious holiday, and thus protected it from our collective amnesia.

But upon reading the Journal's Holiday issue (Nov. 30) I realized that Chanukah, too, was splitting before our eyes, and while Israelis were singing in one voice, "We fought the Greeks and the victory is ours," and their kindergartens were re-enacting the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty, American Jews were agonizing over Christopher Hitchens' discovery that the Maccabees were a gang of Jewish Taliban. One essay even suggested that Chanukah should be cleansed from its historical contaminants and focus on the spiritual, the miracle, the Temple, the candles, the latkes, the dreidel, anything but history, anything but freedom and sovereignty.

Indeed, history is ugly and dreidels are beautiful.

Continuing this sterilization of the Jewish experience one can further argue that the notion of Jewish sovereignty, because it risks violence, civil wars and other public embarrassments, is foreign to the Jewish spirit, so, the only true carriers of "Judaism's spiritual values" are Neturai Karta and Noam Chomsky's followers, for they are the only Jews who openly object to the ugly notion of a Jewish State. All the rest of us, historical Jews, having been praying for 2,000 years for regaining sovereignty in the birthplace of our history, are not really truthful to those immaculately conceived "Judaism's spiritual values."

I, for one, do not buy this sterile notion of Jewishness and of Chanukah. True, history itself can be ugly, but historical narratives and holidays are defined not by their embryonic origins, but by what they mean and how they motivate people in this day and age.

Regardless of whether Chanukah started as a war of liberation against the Greeks, a war of zeal against the assimilated or a supernatural miracle in the Temple, the meaning of Chanukah lies in the new consciousness created when H.N. Bialik wrote (after the Kishinev pogrom in 1903) "Are these the sons of the Maccabees?" It came in the energies inspired when the pre-1948 Zionist pioneers sang:

"A miracle did not happen to us;

We have not found a vessel of oil;

We carved the rock till we bled;

And there was light!"

And it comes, of course, in the spirit of family warmth and people-hood that we Jews feel today when we light the candles and tell our children about that mischievous oil vessel.

Two weeks ago, my wife Ruth and I were invited to the White House, where President Bush used our family menorah to usher in the holiday. I was relieved to discover that President Bush had no problem whatsoever explaining to fellow Americans what the meaning of Chanukah is all about.

"During Chanukah," he said, "we remember an ancient struggle for freedom."

Plain and simple, free of Jewish hang-ups. He then narrated the story of the Maccabees: "A band of brothers came together to fight this oppression. And against incredible odds, they liberated the capital city of Jerusalem."

Again, Bush talked as if fighting oppression and liberating one's capital is as natural as American apple pie and, more importantly, he took it as self-evident that people who call themselves "a people" would find pride and inspiration in celebrating pivotal events from their collective past; in other words, he took it as self-evident that Judaism and Jewish history and Jewish nationhood are inextricable.

This brings me back to the Annapolis Summit meeting. As President Bush was recounting the story of the Maccabees' struggle for freedom and self-determination, his words rang as faithful reminders of one delicate issue that was conspicuously missing from the Annapolis agenda, but which nevertheless continues to hold the key to any progress toward a two-state solution: Arabs denial of the indigenous historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of the Maccabees.

This historical connection, bluntly denied by Iranian President Ahmadinejad, adamantly refuted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, uniformly ridiculed by Arab intellectuals, meticulously purged from textbooks in the entire Muslim world, deceptively minimized by anti-coexistence professors in the West and skillfully avoided by post-Zionist Jewish writers in America, more than any other point of contention, has the power of unleashing the confidence-building energy that the "peace process" requires to gain traction.

That is why I see Chanukah as the pink elephant of Annapolis. The obvious historical connection of Jews to the Holy Land, so clearly symbolized by Chanukah and the president's Chanukah speech, was hush-hushed in Annapolis -- while everyone knew that only by agreeing on this connection can the post-Annapolis process move toward a compromised two-state solution.

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