Goy to the World: What Does Hanukkah Have to Teach Us About Living in Empire?

Hanukkah is not my holiday, at least by religious affiliation, but every year I find it more relevant. With a war in Iraq grinding on, another war in Afghanistan gearing up, and a war with Iran, Korea, or the Idaho panhandle always an option, the holiday’s anti-imperial theme can be unsettling to say the least. Celebrating Hanukkah as an American Jew must feel a bit like celebrating Guy Fawkes Night as an English Jesuit: Putting yourself in the story hardly puts you at ease.

Christmas has some of the same anti-imperial subtext—Julian the Apostate’s sad one-liner, “Pale Galilean, Thou Hast Conquered [the Roman Empire],” could work as a verse in “Silent Night”—but the message has a tough time getting through when Christmas itself has become so imperial. The pale Galilean may hold court in his manger, but Constantine reigns on Fifth Avenue and on the sound system of every Starbucks from one end of Broadway to the next.

In contrast Hanukkah remains embattled, easy to slight, foolish to ignore—not unlike the Maccabee rebels it commemorates. To keep the holiday in a Christian culture is inevitably to relive its history. To honor it in a nation at war with Muslim societies abroad is ironic in the extreme. The Festival of Lights compels an American to reckon with his or her imperial inheritance, not only during the season that ends the year but also in those resolutions customarily formed at the start of a new one.

Hanukkah also compels us to ask how a conquering nation reckons with recalcitrant peoples—be they Judeans, Palestinians, or Shiites—who fail to appreciate the self-evident superiority of the cultures imposed on them for their own good. In the days when I preached from a pulpit, I used to say that you couldn’t get the Parable of the Prodigal Son until you were able to identify with his older brother. Here I’ll say that you can’t get Hanukkah until you understand what many Americans find so difficult to understand: that the “good guys” in every story are not necessarily “our guys.”

Yes, Hanukkah is often billed as a celebration of religious freedom and resistance to oppression; all true enough, all in the ballpark of what we like to call American values. The Maccabees revolt against their Seleucid overlords, the heirs of Alexander the Great, in order to preserve their traditional way of life. Just like the farmers of Lexington and Concord firing on the Redcoats, no?

Not exactly. The revolt of the Maccabees was also a movement of “reactionary” Jews against the program of the Hellenizing elite, who hoped to bring their more “backward” brethren in line with the global agenda of the day. Had Thomas Friedman lived in 165 BCE, instead of saying “The world is flat,” he would have said, “The world is Greek.”

Which it was, more or less, though the Seleucid rulers and their Judean collaborators made the point with a vengeance. They forced traditional Jews to eat pork under pain of death; mothers who insisted on the “barbaric” practice of circumcision were punished by having their infant sons hung dead around their necks. (Today they would have been forced to remove their headscarves in airports; their incarcerated husbands would have been capped with women’s underwear or smeared with fake menstrual blood.) Tales of torture figure prominently in the books of the Maccabees. Eventually the diehards rose up and fought one of history’s first guerrilla wars, but from our post-9/11 perspective, the Maccabees can look more like Taliban or Hezbollah than Zapatistas. Just as—to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq—we may look more like Seleucids than saviors.

No surprise there, since we may look like Seleucids even to ourselves. To be part of an empire and to admit as much invites any number of discomfiting questions. If it is dishonest to deny the fact, is it naive not to accept the reality and make the best of it? Might an empire be a force for good? Or is “force for good” an oxymoron? If so, why? And even so, how does a Roman manage, in practical terms, to say no to Rome?

My distant neighbor Thomas Naylor, a former Duke economics professor and more recently the founder of a grassroots movement called “The Second Vermont Republic,” advocates regional secession as a way of diminishing the American empire. In his view there is no reforming of the corrupted Republic, only the possibility of breakaway republics.

Grateful as I am that he raises the issue and uses the word (empire, I mean), his faith exceeds mine on two key points. First, I doubt the ability of a member state to extricate itself from an empire simply by achieving nominal political independence. In the same way, I question the ability of a person to extricate herself from a carbon-based civilization simply by purchasing “offsets.”

Second, I doubt the desirability of living in a republic ruled by forward-thinking Vermonters, a prospect I find only a little less frightening than that of living under Beelzebub himself. If Vermont secedes, I’ll revolt. (In this regard, it’s interesting to note that Alexander the Great was tolerant and even admiring of his Jewish subjects; it was only when his empire broke up into petty states that the persecutions suffered by the Maccabees emerged. Small is not always beautiful.) But, if one favors neither empire nor secession, then what?

And how should we interpret a phrase like “the people of Afghanistan and Iraq” in one of my statements above? Which people? If an American occupying force is not viewed with favor by the people of Afghanistan, is a federation of local warlords? Does a girl whose face has been disfigured by a fanatic’s acid worry as much as I do about the dangers of American imperialism?

That said, if a “good friend of America” oppressed its women and girls, would we send troops in their defense? For that matter, if a bad friend of America with no strategic importance oppressed its women and girls, would we send troops in their defense? Okay, if a very cool American celebrity oppressed a woman or a girl, would we stop buying his music in her defense? Last try: Do I or do I not listen to Miles Davis about once a week? Women and girls, is it?

No holiday can answer all these questions. But Hanukkah does offer some insights, useful even to those who share none of its religious underpinnings. As much as it is about the right of religious freedom, Hanukkah is also about the possibility of rededication. According to the old story, even after the oil runs out, the relit menorah still burns in the temple that the Seleucids had defiled.

Dismantling imperial America would require a realization of the extent to which American democracy has been subordinated to so-called American interests, as defined by the moneyed interests now squatting in the civic temple. It would require a radical rededication to the rule of law and to the principle of human solidarity, according to which 3,000 Afghans killed as collateral damage weigh no less heavily than 3,000 Americans killed on September 11th.

What would be the result of such a rededication if not a foreign policy that looked more like a candelabrum than a conquistador’s torch? Still, the Maccabees had to rise up before the menorah could be lit. Whatever forms it takes, the imperial always calls forth the imperative: resist.

That is what the Afghans are doing, what they have always done, and what they will no doubt continue to do as long as the country has rocks. So much for statements based on history. Those based on religion usually start here: What must I do?

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