Politics & Policy

President Obama’s Two Hanukkah Messages

(Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
He misunderstands the particular meaning that the holiday has for the Jewish people.

President Obama blessed the Jewish people with two Hanukkah messages this year: one in a statement in advance of his annual Hanukkah party on Friday, and one at the United Nations.

At the U.N., Obama abstained, leaving Israel to be denounced. This vote and its implications have been amply analyzed. The president’s official Hanukkah message and its implications, however, have flown under the radar. He mentioned the “Jewish people’s perseverance and the persistence of faith,” but the heart of his message was about religious liberty. “For more than two centuries,” the statement reads,

the meaning of this holiday has inspired an American tradition of religious freedom — one codified in the Bill of Rights and chronicled in the enduring promise President George Washington made in his letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island: that the United State “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

If that signals a renewed commitment from the president to preserve religious freedom, it should be lauded. This is, after all, the administration that fought the Little Sisters of the Poor all the way to the Supreme Court to coerce the nuns into paying for contraception.

The problem with the president’s message is that he confuses the meaning of the Jewish holiday, attempting to draw from it a universalistic teaching, as he did last year when, generalizing, he said that “at its heart, Hanukkah is about the struggle for justice.” Both last year’s official greeting and this year’s reflect a tendency to overlook the particular ancient attachments of the Jewish people.

The universal principle of religious liberty is hardly the message of the Jewish Maccabean revolt or of the miracles commemorated by Jews at Hanukkah. The revolt began when Mattityahu killed a fellow Jew who had attempted to sacrifice a pig to Zeus (1 Mac. 2:24–25). So much for religious liberty. Mattityahu then killed the Greek official who had ordered the assembled Jews to abandon their religion, and then launched a guerrilla war against the Greco-Syrian king. A proper reading of the Jewish and historical record reveals that Mattityahu and the Maccabees revolted against not only religious oppression by Greek authorities but also Jewish assimilation to Hellenic culture.

Jews do not celebrate Hanukkah for its generalizable message of religious freedom; Hanukkah is particular to Jews, not universal. It commemorates the reassertion of Jewish sovereignty and the liberation and rededication of the holy Temple with the aid of God.

Jews do not celebrate Hanukkah for its generalizable message of religious freedom; Hanukkah is particular to Jews, not universal.

It is this meaning that President Obama not only missed in his official statement but opposed through his actions at the U.N. The latter have been rightly condemned for breaking from decades of U.S. policy and nourishing Palestinian maximalism. The president decided to allow the U.N. Security Council to dismiss as “a flagrant violation under international law” Israeli presence in the Jews’ indigenous biblical heartland, including the Western Wall of the Temple for which the Maccabees fought.

Apparently the president regards the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem as just another illegal “settlement.” How’s that for a Hanukkah gift?

When the Jordanians occupied the West Bank following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, they expelled the Jews from their most cherished ancient communities. The moral heavyweights at the U.N. argue that those communities lie beyond the Green Line established by the terms of armistice in 1949. But the armistice lines simply reflect the location of troops following a failed Arab attempt to annihilate the inchoate Jewish state. At the insistence of the Arab powers, the armistice lines were explicitly defined as not constituting final political boundaries. Rather, the West Bank remained a disputed territory before and after Israel won it from Jordan in the Six-Day War, which was precipitated by Arab blockades in 1967.

The basic Israeli argument for control of East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank has always been that Jews have a right to live, practice their religion, and self-govern in their indigenous homeland; in other words, Zionism — which, like Hanukkah, President Obama has never been able to understand without universalizing and overlooking the Jewish people’s particular attachment to their home. As Leo Strauss reminded the editors of National Review in 1957,

the moral spine of the Jews was in danger of being broken by the so-called emancipation which in many cases had alienated them from their heritage, and yet not given them anything more than merely formal equality; it had brought about a condition which has been called “external freedom and inner servitude”; political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate, are capable.

Obama’s two Hanukkah messages do not reveal a hatred of Israel, as some have alleged, but rather a misunderstanding of its meaning to the Jewish people.


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