Ira Chernus  


Every Jewish child learns the same Hanukkah story that I learned long ago. When the land of Judah was occupied by a foreign emperor and his army, a tiny band of courageous freedom-fighters resisted. Though far outnumbered by the tyrant’s armies, they won a miraculous victory for national liberation.

As we light the candles in 2001, this story is irrelevant and dangerous. It is time to find a new story for Hanukkah.

The old story assumes that, in every contest, the Jews are the weak and vulnerable side. With its half a dozen victorious wars, Israel has made this premise, and thus the whole story, irrelevant. If anyone had any doubts, the events of recent months have proven that the idea of the Jews as a tiny, beleaguered minority no longer holds true.

Israel now plays with the Palestinians the way a cat plays with a cornered mouse. Beyond the dead and wounded (the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli wounded in the last 14 months is about 30 to 1), beyond the humiliations that every Palestinian has endured, there is the constant uncertainty. When Palestinians are free to live their daily lives with no Israeli checkpoints or tanks at the street corners, they know that it is merely by Israel’s good graces. Even the slightest joys of ordinary life cannot be taken for granted. The occupier can bring back the troops and tanks at any moment. Everything is at the whim of the young men—many still really boys—who wear the Star of David and carry the guns.

The most public uncertainty and humiliation falls to the man who is the ultimate mouse in the corner: Yassir Arafat. Unless he prevents every single Palestinian from harming a single Israeli—an obviously impossible task—he is branded a supporter of terrorism. When he makes efforts to stop the violence, imposing the police state tactics that the Israelis demand, it naturally stirs resentment among many Palestinian. Hamas and other groups opposed to Arafat get a big political boost. Some pollsters claim those groups already are more popular than Arafat. The outcome in the West Bank and Gaza is unpredictable.

But the outcome in Israel is perfectly predictable. No matter how much Arafat dances to the Israeli tune, Sharon will condemn it as insufficient (and the Bush administration will not demur). Nothing Arafat can do will get him out of Israel’s clutches.

In the Israeli newspapers, some commentators explain that this was Sharon’s plan from the day he became prime minister. Keep Arafat twisting and turning. No matter which way he turns, squeeze him until he bleeds, politically, so badly that he loses effective control. But make him weaken Hamas so that it cannot get control either. Keep all Palestinian leaders so feeble that none can lead effective resistance to Israel’s occupation.

For decades, Israeli policy has been guided by the principle of keeping the opposition divided. There are many credible reports that Israel built up Hamas precisely to divide the Palestinians politically. Now, no matter which way the Palestinians turn politically, they will be condemned and attacked by Israel. The cat will simply play with the mouse—until the mouse rolls over and abandons itself to permanent domination.

But most Jews cannot see the true power relationship. They repeat the old Hanukkah story, insisting that they are still the vulnerable mouse and the Palestinians the predatory cat. To most Jews (and many non-Jewish Americans) the tactics of the Sharon government look like just another Hanukkah: a tiny people bravely fighting back against unjust efforts to dominate them. In that light, the continuing occupation, the growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the tanks and gunship helicopters all seem morally justified.

The old Hanukkah story is dangerous, because it helps Israel perpetuate an occupation that, anywhere else, would be branded a moral outrage. The old story is dangerous because the longer the occupation continues, the longer Israelis as well as Palestinians will suffer and die. If this cat-and-mouse game is, in fact, Sharon’s plan, he is sacrificing his own people to his political goals: keeping Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory and preventing a genuinely independent, fully sovereign Palestinian state.

If we want to help Israelis and Palestinians achieve lasting security, we can tell a new story as we light the candles this Hanukkah. We can tell a story about what happens whenever foreigners try to dominate someone else’s land. In this story, the lesson is that resistance to occupation always triumphs in the end. The occupying army was wasting its time. All the bloodshed was in vain. The occupiers would have been far wiser to withdraw gracefully. It was just common sense. They could have saved so many lives on both sides. Because the freedom-fighters would not give up, no matter how long the battle went on.

The word hanukkah means "a new dedication." This year, how about a new dedication, if not to peace with justice, than at least to common sense?