Hanukkah is a holiday of Indigenous resistance

WHAT IS HANUKKAH

Hanukkah, also known as the “festival of lights,” is a minor Jewish holiday celebrating the victorious Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Greek Empire occupying the Land of Israel.

In 200 BCE, the Land of Israel fell into the hands of the Seleucid Empire. While initially Jews were granted the right to live according to their ancestral customs, this quickly changed. The Hellenistic ruler Antiochus IV sought to homogenize his kingdom as Greek, squashing all Indigenous cultural expression (a process known as “Hellenization”). Jewish law was suppressed, and the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) of the Jewish Temple was replaced with one that was sympathetic to the Greeks — twice. When the Greek-appointed High Priest murdered the original High Priest, the Jews rebelled, eventually coming under the leadership of a Jew named Judah the Maccabee.

Against all odds, the Jews defeated the Seleucid army of 40,000 soldiers. After the Jews liberated Jerusalem, they headed to the Temple, which had been badly looted. As such, the Jews had to construct a new menorah, which they did so out of cheap metals.

The legend of Hanukkah is that, in the aftermath of the rebellion, the Jews only had a little bit of kosher olive oil left to light the temple menorah. Miraculously, however, the oil continued to burn for eight days, which provided enough time for them to produce more oil.

 

SELF-IDENTIFICATION

Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.

Jews have called ourselves “the People of Israel” since before the word Indigenous even entered the lexicon.

While the usage of the term “Indigenous” outside of the Native Peoples of the Americas was rare until the 1970s, Jewish representatives to the United Nations used the term to describe ourselves as early as 1947. For reference, the United Nations was established in 1945.

How this applies to Hanukkah:

The Greek Seleucids implemented a policy known as Hellenization — that is, the forced assimilation into Greek culture and identity — in the territories under their domain.

The Maccabean Revolt was ignited in response to the Greek policies of Hellenization. The Maccabees fought so that Jews could remain Jews; in other words, they fought so that we could preserve our Indigenous identity instead of becoming Greek.

 

HISTORICAL CONTINUITY

Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies.

Jewish national and tribal identity and peoplehood predates the colonialism of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and British.

How this applies to Hanukkah:

We are Jews — just as we have been for nearly the past 3000 years — because the Maccabees succeeded. Had they lost the revolt, we would have likely become Greek. In other words, we would have assimilated into the culture of the colonizer, thus losing our identity as an Indigenous People.

 

STRONG LINK TO TERRITORIES

Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources

Nearly every single Jewish holiday either commemorates a historical event — such as Hanukkah! — or celebrates the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. Some of our holidays even predate the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel (1047 BCE)! For example, Passover actually has its roots in an ancient Canaanite harvest festival (historians, linguists, and archeologists overwhelmingly agree that the Hebrew tribes were an offshoot of the ancient Canaanites). No matter where we are, we pray facing Jerusalem. The Hebrew calendar follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. Many of the 613 mitzvot (“commandments”) can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel. The list goes on.

How this applies to Hanukkah:

Had the Maccabees lost and the Jews been Hellenized — that is, assimilated into Greek culture — our spiritual and cultural practices and traditions that so deeply link us to the Land of Israel would’ve ceased to exist. We wouldn’t celebrate the harvest of the land. We wouldn’t pray facing Jerusalem. And the 613 mitzvot would be a relic of the past! Instead, we live by them and by the cycle of the Land of Israel to this very day.

 

DISTINCT SOCIAL SYSTEMS

Distinct social, economic or political systems.

Before the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewish social, cultural, and political life centered heavily around the Temple, with the Kohen Gadol — the High Priest — at its helm. The Kohanim, or inherited priestly class, purportedly can trace their lineage to Aaron, the first High Priest of Israel. Kohanim belong to the Levite tribe.

Because the Temple was destroyed — and is yet to be rebuilt — much of those societal structures were severed. Nevertheless, Kohanim and Levites still carry special duties and privileges in Judaism. For example, during Jewish services, Kohanim are called first to the bimah (the elevated platform in a synagogue) to read the Torah. It’s important to note that a Kohen is not the same as a rabbi; rabbis are teachers, whereas Kohanim inherit this special status from their father.

How this applies to Hanukkah:

The Greeks replaced the Kohen Gadol twice, imposing new high priests that were sympathetic to the Greeks and the Hellenization of Judaism. Thanks to the Maccabees, the legacy of Kohanim lives on.

 

DISTINCT LANGUAGE, CULTURE, & BELIEFS

Distinct language, culture and beliefs.

Hebrew is the ancestral language of the Jews and Samaritans. It is the only Canaanite language that exists to this day. It’s even full of references to ancient Canaanite gods! For instance, the word “el” — the generic word for “god” in Hebrew (as opposed to the Hebrew God) — comes from “El,” one of the two most important Canaanite gods.

The term “Judaism” — a variation of the Greek word “Hellenismos” — is how the Greeks described all of the things that encompassed Jewish culture and spirituality. Of course, Jews have a distinct set of spiritual beliefs: Judaism.

How this applies to Hanukkah:

“Linguicide” refers to the extermination of a language and is associated with imperialism and colonialism. It is considered a form of cultural genocide. Historians believe that by the Greek period — the period of the story of Hanukkah — Hebrew declined as an everyday tongue.

It was through our liturgy that we were able to preserve Hebrew, which is known to Jews as “lashon ha’kodesh,” or the “sacred language.” Had the Jews been successfully Hellenized and stopped practicing Judaism, we wouldn’t have just lost our culture and belief system, but we would’ve lost our sacred language as well.

 

NON-DOMINANT GROUPS

Form non-dominant groups of society.

Modern borders are arbitrary and constantly changing. Even so, Jews are 0.2 percent of the world population, less than 0.1 percent of the population of the Middle East, and 16 percent of the population of the Levant. After 2500 years of subjugation — both in our homeland and outside of it — we finally regained our autonomy and sovereignty less than a century ago. Even today are the only non-Arab state in a sea of Arab states (with the exception of Turkey and Iran).

How this applies to Hanukkah:

Jews comprised a tiny Indigenous minority within the Greek Seleucid Empire. Thanks to the successful Maccabean Revolt, we not only resisted assimilation into the culture and identity of the dominant majority, but we also briefly retained our sovereignty (for more on this, see my post THE HASMONEAN KINGDOM).

 

RESOLVE TO MAINTAIN PEOPLEHOOD

Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

Jewishness is passed down through generations. This wish to pass down our peoplehood is what drives us to survive against all odds and the worst of circumstances.

As the popular Yiddish phrase goes: “mir veln zey iberlebn.” We will outlive them.

How this applies to Hanukkah:

This is the story of Hanukkah. This is what the Maccabees fought for: to preserve our peoplehood for the coming generations. Without the Maccabees, we would not still be here, observing Hanukkah, over 2000 years later.

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