Chanukah, Trump and David Friedman


The story of Chanukah is, among other things, the story of intra-Jewish hatred.

The Maccabees revolted not just against the Seleucid rulers, but also against their fellow Jews who had assimilated, happily, to the larger Greek culture.

“They acquired a following and applied to Antiochus, who authorized them to introduce the Greek way of life,” reports the first Book of Maccabees in a translation by Nicholas de Lange. “They built a Greek gymnasium in Jerusalem and even had themselves uncircumcised.”

In launching his revolt, Judah Maccabee first killed one of those reverse-circumcised Jews.

“The miracle-of-the-oil celebration of Hanukkah that the rabbis later invented covers up a blood-soaked struggle that pitted Jew against Jew,” retired Yale Rabbi James Ponet once wrote in Slate. “The rabbis drummed out this history with a fairy tale about a light that did not go out.”

The historical facts are disturbing and conflicting. Hellenism wasn’t all bad. From it, Judaism accreted ideas like the symposium, which formed the basis of the Passover seder — to this day the most widely celebrated holiday in Jewish homes. But if Jews had never revolted, perhaps Judaism itself would have vanished. Could the bloodshed have been worth it? Tough call. No wonder we flock to the fairy tale, and the candles, chocolate and latkes.

These days there is no denying the fissures between Jews are growing deeper. There is something ominous and dark about the way we are treating one another.

Over the past week, David Friedman, the bankruptcy attorney who is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. Ambassador to Israel, has been condemned by a number of Jewish organizations for comments he made in the run-up to the election referring to the pro-Israel peace organization J Street as “kapos” and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as “morons.”

Kapos were Jewish collaborators under the Nazi regime. Morons are, well, morons.

Jewish communal organizations, rabbis and teachers — I can’t tell you how much time and effort they’ve invested over the past decade in championing civil dialogue between our often-warring tribe members. Then comes the man designated to be the chief diplomat to the Jewish state and — whoosh. Morons and kapos.

But it shouldn’t be surprising. Minority culture often mirrors the majority culture. And our new president has created a raucous, name-calling free-for-all where no slur is disqualifying, no curse is shameful and where every demand for retraction and apology is met with doubling down and amping up.

I pointed out in an online column that Friedman’s comparison is not just coarse, but far too broad. J Street is a pro-Zionist lobbying group that promotes a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. For some observant Jews like Friedman, the very idea of giving back the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank, is anathema. For a minority of American Jews, religious or not, territorial compromise with the Palestinians is a recipe for the destruction of Israel.

But putting aside the coarseness of the term, there’s another reason it is, on the face of it, wrong-headed: poll after poll show Americans, who will be paying Mr. Friedman’s salary, prefer a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s the J Street position.

And almost half or more of all Israelis support this part of the J Street agenda as well. 

According to the June 2016 Peace Index poll, produced by Tel Aviv University, 62 percent of the Israeli public favors conducting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. A plurality — 49 percent — of Israelis say they would support a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Only 40 percent say they would oppose it.

Morton Klein, the director of the Zionist Organization of America, emailed me — civilly — to point out that there are areas where Israeli opinion and J Street diverge: most notably over the Iran deal and the Goldstone Report.

True, but on the main issue of a two-state solution, J Street holds the same position as a significant percentage of the Israeli public.

Earlier this year in fact, a group called Commanders for Israel’s Security, composed of hundreds of former Israeli military leaders, put forward a diplomatic plan for a two-state solution, very much like J Street’s.

The group’s co-founder is Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amnon Reshef, who led the tank battalion that turned around the Yom Kippur War. Lack of diplomatic progress, Reshef told me, was an existential crisis for the Jewish state. It is unlikely Mr. Friedman would call these Israelis, whose lives hang in the balance over these positions, kapos. At least, not to their face.

But as goes Friedman, so went the internet. On Twitter, Jewish and alt-right defenders of Friedman’s use of “kapo” called me a kapo. Some implied the Journal is taking gobs of money from George Soros (We get none, but Dear Mr. Soros: jewishjournal.com/donate).

I am hoping that as the new year, and the new president, come to pass, the ambassador will see the wisdom in General Reshef’s approach, and the danger of turning Jew versus Jew. This week, the whole thing got ugly fast.

My question is: How much uglier can it get?

Happy Chanukah.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.