Giving thanks to the 20th century Maccabees on Chanukah
Thanksgiving is the great American holiday, a secular fete originally celebrating the crops we harvested, now celebrating not just the harvest, but also our freedom, our democracy and our way of life. Because of the oddities of the Hebrew calendar, Jews will be celebrating a second holiday on Thanksgiving, as Chanukah and Thanksgiving fall on the same day this year. We call Chanukah the Festival of Light, because of the candle that stayed lit for a week with only one day’s supply of oil. The real story of Chanukah, however, is a celebration of a military victory when the Maccabees defeated the enemies who wanted to Hellenize Judaism. Thousands of years later, Jews in America now celebrate in the wake of another military defeat, one that changed the face of Judaism for the modern world.
In an age in which Jews can be both proud and free Americans, openly celebrating a Jewish holiday as we also celebrate Thanksgiving, we should be thankful for our 20th century Maccabees who won a stunning victory in the 1967 war. The perception of Jews in America, and, indeed, our own self-perception, was permanently changed after that war. Instead of the meek, browbeaten Jews who went to their deaths without much of a fight, Jews were now mighty warriors who defeated all their neighbors in just six days. As the public’s perception of American Jews changed, discrimination dwindled. According to Pew’s latest study, the majority of Jewish Americans say there is no discrimination against Jews in America today. My estimate is that it was the 1967 war that was the turning point, after which anti-Semitism in America began to fade to the point where it is no longer a significant force in American life. At the time, it seemed that overnight nearly all Americans, not just American Jews, were pro-Israel and pro-Semitic. Had the Maccabees not won, then or now, Judaism — as we know it — would have been imperiled.
Jews hold such a secure place at the American table that no one makes anything of it. Jews are now successful in nearly every field. American Jews, when we sit down at our Thanksgiving repasts, have much to give thanks for, and should give great thanks to Israel. It is Israel that fought against tremendous odds to win its War of Independence in 1948, just as American troops did centuries ago, and brought forth a democracy, the greatest form of government in the world, then and now. Israel has a vibrant democracy, arguably less dysfunctional than ours seems right now. No longer the military underdog, the country deserves praise for the safety it has offered Jews around the world. At great a personal sacrifice of its citizens, Israel has built a formidable department of defense, and the American people and government have always backed Israel in this endeavor. This strength has enabled Israel to protect Jews who live around the world, some in small communities, where sometimes despotic leaders are aware of Israel’s vow to protect Jews the world over, and have behaved accordingly.
I am old enough to have lived through both these periods. Prior to 1967, many Jews in America worried about being accused of double loyalty and increasing anti-Semitism. After the Six-Day War, American Jews became proud of Israel, and, in turn, proud of themselves. In my long life as both a Canadian and an American, I have had very few anti-Semitic embarrassments, but there was a marked difference between how my non-Jewish colleagues treated me before and after the Six-Day War. It is thanks in large part to Yitzhak Rabin and the Israel Defense Forces that I can stand tall as a Jew.
As we Jews celebrate Chanukah and Thanksgiving in tandem this year, let us thank our both our forefathers who came to this country and made it possible for us to thrive and the Israelis who have protected that.
Edgar M. Bronfman is the former CEO of the Seagram Company, president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the author of “The Bronfman Haggadah” (Rizzoli).