The dark side of Chanukah


Almost anyone who celebrates Chanukah today knows at least the rudimentary outline of its story. A righteous Judean clan in the 2nd century B.C.E. led an uprising against Greek-influenced Seleucid rulers who had desecrated the Temple and outlawed the traditional practices of Judaism. The revolt led to the recapture of Jerusalem, the purification of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish state.

But there are a number of darker events related to Chanukah and its aftermath that have been swept away in the aroma of frying latkes and the whiz of spinning dreidels. The first is that the war Chanukah commemorates was in fact a civil war, fought between Hellenizing Jewish reformers and Jewish traditionalists whose Temple-centric life had been severely compromised by Greek influence and rule. The fratricidal conflict consumed 34 years in the life of the nation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

With the conquest of Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. and the complete defeat (although annihilation would be a better description) of the Hellenizers 22 years later, the lone surviving brother, Simon the Maccabee, stood widely recognized as ethnarch and high priest of the first independent Jewish state in 440 years. It would, then, be his progeny and descendants who would dominate Judean life over the next century.

Simon was succeeded by his able and fervent son John Hyrcanus, who expanded the realm and remained faithful to the example laid down by his father and uncles. It was during the reign of his grandson, Alexander Jannaeus (104 B.C.E.-76 B.C.E.), however, that the Hasmonean legend began to disintegrate. Alexander had no interest in the religious fervor of his ancestors and exhibited a particular hatred for religious rigorist sects, such as the Pharisees and Essenes. He carefully aligned himself with the upper-class Sadducees and in one incident massacred 6,000 Pharisee worshippers in the Temple courtyard after receiving a personal insult from them during the Festival of Sukkot. The incident spurred the renewal of a civil war that resulted in 50,000 more Jewish deaths. In one further event, after returning to Jerusalem following a victorious campaign in the north, Alexander had 800 of his Jewish male prisoners crucified, but not before murdering their wives and children before their very eyes.

After the death of Alexander Jannaeus, the Hasmoneans continued as rulers of Judea for another 40 years — in and out of civil war — until finally being all but eliminated by Herod the Great (37 B.C.E.-4 B.C.E.), an Idumean usurper who feared the family as a threat to his rule.

The point of recalling this gruesome tale is to illustrate a historical truism. History often comes full circle, rendering meaningless the achievements of previous generations because memory has lapsed and the commitment to former ideals is absent. The Hasmoneans began as liberators and ended as oppressors. They started as fervent adherents to Judaism and concluded as its deniers. In the end, they far more resembled the Greek-inspired Hellenizers they had fought to eliminate than the vaunted redeemers portrayed in legend.

Ancient Judea’s contemporary political incarnation, the State of Israel, also has much to learn from the historical lessons of the Hasmoneans. As a country that formed 60 years ago with high ideals and the promise of Jewish renewal, the current state is transforming into a bitter parody of itself. Rampant political corruption, an incompetent and self-serving echelon of leaders, an oligarchical economic structure that places 60 percent of the country’s assets in the hands of less than 1 percent of its population and a poverty level that hovers around 33 percent, are all signs of the imminent collapse of idealism and foundational principles. The abandonment of the Jews of Gaza, evicted from their homes in 2005, is yet another sad example of how deeply bruised is the Israeli notion of respect for and protection of Jewish life, property and dignity.

It is important to remember that men can never predict how their descendants will act or how their legacy of achievement will be treated. But the burning question the full Hasmonean story presents to us is how can nations protect the memory of past struggles and make them meaningful and relevant for the current generation? Ironically, the institution of the Festival of Chanukah was such an attempt. And in large part it succeeded. But the nagging question remains — why did things go so terribly wrong in ancient Judea within such a relatively short period of time? Given our current national challenges, this Chanukah our thoughts should be firmly on that question, as much as on the great Hasmonean triumphs of 2,000 years ago.

Avi Davis is the Executive Director and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance.

All Saints’ IRS Fight Gets Jewish Support


For a church facing an assault from the Internal Revenue Service, the outspoken clergy of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena acted neither fearful nor repentant Sunday.

The IRS is “welcome in our pews,” said Rector J. Edwin Bacon to loud applause, but “not welcome in our pulpit.”

The IRS has threatened to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status for speaking out strongly on political issues. But Bacon showed no signs of backing down. And based on the reaction from the Southern California rabbinate, rhetorical reinforcements are already in place.

The IRS dispute arose out of an anti-war sermon given by the Rev. George Regas on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. The IRS interpreted the impassioned homily as an endorsement of John Kerry over incumbent President George W. Bush. Tax-exempt nonprofits, such as churches and synagogues, are not allowed to endorse candidates.

Bacon told the packed congregation last weekend that the church is “energetically resisting” the attack on its tax-exempt status. If left unchallenged, the IRS action “means that a preacher cannot speak boldly about the core values of his or her faith community without fear of government recrimination.”

Bacon added that All Saints has received a “surprising outpouring of solidarity” from a “host of other believers.”

Jewish leaders are among those speaking out against the IRS action. They say that their own synagogues, too, could become targets.

“I would have given the sermon that Regas gave with honor,” said Rabbi Steven Jacobs, of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. He added that he regularly gives sermons that “challenge my congregation” by addressing difficult political issues. If these sermons have reached the attention of the IRS, he doesn’t know about it.

Jacobs said he hopes that the controversy will stir rabbis and other religious leaders to take more chances in their sermons and not cower in face of intimidation.

“There is a great risk to our personal souls if truth has to be suppressed and doubt unspoken, “Jacobs said. “When ‘united we stand’ means everyone must think alike, something is seriously wrong with our democracy. Jeremiah spoke truth to power in the Babylonian times and All Saints is doing it now.”

It was two days before the 2004 election that Regas, All Saints’ former rector, gave a guest sermon in which he imagined a debate between Jesus and then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas harshly criticized the government’s record on poverty, abortion and nuclear arms, but his most pointed remarks concerned the war in Iraq. He said Jesus would have told Bush, “Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine [that] has led to disaster.”

The Sept. 11 attacks did not justify “the killing of innocent people” in Iraq and elsewhere, he added.

In that sermon, Regas also said he did not endorse either candidate, but he asked the congregation to take “all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker” to the ballot box and “vote your deepest values.”

The IRS viewed the sermon as a possible endorsement of Kerry. In June, it sent a letter telling the church that it “may not be tax-exempt as a church” because Regas’ remarks raised questions concerning the church’s “involvement in … political campaign intervention.”

The federal tax code permits tax-exempt organizations to speak out on political issues but not to endorse candidates. The IRS has recently investigated more than 100 nonprofits, including the NAACP, for possibly promoting candidates, according to published reports.

So far, there’s been no public indication that the targets have included synagogues, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. Nevertheless, he and other Jewish leaders have been quick to stand behind All Saints Church.

“I spoke with Rev. Bacon and assured him of our support,” Diamond said. He added that he is working with other rabbis and religious leaders to develop a coordinated response across political and denominational boundaries. “Tomorrow the IRS may well target a conservative Baptist congregation in the South,” he said.

Leonard Beerman, rabbi emeritus of Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, has an especially close tie to All Saints, where he serves as rabbi-in-residence.

The IRS investigation is a “selective application of the law,” he said, and a “deliberate act of attempted intimidation” against clergy who criticize the administration. “No one’s going to intimidate this church, but some churches and synagogues may be intimidated.”

“I don’t think we give up free speech because the president has chosen to go to war,” Beerman added. “Regas wasn’t telling people how to vote. He was critiquing the lies that brought us into the war and the impact of the war on American and Iraqi life. This fundamental belief in the sanctity of every life lies at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition and is what propels Regas and I to be opposed to war.”

The IRS has denied any political motivation to its tax probes.

As it happens, the joint activism of Beerman and Regas reaches all the way back to a raucous anti-Vietnam War rally in Exposition Park in 1973.

“Regas got up to speak in his Episcopal collar and he put his whole body into the speech,” Beerman recalled. “Immediately we were drawn to each other and we became engaged together in opposition to the war.”

The two have worked together on anti-war and other causes ever since.

For some rabbis, the controversy highlights the duty of Jewish leaders to take risks by speaking out.

“The Jewish tradition teaches that silence is riskier than the wrath of opposition,” said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Whittier. “It’s from the prophets and the rabbinic tradition. Leviticus says you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.”

Nevertheless, “instead of being leaders, most rabbis have decided not to make waves” since the war started, Beliak said.

The sermons of Rabbi Steven Leder generally deal with “more timeless issues of the human condition and spirit,” as opposed to politics. Nevertheless, Leder can see an instance where he would make an exception. He said he would ask his Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregation not to vote for someone like David Duke, the open anti-Semite who ran for office in Louisiana.

During the summer, the IRS offered to settle with All Saints “by having us say that we were wrong and would never do it again,” Bacon said. The church refused.

The IRS’s demand for an admission of wrongdoing “reminds me of something out of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s,” USC law professor Ed McCaffrey said.

The church’s response was the right one, said Diamond: “The settlement offer is very dangerous because the case is truly about freedom of the pulpit. For members of the clergy to be stifled in expressing deeply held religious and moral views is blasphemous.”

“Rather than intimidate rabbis [or anyone else],” he said. “It’s made a whole lot of clergy persons mad as hell.”

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Muslim Hate Is Self-Inflicted Harm


The Arab and Iranian complaint that they are threatened and victimized by the Zionists is fascinatingly twisted. In fact, they do themselves considerable damage through their own anti-Semitism. Two recent examples come to mind.

United States taxpayers paid for the liberation of Iraq, and are footing the bill to rebuild the country. Anyone from a rather large list of eligible countries can bid on the billion-dollar U.S.-funded rebuilding contracts. But while the list is large, it is not comprehensive. Nations that hindered our efforts to liberate Iraq failed to make the cut. France and Germany, for example, are conspicuously ineligible.

But there is a more newsworthy, yet less-noticed story about the eligibility list: Israel is not on it. Why?

The two major purposes of our foray into Iraq were to fight terrorism and to make Iraq a democracy. In the volatile and strategically important Middle East, Israel is the most democratic nation. One would think that if Iraq is to become a stable, liberal democracy, we should foster a good relationship between it and Israel, from which it could learn so much about free expression, multiparty politics, minority rights, an independent judiciary, religious freedom and all the other ingredients of a healthy, free society.

Israel’s exclusion becomes particularly galling in light of the fact that Saudi Arabia — the nation most responsible for Sept. 11, Al Qaeda, Hamas and Moslem Brotherhood terrorism — is allowed to bid on Iraq reconstruction contracts. We ousted Saddam, in part, because he was getting cozy with Bin Laden. Now that we ousted him, the Binladen Group, a huge Saudi Arabian engineering concern, can bid on a taxpayer-funded contract to rebuild Iraq, but an Itzik of Tel Aviv cannot — even though Itzik of Tel Aviv is more likely to bring humane values (as well as Western building standards) to a Baghdad construction site than the Binladen Group.

President Bush is considered by many a friend of the Jewish State, so the fact that he has stiffed Israel requires explanation. The likeliest reason is simply that he believes the Arabs, including Iraqis, would object. Substituting a short-sighted pragmatism for principle, Bush lets the most unreasonable voices in the Middle East dominate, to the detriment of Iraq. Congress should look into this.

The second example of anti-Semitism becoming a self-inflicted wound comes from the terrible earthquake in Bam, Iran. The losses in life and property are virtually beyond imagination. Iran, overwhelmed, has welcomed aid from the four corners of the earth, including from the United States, without reservation. Oops, one reservation: help from the "Zionist entity" was rejected.

Israel is the most technologically advanced country in the Middle East, and the most prepared to deal with large-scale disaster (let’s not discuss why). There is no possible doubt that Israel’s participation in the rescue efforts would have saved lives.

The government of Iran preferred that its citizens die, rather than accept the hand of the Jewish State stretched out in compassion. In view of the fact that Israel has never done any harm to Iran, this is insane.

Peace will come to the Middle East if, and only if, the Arabs and Muslims end their pathological hatred of Israel. Everything else is a side issue. The United States must use its newly enhanced stature in the region to insist on an Arab/Muslim change of heart, and help it along.

On Sun., Jan. 25, at 3 p.m., DFI-LA will sponsor a program titled, "Iranian Reformers and Israel." For more information, call (310) 285-8542.


Joe Ribakoff is a member and Paul Kujawsky is the president of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles. The views expressed are theirs and do not necessarily represent the views of DFI-L.A.