On Chanukah and Extremism

Across the spectrum of American Jewish political thought, alarm bells should be ringing. A far-right conspiracy theorist who spends days on a major news channel telling Americans that their way of life is threatened by a conspiracy engineered by Soros, the International Jew? Beck's paranoid style may play well with the John Birch Society, but make no mistake: it is bad for the Jews (and America).

But Beck covered his tuchus. "I'm probably more supportive of Israel and the Jews than George Soros is," he told his viewers. And he produced evidence: a letter by Abraham Foxman of the ADL calling Beck "a friend of the Jewish people and a friend of Israel." Beck deservedly took flack for his insensitive treatment of Soros' experience during the Holocaust, but avoided responsibility for exploiting anti-Semitic themes to advance an extremist political agenda.

The point about Beck is not a sideshow. As Jewish Americans, our obligation to America as a polity is central. For us to be anything less than full-throated, for any reason, in the face of rising extremism at home seems an indefensible shonda.

I have started a new Chanukah tradition in my house. As we get through the first round of Chanukah songs, I take five minutes to interrupt and harangue my family about the intolerance of the fundamentalist Maccabees. Our guests are mostly used to this by now, as I've been doing it for the last few years.

I do it because the larger Chanukah story is too important to ignore. Chanukah is about the triumph of zealots over both external tyranny and internal pluralism. It is about the unintended consequences of strategic strange bedfellows. It is about heroic acts of rebellion by an oppressed Jewish people, but also violent acts of aggression by a Jewish state. It is about the dangerous combination of extremism and power.

As Jews and Americans, we face hard questions: How do we discuss, let alone resolve, difficult conflicts between Zionism and liberal democracy? How do we respond to the resurgence of extremism in America? What responsibilities come with our privilege and power?

We should not ignore the parts of Chanukah's history that help us get at these questions. Yes, they are the darker parts. But if there's one thing we are supposed to do on this holiday, it is light candles. Let's keep the flame forever shining bright.

This article was first published by Zeek Journal, a Patheos Partner, and is reprinted with permission.

12/15/2010 5:00:00 AM
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