Charles Dickens’ famous opening words from his 1859 novel “A Tale of Two Cities” accurately describe how many American Jews are feeling this year at the start of Hanukkah, our Festival of Lights, which begins at sundown Tuesday.
Dickens wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness .…”
In 2017 American Jews have never been so free to pursue the American Dream. We have many blessings to be thankful for in this great country, which has opened its doors to Jews from around the world. And yet, we sense a new season of darkness casting shadows on our collective future.
Jewish paranoia? No. For decades, FBI annual hate crime statistics have identified African-Americans as the top target of race-based hate crimes. Jews – despite being just 2 percent of the U.S. population – are atop the list of targets of religious-based hate crimes.
But anti-Semitism this year has been different in scope and diversity. This year saw Jewish Community Centers targeted by over 120 bomb threats. The evacuations of Jewish toddlers from child-care centers at these Jewish Centers – and the months of not knowing who was behind the criminal bomb threats – devastated young Jewish parents.
Tuesday night and for the seven nights that follow, Jews around the world will place the lit menorah where neighbors and passersby can see it.
Older Jewish students in grades K-12 were subject to bullying and worse. Meanwhile, anti-Semitic invective, graffiti, overt threats and intimidation were directed against Jewish students who dared stand up for the Jewish State of Israel on our nation’s university campuses from coast to coast.
For example, Jewish students at Rutgers University were confronted by a blatant anti-Semite among their tenured professors who posted anti-Jewish statements and cartoons on Facebook. Fortunately, Professor Michael Chikindas was removed by Rutgers last week as director of the Center for Digestive Health at the university, was barred from teaching required courses and will receive training in cultural sensitivity.
But despite all the promises of an intimidation-free campus, too many such bigots are consistently shielded in the name of free speech, while Jewish students are left twisting in the wind.
Even before President Trump’s declaration last week that he recognizes Jerusalem as capital of Israel – a simple acknowledgement of reality – universities, some churches and elements of the progressive movements had legitimized those who demonize Jews and anyone daring to publicly declare support for the Jewish State.
The anti-black and anti-Jewish outpouring of hatred by neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and their allies in Charlottesville, Virginia in August introduced a new, younger, social media-savvy generation of anti-Semites and racists.
Gone are the days when neo-Nazis had to leave hate-filled flyers on car windshields. Today these hatemongers deploy bots to personalize attacks on Jewish reporters, upload high-quality videos of their marches, and fully deploy the bells and whistles of social media to find new recruits.
Radical imams promote overt Jew-hatred and some have even declared “death to the Jews” at mosques in our nation. There has been nary a response from other clergy, law enforcement or politicians. Public solidarity against history’s oldest hatred has grown dimmer even as anti-Semitism grows.
Last week I testified at the House Homeland Security Committee in Washington on the growing threats of domestic terrorism as it relates to the Jewish community.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, expressed genuine concern about the scope of hate in America today and asked if the answer was more money.
I told the congresswoman that while we could always use more funds to bolster the security of our institutions, some problems will not disappear by throwing money at them. We need the grassroots in all our communities to fight together against hate.
This brings me to a core lesson for Jews and all Americans from the story of Hanukkah, which commemorates two very distinct miracles.
The first miracle was the incredible victory of a ragtag band of outnumbered Jewish fighters, known as the Maccabees, over a powerful Greek military force controlling the Land of Israel more than 2,000 years ago. Yet our ancient sages downplayed the military miracle.
It was the second miracle that is the centerpiece of Hanukkah. This was the rekindling of the lights of the Menorah in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem with only a small container of pure olive oil that was untainted by the idol-worshipping occupiers. The oil, which should have kept the menorah lit for only 24 hours, lasted for eight days.
Our sages understood that military might is necessary in confronting and defeating evil. But they knew that embattled civilizations can only survive if they can defeat the enemy in the marketplace of ideas.
The Maccabees, like all freedom-loving heroes through the ages, prevailed because they knew what they were fighting for. They would not allow their values about the sanctity of humanity to be erased by a conqueror, however powerful.
Tuesday night and for the seven nights that follow, Jews around the world will place the lit menorah where neighbors and passersby can see it. By doing, so we remind ourselves and the world that ultimate victory is only won when individuals have the courage to stand up and take on evil together.
It’s a lesson that must be applied this Hanukkah by Americans of all races and creeds if we are ever to prevail against evil.