On 7 December, at 7:30pm AEDT, Tzedek Collective will host an online Hanukkah event. Please join us to discuss how to engage with this festival as anti-Zionists who are bearing witness to and protesting the current genocide of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Register here, and please optionally read this background information and engage with the prompts at the end. We will discuss the issues, consider our options, and light the first night’s candle together. To facilitate open discussion, this session will not be recorded.

Hanukkah means dedication, what are we dedicating ourselves to?

What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is a “minor” (post-Biblical) Jewish festival celebrated on 25 Kislev, which falls in midwinter in the Northern Hemisphere and summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Due to its proximity to Christmas, it is now one of the better-known Jewish festivals in culturally Christian societies. Many of us were taught that we light candles and eat fried food on Hanukkah because the oil for the temple menorah miraculously lasted eight days after the heroic Maccabees defended the Jews from “the Greeks” (more accurately, a Hellenistic Greek colonial power, the Seleucid empire). The truth, of course, is much more complicated.


Note: history buffs please forgive me; this is a quick summary drawn mainly from Wikipedia. More nuance and detail can be found in various texts. The story of Hanukkah is not included in the Jewish bible, but is told in two different apocryphal texts, Maccabees I and Maccabees II. Another source of information is the writings of Josephus, a Jewish historian who was captured by and under patronage of the Roman empire. Rabbinic commentaries refer to the Maccabees as righteous except for the matter of priests taking the throne. 

The Maccabees were indeed rebelling against religious oppression, but they were also waging an internal war on “Hellenised” Judeans. Before the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes began his systematic persecution, many Jews were open to incorporating Hellenistic ideas into their lives, seeing material and intellectual benefits from doing so. The Maccabees, who were religious extremists and led by kohanim (priests), objected to this, and their revolt began in 167 BCE with terrorising Hellenised Jews, including forcibly circumcising their infants. They later took on the Seleucids directly, and after some success with guerilla warfare, gained control of Jerusalem and re-dedicated the temple, which is what we celebrate on Hanukkah. This was supported by the Seleucid regent retracting the ban on Jewish temple worship.

But the Maccabees weren’t satisfied with that. They continued fighting the Seleucids until they achieved some level of independence, which was helped along by the decay of the Seleucid empire. The Maccabees established themselves as rulers (despite this being against Jewish law) and established the Hasmonean dynasty, which soon allied with the rising Roman empire. All up, the dynasty lasted around 100 years, but it was hardly a peaceful and spiritual period. The Hasmoneans became Hellenised themselves, conquered and lost more territory in the region, forced conversions of Edomites, and their internal power struggles led to a civil war before the Romans took over completely and replaced the dynasty with Herod. Perhaps to survive life in the Diaspora, the rabbis subsequently downplayed the Maccabean revolt and Hasmonean dynasty and instead focused on the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. 

Where to from here?

The story of the Maccabees revolt against the “Hellenised” Judeans echoes contemporary debates on Jewish identity in relation to Diaspora and Zionism — a story for and of our time. Zionists have unsurprisingly co-opted Hanukkah and the mythos of the Maccabees very strongly, with the simplified version of the story becoming popularised in Europe in the 19th century. 

Rabbi Elliot Kukla argues that it doesn’t have to be this way:

I know what miracle I will be teaching my child as the candles burn. The diaspora is a miracle. Jewish people found ways of living and loving for thousands of years without land or army; we found home in stories and questions. The long nights of this season are to be cherished as a precious time to do less, burn less oil and be together more.

Notably, there are some key differences in how the story is told in Maccabees I and II:

  • Maccabees I actively supports the Hasmonean dynasty, whereas II does not
  • Maccabees I is Judean in origin and associated with priests, yet focuses more on the political state of Judea, and less on theological concepts 
  • Maccabees II is likely Diasporic in origin (and was written in Greek) and associated with rabbinic traditions; it is more religiously oriented, emphasising prayer, resurrection, divine retribution and providence

These details may or may not be important, but what I want to highlight is that even during the period in question, not everyone agreed on everything. (I haven’t even mentioned Sadducees and Pharisees, a whole separate can of worms.)

At this juncture, it is worth recalling Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s words on Hellenisation:

We can find ways to engage with new ways of doing and being that make us more thoughtful, more holy, more connected to the divine, more committed to who we are. We can choose to listen, and we can, with discernment, sometimes decide to take in. And when we are able to do so while holding on to the essence of who we are, it can help us to grow, sometimes, in extraordinary ways.

Hanukkah can be a challenging festival for anti-Zionist Jews for many reasons: the violence of the associated story, the Zionist messaging, and the underlying theme of coercing “assimilated” Jews to live one type of Jewish life. Yet as Catherine Szkop argues: “two Jews, three opinions” can guide us to new viewpoints and celebration of different ways of thinking. Reclaiming Jewish Diasporic pride doesn’t mean giving up on Hanukkah; rather, we can celebrate its miracle in a way that untethers the festival from Zionism and (re)builds our Diasporic Jewish identity.

Creative prompts

These can be done before, after or independently of our text study session.

  • Rewrite Ma’oz Tzur to imagine a liberatory, post-Zionist future, or something else entirely
  • Write a poem or story imagining life as a Hellenised Judean
  • Create a piece in any medium reflecting on what anti-Zionist Hanukkah might look like