It was fitting and ironic that Donald Trump chose this week of all weeks to issue his monstrous missive calling for all Muslims – including citizens who have traveled outside of the country for work, vacation, or any reason at all – to be barred from entering the United States (you can read IPF’s official condemnation here). After all, this week Jews celebrate Hanukkah, the most minor of religious holidays on the Jewish calendar but the one that is actually most connected to religion. Casual observers know Hanukkah as the holiday that celebrates the miracle of oil that burned for eight days rather than just one, but Hanukkah is actually about the power of religion and the duality of that power, demonstrating that religion can be a force that motivates the good as well as the bad. In seeking to discriminate against an entire class of people on the basis of their faith and their faith alone, Trump demonstrates why the Hanukkah story is so important, both as a guide for how to respect religious difference and as a cautionary tale.
Hanukkah is the story of a Jewish revolt against the Syrian Greeks that was precipitated by a religious crisis. The Greek empire sought to impose cultural hegemony throughout all of the lands under its control by spreading Hellenism, and Judaism for a variety of reasons was viewed as incompatible with Hellenistic principles and ideals. Hellenism glorified the perfection of the human body, an idea that was challenged by the ritual of circumcision; Hellenism exalted the emperor as a deity, which Jewish monotheism could not accept. This fundamental clash led to the first recorded religious persecution in history and the denial of rights based solely on religion, a move which backfired on the Seleucids when the Hasmonean revolt dislodged them from Judea entirely and led not only to Jewish religious freedom – the purpose of the revolt to begin with – but Jewish political sovereignty as well.
The U.S. has a long record of protecting religious liberty, but it also has an unfortunate history of singling out entire classes of people, whether it be slavery and Jim Crow or internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Trump’s demagoguery harkens back to this latter darker legacy, and it is heartening to see nearly wall to wall condemnation of his comments. If the Hanukkah story can be distilled to its essence, it is about the downfall of an empire that singled out members of a religion on the basis of religious heritage alone, and Muslims can and should take heart in this Jewish story that has a universal message. Aside from being flat out morally reprehensible, Trump’s proposal would weaken this country rather than strengthen it.
There is another side to the Hanukkah story that is relevant here as well. As I have written about before, the epilogue to the Maccabean revolt did not have as happy an ending. The new Hasmonean kingdom of Judea emulated its predecessor’s tradition of religious intolerance and sought to forcefully convert its various subjects to Judaism or face expulsion, a policy that led to overreach, civil war, and the eventual subjugation of Judea by the Romans. It was a useful lesson that religion is not an unqualified force for good, and that fundamentalism and zealotry lead to chaos and destruction in ways that are predictable as well as ways that are unforeseen. It also bears noting that the Seleucid program of religious discrimination provoked a nationwide revolt, and pushed many ordinary Jews who would not have been inclined to fight under normal circumstances to go and take up arms in order to defend their religion from attack.
Many people have noted that Trump’s anti-Muslim broadside plays precisely into ISIS’s hands by giving the group a powerful recruiting tool. When perfectly ordinary and law-abiding Muslims are demonized because of the actions of a radical and demonic few, it increases the chances of the former group supporting the latter group out of a sense of tribal solidarity. One of the worst possible scenarios for Israel is for ISIS to train its sights on Israel and turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a much wider religious war, not because ISIS itself represents a serious military threat to the Israeli state but because the power of religion to radicalize and mobilize large numbers is unparalleled. The more that someone like Trump demonizes Muslims writ large, the greater the chances of that happening. The U.S. and Israel are often lumped together by extremist groups, and Trump has vowed to visit Israel and his self-claimed good friend Bibi Netanyahu later this year. There are all sorts of universal reasons for Americans who care about religious freedom and combatting prejudice to denounce Trump’s gambit, and there are more particular reasons for Jews who care about Israel to denounce it as well. Let’s absorb the many messages of Hanukkah, from religious tolerance to religion’s dangerous and unharnessable energy, and realize that Trump has now added moral and strategic bankruptcy to his long and undistinguished record of financial ones.