Hanukkah and Beyond: Time for Americans to Reclaim Our Story

Every year on Hanukkah, the Jewish people sing an ancient song that asks: Who will retell the story of our people? This year, I find myself recasting this age-old Hanukkah question for the American people. At time when public figures are unapologetically spewing bigotry and hatred and cavalierly engaging in fear mongering and advocating vigilante “justice,” I wonder, who will the American people allow to tell our story? Whose words will we allow to articulate our opinions, shape our understandings of one another, and influence our very reality?

Each of us should consider it a personal moral failure when we permit even one instance of irresponsible and mischaracterizing rhetoric against anyone different from ourselves to take place without offering a counterpoint.

We betray the founders of this nation, and those who have struggled to come to this country from countries that persecuted them, people who saw America as a land of freedom and prosperity, if we allow impugning, sinister, misleading and intentionally divisive statements to poison our polity and threaten our union.

God’s heart breaks every time we do so. And I believe that our hearts break too.

The second century sage Hillel’s words are perhaps more resonant in this moment than ever. He asks:

If I am not for myself who will be?

If I am only for myself what am I?

If not now, when?


If I do not speak my mind, who will do so for me?

If I do not speak on the behalf of others in their time of need, what will history say about me?

If not now, when?

Now is the time to find the language that will reclaim our national spirit — which like the ancient Temple in the story of Hanukkah, has been shamefully tarnished and profaned by the toxic rhetoric of the day.

Thankfully, we are hearing both outrage at this blather and optimism that we can do better from an inspiringly diverse array of civic and religious groups and leaders.

Also, we should be especially heartened by the remarkable outpourings coming from America’s university students, like:

The twenty-five Jewish Georgetown University students who attended last Friday’s campus Muslim prayers and held up signs: We Love You. You Belong Here. I Am An Ally.

The large coalition (new window) of student leaders at Wheaton College imploring Christian evangelical leaders to “follow the voice of Jesus, calling us to love our neighbor and to pursue peace toward those hostile to us or our faith, and to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

19-year-old Ari Shapiro who recently posted this on his Facebook page: (new window)

“Now, of course, the refugee has got to be checked because, unfortunately, among the refugees there are some spies, as has been found in other countries. And not all of them are voluntary spies — it is rather a horrible story but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt, circa June 1940.

This rhetoric was unacceptable 75 years ago when it prevented America from saving millions of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, and it is equally unacceptable now, when countless lives in Syria and Iraq are in grave danger.

Every one of us should swell this chorus. Like these young people, each of us should find ways creative or ordinary, quiet or bold, simple or dramatic to add our voice to those drowning out the ugly noise currently polluting our nation.

Honestly, it isn’t so hard to do. The Southern Poverty Law Center (new window) has an excellent guide on how to respond to bigotry (new window)on its website. Here are some highly adapted excerpts from that site that I believe each of us can implement immediately:

1. Educate yourself. Education, exposure and awareness are key factors in moving from prejudice to understanding and acceptance. Create such opportunities for yourself.
2. Find Courage and Be Prepared. Commit to speaking out the next time you hear something that impugns an entire faith, race or nationality. Speaking up involves risk. Evaluate that risk level, then summon your courage, and have something in mind to say. Open-ended questions are best. “Wait. Why do you say that?” “How did you develop that belief?”
3. Appeal to Principles. When dealing with a relative or friend, identify the behavior as neutrally as possible, and then question their values. “You’re classifying an entire ethnicity in a derogatory way. Is that what you mean to be doing?” “I’ve always thought of you as a fair-minded person, so I’m surprised when I hear you say something like that.”

And here’s a final suggestion of my own:

4. See Something? Say That You’re Seeing It.

If someone you know — or perhaps even pass by in the street — is part of the group currently under siege, go out of your way to share your dismay and disapproval of the way they are being maligned and mistreated. Verbalize your support and solidarity. Ask them what they might need at this moment. Assure them that you are neither oblivious nor unaffected by what is happening, and that they are not alone.

Rabbi Susan Talve while presiding over the White House menorah-lighting last week said (new window):

“I stand here against Islamophobia… and against anti-semitism. I stand here like the Maccabees of old who defied the culture of their time that said that destiny could not be changed. And instead they jumped in to write a new story.”

We too can write a better story. It’s time to jump in.

This article was originally featured by Huffington Post (new window) on December 15, 2015, and is available online here (new window). This article was written by Rabbi Rachel Gartner (new window), Director for Jewish Life at Georgetown University.