After winning the prestigious Man Booker prize, British author Howard Jacobson is the toast of the literary world. What’s more, as Jonathan Foreman points out in the December issue of COMMENTARY (which is behind our pay wall), the book that won him the award properly skewers those Britons whose hatred for Israel has more to do with their own insecurities and prejudices than any genuine sins committed by the Jewish state. And while such sentiments make him a valued outlier in a Britain where anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism is all the rage among the intellectuals, it is disappointing to discover via the New York Times op-ed page that he doesn’t really understand the festival of Hanukkah that begins this evening at sundown. Admittedly, much of this piece is clearly intended as humor, but it is the sort of ironic British humor that is, as our cousins across the pond like to say, too clever by half.
Jacobson is correct to note that the Jews’ December holiday can never truly compete with Christmas. Though, contrary to his account, most American Jews replicate the gift-giving frenzy of their neighbors, Hanukkah hasn’t the songs or the marketing to match the Christian holiday. Christmas trees will beat a dreidel in terms of mass appeal any day.
His idea that Jews give their kids new cars as presents in remembrance of the oil that lasted for eight days is a lame joke that unwittingly calls to mind the appeals of leftist Jews to make Hanukkah an environmentalist festival. But Jacobson’s bizarre suggestion that the remembrance of the struggles of the Hasmoneans be replaced with yet another Jewish commemoration of past suffering, such as at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition or Russian pogroms, illustrates that even a British Jew immune to the self-hating anti-Zionism so prevalent in the UK is still incapable of taking pride in remembrance of a successful struggle for political and religious freedom. It’s as if even Jacobson can’t fathom the idea that Jews aren’t supposed to be the victims in every story.
Jacobson may think that the idea of celebrating a Jewish victory over Syrian-Greek oppressors is not “authentic,” but you have to wonder what is it about a small people’s decision to fight rather than to bow to the dictates of a foreign power intent on wiping out their national identity and faith that he finds so off-putting. Winning Jewish independence isn’t, as he says, “wish fulfillment”; it is a model of pride that is a universal source of inspiration.
Jacobson’s failed attempt at wit at the expense of this festival is more or less what we have come to expect from Jewish authors when they write on Jewish subjects on the Times op-ed page. But the point about Hanukkah is that it exemplifies the spirit of a people who refuse to genuflect before the idols of the popular culture of their day. As such, Hanukkah is an important lesson for contemporary Jews who struggle to maintain their identity as minorities in the Diaspora, as well as for the people of Israel who remain under siege. For all the understandable universal appeal of Christmas and the specific resonance of the festival for Jews, this message of Hanukkah that inspires resistance to the forces that seek to denigrate religion and the values of faith is one that should appeal to all people of goodwill. It’s a pity that this point was of no interest to Jacobson and the Times.