Sam, you are right in pointing to Hitchens’s distortions about Hanukkah. He has a tendency to present a deeply twisted view of Judaism in order to fit his overall thesis about how bad religion is for the world. Now Hanukah is to blame for the creation of Islam (and by implication the Taliban and 9/11)? Well, whatever.
But he is right about one thing in Slate. That is to point out how little Jewish Americans really know about their own holiday’s meaning. Though in Judaism it is a relatively minor holiday celebrating the reassertion of Jewish sovereignty and the freedom to practice their faith against the Greeks, in America it has become a central Jewish moment in the year, a time for gift-giving and candle-lighting, while bearing very little of its original meaning.
Hitchens is taking sides in a fight as old as Hanukkah itself. The Greeks had banned all Jewish practice, including such “irrational” habits as keeping a day of rest. Like the Greeks, Hitchens believes in reason but not in political tolerance–in the right of people to live their own truth, not his. Hitchens likes to paint both his own war and that of the Greeks as the rational children of light against “tribal Jewish backwardness” (theocracy, irrationalism, etc.), but to me the story of Hanukkah looks more like a successful struggle for religious and national independence against secularizing and universalizing tyranny. Remember, unlike the Greeks, the Jews had no ambition to convert the world by force, to impose their truth on everyone else. All they wanted was their Temple, their God, and their way of life, as irrational as it may seem to others. Can a liberal like Hitchens handle this?