Why Chanukah is the Perfect Festival for Religious Freedom

Published 7 December 2015
Hanukka post

This article was published in the Washington Post on 7th December 2015

Chanukah is the festival on which Jews celebrate their victory in the fight for religious freedom more than two thousand years ago. Tragically that fight is no less important today, and not only for Jews, but for people of all faiths.

The Jewish story is simple enough. In around 165 BCE Antiochus IV, ruler of the Syrian branch of the Alexandrian empire, began to impose Greek culture on the Jews of the land of Israel. Funds were diverted from the Temple to public games and drama competitions. A statue of Zeus was erected in Jerusalem. Jewish religious rituals such as circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath were banned. Those who kept them were persecuted. It was one of the great crises in Jewish history. There was a real possibility that Judaism, the world’s first monotheism, would be eclipsed.

A group of Jewish pietists rose in rebellion. Led by a priest, Mattathias of Modi’in, and his son Judah the Maccabee, they began the fight for liberty. Outnumbered, they suffered heavy initial casualties, but within three years they had secured a momentous victory. Jerusalem was restored to Jewish hands. The Temple was rededicated. The celebrations lasted for eight days. Chanukah, which means “rededication”, was established as a festival to perpetuate the memory of those days.

Almost twenty-two centuries have passed since then, yet today religious liberty, enshrined as article 18 in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is at risk in many parts of the world. Christians are being persecuted throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia. In Mosul, Iraq’s second city, Christians have been kidnapped, tortured, crucified and beheaded. The Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, has been driven out. Yazidis, members of an ancient religious sect, have been threatened with genocide.

In Nigeria Boko Haram, an Islamist group, has captured Christian children and sold them as slaves. In Madagali, Christian men were taken and beheaded, and the women forcibly converted to Islam and taken by the terrorists as wives. Nor has Boko Haram limited itself to persecuting Christians. It has targeted the Muslim establishment as well, and was probably behind the attack on the Grand Mosque in Kano.

Sectarian religious violence in the Central African Republic has led to the destruction of almost all its 436 mosques. In Burma, 140,000 Rohingya Muslims and 100,000 Kachin Christians have been forced to flee. No wonder that the 2015 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom speaks of “humanitarian crises fuelled by waves of terror, intimidation and violence.”

Countries where the crisis is acute include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. In Syria alone, where some of the worst crimes against humanity are taking place, 6.5 million people are internally displaced while 3.3 million have become refugees elsewhere.

Nor is the violence confined to these places. As became evident in the recent terrorist outrage in Paris in which 130 people were murdered, globalization means that conflict anywhere can be exported everywhere. It would be hard to find a precedent in recent history for this widening wave of chaos and barbarity. The end of the Cold War has turned out to be not the start of an era of peace but instead an age of proliferating tribal, ethnic and religious clashes. Region after region has been reduced to what Thomas Hobbes called “the war of every man against every man”, in which life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Is there a way forward? More than half a century ago the Oxford philosopher John Plamenatz noted that religious freedom was born in Europe in the seventeenth century after a devastating series of religious wars. All it took was a single shift, from the belief that “Faith is the most important thing; therefore everyone should honour the one true faith”, to the belief that “Faith is the most important thing; therefore everyone should be free to honour his or her own faith.”

This meant that people of all faiths were guaranteed that whichever religion was dominant, he or she would still be free to obey their own call of conscience. Plamenatz’s striking conclusion was that “Liberty of conscience was born, not of indifference, not of scepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith.” The very fact that my religion is important to me allows me to understand that your quite different religion is no less important to you.

It took much bloodshed before people were prepared to acknowledge this simple truth, which is why we must never forget the lessons of the past if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Chanukah reminds us that people will fight for religious freedom, and the attempt to deprive them of it will always end in failure.

The symbol of Chanukah is the menorah we light for eight days in memory of the Temple candelabrum, purified and rededicated by the Maccabees all those centuries ago. Faith is like a flame. Properly tended, it gives light and warmth, but let loose, it can burn and destroy. We need, in the twenty-first century, a global Chanukah: a festival of freedom for all the world’s faiths. For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mine, if we are each free to light our own flame, together we can banish some of the darkness of the world.