Chanukah, the celebration of light when the days are shortest, is fast approaching. During this dark season, I am reminded of the historical context in which Chanukah became an occasion to be remembered.
The light that we should be celebrating in this season of darkness is the light of self-determination. The story of Chanukah is a tale of a people unwilling to be assimilated and unable to lose their uniqueness. That was the miracle. A nation with an unbreakable desire to determine their own collective fate fought the vast imperial forces that surrounded them. They fought and won.
Self-determination is an essential element of human freedom. Much of Jewish history is marked with struggles to keep our people’s future in our own hands. This desire is at the core of our exodus from Egypt, the source of our tears by the rivers of Babylon, and deep within the texts of Zionist thinkers who sought to build a free and just society. (To be sure, the irony of the possibility that the Maccabi success led to religious nationalism is not lost on me in today’s reality in Israel).
Self-determination is a right that all peoples seek. It is at the centre of freedom struggles all over the globe. Home is not where the heart is; home is where one determines their own life and has the ability to reach their potential as an individual and as part of a collective.
In Silwan, once an independent village, now a neighbourhood in the shadow of the old city and swallowed by Jerusalem, home is exactly what is being taken away. In the name of archeology an organization called Elad, supported by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has found it more important to continue the “City of David” archeological dig than to let the people of Silwan live in their homes. They have found it more important to bring tour groups through potentially interesting sites than to allow human beings the right to home.
Earlier this month I was present when the Sumerin family learned that they would be able to keep their home despite the previous eviction order, which was requested by Himnuta, a subsidiary of the JNF. After losing much of their property to the ticket sales booth and welcome centre for the City of David project, the Sumerin family breathed a sigh of relief that their roof was still their own, for now. There may be more eviction notices to come.
Sitting by the fire in a wheelbarrow in the front yard of the Sumerin house I was happy to be able to share a moment of relief from the constant onslaught by the State of Israel since their land was entered into the nationalization process after the patriarch of the family passed away in the early 1980’s.
The Sumerin family’s struggle is just one case among millions. They are subject to the will of Israeli courts, Israeli organizations trying to take their homes, and Israeli organizations trying to save their homes. Whether this family (or others) wants to be included in Israel or would rather build a Palestinian homeland, the institutions that control their fate represent the Jews of this land and particularly not the Palestinians. Self-determination is an aspiration that eludes them thus far. The self-determination that Israel may represent to Jews here and around the world is currently standing in the way of Palestinian self-determination. Our autonomy cannot be real or lasting if it is infringing on the autonomy of others.
As the City of David grows and Silwan is pushed further down the hill, the government that claims to be the stewards of the Jewish state, a place for all Jews, has been airing ads that make implicitly clear that the track toward deep and frightening nationalism here is also a path which will leave the Jews of the Diaspora behind. The point, they say, was to inspire Israelis living abroad to come home.
The ministry that paid for the ads says they are sorry; they didn’t realize that they would insult American Jews so deeply. It was not the depictions of the non-Israelis in those ads that struck such a chord with viewers. It was the implicit, and as far as I can tell new, message that despite the idea that Israel was supposed to be (in intention) an expression of Jewish self-determination, today it is a separate place. It was the first time that the Israeli government has ever implied so clearly that Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews are no longer a part of the same collective.
What they implied was that Israel is no longer, even in theory, an expression of collective Jewish self-determination. It is a country with a Jewish past, and a patriotic and militaristic culture. That is what shocked American Jews deep inside. Not the silly scenes that the ads depicted.
The xenophobic public service announcements and the march of the City of David over Silwan are both reminders that self-determination is what is at stake in the current struggle to hold on to the democratic ideals that Israel once held as equal to the Jewish context that informs the State’s foundation, culture (and too many laws). The self-determination of the Jewish people is at stake. The self-determination of the Palestinian people is at stake. The two are intertwined.
It is inspiring to know that recently in New York City citizens have begun to reoccupy homes, which banks foreclosed on, leaving families homeless.Homes are being taken away (whether by banks or by governments) all over the world and worldwide steps are being taken to ensure that people have homes to call their own and can determine their own fate. It’s happening in Brooklyn, its happening in Silwan, and it’s spreading.
Whether we are thinking about one home for one family or a home for a nation, self-determination is the foundation on which freedom can thrive. As we navigate this season of darkness, let us light at least one of our many Chanukah candles to self-determination for all peoples.