No War on Hanukkah
On the seventh night of Hanukkah in 1944, my father was in Auschwitz. He had been deported with his parents and four of his five siblings to the Nazi extermination camp eight months earlier; by Hanukkah, only my father was still alive. That year, he kindled no Hanukkah lights. In Auschwitz, where anything and everything was punishable by death, any Jew caught practicing his religion could expect to be sent to the gas chambers, or shot on the spot.The people who battle to water down and neuter the Christian Christmas do so in the name of “inclusiveness.”
On the seventh night of Hanukkah in 2007, I was in the White House. President and Mrs. Bush have made it an annual tradition to host a Hanukkah celebration in addition to the customary White House Christmas parties, and my wife and I were honored to receive an invitation to this year’s reception.
It was in every way a beautiful and festive event. It was also an unmistakably Jewish one, from the lavish buffet dinner prepared in a meticulously “koshered” White House kitchen, to the Hebrew songs performed by the Zamir Chorale, to the several hundred guests drawn from every segment of the American Jewish community. There was even a spontaneous worship service in the Green Room, where at one point about two dozen guests assembled for Ma’ariv, the Jewish evening prayers. All this in a White House richly decorated for Christmas and occupied by a president who is devoutly Christian. It is hard to imagine a more compelling illustration of the American culture of religious tolerance and freedom.
Earlier in the evening there had been a menorah lighting in the Grand Foyer of the White House. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of Jews who fought long ago to preserve their religious identity in the face of an oppressive government determined to erase it, and President Bush spoke of the ongoing struggle for religious liberty today. “As we light the Hanukkah candles this year,” he said, “we pray for those who still live under the shadow of tyranny.”
Auschwitz, Baghdad, Poland, Pakistan: In so many places, across so many generations, to be Jewish has meant to be oppressed, excluded, terrorized. More than most people, Jews know what it means to be a hated and persecuted minority.
And more than most, therefore, they have reason to be profoundly grateful for the United States and its blessings. America is what the Jewish sages called “malchut shel chesed” — a benevolent and generous nation. In the long history of the Jews, America has been a safe harbor virtually without parallel. Nowhere in all their wanderings have the Jews known such freedom, peace, and prosperity.
So I strolled about the White House last week, gazing at the portraits of past presidents and first ladies and listening to the Marine Band play “I Have A Little Dreidel.” By the light of the White House menorah, I thought about my father, and about the unimaginable distance from the hell he knew in 1944 to this place of joy and warmth where I found myself in 2007. I was overcome with a feeling of gratitude so intense that for a moment I was too choked up to speak. To be an American and a Jew is truly to be doubly blessed.
We don’t want it to be distinctively Christian, they argue, we want it to be for everybody.
The problem is that this sort of “Holiday Season” is very “exclusive” toward Christians. It says that their holiday can’t be celebrated — at least in the public square — as a distinctively religious holiday.
The White House Hanukkah celebration is exactly the right idea. Religious traditions should be honored and respected by government — equally. And honored and respected in their robust and undiluted form. Anything else shows bias.