Corbynism and Chanukah: A Response to Joe Glasman: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

January 5, 2020

In Uncategorized


The triumphal Facebook video[1] celebrating the election result that was made by Joe  Glasman, Director of Political Investigations at the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) only confirms what we all knew already:  what a coordinated, orchestrated effort the non-stop, virulent smear campaign against Corbyn has been: “every single day, we all rolled up our sleeves and fought for the same cause… all had a natural and unshakeable moral understanding of what needed to be done”.

Jewish communal organisations, non-Jewish celebrity novelists like J.K. Rowling or Robert Harris, right-wing Labour MPs,  the Tory press, left-leaning, liberal media like the Guardian and the New Statesman – all these disparate groups were united by the need to preserve middle-class interests against the threat of a genuinely radical and transformative Socialist government.  In terms of middle-class liberals (of whom Glasman certainly isn’t one), Yanis Varoufakis has pointed out “the great 2019 British paradox” that the Labour Manifesto was “uniquely tailored to the concerns of Britain’s so-called middle ground” – climate change, equality, poverty, the NHS — and yet middle-class liberals had never been so hostile to Corbyn.  Varoufakis also comments that “soon after Corbyn became leader, I warned that a huge campaign of character assassination was inevitable”. [2]

Of course, the Jewish groups who led the campaign were motivated by fear that Corbyn, if he became Prime Minister, would push for the end of the Occupation and for a genuine two-state solution in Israel/Palestine; but even more than this, they fought to prevent a Socialist government.

It is, however, a matter of dispute how far the antisemitism hysteria was the cause of the defeat of the Labour Party.  Of course such a long and virulent smear campaign must have made a contribution; the question is how much.  In my view, the main reason for the disaster that befell Labour was its shift since 2017 towards Remain and a second referendum. Of the 60 seats Labour lost, 52 were in English and Welsh Leave seats.[3]   So Glasman’s triumphant boast that “we did it”– which ironically plays into antisemitic conspiracy “tropes” (a more appropriate acronym for his group would be the CFA:  Campaign For Antisemitism) — is probably mistaken.   In so far as Corbyn’s leadership was the cause, it was the sense that he was not a strong leader who stood his ground that seems to have alienated voters, more than the antisemitism smear campaign, which seems only to have provided further reinforcement (and, just as Corbyn’s appeasement of Remainers only made Remain stronger, so his constant appeasement of the Jewish communal leaders only intensified their demands and attacks).   If Corbyn and Labour had been true to the pledge in the 2017 Labour Manifesto to accept the democratic vote in 2016 to Leave and to achieve a Labour Brexit that would benefit the many, not the few, it is unlikely that the antisemitism hysteria campaign would have succeeded.

But I want to focus here on Glasman’s claims that a) Corbyn does not understand Judaism and Jewish history; and b) that members of the Corbyn-supporting Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) are akin to the second century BCE Hellenised Jews who, according to the First Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, “built a place of exercise at Jerusalem, according to the customs of the heathen/And made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen, and were sold to do mischief”  (1: 14-15).

Glasman says sneeringly:

“Chanukah and Corbyn are a comedy combo.  The sainted Jeremy is always pictured lighting Chanukah candles.  But you really do wonder if anyone bothered to tell him that this is a two-millennia-old celebration of a military victory to re-establish Jewish national and religious sovereignty in Jerusalem.  I wouldn’t have thought that was Jezza’s favourite party invite; but hey, Jewish studies are clearly not his forte.”

But are Jewish studies Joe Glasman’s forte?  Who has the better understanding of Chanukah: Glasman or Corbyn?  Answering this question requires a look at the complex historical background to the story of Chanukah.

The Jewish families who had been exiled to Babylon at the beginning of the sixth century BCE were allowed (by Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, after the Persians had defeated the Babylonian Empire) to return to Palestine at the end of the century (though in fact many Jews stayed in Babylon).  The defeat and exile inflicted by the Babylonian invaders (who had destroyed the Temple) had been interpreted by the Prophets as a punishment for idolatry, nationalism and militarism.  The Jews who returned were determined to create a just society that would not succumb to these sins.  They established a theocratic republic, ruled by Scribes and Priests.

The Jews lived in a small area around Jerusalem called Judea,  devoting themselves to rebuilding the Temple, carrying out the Temple ritual and studying and interpreting the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) in the synagogues.  The Temple was only regarded as important because its ritual was set out in the Torah, which was the central focus.  The Synagogue, which had been developed in Babylon, had in fact become more significant than the Temple; and Rabbis (initially called Hasidim and later called Pharisees) were emerging who had more authority among the people than the Temple Priests.

For several centuries, the Jews of Judea lived in this way, until, in the second century BCE, Palestine came under the rule of the Syrian-Greek Empire.  (Alexander the Great had, in his turn, defeated the Persian Empire; after his death, his Greek Empire was split up and Palestine came first under the sway of Egypt and later under the rule of the Syrian-Greeks). One of the Syrian-Greek rulers, the mad Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes, marched on Jerusalem with his army, desecrated the Temple, set up a statue within it of Zeus (which whom he identified himself), on whose altar pigs were sacrificed, and issued decrees forcing the Jews to abandon Judaism.  The outraged people rose in rebellion, led by the five sons of Mattathias, a Priest:  Judas Maccabeus and his band of brothers.  After guerrilla warfare and a series of battles, the Maccabees drove the Syrian-Greeks out of Judea in 160 BCE (though Judas Maccabeus himself was killed in battle in 161 BCE).

The desecrated and vandalised Temple was repaired and re-dedicated; and the Maccabees ruled the people as High Priests; but later made themselves into Kings.  They became known as the Hasmonean dynasty, after Mattathias’s great-grandfather, who was called Hasmon.

The Rabbis supported the Maccabean Revolt; but when the Hasmoneans made themselves into Kings and combined the High Priesthood with the Monarchy, religious/ceremonial status with political power, thus corrupting both institutions, relations deteriorated and the Rabbis ended up on terms of bitter animosity with the royal family.  Ironically, the Maccabees became exactly the kind of corrupt Hellenised Kings that Judas Maccabeus had fought against. The later Hasmoneans expanded their territory in aggressive wars, thus incurring even more the wrath of the Rabbis.

The Rabbis left out the two Books of Maccabees from the final editing of the Bible (these two books were collected in the Apocrypha, which was compiled by Christians); and in the liturgy for Chanukah composed by the Rabbis, the emphasis is on the legend of a miracle that took place during the re-dedication of the Temple.

According to this story (which is not mentioned in the two Books of Maccabees), the Syrian-Greeks had polluted all the flasks of holy oil that were used to light the Menorah, the seven branched candlestick in the Temple – all except one small flask.  It took eight days to prepare more holy oil; but that small flask lasted eight days.  In commemoration of the miracle, the festival lasts eight days; and each family lights eight candles in a candlestick called a Menorah: one candle the first night, two on the second and so on. The Prayer Book makes it clear that the festival of Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory.

In addition, the reading from the Prophets in the synagogue service on Chanukah is a passage from the Prophet Zechariah that includes the words: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (4:6) — i.e. the universal spirit of truth, freedom, justice and peace.  This is clearly intended to counteract the military connotations of the festival.

So Glasman’s claim that “this is a two-millennia-old celebration of a military victory to re-establish Jewish national and religious sovereignty in Jerusalem” reveals his own lack of understanding of Chanukah.  And his implicit and unhistorical equation of the recovery and re-dedication of the Temple in the second century BCE with present-day Israel’s nationalistic, militaristic claim of sovereignty over Occupied East Jerusalem again shows his own lack of understanding of Jewish history and of the meaning of Chanukah.  The Israeli government has become Antiochus Epiphanes.  By desecrating the Temple, Antiochus had sought to destroy Judaism and thus eliminate the Jews as a people; nowadays, Israel seeks to eradicate Palestinian culture and national identity; this includes ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Jerusalem.

In contrast to Glasman’s description of Chanukah , Corbyn’s Chanukah message this year correctly puts all the emphasis on the miracle of the oil and the message of hope amid darkness conveyed by the lighting of the candles.[4]

In his triumphalist rejoicing over Labour’s defeat, Glasman celebrates the victory of far-right English nationalism — and in passing expresses his support for far-right, militaristic Israeli nationalism.  He compares Corbyn to Antiochus Epiphanes – but who more closely resembles the mad, narcissistic Emperor, especially in the current Iran crisis: Corbyn or Donald Trump, with whom his close ally Boris Johnson intends to strike a trade deal that is likely to sell off the NHS?  Glasman accuses Jewish Voice for Labour of going along with a dominant power – but in celebrating the Tory victory, Glasman and the CAA are assimilating to a prevailing culture of right-wing nationalism and militarism.   In contrast, JVL supports the universalistic, transformative vision of freedom, equality, justice and peace that is the true, indestructible and vitally necessary message of Corbynism and Chanukah.