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What celebrating Hanukkah means amid rising antisemitism: 'A palpable sense of fear'

On Hanukkah, Jews celebrate a festival of lights. But recent months have felt dim for many.

The Israel-Hamas war began Oct. 7 – and since then, the Anti-Defamation League has reported a drastic spike in antisemitism in the U.S.

Preliminary data from the ADL shows 1,402 antisemitic incidents occurred across the U.S. from Oct. 7 through Nov. 20. That marks a 315% increase compared to that time frame last year, which was already an unprecedented year overall for antisemitism. (Think back to Kanye "Ye" West and Kyrie Irving's high-profile antisemitic rhetoric that dominated the news cycle at the time.)

Oren Segal, the ADL's vice president of the Center on Extremism, recognizes these stats are unwelcome news at an already tense time, which may cause some people to feel afraid; "But we don't have a luxury as a community to not be prepared," he says.

Many Jews feel conflicted about how to celebrate Hanukkah this year. Traditionally, Jews display their menorahs in a prominent place, visible from the street, to fulfill the religious obligation of publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah. It's an element of the holiday known in Hebrew as "pirsum ha-nes," which can also pave the way for large public menorah lightings and similar celebrations.

This year, Jews are asking each other: Is it safe to put a menorah in my window? Should I go to the big Hanukkah party at my synagogue? Should I leave my Star of David necklace in my nightstand drawer?

Jews should observe the holiday however they feel safest, according to experts, even if that means doing so in private.

Rabbi Elaine Glickman says Jews who don't feel comfortable publicly celebrating this year shouldn't feel guilty.

"Being Jewish, showing pride in being Jewish, being faithful to Judaism, I don't think that can be reduced to whether you choose to publicly display a menorah or not," says Glickman of Sarasota, Florida.

On Hanukkah, Jews celebrate a festival of lights. This year that light feels dimmer than most.
On Hanukkah, Jews celebrate a festival of lights. This year that light feels dimmer than most.

Antisemitism in the United States

Jews light the menorah during Hanukkah to remember the miraculous triumph of the Maccabee in ancient times, lighting one candle each night for eight nights.

Keep in mind the reality for Jews in the U.S. – about 25 antisemitic acts per day – that's sparking fears amid the holiday. Recent incidents include:

◾ 35 antisemitic assaults

◾ 241 incidents of antisemitic vandalism

◾ 535 acts of harassment

◾ 591 anti-Israel rallies with antisemitic rhetoric

"I've talked to people around the country, obviously, based on the work that I do, and there is a palpable sense of fear," Segal says. "There truly is. I think people are still rattled to their core about what they saw on Oct. 7. And frankly, people are still dealing with the realities of a conflict that is not going away."

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'Elevated levels of antisemitism' before Oct. 7

Antisemitism has hardly been dormant in the U.S.; "Even prior to the massacre, we were seeing elevated levels of antisemitism," Segal says.

A little more than two years ago, when conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted in May 2021, "we saw a similar spike in antisemitic incidents, not quite as bad as this," according to Segal. "And I think also, very importantly, the online environment is animating and motivating real-world activity more than we've seen before."

This Hanukkah, many Jews are seeking solidarity with allies. A viral meme being shared in recent days reads: "If you're wondering what to get me for Hanukkah, I'm really into unequivocal condemnations of antisemitism." "In some ways, that's the most painful and critical piece of Hanukkah this year, which is where's the wider community?" asks Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. "Is the wider community standing with us in this moment, confronting antisemitism?"

'It's pretty hard to avoid'

Jews are likely thinking about the history of the holiday, given the "triumph" in the Hanukkah story was, well, a war. "It's pretty hard to avoid, in this moment, celebrating Hanukkah, to not have that element of the ancient war, that the Maccabees fought, not somehow come into our observance," Jacobs says.

Ancient rabbis were ambivalent about the notion of militarism as part of the tradition. "They pushed the emphasis to be the jar of oil and kindling light in a time of darkness," Jacobs adds. "And they were nervous about whether in every generation there would be attempts to militarily have to defend the Jewish people."

What further complicates feelings this year is that one must remember that Jews span the spectrum when it comes to their politics and opinions on the current war: While some support Israel's actions, others are vocally against them.

Jacobs adds we "hope for a time of peace, a time when all who live in the region will dwell in safety."

How to celebrate Hanukkah amid antisemitism

Whatever your plans, know that your interpretations of Judaism are valid. Setting a menorah in a window is recommended but Jewish law also states that in times of danger, it is enough to put a menorah inside on one's table rather than publicly on the windowsill. Each Jew must decide on whether they feel safe enough to do so.

You can still recognize the holiday privately by reading about it online and by making latkes and/or eating jelly donuts.

"Even if you do it with the curtains drawn, you can still have a party, can still celebrate, you can still bring light," Glickman says.

How can Jews protect themselves? "To the degree that the past is any indication, people need to be aware – congregations, law enforcement – that there may be individuals online who are going to try to exploit the holidays to try to disrupt services and create fear and anxiety," Segal says.

Allies should educate themselves on the conflict, which doesn't mean just reading social media posts. "People need to, at minimum, realize that they need to understand the information that's being shared there very critically," Segal adds. "And not to believe everything that is said and that there are people who are literally designing campaigns to try to share disinformation."

At this moment, some are feeling a stronger need to express their Judaism than ever before. If you are comfortable outwardly expressing your Jewish identity, you're not alone.

"(Some) people feel an intense need to publicly express Jewish pride and identity, which is a strong feeling that people have," Jacobs says. "Many feel almost a need to be defiant."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In 2023, Hanukkah celebrations arrive against backdrop of antisemitism