Hanukkah’s lesson: Antisemitism strengthens Jewish identity and solidarity | Opinion

The Oct. 7 massacre and surge in antisemitism highlight the existential threat bigotry poses to Jews. Yet, paradoxically, antisemitism has fortified Jewish community bonds and identity from ancient times to the present.

The Hanukkah story vividly illustrates how external threats increase internal cohesion in Jewish history, similar to how fire strengthens tempered steel or intense pressure crystallizes carbon atoms to form diamonds.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Jewish history. In the face of adversaries, communities often experience heightened solidarity, which reinforces commitment to shared values and traditions.

But while discrimination might reinforce a group’s identity, it also comes with severe consequences. Beyond the direct harm it causes, it may lead to long-term detrimental psychological effects and deep multi generational trauma.

Despite this, Jews have repeatedly emerged stronger from persecution. As early as the Exodus in the 13th century BCE, Israelites forged their identity in the crucible of Egyptian slavery, going from bondage to liberation, culminating in the unity at Mount Sinai with the receiving of the Torah.

Hanukkah, celebrated this week, also illustrates how struggle enhanced Jewish identity. When the Seleucid Empire banned Jewish religious practices, it sparked a multi-year Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE, leading to a military victory and rededication of the Second Temple, and a crucial internal victory over the assimilation efforts of Hellenized Jews.

Even with the Second Temple’s eventual destruction, the enduring legacy of Hanukkah continues to symbolize the resilience and tenacity of the Jewish people. The Talmud highlights the importance of publicly displaying the Hanukkah menorah. This underscores how that historic persecution galvanized public Jewish expression marked with the ubiquitous public menorah displays seen today around the world.

Establishing Israel

The establishment of the state of Israel post-World War II from the ashes of the Holocaust’s unimaginable horrors epitomized transforming adversity into a hub of innovation and cultural richness that Israel is today. Prior to that, the 18th and 19th century pogroms spurred Zionists like Theodore Herzl to recognize the need for a homeland free from the whims of bigoted aristocrats and mobs. The March for Israel rally in Washington after the horrific Oct. 7 massacre was described as the largest display of solidarity in numbers in modern Jewish history.

At times, Jews have even seen oppressive conditions as ironically beneficial in preserving their identity. In the early 19th century, some Hasidic Jews favored the tsar over Napoleon. They believed that the tsar’s oppressive regime was preferable to Napoleon’s modernizing influence, fearing that it might lead to assimilation. They believed that the fear of losing identity helped preserve their way of life. Today, Jews view freedom as a unique opportunity for Jewish life to thrive and prosper without the high cost of persecution.

Mark Twain famously marveled at the Jewish people’s survival in the face of relentless persecution. He noted the fall of great empires like Egypt, Babylon and Rome, while “the Jew saw them all, beat them all.” He asked, “What is the secret of the Jews’ immortality?” Twain unknowingly answered his own question. The relentless persecution, while a formidable threat, paradoxically plays a crucial role in the secret to Jewish survival.

Ironically, the Jewish people owe gratitude to antisemitism. Not for the suffering and trauma it has caused, but for the unity, strength and identity it has unwittingly cultivated. It’s a classic case of the oppressor shaping an indomitable spirit they sought to extinguish.

If antisemites realized that their actions fortify, rather than fracture, Jewish solidarity, perhaps it would deter them?

When confronting hate and darkness, the Lubavitcher Rebbe emphasized increasing light and holiness. This wisdom captures the Jewish response of transforming hatred and threats to a catalyst for strengthening faith and identity, like the flickering menorah’s flames shining in the darkest nights.

Eli Federman has written on law and religion for the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Reuters.