The New York Times and Hanukkah
Ever since Adolph Ochs purchased The New York Times in 1896, launching what eventually became the Sulzberger family dynasty that still presides over the newspaper, it has embraced Jewish assimilation. Judaism, for Ochs, was a religion only. Zionism was anathema to the Times, threatening to compromise the loyalty of American Jews to the United States. The restoration of Jewish statehood, two millennia after the destruction of Jewish national sovereignty in the Land of Israel, increased Times discomfort for publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Ochs’s son-in-law and successor. During most of the past seventy years, the Times has reflected the palpable uneasiness of the Sulzberger dynasty with the State of Israel.
As difficult as it might be to select the most obnoxious example of this distress, a recent Times opinion article surely deserves consideration. Entitled “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah” (December 2), it was written by journalist Michael David Lukas, who had previously authored “A Skeptic’s Guide to Passover.” Clearly distressed by Zionism and Israel, he seems to find little value in Judaism other than as a target of his scorn.
After trying to persuade his young daughter of Hanukkah’s supremacy over Christmas, he realized that this was “a zero-sum game.” And Hanukkah was the zero once his “dual identity” as an American and a Jew became “a big deal for mostly assimilated Jews” like himself. Why? Long a holiday when Jews “spun tops and ate greasy food to commemorate what has to be one of God’s least impressive miracles,” he perceives Hanukkah as “a kind of Semitic sidekick for Christmas … a minor festival pumped up.” In his warped understanding, the Hanukkah story is nothing more than “an eight-night celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence.”
Indeed, Lukas professes to have discovered “a darker story in Hanukkah.” In his retelling, harmless Hellenized Jews (perhaps with himself in mind) were “mostly city-dwelling assimilationists who ate pork, didn’t circumcise their male children and made the occasional sacrificial offering to pagan gods.” But the dreaded Maccabees were “religious zealots … who practiced an ancient form of religious warfare.”
Lukas proudly displays his discomfort: born in Berkeley as “the product of intermarriage,” he eats pork (“every so often”), leaving him to wonder (accurately): “what am I if not a Hellenized Jew?” Why, he wonders, “should I light candles and sing songs to celebrate a group of violent fundamentalists?” Although, for the sake of his children, he will light candles, “I’ll be saying a prayer for the Hellenized Jews and for the ‘renegade Jews’ of our day,” his own form of self-worship.
Having once been a Hellenized Jew, I can empathize with Lukas, still embedded in his rebellion against Judaism. Had he lived two millennia ago in the Land of Israel, he surely would have identified with the assimilated Jews who, as the First Book of Maccabees recounts, petitioned Antiochus to give them “authority to introduce the customs of the Gentiles.” Rather than rebel against him, as Mattathias and his followers did, Lukas would have scorned those who were “zealous for the Law” and determined to “maintain the covenant” with God. Their restoration of the Temple and rededication of the altar, prompting the celebration of “great gladness” that lasted for eight days and became known as Hanukkah, would have passed him by.
As Simon the Jewish high priest would tell a representative of the Roman king, “We have neither taken other men’s land, nor have we possession of that which [belongs] to others. … But we, having the opportunity, hold fast the inheritance of our fathers.” That inheritance is of little value to Lukas, and even less to The New York Times, ever eager to display its assimilationist identity and assert its patriotic loyalty.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, to be published in January by Academic Studies Press.