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December 18, 2019 8:02 am

On Hanukkah, Remember Those Who Can’t Celebrate Their Religion

avatar by Jason Shvili


Members of Turkey’s Jewish community and visitors gather around a Hanukkah menorah during a celebration of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah at Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey, Dec. 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Murad Sezer.

Hanukkah is fast approaching. Soon, Jews all over the world will begin celebrating the Festival of Lights, gathering together to light the menorah and exchange gifts, as the Jewish people have done for centuries.

Hanukkah is a celebration of religious freedom. I still vaguely remember learning about the story of the holiday as a young child in Hebrew school. Syrian Greeks, who ruled the Land of Israel in a time long ago, would not let the Jewish people practice their religion, and sought to convert them to idol worship. A rebellion took place, led by a family called the Maccabees. They drove the Syrian Greeks out of Israel and rededicated the Holy Temple. But they could only find enough oil to light the Temple Menorah for one day. Then a miracle took place. The menorah stayed lit for eight days. And from then on, the Jews have celebrated their hard-won right to practice their religion freely.

Freedom of religion is not a right that should be taken for granted. Many Jews throughout the world still cannot practice Judaism without fear of negative consequences. Antisemitism is alive and well. In fact, even in some Western democracies, Jews have increasingly refrained from wearing kippas or other Jewish garb out of fear that they will be victims of antisemitic attacks.

Barely a day goes by when I don’t hear of another synagogue vandalized, another Jewish cemetery desecrated with swastikas, or a Jewish person being targeted and attacked for wearing a kippa.

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As we celebrate Hanukkah, however, I believe that it is incumbent upon us to think not only of our struggle to maintain our Judaism without fear, but also the struggle of multitudes of other people all over the world who still cannot practice their religion as they see fit.

We should think, for example, of the Christians of the Middle East, who have been relentlessly persecuted, sometimes tortured, enslaved, and murdered, by Islamic fundamentalists like those of ISIS. Even Christians living in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the territories in the West Bank ruled by the Palestinian Authority, just steps away from Israel, have not been spared. Ever since the signing of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, the number of Christians in these territories has declined sharply, as many have fled to escape persecution at the hands of the Palestinians.

Indeed, there has been a rapid decline in the number of Christians throughout the Middle East. The State of Israel is pretty much the only place in the region where Christians can worship freely, without fearing for their lives.

We, the Jewish people, should also keep in our minds and our hearts the struggles of various religious minorities in other parts of the world.

In China, for example, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims can only dream of the kind of religious freedom that we enjoy in Canada or in Israel. Neither group is allowed to practice their religion freely. A Tibetan Buddhist can be arrested for simply having a picture of the Dalai Lama, and a Uighur Muslim is not even allowed to fast during Ramadan. Countless Uighur Muslims have reportedly been put into detention camps, where they are forcibly indoctrinated into abandoning their Muslim faith, as well as their language and culture.

Having endured some of the worst persecution in human history, I believe that as Jews, we have an obligation to remember and support other religious groups that face an uphill battle to maintain their respective faiths, wherever they may be. So during Hanukkah, as we remember and celebrate the brave Jewish warriors who fought and died so that we could have our freedom, let us also remember and celebrate those who continue to fight for theirs.

Jason Shvili is a freelance writer in Toronto, Canada.

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