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IT IS NOT far-fetched to liken the domestic and foreign policies of our radical Republican government to the Greek Syrians’ running of pigs through the Jerusalem Temple in ancient times. The lies told to the public, Congress, and the international community about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” and “support for terrorism” have desecrated the public trust. The trillion dollar tax cuts for the wealthy have desecrated the concept of economic justice. The assaults on environmental protection have desecrated the earth. And the disregard for civil liberties embodied by the Patriot Acts has desecrated the Bill of Rights.
However, like Antiochus or any other predatory ruler, President Bush is also encountering resistance. In honor of the forthcoming Hanukkah season, therefore, we want not only to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Dylan Thomas) but to honor those who are lighting candles against the darkness through acts of political courage and ingenuity.
When it comes to Maccabean-style political mobilization, for example, no one has done more to overcome years of liberal paralysis than MoveOn.org, the online political action forum founded in 1998 by Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, two Silicon Valley computer entrepreneurs. (A similarly named group, the MoveOn Peace Campaign, was founded by Eli Pariser, a college student, immediately after the September 11th 2001 attacks. He garnered half a million signatures on a petition against military retaliation, and the two groups merged shortly thereafter.) MoveOn.org raised more than $3.5 million for congressional campaigns in 2002 and this year helped launch Howard Dean to the top of the list of Democratic presidential candidates through an online poll in which more than a million people voted. The conservative movement has been assembling money and votes this way for years. Now progressives are striking back, and learning how to organize in the 21st century.
Two New York politicians are Hanukkah heroes this year. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is unique among elected officials in focusing on corporate crime and making sure that the Enron scandal and other public examples of gross corporate cheating will have consequences beyond a bit of negative p.r. While jail terms for executives will not restore pension funds or the nearly three million jobs lost during Bush’s three years as president, Spitzer’s investigations of financial markets and shady corporate practices will hopefully heighten transparency and accountability in the business world and protect the life savings of millions of American families.
Meanwhile, Senator Charles Schumer has surprised us by helping to lead the Democratic campaign to use the filibuster to block Bush administration appointments of right-wing ideologues to highly influential federal appeals courts. Miguel Estrada, Priscilla Owen, William Pryor and Charles Pickering have all been stopped by Democratic filibusters (or their threatened use). Schumer, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is essentially serving as representative for the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, and other important liberal organizations that are up in arms over Bush’s efforts to hand the courts over to the Christian Right.
At the conclusion of its recent term, the Supreme Court offered a gratifying example of just why it is so important to keep ideologues out of the judiciary system. In Lawrence v. State of Texas, the Court decided by a 6-3 vote to overturn all state sodomy laws, thus removing another level of legal and social stigma from gay and lesbian relationships. Justice Anthony Kennedy stands out as a Hanukkah hero for his eloquent majority opinion, which included humanizing language that was quite a contrast to the hate-mongering about gays and lesbians that the Christian Right has been indulging in for years. Rabbi Joshua Lesser explained the impact of this landmark decision in Reconstructionism Today (Autumn, 2003):
Cases involving gay adoption, child custody, divorce, employment discrimination, civil rights and hate crime legislation have all been argued against gay and lesbian interests based on the fact that sodomy was illegal... Beyond their octopus-like legal impact, sodomy laws encouraged hatred directed towards gays and lesbians — and fueled self-hatred for many of us.
Speaking of eloquence, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia is to be admired for his Maccabean speeches on the Senate floor last February in opposing the rush to invade Iraq. “The doctrine of preemption,” he warned,
the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future, is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self-defense... In my heart of hearts, I pray that this great nation and its good and trusting citizens are not in for a rudest of awakenings.
Alas, that rude awakening is already here, as looting and anarchy, guerrilla attacks, and foolish, destabilizing decisions by the occupation authorities have caused a mountain of body bags to pile up and billions to drain from the American treasury. To paraphrase our life subscriber Pete Seeger, we are waist deep in the big wadi, “and the big fool says to push on.”
AMONG THE DOMESTIC resources imperiled by the “big fool” is the Head Start program of early education for one million children of low-income families — which Bush, in a show of his bullying style, tried to dismantle last spring. On May 8th, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services went so far as to issue a letter threatening Head Start teachers and parents with civil action and even jail time if they spoke out against the Bush plan to hand over Head Start to cash-strapped state governments, signaling the likely end of the thirty-eight year-old program. On July 25th, the House of Representatives defeated the Head Start dismantlement by a one-vote margin. We honor Sarah Greene, president of the National Head Start Association, for leading the struggle with some honest words. “Americans should not be taken in by the snake-oil sales pitch that there is something ailing Head Start that needs to be remedied,” she said after the House vote. “However, there are things that we can and should do to make Head Start even better, such as... expanding the program to include the forty percent of eligible U.S. children who are not covered...”
Twenty-seven more Hanukkah heroes are to be found in the Israeli Air Force — namely, those twenty-seven veteran and active pilots who on September 24th announced their refusal to conduct bombings in the West Bank and Gaza. Even while the Road Map collapses in its very earliest stages — in part because Bush has gotten into a dangerous romance with Ariel Sharon while turning a blind eye to unfortunate Palestinian political realities — these Israeli warriors are insisting that tit-for-tat violence will lead only to more killings and more insecurity (for more, see “It Happened in Israel” in our print edition).
Here at home, Marcia Freedman, a former Israeli Knesset member and feminist pioneer who founded Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, is a Maccabean hero to us for envisioning the dismantlement of Israeli settlements, based not on condemnation but on compensation. The Brit Tzedek program appeals to the patriotism of the settlers and acknowledges the investment that they have made in their homes and communities. For the sake of Israel’s future, Freedman argues, settlers should accept compensation and move back within Israel’s green line — which polls have shown all but 20,000 of them willing to do. This idea was further elaborated in a New York Times September op-ed piece by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, historian and former American Jewish Congress leader who has long been a Maccabean gadfly in American Jewish life. “An American government that was resolved to stop expansion of the settlements,” wrote Hertzberg, “would not need to keep sending the secretary of state to Jerusalem to repeat that we really mean what we say. We could prove it by deducting the total cost of the settlements each year from the United States’ annual allocation [of $4 billion] to Israel.” To help relocate settlers, Hertzberg proposed a $1 billion a year escrow fund. We applaud him for having the chutzpah to address the topic of U.S. aid to Israel as a tool of leverage.
To round out our Hanukkah heroes at thirty-six (the total number of menorah candles, apart from the shammes, kindled during the eight-day festival), we light a candle for Avraham Burg, former Knesset Speaker and current Labor Party leader in Israel, for his heartbreaking words about the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, published in Israel’s Yediot Achronot and then in the Forward. “The Israeli nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and injustice,” Burg wrote. “... There may yet be a Jewish state here, but it will be a different sort, strange and ugly.” North American Jews, he added, “must pay heed and speak out. If the pillar collapses, the upper floors will come crashing down.” Mattathias, father of the Maccabean revolution, could not have put it better.
“Strange and ugly” equally describes the America being fashioned by George W. Bush. May this Hanukkah mark the beginning of the end of his reign!