‘Concerned and afraid’: Jews celebrate Hanukkah amid rise in hate

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(NEW YORK) — Hanukkah has taken on a new meaning this year for many in the Jewish community after Israel was attacked by terrorist group Hamas on Oct. 7.

More than 1,200 people in Israel were killed, and 6,900 others injured, according to Israeli officials. An estimated 236 people are said to have been taken hostage in the attack.

Israel has retaliated in a siege on Gaza, killing more than 15,900 people in Gaza and injuring 42,000 more, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run Ministry of Health and the Hamas government media office.

Hanukkah, which translates to “dedication,” is about a recommitment to the ideals of Judaism, according to New York City rabbi Diana Fersko. It honors the Jewish fighters who fought against Syrian armies to defend their religious beliefs in 164 BCE.

“Hanukkah is a story of survival against great odds,” said Fersko, author of We Need to Talk About Antisemitism. “It’s about the Jewish people persevering even when our detractors seem overwhelming.

This year, Hanukkah will be celebrated amid a backdrop of growing tensions in the U.S. related to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Communities whose identities are tied to the conflict overseas — Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Arabs — have become targets of hate here in the United States.

Federal and local authorities are sounding the alarm about a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Jewish leaders say the holiday’s history is an apt reminder of the ongoing effort to combat antisemitism and stand proud of their Jewish identity.

While members of the community may feel cautious about putting menorahs in their windows or publicly celebrating this Hanukkah, Jewish Federations of North America President Eric Fingerhut says that embracing their Jewish heritage is “an act of strength and determination” in the face of hate.

“Our hope is that the Hanukkah lights will do for us what they’ve done in ancient times, that they will bring some light into this darkness and point us towards an end to this period and towards a brighter period,” said Fingerhut.

JFNA is an umbrella group of Jewish communal organizations around the United States.

The threat of hate

The Jewish community has seen an increase in vandalism, threats, violence and other crimes across the country.

The growing number of incidents come with a backdrop of the longstanding warning from officials in recent years about a rise in antisemitic sentiment in the mainstream.

The Department of Homeland Security earlier urged Jewish leaders to be cautious of individuals who have been “incited to violence by an ideology of hate.”

Authorities have not identified any specific plots linked to Hanukkah, but have also warned of “renewed calls for attacks against Jewish individuals and targets” by foreign terror groups and domestic violent extremists, according to a recent threat assessment obtained by ABC News.

Jewish organizations and institutions say they will heed these warnings, but that security precautions have long been in place to protect their communities. Antisemitism has been a constant threat that’s been appearing to grow in the mainstream in recent years, according to federal officials.

The ongoing conflict has only led groups to further escalate their security needs.

Experts at the Jewish security organization Secure Community Network said in a Dec. 5 hearing that people are “concerned and afraid.”

In an online briefing, they urged community leaders to coordinate with local law enforcement for large events and public gatherings, as well as create plans in anticipation of any potential problems that may arise.

This can look like limiting access to events through ticketing, conducting pre-event surveys of the location regarding best exit procedures, radio dispatches with private security guards, and more.

Tough conversations this holiday season

As families gather to celebrate, conversations about the conflict, Israel’s response to the Hamas attack, and its impact on antisemitism in the U.S. may arise. But community leaders say Jewish institutions are no stranger to difficult conversations.

Some groups like the Jewish Federations of North America say they stand with Israel’s actions “to restore the safety and security of its boundaries, of its borders” following the attack, Fingerhut said.

“Of course, there are disagreements as there always are, but I’ve actually never seen the Jewish community more united,” Fingerhut said, pointing to the March for Israel that he says garnered almost 300,000 attendees.

Others, like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, are calling for a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian territories and an end to what they say are oppressive Israeli policies against Palestinian people that have caused a humanitarian crisis.

Stefanie Fox, executive director of the progressive anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, said that when she lights her candles on the menorah with her family, she too is aware of the increase in violence against the many groups connected to the conflict.

“As I do that with my son, I’m going to be talking about how we are both proudly displaying our Jewish heritage and also proudly displaying our commitment to fighting for a world where everybody is safe in their home,” said Fox.

Community leaders say that communities have been having many tough conversations about the conflict and the aftermath since it began.

Fox urges community members to connect with others across lines of disagreements and differences, and to “start from a place of shared values and see if you can build toward a vision of a very different future than the bloodshed we’re seeing today.”

Fersko calls synagogues “a place of urgent moral conversation,” a reputation expected to hold up amid Hanukkah celebrations.

“I think the Jewish community is actually very strong in having open dialogue with each other and being there for each other and strategizing together,” Fersko said.

She continued, “There is this sense that we’re celebrating Hanukkah with a spirit of defiance.”

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