Last Thursday the eight-day festival of Hanukkah kicked off. Hanukah is the festival of light that celebrates the miracle that happened when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was re-dedicated to Judaism back in the Second Century BCE.
At the time Israel was under the rule of Syrian-Greeks called the Seleucids. The story goes that a small group of Jews fought off the large and well-equipped army, driving them out and reclaiming the Holy Temple as their sacred place of worship.
In the Temple they found only enough oil for the menorah (an eight-pronged candelabra) to be lit for one day, but it burned for eight days. Hanukkah today celebrates this miracle and involves lighting an extra candle on the menorah each day for eight days. These are then placed in windows as a beacon of light. This prominence is unusual given that most Jewish ‘mitzvahs’ (religious duties) are conducted in privacy. Unlike other Jewish festivals people can still work during Hanukkah and it was a late addition to the calendar as it occurred after the Torah was written.
As well as lighting the menorah candles, there are special evening prayers and it is customary to eat fried foods such as jam donuts (called sufganiyah) and potato pancakes called latkes.
I am always astounded to learn how front and centre Jerusalem is to so many of the religious festivals that are celebrated worldwide. Judaism expounds that The Holy Temple is such a sacred site that it provides direct access to God. The Hanukkah story took place in the days of the Second Temple and this went on to be destroyed by the Romans in 70CE.
Since the Seventh Century the site has been occupied by the Al Aqsa Mosque compound which includes the spectacular Dome of the Rock. Despite this, some people firmly believe that the Third Temple will rise again on this same spot. This makes it the most contested religious property in the world, and it is the prize jewel at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Earlier this year, back in the time when it was perfectly normal to meet friends in coffee shops, I was out with my friend Ingela. Hearing us speaking English, an older woman came over to ask us where we were from. She was primly dressed in conservative Jewish style with a long skirt, thick tights and sensible black laced shoes. She wore a hat that covered her hair. We explained that we were Scottish and Swedish and that we lived in Jerusalem.
She asked if we had been to the Temple Institute and we apologised that we’d never heard of it. ‘Oh it is the best place in Jerusalem, I take all of my visitors there, you simply have to see it’. There was an awkward pause as she lingered beside our table. We nodded to placate her and then resumed our conversation, eager to avoid a full sermon on the matter.
I was intrigued however, and that turned to a fascinated sense of alarm after I visited the institute’s website. The organisation promotes clearing the site of the Muslim places of worship and rebuilding the temple during our lifetime. Any understanding I can possibly muster for the strong religious sentiments behind this, evaporate in the face of such single-minded detachment from reality and disregard for others. We did end up visiting the institute and the promotional video at the end was pretty sinister to say the least.
I have no idea how common place these beliefs are but suffice to say that the institute occupies a prominent location in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City near the Western Wall and its website points to serious donors.
Hanukkah this year is taking place in the midst of a strange atmosphere of COVID-fatigue. Case numbers continue to climb dangerously in Israel and are positively out of control in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. At the start of last week, the Israeli Government was threatening an evening curfew but this was unpopular and was scrapped. Instead, malls opened last week, and the Western Wall was positively teeming with activity when I swung past it yesterday. It is clear that science is no longer driving the agenda and many are pinning their hopes on the vaccine to arrive before a third lockdown becomes unavoidable.
I hope those celebrating can enjoy a Happy Hanukkah and that the festival of light will signal goodness and hope for peace rather than be a source of further divisions.