A Story of national and cultural identity
Chanukkah is not only the story of the triumph of good over evil and of right over might, it is also the story of the preservation of national identity, language and culture. The villain of Chanukkah, Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, outlawed Jewish practice and the teaching and studying of Torah. After plundering the Bet Mikdash and massacring Jews, he dedicated the sanctuary to Zeus, inspiring the Maccabean rebellion.
Matityahu ben Yochanan founded a guerrilla army that, under the leadership of his son, Yehuda HaMaccabee, successfully won Jewish independence from foreign, Hellenistic rule. The climax of the Jewish revolt against the mighty Seleucid Empire was the re-dedication of the Temple to the worship of the God of Israel. This victorious act sent out a powerful message: that the native inhabitants of Judea were not prepared to sacrifice their traditions, culture, language and religion in order to comply with those of another nation.
As I write this article the Spanish government centred in Madrid have quashed an attempt by the people of Catalonia to declare independence from Spain. The region of Catalonia has long been an autonomous community within Spain because its inhabitants have their own language (Catalan is closer to French and Italian than it is to Spanish) and culture (cuisine and festivals) which is distinct from that of their Spanish cousins. The Catalans also have their own national symbol, flag and anthem.
It is therefore no surprise that Generalitat de Catalunya (the Government of Catalonia) unilaterally declared independence from Spain on 27 October this year, following a vote by the people of Catalonia, a vote that was declared illegal and unconstitutional by the Spanish government in Madrid. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy was given the mandate to invoke article 155 of the Spanish constitution to suspend the region’s autonomy. Charges of sedition have been filed against Catalan President Carles Puigdemont who has sought asylum in Belgium.
While Madrid’s reaction to Catalan aspirations for complete nation autonomy cannot be compared to the systematic assault on Jewish culture by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, there are echoes of the Chanukkah narrative in the situation that is playing out on the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish government are not attempting to eradicate Catalan language and culture, the way the Seleucids tried to impose Hellenistic culture and religion on the Jews, but they are preventing the inhabitants of Catalonia from expressing their ambitions to be masters of their own destiny.
There is a fear of course that if Catalonia were granted independence from Spain, the regions of Galicia and the Basque country would also demand independence. Italy, the United Kingdom, France and Germany could face challenges from Lombardy, Scotland, Corsica and Bavaria respectively. It is no wonder that these countries came out in support of Madrid as did the European Union.
As we light our chanukkiyot during the eight days of our Festival of Lights in celebration of the Maccabees’ triumph to preserve our culture, may we undertake to learn about and respect the culture of other minorities in our diverse and interesting world.