Chanukah is the Jewish festival of religious freedom. The festival is largely noted for a battle for Jewish religious freedom, a fight against Greek / Hellenistic oppression and the ability to rededicate the Temple. Throughout Jewish history the Chanukiah, the eight-branched candelabra was a symbol of hope and deliverance. The light that emanates from it gave us hope that when others denied us our basic freedoms.
There is a famous photo from Chanukah 1931 taken in the house of Rabbi Posner and his wife Rachel. Taken opposite the Nazi headquarters, Rachel snapped a photo of the menorah from her window with the notorious Nazi flag flying from the headquarters in the background. On the photo she wrote: “Chanukah, 5692. ‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner. ‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.”… Posner and his family fled in 1934 to Palestine along with many members of the Kiel community who feared the worst. when he left Germany his community came to the station with him and he urged them to leave before it was too late. Many followed his advice and only 8 of the 500 strong community perished in the Shoah.
Religious Freedom is powerful but we are not totally free until all are free. Freedom is a two-way street or to quote Hillel, “What you find harmful: do not do unto others”. In other words if we value religious freedom then we must guarantee the religious freedom of all.
Today, a generation has passed since the Shoah and we are facing a new forms of prejudice and discrimination. The electoral success of the far right in France is a travesty. Society that votes for supremacist and racists is not a healthy one and is one that sets itself on a path of self-destruction. This is something Rabbi Posner recognised in 1930s Germany and one that we have to realise now before it is too late. In a recent interview with Austrian radio I said that “I refuses to differentiate between anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other form of prejudice. One does not justify or excuse the other”.
True, there has to be genuine concern that in many neighbourhoods across Europe police have had to be posted outside Jewish schools due to credible threats from Islamist extremism but the answer does not lie in the vilification of Muslim communities. There is a frightening surge in recent years and months in Islamophobia in Europe the likes of which we have never seen and young people in the Muslim community are feeling scared, alienated and a sense of being pushed to the fringes.
We must build an open, pluralistic society that recognises the diversity of all its citizens or risk Europe falling apart. To give a nod, a wink or a vote to any form of extremism just emboldens other forms of extremism. It leads to a path of fear, hatred and destruction.
In my pluralistic Europe we need to meet, dialogue, respect and understand each other. We may not always agree but we need far more interaction: there is no other just us: a free and open society that recognises and celebrates different cultures, religions, languages whilst recognising that we are all in it together.
Europe needs to stand up and reclaim the values that it agreed in previous generations. We need a new Peace of Westphalia, a new Treaty of Rome: a reclaiming of the liberal democratic values that propelled Europe to peace and prosperity in the shadow of an existential Cold War threat. Only then, will my Chanukiah burn brightly.