It’s the time of year when many who follow religious traditions, particularly those which arose in the deserts of what Europeans call the Middle East, organize celebrations based on their long history. The approaching winter solstice, the date when the day is shortest and the night is longest, has a lot to do with it. Europeans, particularly northern Europeans in the Christian lineage, need a lot of cheering up this time of year, what with the dark days and all.
But this year there are dark days in the Middle East as well. Angry clouds are on the horizon in many places, most prominently Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Israel.
In Egypt, what started out as a democratic revolution is threatened with capture by the authoritarian elements which seem to exist everywhere—many currently in the guise of Islamic fundamentalism, but not really that different in kind from the ideologies which created the second world war. Syrians of many beliefs are struggling against an existing vicious authoritarian regime, with both democratic and anti-democratic elements participating in the revolutionary activity, but without clear evidence about what would happen if revolutionary forces won the current battle.
Sad to say, top-down anti-democratic tendencies seem to be part of the human inheritance everywhere. It’s particularly discouraging to see Israel, for years an exemplar of effective self-government and the rule of law, edging ever closer toward the cliff of permanent strife with Palestine.
You’d think that Jews, of all people, would know better. And in fact, some of them do. We received a Chanukah letter from Barbara Green on behalf of Americans for Peace Now, an organization spearheaded by American Jews, which identified the actions of the politicians currently running things in Israel as a perversion of the tradition which honors the Maccabees as zealots in a good cause.
Talking about Netanyahu’s threat to extend Israeli settlement developments in the West Bank, she says:
“The Chanukah story was a simple tale of good-versus-evil in which we - the good guys - won. The Maccabees were called zealots and their brand of zealotry was applauded and rewarded, no question about it.It doesn’t have to be that way.
"Now, with hindsight, it doesn't look so simple. The word 'zealot' has taken on overtones of extremism, ignorance, and an inability to accept facts. Many of the settlers in what we have been calling the West Bank, but which we will now denominate properly as Palestine, are truly modern zealots in their willingness to use any extreme measures against the Palestinians in their midst, and increasingly even against Israeli Jews who dare disagree with them. Their zealotry includes many forms of violence. And they are joined in their zealotry by many Israeli politicians and their supporters, including in the American Jewish community, who appear eager to sacrifice every progressive Jewish and Israeli value - peace, tolerance, democracy - in their zeal to grab and hold more land. "Zealots" are no longer the good guys… zealots in power in Israel will harm Israelis as much as Palestinians, depriving both peoples of peaceful, secure futures.”
Over the weekend, I was fortunate to attend a seasonal music performance which illustrated that at least here, in the bluest of blue corners of a blue state in the United States of America, we all can get along.
The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra presented a sublime Messiah, Handel's gorgeous music and a libretto that is the best possible pastiche of scriptural accounts of the Christian message, a Cliff’s Notes version of theology.
We wouldn’t all agree on all of its sectarian themes, but some phrases, like this one, linger in memory as guides to what might be: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!”
The musicians exemplified this noble sentiment. On the day after Pearl Harbor Day, the conductor was from Japan, Masaaki Suzuki. Right across from him in the orchestra was a Japanese-American viola player. Other musicians, judging by their names were by ancestry Jewish, Latino, Chinese, Dutch—you name it, all in harmony. In the chorus I recognized a well-known Bay Area lesbian mezzo-soprano, proudly clothed like her male counterparts in white tie and tails instead of her female companions’ little black dresses.
In the audience I saw a male friend who is a Yiddish expert in enthusiastic attendance despite the fact that it was the first night of Chanukah, accompanied by a lady friend with an Irish name and a fuzzy Christmas sweater.
The soprano soloist rejoiced in the storied Middle Eastern name of Sherezade. The bass-baritone, an American from the Bronx with a strong dark African face and magnificent dreadlocks atop his European-style formal attire, belted out the takeaway message from Psalms:
“Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed.”
To which the chorus replied:
“Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us.”
Indeed. Let's do it.
It’s tempting to dismiss the significance of the performance's graphic demonstration of how we can all live together on this earth in harmony as bourgeois sentimentality, but that would be a mistake. In fact, the people of the earth now face a crisis unprecedented in human history, and we must cast away the yokes of authoritarian rulers whose focus is sectarian strife in order to save ourselves and the world.
It is absolutely imperative that we act harmoniously together to deal with climate change, or we and our grandchildren will inevitably suffer the direst consequences.
Instead, our nations continue to furiously rage against one another, our national political parties argue about taxes, our state government can’t manage to support the scientific institutions that might find the solutions we need, and our city officials are mesmerized by a few ne’er-do-wells who happen to be sitting on downtown sidewalks. (And no, Virginia, tearing down existing buildings to construct LEED skyscrapers for mega-profiteers won’t prevent global warming—it's a tin fiddle in this song.)
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, quoted in Messiah “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned ev’ry one to his own way…”. Now it’s time and past time to turn back, to start working together for the common good—before it’s too late.
And that goes double for what we used to call "the Holy Land".