Nothing crystallizes the inseparability of Judaism from the state of Israel quite like efforts to ban Jewish symbols. This year, we begin celebrating Hanukkah tonight (Thursday the 7th) amid the latest string of such attempts.
Sometimes it can even begin with good intentions. In the spirit of inclusivity, the town of Westbrook, Maine, wanted to include Hanukkah in its holiday season display. Town officials decided they needed a symbol that wasn’t explicitly religious, for constitutional reasons.
The town settled on dreidels. But unbeknownst to the mayor, a municipal employee also ordered a giant Star of David. When that was put on display, officials immediately got complaints—not for church-state-separation reasons but for political ones. According to JTA, “a local Arab American citizen complained, reportedly calling it ‘offensive’ in light of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.”
The star was taken down—not because of Israel but because of its religious significance, even though the complaint centered on politics, not religion.
There is a very serious point to this farce: public officials are being made to feel uncomfortable with Jewish displays. And most of the time, unlike with Westbrook, Maine, it is intentional and sinister. Activists have figured out that if you want to banish Jewish symbols you will always have an excuse to do so, whether that excuse is political or religious.
A London council canceled a menorah lighting ceremony for explicitly political reasons. According to the Independent, “Havering Council in east London has said it would be ‘unwise’ for the traditional menorah… to be installed outside Havering Town Hall in Romford. It said going ahead could ‘risk further inflaming tensions within our communities’.”
After a backlash, the move was reversed.
Other facilities couldn’t decide between the two excuses and went with both. Shirley Vermillion, head of an annual music and arts festival in Virginia, rejected a request by a local Chabad rabbi to light a menorah during the festival. To newspapers, Vermillion said she made that decision to avoid having religious rituals at a public arts event. In a private message to the rabbi, however, Vermillion explained that the answer was no “unless we could get an Islamic group to participate at the same time. We are about Peace, Love & light… don’t want to make it seem we’re choosing a side — supporting the killing/bombing of thousands of men, women & children.”
Got that? No menorah lighting because Shirley Vermillion and her festival don’t want to give the impression that they support killing children—and having a Jewish ceremony would, in her eyes, do exactly that.
It’s no surprise that the Star of David and the menorah are in the crosshairs: they are the dual emblems of Judaism. The menorah, in fact, is “the longest continuously used religious symbol in Western culture,” as historian Steven Fine writes. “This object, and the resultant ‘symbol,’ stretch back to the ancient Near East, more than a millennium before the Christian era (that is, more than three thousand years ago), and forward to our own time.”
They are also twin emblems of defiance. On Dec. 2, 1947, to celebrate the UN vote in favor of the partition of Palestine, the Jewish Holocaust survivors of Rome congregated at the Arch of Titus, built two thousand years ago after the Roman victory over the Jews and the destruction of the Jewish temple. The arch depicts the sacking of Jerusalem and the taking of the temple’s menorah as a spoil of war as the Jews are driven from their homeland. This time, however, the Holocaust survivors walked under the arch toward Jerusalem, as if undoing the march into exile themselves. The menorah was adopted by the young Jewish state as a national symbol.
The Star of David, meanwhile, has become the go-to symbol of defiance for modern Jews, both on campus and elsewhere. My daughters wear around their necks a Star of David made from a piece of a rocket fired from Gaza.
In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, the two symbols came together in a particularly meaningful display. As a gesture of solidarity, Rome projected onto the Arch of Titus an Israeli flag, which of course has, at its center, the Star of David.
The Jewish Legion—comprising three all-Jewish battalions of the British army who participated in the liberation of Palestine from the Ottomans in World War I—also adopted the menorah as an insignia, with the word kadima written beneath it. Kadima, in Hebrew, means forward—for that is the miracle of Israel, that the Jewish story can become one of looking ahead instead of over our shoulders.
History is littered with those who have tried to take the menorah from the Jewish people. And they will not succeed in banishing the Star of David from the public square if we don’t let them. But we should not fool ourselves—they will try, and they will test our willingness to defy them. And we the Jews will light our menorahs, and march forward.