Hanukkah is a miracle story -- and a celebration of religious freedom.
Beginning at sundown Dec. 19, Jews throughout the world lit the menorah for eight festive nights to commemorate victory over tyranny and restoration of the Temple in the 2nd century B.C.E.
But "festivity" may be hard to muster this year. Confronting a new and dangerous rise in anti-Semitism in many regions of the world, Jews may feel as though they are lighting candles in the darkness.
"The New Anti-Semitism," a passionate new book by psychologist Phyllis Chesler, describes this phenomenon as a re-emergence of anti-Jewish hatred under the banner of opposition to the state of Israel.
Chesler and other commentators aren't arguing that all criticism of Israeli polices is somehow anti-Semitic -- that would be absurd.
After all, Israelis themselves vigorously debate their government's actions. (Just read the Israeli press.) But many proponents of anti-Zionism in Europe and the Middle East have become so extreme, so irrational, so filled with hate that they can only be called anti-Semites in an "anti-Israel" guise.
In much of the Middle East today, a continuous stream of propaganda demonizes Jews -- often using discredited documents such as the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" to make outlandish claims about a Jewish conspiracy for world domination. Even the terrorists' attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have been blamed on the Jews.
Writing about the new anti-Semitism in a recent issue of U.S. News & World Report, former Middle East envoy Mortimer Zuckerman describes a "culture of hatred of Jews" in many Islamic nations that "permeates all forms of communications -- newspapers, videocassettes, sermons, books, the Internet, television, and radio. The intensity of the anti-Jewish invective equals or surpasses that of Nazi Germany in its heyday."
Against this backdrop, it was appalling -- but not surprising -- to hear former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad open the recent Islamic Summit by saying: "Today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them." And it was appalling, but not surprising, to see the speech get a standing ovation from every head of state present at the conference.
Across Europe, opposition to Israel has also become a thinly veiled mask for anti-Semitism. Since the events of 9-11, hundreds of violent attacks have targeted Jews and Jewish institutions throughout the region. In France alone, scores of Jewish homes and institutions have been attacked, desecrated and firebombed. Ideologues from the right and left and some international media outlets fuel the violence when they label Israelis "Nazis" and "racists."
As Zuckerman puts it, Israel is emerging as "the collective Jew among nations," singled out, demonized and isolated at U.N. conferences and other international meetings. Meanwhile, undemocratic nations where great atrocities routinely take place are largely ignored (or, as in the case of Libya, given the opportunity to chair the U.N. Commission on Human Rights).
The new anti-Semites use the same tactic that worked all too well for the Nazis and other anti-Semites for centuries: Indoctrinate people with conspiracy theories and stereotypes in order to scapegoat Jews and justify violence against them. Is there a world crisis? Blame the Jews.
Even the United States is not immune from the virus of the new anti-Semitism. In recent years, anti-Semitic incidents and attacks on Jewish institutions have increased -- even requiring some synagogues to seek police protection in the "land of the free."
Especially disturbing is the rise of the new anti-Semitism in Generation X. A poll released earlier this year by the California-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research reports that 24 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 believe the old canard "Jews control the U.S. news media" (compared to 16 percent of people ages 45 to 64).
And on college campuses, opposition to Israeli policies often manifests as anti-Semitism. "You can see signs that not only say `Stop Israel,' " writes the author of the report, "you can see signs that say `Stop the Jews' and it's interchangeable."
Granted, the new anti-Semitism is far less virulent in the United States, thanks largely to the First Amendment -- and strong public support for Israel. But Americans can't be complacent, given our own history of social discrimination against Jews and outbreaks of violence by hate groups. It can happen here.
What can we do? "Fight against the Big Lies," Chesler writes. Speak out against the conspiracy theories and ugly stereotypes. Oppose the scapegoating of Jews and the demonizing of Israel -- and support civil debate of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Above all, don't be silent in the face of hate.
Lighting the Hanukkah menorah is a religious obligation for Jews. But keeping alive the flame of religious freedom is a universal duty for people of all faiths and none.
(Charles Haynes is a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.)