Put up a menorah! Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the apparent ‘hasbarist undertones’ of existing while Jewish

“Menorahs mean more this Hanukkah amid rising antisemitism: ‘The fear is real'” So reads a USA Today headline from Dec. 18, 2022. Or you can go all the way back to Dec. 22, 2019 and check out this: “‘I would be afraid of being attacked’: Why some Jews won’t put a menorah in their window this Hanukkah,” with the subtitle, “With antisemitism sharply on the rise, the Deseret News talked to more than 50 Jews around the world about whether they will put a menorah in their window this year.”

When I skimmed past stories like those a year or two (let alone four) ago, it seemed a bit much. There was no Kristallnacht situation happening whenever a random North American Jew put a menorah in the window. What basis was there to assume that because there are Nazi trolls on the internet, one cannot celebrate Jewish holidays in public (or quasi-public)?

I don’t think the people hyperventilating about antisemitism in recent years have been proven right, but rather that times have, rather abruptly, changed.

Last year, a Kansas City public menorah lighting ceremony occurred as proactive part of the fight against antisemitism. But this year, Moncton City Hall isn’t so sure if a menorah is the way to go.

Also last year, there weren’t any a posters with a paraglider on it on my block in Toronto, in celebration of Hamas terrorists massacring Israelis at a music festival. No one—well, not no one, exactly, but no one in my neighbourhood—saw this coming.

Israel is at war, as you may have noticed, and North America is stuck in some terrible loop wherein if you’re Jewish and not going around bearing a giant placard announcing that you’re Jewish BUT NOT A ZIONIST DEFINITELY NOT ONE OF THOSE, then you’ve got whatever’s coming your way. If you’re Jewish and want to speak out against Hamas’s brutal sexual violence on Oct. 7, you have to do so with a watermelon emoji in your bio, lest your condemnation have “hasbarist undertones.

Is it unseemly, “with everything going on,” for a menorah to appear in a public space?

Like I said, a horrible loop. It’s not that Jews are maligned as Israel-supporters. It’s that most Jews, even on the left, are, in one sense or another, Israel supporters. A menorah in a window doesn’t indicate indifference to death and suffering in Gaza. It does however suggest someone who very possibly had a feeling about Oct. 7, a feeling that might just have led them to think something had to be done regarding Hamas, whether or not their version would have been that of the IDF.

And a menorah in the public square suggests… I mean it is rather obviously (you’d think!) not an endorsement of Netanyahu’s leadership of Israel. It is however an act of goodwill towards Jews. And it seems a bit silly to conceive of it as a strictly religious symbol, when it also serves as a gesture of solidarity towards Jews generally, observant or otherwise.

Something I certainly don’t remember from past years, however, is non-Jews putting menorahs in their windows, as a form of allyship. Something called Project Menorah is organizing this in a more systemic way (as in, you can tag them on social media if you participate, and—obviously—this is leading to some pointless hand-wringing about whether it’s cultural appropriation. Honestly? Who cares. I say go for it. (I say this to the three non-Jews, if that, who could possibly be reading this article.) But if you do, please restrain yourself from constantly pronouncing that you are not Jewish but.., because this rather defeats the purpose.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on the website formerly known as Twitter. She also holds forth on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.