Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – SJN December 2020
This year, Chanukkah begins on the evening of 10th December, corresponding to the 25th of Kislev. Commemorating the rededication in 164 BCE of the Temple in Jerusalem desecrated by the Assyrian Greeks, Chanukkah is a celebration of the triumph of hope. The Maccabean guerrilla campaign to re-establish an independent Jewish state continued for another 24 years, but this milestone represented a spiritual victory that marked a turning point in that struggle.
As it happens, 10th December is an important date in the secular calendar. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations on 10th December 1948 in response to the horrors of the Sho’ah may also be regarded as a spiritual victory in the struggle against tyranny and persecution; a beacon of hope as the nations of the world came together and committed themselves to the goal of establishing peace and justice throughout the Earth. Moreover, just as Chanukkah marked a moment and not the achievement of the final goal, so the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marked a moment in the efforts to rid the world of tyranny.
The work of establishing universal human rights continues. For decades now the Shabbat nearest to December 10th has been designated as Human Rights Shabbat. This year it coincides with Shabbat Chanukkah, giving us the opportunity to acknowledge the connections between Chanukkah and human rights: the struggle for freedom, justice and peace.
This year the theme of Human Rights Shabbat is ‘Genocide’ (https://www.renecassin.org/human-rights-shabbat-5781-2020/ ). Over two decades before the annihilation of one third of the Jews of Europe, genocide made an early appearance in the 20th century with the murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish authorities between 1915 and 1918. And then, despite the Universal Declaration, the 20th century continued to be marked by genocide. Two million Cambodians were massacred by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. At least 50,000 Kurds were massacred in Iraq between 1987 and 1989. The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered the lectionary with the massacre of 80,000 Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina by Serbian forces between 1992 and 1995. Meanwhile, between 7th April and 15th July 1994, the Hutus of Rwanda massacred 800,000 Tutsis. And genocide has continued in the 21st century. In 2003, the genocide of the people of Darfur became a central feature of the conflict in western Sudan. By 2005, the death-toll had reached 200,000. In 2014, ISIS forces initiated a campaign of genocide and enslavement against the Yazidi people in Sinjar, Iraq. 2016 saw the onset of a genocidal policy against the Rohingya of Muslims of Myanmar. And right now, China is engaging in a cultural genocide of the Uyghur Muslims that looks like full blown genocide in the making.
The word ‘genocide’ is very specific. Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines the crime of genocide as any ‘acts that are committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical or religious group’. It includes ‘killing members of the group’ and ‘causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group’ (https://www.icc-cpi.int/nr/rdonlyres/ea9aeff7-5752-4f84-be94-0a655eb30e16/0/rome_statute_english.pdf).
This Chanukkah, let us stand in solidarity with all the victims of genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries and dedicate our nightly kindling of flames to remembrance of those groups targeted by genocidal policies and actions since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10th December 1948:
1st night The Cambodians massacred by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
2nd night The Kurds massacred in Iraq between 1986 and 1989.
3rd night The Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina massacred by Serbian forces between 1992 and 1995.
4th night The Tutsis of Rwanda massacred by the Hutus between 7th April and 15 July 1994.
5th night The Darfuris massacred in the conflict in western Sudan between 2003 and 2015.
6th night The Yazidis enslaved and massacred by ISIS forces in Iraq in 2014.
7th night The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, massacred and forced to flee in 2016.
8th night The Uyghur Muslims of China, whose persecution continues.
As we remember these horrors, may the gathering flames rekindle within us the spirit of hope and inspire us to recommit ourselves to the sacred task of tikkun olam, repair of the world.