Hanukkah and Thanksgiving occur at the same time this year. This won’t happen again for another 79,043 years, according to calculations by Jonathan Mizrahi, a quantum physicist at the Sandia National Laboratories.
Many are asking what the connection is between these two holidays. Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert even did a spoof on it. On a superficial level both holidays include food. Thanksgiving has turkey and Hanukkah has latkes (hash browns) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). But there is a much deeper connection when examining the historical contexts of these holidays.
Both the Pilgrims and Maccabees valiantly fought for religious independence, but they also had something less valiant in common. The Pilgrims successors eventually forced assimilation on the indigenous people around them, as did the Maccabees. They both engaged in religious zealotry to destroy cultural differences.
While the Maccabees fought against oppressive laws that outlawed traditional Jewish practices like circumcision and observing the Sabbath, once in power under the Hasmonean dynasty, they forced conversions on and even killed modern Jews known as Hellenists.
For further reading on the nuances and complexities of the Maccabees struggle see Antiquities of the Jews - Book XII by Josephus. Also, according to some, the atrocities against the Hellenists were committed by Hasmonean Sadducees that lived after the Hanukkah period.
The pilgrims’ colonization eventually led to the forced cultural assimilation against the Native Americans. Indians were forced to settle upon reservations, perform labor of various kinds as part of a supposed “civilizing” process. They were forced to attend boarding schools, abandon their traditions, forget their native language and adopt Christian religious beliefs.
Thanksgiving and Hanukkah represent the battle to gain religious freedom but also the dark side of forced cultural assimilation.
It is a disservice to ignore or sanitize the history of forced religious and cultural assimilation against the Native Americans and Hellenized Jews around 160 BCE. Every part of history has a dark side and a bright side. We must remember both. When we light the Menorah and eat our turkey, celebrating our ancestors’ religious independence, we should be mindful of the lessons on the need for diversity and cultural tolerance.
Eliyahu Federman has written on religion, culture, business and law at the Huffington Post, Forbes, USA Today and elsewhere. Contact him on Twitter @elifederman.