Hanukkah at the BBC

Hanukkah 2017: More light than heat at the BBC

It’s long been my opinion that the British Broadcasting Corporation gives Judaism (apart from their Israel obsession) about as much airtime as Jewish numbers  in the United Kingdom (~0.5% percentage of the population) would warrant. It vastly over-provides for the Muslims (~5%) and virtually ignores Hindus (~2%), Sikhs (~0.75%) and Buddhists (~0.4%).

But what did they say when they covered Hanukkah this year? The festival concluded yesterday – Five Minutes for Israel investigates.

Antiochus reigned 175–164 BCE

For those 5MFI readers unfamiliar with the Jewish festival of Hanukkah†  here is the short version.

The eight day festival commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the end of the successful Maccabean Revolt (168 or 167 BCE‡ to 164 BCE) against the Seleucid Empire and its leader Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It is celebrated with lights (usually candles), fried foods and holiday-specific games (dreidel) and presents to the children such as chocolate in the shape of coins (Hanukkah Gelt).

As it falls every year in November or December it is often associated with Christmas although predating Jesus by more than a century. A more modern European/American Jewish custom of giving more substantial gifts may be a direct reaction Christmas to practice. It is said to avoid jealousy and disappointment when a Jewish child’s Christian friends receive their bounty.

This year the festival fell between 13th to 20th December.

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honoured God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.

Titus Flavius Josephus – Jewish Antiquities XII CE‡ 93/94

Jewish festivals must be a problem for the BBC. Most of them are strongly connected with the land of Israel and especially Hanukkah connected with historical and not mythological figures and events.

Most problematically the events of Hanukkah prove a Jewish connection, predating any Arab claim, to Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple at a time when the Palestinians with at least some success in the United Nations and UNESCO are attempting to write the Jews out of their own history.

Perhaps by coincidence but certainly symbolically Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city was delivered during Hanukkah.

The podcasts referenced in this post are either time limited and/or restricted to UK listeners. If you are masochistic enough to want to hear them you must get in fast.

The BBC record

Eamonn O’Neal and Jimmy Wagg
Duration ~ 6 mins

After more than an hour an a half of gospel music, weather reports, sport, a piece about Muslim pantos at Christmas time and Grenfell Towers Rabbi Yitschok Kaye (Orthodox) was interviewed.

He gave a brief historical overview without mentioning Israel or Jerusalem although he did reference the Temple, describing the rededication following a war between the Greek empire and the Jews.

Attention was paid to candle lighting illustrating a spiritual war against dark forces and oily food such as potato latkes and donuts (not using the Hebrew name Sufganiyah).

To my surprise the interviewer raised the issue of Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as capital. Rabbi Kaye seemed a little surprised by the question and said the President’s action was not such a big deal but it was a ‘good thing’. He mentioned God’s promise and time past as reasons to accept Israel’s choice of capital city.

Shortly afterwards, without referring to Hanukka, Jonathan Arkush from the Board of Deputies of British Jews †† welcomed the acceptance of the reality of Jerusalem as the spiritual centre for Israel.

He then announced that Jerusalem could be the shared capital of a future state of Palestine. Whether most British Jews believe that or it is even the policy of the Board is unclear. It certainly isn’t the view of most Israeli Jews.

Having Enough
Duration 30 mins

Rabbi (Reform) Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, used one of the other names the Festival of Light(s) as a hook to attack the culture of consumerism.

The miracle of having one day’s lamp oil lasting eight days was translated into a response to the primal fear of scarcity and hinted that Hanukkah like other religions simply celebrated light and the winter solstice. IMHO this is very unlikely as the winter solstice was a matter of importance to Northern Europeans not the Mediterranean people.

In justifying this interpretation she referenced the World Bank, Oliver Twist, Scarlett O’Hara, Billy Joel, Eastern religions such as Buddhism, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Nothing from Talmud, Jewish thinkers or even other references to the Hanukkah story. Exodus as an example of responsible consumption and Passover (not the Jewish name Pessach) because of a song, neither having anything to do with Hanukkah were dragged into the mix, giving the impression that all were equal.

Neither Israel, the Maccabees nor God seem to have anything to do with the Hanukkah story nor the Rabbi’s world view. Certainly liberty from oppression didn’t get a look-in.

Beyond Belief Light
Duration 30 mins

Ernie Rea takes a look at the symbolism and use of light in Judaism and other religions joined by Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Religion Alan Williams and Roman Catholic priest Denis Blackledge.

The discussion can be summed up as ‘all religions have some part referring to light’. Once again Hanukkah was a hook for a discussion barely related to the Jewish festival.

One can only hope that when Rabbi Klausner spoke about rededication of the Temple in 2 BCE(!) and freedom from Rome(!) that she was confusing Hanukka with something else. Not exactly confidence building.

Israel and Jerusalem? Nada.

My CBeebies Special Day – Hanukkah
Duration 10 mins

They capture the accents just right. A real Jewish family? Actors? Jewish actors?

Food, candles and games with no history or explanation at all like what do the letters mean on the dreidel. Fire safety lecture shoe-horned in because Hanukkah candles and birthday cake candles can be dangerous. They can be, of course, but the presumed equivalence further diminishes the religious ritual.

Coinneach MacÌomhair Radio Nan Gàidheal

In the 2011 census of Scotland, 57,375 people (just 1.1% of the Scottish population aged over three years old) reported as being able to speak Gaelic. So I hope that I am excused for not being able to translate the discussion. I have attempted to contact various Scots Gaelic organisations so if something comes through I’ll amend this section.

Rev. Ruairidh MacLean of Christian Witness to Israel, a missionary organisation in their own words telling “Jewish People about Jesus” explained Hanukkah. He wouldn’t have been my first choice but I guess there is a very limited pool of Scots Gaelic speakers with any knowledge of the festival.

Oscar Pearson Scrutiny; Hanukkah; Knitted angels
Duration 4 mins & 2 mins & 3 mins

As with Manchester someone wishing to hear the report would have to wait for one and a half hours of local news and Christmasy things. The report started poorly in the opening sentence when the menorah used for Hanukkah was described as a seven-branched candlestick.

No, Mr. Pearson. It has nine – eight for the eight days of the festival and one called the shamash, is used to light the others. The seven-branched version was found in the Temple; displayed as a bas-relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome;  is used as the emblem of the State of Israel and often appears on synagogue buildings. It is rarely lit, at least as part of a religious ceremony.

Alex Strangwayes-Booth (female BTW) interviews Jewish children, their rabbi and a donuts baker. Musically pleasant with emphasis on candles food and family. Military victory and Jerusalem not.

About half an hour later a couple of more minutes about Hanukkah was introduced. We are told that the festival lasts eight days because that was as long as the oil lasted in Jerusalem’s holy temple, two thousand years ago. Even the Maccabees the group doing the fighting warranted a mention.

Waiting another twenty minutes, Stephen Regel one of the Channel Islands’s few Jewish residents is interviewed. His message is that light in the Northern Hemisphere is very welcome after the Northern Solstice and that Judaism and Christianity and  Islam are parallel religions who all worship the same, one God. Jews sing Ma’oz Tzur and Christians sing carols.

I couldn’t help thinking about a complaint made almost one year ago when a school in Guernsey had pupils to write an essay explaining to their parents that they had converted to Islam and that as a consequence their life was much better. All religions might be the same but I doubt that the few Muslims in the Channel Islands wrote essays lauding their conversion to Judaism. Nor the Christian majority.

Jewish community begin celebrating Hanukkah
Text posted at 10:28 13 Dec

More candles! FYI oil lamps are also used.

Also known as the Festival of Light it is as important for Jews as Christmas is for people of the Christian faith. Most authorities would dispute that. Christmas (and Easter) are the major Christian festivals. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the most important Jewish festivals.

The date of Hanukkah changes every year, because it depends on the calendar, Yup.

It lasts for eight days and might also be called Chanukah. Might be written Chanukah because it is a transliteration from a non Latin alphabet.

Pause for Thought: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat – that’s the Jewish way.”
Harvey Belovski on the origin of Hanukkah.
Duration 4 mins

Rabbi Belovski is an Orthodox Rabbi, now at Golders Green United Synagogue. The interviewer (Vanessa Feltz?) and the rabbi are on friendly terms and chat for the first minute, i.e. one quarter of the clip before introducing the topic of Hanukkah. Once again candles, chocolate and donuts.

The rabbi makes the very interesting claim that the war was mostly between traditionalist Jews insisting on Sabbath, circumcision and the holy temple in Jerusalem and Hellenised Jews equating the Bible with Aristotle. The claim is not examined.

If true it would seem that history was written, more than 2,000 years ago, by victors as opposed to today when the Palestinian losers seem to be writing it.

I have often said that the BBC not so much antisemitic as much as they diminish Judaism to ‘exotic recipes and quaint customs. Whether by corporate policy or Jewish self-selection they seem to have chosen guests who happily reinforce that policy.


On the positive side, the BBC version of Hanukkah comes over as a fun festival with iconic objects, food, games and family spirit. Great for the children.

The BBC relates to Hanukkah, when they relate at all, through iconic candle lighting, fried food and games while skipping the history and the theology. I couldn’t help thinking that is like discussing Christmas through Santa, carols, mistletoe and knitted angels while ignoring the birth of Jesus. Isn’t that the norm?

Have the BBC decided that themes of Jewish national liberation and military victory over great odds that defined Hanukka been declared too Zionist to discuss? When did the Festival of Lights, because Jews light candles, become hook to introduce light worship in a comparative religion course?

With limited exceptions a listener ignorant of Jewish history and religion, which I guess is most of them, could listen to this year’s BBC’s coverage and not learn where the Hanukkah story was set, which historical figures were involved or why the Jews were upset enough to go to war. It’s tempting to think this is part of a BBC pro Palestinian agenda to disguise the Jews involvement in their own history but they have enlisted plenty of Jews to help them in that effort.

In all, even allowing for discussion that really doesn’t have much to do with the festival at all,  much of the coverage is on small regional networks that few will experience unless, like Five Minutes for Israel, they go out of their way to find them and then sit through hours of extraneous sport, weather and Christmas music to listen to what feels like a trailer not the main feature. This all suggests the BBC doesn’t really have a Jewish religion policy but leaves the networks to cover it or not cover it as they feel fit.

So a belated, Happy Hanukkah and an early Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it.

Extra credit

Only tangentially related but read and you will see the connection.

About the 5-in-a-star

One iconic image for Hanukkah is the dreidel. It is a Jewish variant on the teetotum, a gambling toy found in many European cultures, dating back to Roman times. Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ‎ (Nun), ג‎ (Gimel), ה‎ (Hei), ש‎ (Shin) or פ (Pey) which together form the acronym for “נס גדול היה שם‎” (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham ~ Po – “a great miracle happened there ~ here”). The ‘here and there’ refer, of course, to the land of Israel. You can download the pattern for the do-it-yourself cardboard dreidel from the Akhlah Paper Dreidel Craft website.

† Hanukkah (/ˈhɑːnəkə/ HAH-nə-kə; Hebrew: חֲנֻכָּה‬ khanuká) also transliterated as Chanukah or Ḥanukah.
‡ BCE – Before the Common or Current Era and CE – Current or Common Era are synonymous with BC – Before Christ and AD – anno Domini – since the year in which Jesus Christ is believed to have been born. The usage is more neutral and inclusive of non-Christian people.
†† The Board of Deputies of British Jews describe themselves as the voice of the British Jewish Community, the first port of call for government, the media and others seeking to understand Jewish community interests and concerns.

About David Guy

B.A./B.C.A. (Communication and Media Arts) University of Wollongong, AUSTRALIA M.A. in Government (Diplomacy and Conflict Studies) Inter Disciplinary Center, Herzliya, ISRAEL Twitter @5MFI
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