The activists finding light this Hanukkah

Molly Lipson 10 December 2020

We speak to three activists about the importance of fighting the good fight this Hanukkah

Hanukkah, or Chanukah, is the Jewish festival of light celebrated every December. It commemorates the rebuilding of the Second Temple that was almost destroyed by the Greeks in an attempt to forbid people from practising Judaism. When they started repairing the Temple, they only found enough oil to light their lamps for one night. However, a miracle occurred and the oil lasted for eight nights. The Jewish community celebrates this miracle and its metaphorical connotations of endurance and freedom over the eight days of Hanukkah. Each night, people light the menorah, an eight-pronged candelabra, adding a candle each night of the festival. Families share traditional food like latkes (potato pancakes) and doughnuts, play games of dreidel, and exchange gifts.

Hanukkah is usually a time of light, warmth and joy for Jewish people around the world. This year, most will struggle to celebrate with their loved ones due to COVID restrictions. Despite the difficulties 2020 has presented, however, in the spirit of Hanukkah, Jewish people from different backgrounds and denominations are still managing to find light and bring light to others.

 

Andrew

Andrew is a Haredi-Orthodox member of the Jewish community from London who started protesting against the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China 18 months ago. In China, the minority Uyghur Muslim community is being targeted by the country’s regime for cultural erasure and genocide. Over 1 million people are believed to have been forced into concentration camps, and thousands of children have been separated from their parents. Chinese authorities are yet to admit what is truly taking place.

"It was the world doing nothing for those nine years that allowed the Final Solution to happen"

Andrew first came to hear about the situation when satellite images of the industrial detention facilities were released. “I couldn’t just sit at home and do nothing,” he says. He began holding weekly protests outside the Chinese Embassy’s Cultural Attaché in February 2019. Now, on Tuesday evenings, a small group of protestors can be seen lining the street outside the building holding signs stating, "Stop Uyghur Genocide" and "Honk for Uyghur Justice!" As cars go past, many do hoot; some drivers pound their fists out the window to show their solidarity.

Andrew recognises that there are many issues around the world that deserve attention. What stands out to him about this one is the horrifying parallel it draws to Jewish history. He speaks calmly, but with a pained edge to his voice as he explains that, between the time the Nazis came to power and when the genocide of the Jewish people was well underway, not only did the world stand by and do nothing, it took part in cultural events alongside Germany like the Berlin Olympics. “It was the world doing nothing for those nine years that allowed the 'Final Solution' to happen,” he points out. “At the moment, the concentration camps [in China] are not extermination camps. But nothing like this has ever happened on this scale with millions of people—except once before, and that was the Holocaust. As Jews, we said, 'never again' and it’s happening again.”

Andrew is clearly driven by a great sense of urgency and desperation, but he is also optimistic: “Hanukkah is all about miracles, about showing us that our actions can make a difference.” He continues to protest (according to COVID safety guidelines) every Tuesday and hopes to grow the group and inspire change.

You can keep up with Jews for Uyghurs on their Facebook page

 

Morgan and Joe

Morgan and Joe identify as queer, anarchist, atheist Jews. Morgan, who is also non-binary, is originally from Chicago and Joe from Yorkshire, but they both now reside in a culturally diverse suburb of Glasgow where they have set up Pink Peacock—די ראָזעווע פאַווע ("di rozeve pave" in Yiddish)—

a bilingual, anarchist space with a vegan, alcohol-free, pay-as-you-can, kosher and halal cafe. After a successful crowdfunder, it is due to open its doors this month. Perhaps the most surprising element of the whole endeavour is the duo’s commitment to Yiddish, the traditional language of Eastern-European (Ashkenazi) Jews. It's largely considered to be a dying language, having been almost eradicated in the Holocaust, and is predominantly spoken nowadays by some small, ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Pink Peacock will be the first Yiddish institution in the UK. “It’s a really under-resourced language,” Morgan explains. “We also want to bridge the gap between the Hasidic and secular worlds,” he adds.

"We will be encouraging people to loiter and be here without spending money"

Pink Peacock also fills another need: a queer space in Glasgow that doesn’t revolve around nightlife and alcohol: “In terms of physical spaces for a 14-year-old queer person to find their community, where are they going to go?” questions Joe. The space is also designed to be accessible for those with physical disabilities and neuro-divergency and staunchly upholds anti-capitalism as one of its core guiding principles. “We will be encouraging people to loiter and be there without spending money,” Morgan outlines. The pay-as-you-can scheme ensures that high-quality, healthy food is on offer to anyone who wants it, regardless of their income. The system is fully anonymous: “We don’t know who’s paid what, so there’s no concern of being treated differently,” Joe explains.

Alongside the cafe, the community centre will host events including film screenings, skill-shares and language classes. Like the food, these events will be priced on a sliding scale down to zero. Morgan and Joe hope that Pink Peacock will inspire more cafes and restaurants to offer a pay-as-you-can option and consider accessibility, inclusivity and radical politics as grounding values.

You can donate to the Pink Peacock to assist Morgan and Joe in opening the physical space and funding running costs

 

Talia

Talia Woodin is a climate and social justice activist and mental health advocate from Oxford. She currently lives in a tree. Various trees, to be precise, because they keep getting cut down to make space to build HS2, the UK’s £150 billion, high-speed rail service that is deemed by many to be an environmental catastrophe. Talia, along with a group of other dedicated protesters, has been blocking the destruction of ancient woodlands in Colne Valley, just outside London, by occupying its trees for the past five months.

It’s no surprise that she’s ended up there. Both her parents were environmental campaigners and she describes being aware of the climate crisis from a young age: “I never really had a before and after moment, it was just part of my upbringing.” Her father was diagnosed with lung cancer when Talia was four and sadly passed away. He was otherwise healthy and a non-smoker, leading Talia to link his death to the high rate of air pollution where they lived. Every year, an average of 64,000 people die in the UK due to air pollution, and Talia states simply, “I’ve grown up knowing that my dad was one of those statistics.” This makes the issue personal as well as systemic.

"Every year, an average of 64,000 people die in the UK from air pollution"

Talia’s activism is not only inspired by her parents. She recently found out that her great, great grandfather was a Jewish anarcho-communist who escaped from a Siberian, Soviet-run prison and eloped to the UK with the daughter of a Hasidic rabbi. With a few arrests and a pending court case to her name, Talia laughs, “I’m destined to do this work!”

You’ll rarely find Talia at a protest or action without her camera. Since her teens she has documented the world around her, particularly the strenuous and joyful practice of activism. She’s amassed a solid social media following and shares regular updates on what she’s up to, as well as explaining the interconnectedness of climate, social and racial justice. Previously, she was the Media Coordinator for Extinction Rebellion Youth, the youth branch of the social movement that made headlines throughout 2019 for its roadblocking climate protests. For now, though, she’s sticking to her treetop abode.

Talia’s Hanukkah plans for this year involve making latkes in the Stop HS2 camp’s makeshift kitchen to share with other protestors. She’s also caught wind of a doughnut company nearby that discards hundreds of sweet treats at the end of every day, so like any good camper, she may well go foraging for those.

You can keep up with Talia’s activism on Instagram and YouTube


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