Judaism and Communism: Hanukkah, Passover, and the Jewish Communists in Mandate Palestine and Israel, 1919-1965

Amir Locker-Biletzki. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 34, Issue 2. September 2015.


From the early days of the Zionist presence in Palestine, the traditional Jewish holidays were reinvented. Far from radically discarding the Jewish calendar, the Zionists poured new Zionist nationalist content into the old vessel of Jewish tradition. This process might seem to have been of little concern to the Jewish Communists in Palestine/Israel from the 1920s to the mid-1960s, who, to differing degrees in the course of their history, had negated the Zionist nation-building project. In addition, they adhered to a militantly secular and progressive Marxist ideology that rejected long-held traditions. Nonetheless, from the early days of communism in Palestine the Jewish Communists responded to the Zionist remodeling of the traditional Jewish holidays by constructing their own progressive Jewish tradition.

This tradition, as reflected in the celebration of Hanukkah and Passover, blended Zionist-socialist cultural practices with Marxist ideology. This cultural mix was meant to make Jewish religious cultural practices like the lighting of Hanukkah candles or recitation of the Passover Haggadah accord with the political sensibilities and practices of the Jewish Communists. By codifying the holidays around values such as liberty and class war, the Jewish Communists created a Jewish progressive myth that was suitable for the Jewish members of the Palestine Communist Party (PKP, after 1948 renamed the Israeli Communist Party, or Maki) and in particular of Banki (the Young Communist League of Palestine, and after 1948, of Israel). However, as the Jewish progressive tradition came more and more to resemble the practices of Zionist socialism, the cultural equilibrium within Maki and most notably Banki was disrupted, aggravating the internal tensions within Israeli communism and leading to its 1965 split.

This article reconstructs the ways in which Hanukkah and Passover were gradually accepted by the Jewish Communists from the 1920s to the mid-1960s. These holidays gained increasing prominence in the Palestinian Jewish communist subculture from the early 1940s, when the Party was legalized. There is scant evidence for the celebration of any Jewish holiday by the Communists before 1941 with the notable exception of Hanukkah (as will be detailed shortly), most probably because public rituals of the sort described here were impossible to perform by a persecuted underground organization.

The article seeks to understand the mythological, ritual, and symbolic aspects of the performance of these holidays. It also describes the process of and reasons for the diffusion of Zionist-socialist elements into the communist practice of the holidays and the ideological Marxist components integrated into the holidays. In order to understand the Jewish Communists’ own perception of the holidays, the sources examined include the movement’s newspapers, Kol ha-Am (The People’s Voice) and the Young Communist League organ Kol ha-No’ar (The Voice of the Youth), as well as Banki’s instructors’ brochures and memoirs, which help to recreate the historical picture of the Jewish Communists’ celebration of Hanukkah and Passover.


In the Yishuv era Hanukkah was celebrated by Zionists of all political leanings. In the Zionist context, the story of Hanukkah and the Maccabees became a narrative of national liberation rather than divine deliverance. Zionist-socialist culture interpreted the holiday from a class point of view, portraying the rebellion as having been carried out by the lower classes. The emergence of a national cult around Hanukkah was the background to the first communist response to the holiday, which took the form of a booklet issued by the Young Communist League in December 1929, written by Party leader Yosef Berger-Barzilay and a group of young communist activists. Cumbersomely entitled The Mufti Matityahu and the Great Peasants Uprising Two Thousand Years Ago, the booklet used the events of antiquity to launch a political attack against the British Mandate and the Zionist and Palestinian leaderships, which it criticized for their reactionary nature. Its main argument was that Matityahu and the Maccabees had usurped the mass uprising of the poor peasants against the Greeks and their minions in Judea, fearing that “if the people rebelled against the Greeks and drove the foreign leeches from the country, and felt that they could do it without the ‘clerks,’ then nothing would remain of them and their gifts and taxes.” Thus, the Maccabees exploited religious fanaticism to wrest control of the uprising, which made them rulers of the land and enabled them eventually to sell out to the Greeks and Romans. This turn of events is contrasted to the present when “there is a working class, there is a Communist Party, and they will strike an alliance with the poor and oppressed peasants” to drive out the present-day Greeks and their collaborators.

Beyond its thinly veiled political metaphor, the 1929 booklet is a cultural statement. It refutes the heroic role assigned by Zionism to the Maccabees, and thus reflects the anti-Zionism of the Communists. At the same time, the booklet rejects the religious narrative of the holiday, portraying it as a ploy to “stupefy the minds of the youth with foolish legends.” Despite its anti-Zionist stance, it is nonetheless part of the Zionist-socialist cultural discourse of Hanukkah, as demonstrated most clearly by its class analysis of the Hanukkah narrative. While the Maccabees are critically portrayed as an ancient version of bourgeois Zionists, the uprising of the poor peasants is presented as a popular guerrilla struggle. The whole text is steeped in the language of class as a social category and anti-imperialism; it depicts the Syrian Greeks’ rule over Judea as a “Greek ‘Mandate,'” contrasts the peace-loving peasant masses to their exploitative religious leadership, and ultimately rejects the idea of Jewish heroism originating from antiquity.

The booklet marked the start of the Jewish Communists’ use of Marxist terms in describing the narrative of Hanukkah. Albeit relatively awkwardly, the Jewish Communists used the Marxist historical portrayal, as will be seen below, as a basic myth justifying not only Hanukkah but indeed other Jewish holidays. The use of Marxist categories, as cumbersome and even ridiculous as it may seem to present-day readers, shows us how Jewish nationalist motifs seeped into the communist subculture. To a political collective that in essence rejected Jewish nationalism and Zionism, only Marxist language could make a myth like Hanukkah palatable. Paradoxically, this connected the Jewish Communists to Zionist-socialist culture.

The 1941 German invasion of the USSR dramatically changed the position of the Communist Party in Palestine. Having been hounded by the British from the start of the war, the Party was legalized, only to split into its national components in 1943. The war also influenced the way Jewish Communists in Palestine viewed Jewish heroism. The Communist Party press reported regularly on Jewish soldiers serving in the Soviet Red Army. Praise for Soviet-Jewish heroism was also salient in Kol ha-No’ar. In its January 1943 issue, a long item was dedicated to the story of Haim Diskin, a young Soviet-Jewish gunner “who without fearing death … in his entirety, as a hero, in boundless dedication,” destroyed five enemy tanks and was wounded fourteen times. Despite belonging to the genre of Soviet propaganda that Soviet writer Vasily Grossman called “Ivan kills one hundred Germans with a spoon,” this story of Jewish heroism can be linked to the Jewish Communists’ more positive evaluation of the Hanukkah myth.

Next to the item describing Diskin’s heroics, an article simply named “Hanukkah” presented the new communist myth of the holiday. Signed by a certain Shmuel from Jerusalem, it is a historical-political metaphor, as was the 1929 booklet. It begins with the question: “Hanukkah, the day of the victory of the Maccabees … what does this glorious chapter in our people’s history symbolize?” The answer consists of a long historical narrative in which class and national heroism are interwoven. One connecting strand between the 1929 and 1943 texts, and between them and Zionist-socialist culture, is the class analysis of the events in antiquity. In accordance with Marxist ideology, with the penetration of commerce into Judea came “the language of commerce, Greek, and the defenders of commerce, the Greek gods.” The new economic order both destroyed the Jewish peasantry and caused an internal class war within the ruling class between the old land-owning elite and the new commercial class. This situation became more entangled when the Seleucid Empire intervened on behalf of the new, culturally Hellenistic commercial elite. In an attempt to impose Hellenistic culture and religion, it tried to ban the practice of Judaism, resulting in a war of popular liberation led by Judah the Maccabee.

This Marxist narrative of the Hanukkah myth differs from the 1929 booklet in its positive approach to the Maccabees. The Hasmoneans and Matityahu, who were negatively portrayed in the late 1920s, have now become “a family of country clerks from a small town … who rejected the foreign ways.” Judah the Maccabee is “the man who was able to be the leader of an entire population. He was the man that symbolized the national pride of the people of Judea.” Like the 1929 text, the historical narrative ends with the lessons that history provides for the present. Nevertheless, whereas in the 1929 booklet the idea of Jewish heroism was rejected, in 1943 it was embraced. Hanukkah once “symbolized for us throughout the generations the heroics of the past—today when the Jewish people is once again fighting for its life, freedom, and culture, the memory of the Maccabees encourages us to fight.” Leading this new fight was not the Zionist Yishuv, however, but “liberated Soviet Jewry that is fighting alongside the rest of the USSR’s people against the Nazis.”

This diffusion of Jewish nationalist elements into the communist myth of Hanukkah gathered pace during the 1940s. Under the influence of the Holocaust and the Yishuv’s struggle against the British, the Jewish Communists increasingly began framing Hanukkah in Jewish nationalist terms. This is evident in the December 1947 article “To the Sons of the Maccabees.” At the time, soon after Andrei Gromyko’s famous speech to the UN in support of the partition of Palestine, the Jewish Communists identified almost completely with the Yishuv. Like its predecessor in 1943, the 1947 text starts with a question: “What is the meaning of Hanukkah for us?” What follows is a historical narrative of the events in Judea, almost identical to the class-based account delivered in 1943. The mityavnim (Hellenized Jews) are described as having been driven by their class interest to cooperate with the Greeks. The uprising is described as a popular peasant revolution motivated by class and nationalist interests.

This article differs from its predecessor in two main respects: the image of the Maccabees and the present-day political moral to be drawn from history. In 1943 the approach to the Maccabees was still somewhat reserved. They are described as a land-owning elite, driven by internal class warfare to lead the uprising. By 1947 they have become completely identified with the uprising, being portrayed as “the vanguard of the people’s war against its oppressors.” They have also become part of a Jewish heroic lineage ending with the ghetto fighters in Europe. In 1943 the Jewish Communists accepted Jewish heroism, but only in the context of World War II, presenting Soviet Jewry as the heirs to Maccabean bravery. By 1947, having become committed to the political independence of the Yishuv, they were describing the present-day political lesson of the holiday in nationalist terms: “The bravery of the Maccabees and their fight is a symbol to us now—a symbol and a command—with the coming of independence.”

The nationalist elements of the Hanukkah myth, with its class-based Marxist explanation, are detailed in a December 1949 article named “Hanukkah—the Holiday of the Revolt.” Signed by “David,” it elaborates upon elements of the communist perception of the holiday in existence since 1943. The article begins with a quote from Lenin stating that the only true defender of national rights is the proletariat. Then the text develops a point already touched upon briefly in the pre-state 1947 article. The Jewish people has spawned a revolutionary lineage of heroism stretching “from the Hasmoneans and Bar Kokhva to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Israel’s War of Independence.” The text also features a class-based, anti-imperialist analysis of the historical events that encapsulates the present-day political moral. The Seleucid Empire is a parallel to American imperialism, the Hellenized Jews to the contemporary lackeys of America: “Even today there are circles—in the State of Israel from the upper bureaucracy, ‘clerks,’ the wealthy—that aspire to strengthen their rule over the people with the help of ‘the rich uncle from America.'” This danger of subversion of hard-won independence is what makes the holiday a celebration of true independence, and the Communists fighting for it the “true successors of the Maccabean spirit.”

The Communist myth of Hanukkah came into its own in the 1950s to the mid-1960s. In a section of Kol ha-No’ar from November 1956, in the midst of the Sinai Campaign and the Hungarian Uprising, the contrast between past and present dominates. The Jewish Communists were isolated at the time by their objection to the 1956 war, and their propaganda, as exemplified in the pamphlets, fell on deaf ears. In reaction to their isolation, they internalized the holiday myth. The section in Banki’s newspaper, which consists of a collage of literary pieces, poetry, and short articles, is informed by the dichotomy between past and present as phrased in the traditional phrase, “in those days, at this time.” The anti-imperialist rebellion of antiquity, a fight in which the people of Judea “struggled alongside the peoples of the Middle East,” is contrasted to the present day “when the peoples of the Middle East have broken the yoke of the robber empires in the freedom and independence struggle,” while Israel was aligning itself with the decaying empires of France and England. The contrast between past and present is also cultural. Whereas in the past “the people fiercely defended its national culture, proclaiming holy war on Hellenization,” at present American culture was a corrupting influence allowed to rage unabated. Finally, a contrast is struck between the popular revolt “of peasants, artisans, small merchants and clerks” headed by the Maccabees, and the war frenzy of 1956.

From the contrast between past and present the section draws its final conclusion that the legacy of the holiday belongs to “those on whose flag peace and independence are inscribed,” meaning the Communists. The text also adduces the contrast between the Maccabean revolt and Hasmonean rule. By using parts of two literary works, Howard Fast’s My Glorious Brothers and Moshe Shamir’s The King of Flesh and Blood, the young Communists contrast the popular and humane leadership of Judah the Maccabee to the cruel rule of the Hasmonean King Yannai, who butchered his own people with the aid of foreign mercenaries. The section in Kol ha-No’ar reiterates the elements evident in the previous articles: the popular class nature of the rebellion, recourse to the past as a repository of political morals for the present, and recognition of the Communists as the true heirs to the myth of Hanukkah.

The myth of Hanukkah was disseminated among the young Communists not only by Banki’s public newspaper, but by its instructors’ brochures as well, which offer a window into the cultural world of the young Communists. In the case of Hanukkah, they show how elements of Jewish tradition were expressed and modified by Banki members, and how Zionist-socialist discourse, in this case the narrative of Hanukkah, was adapted into communist cultural practice. Indeed, a popular medium of Zionist-socialist and statist culture, the masekhet—a collage of literary, theoretical, and theatrical pieces devoted to a particular subject—became the usual way for Jewish Communists to express their cultural practices.

The instructors’ brochure of November 1955, like others used by Banki, was built on the masekhet model. The section devoted to Hanukkah opens with a quote from Party leader Meir Vilner, who ties together the Hasmonean and Bar Kokhva rebellions as part of a “progressive revolution of the Jewish people.” As in other Banki texts, here too those Jews who wished to become Hellenized are contrasted to those who stood firm against foreign rule and culture. Vilner also asserts that the example of the ancient rebels should be used to educate the young Communists, as it holds a moral for the present, and Vilner encourages Communists “to defend our honor, national independence, and resist the mityavnim of today.”

The text then moves on to a historical description of the Maccabean uprising. The historical narrative exhibits many of the typical characteristics of the communist myth of the holiday. The revolt is described as a popular uprising that pitted the people against the Greek mercenaries and their Jewish lackeys. The identification of the Maccabees with the people, as its leaders, is also evident. The political moral to be drawn is not forgotten either. After comparing the Seleucid Empire to Western imperialism and equating the Hellenization of antiquity with bad American culture, the text concludes that “our period is very much like the Maccabean. Then and now, those who want peace and independence, the patriots, must unite and fight for Israel’s independence against preemptive war, for world peace and peace between Israel and the Arab states.” Besides the historical portrayal, there are two other texts connected to Hanukkah in the 1955 brochure. One is a short children’s play, the other a Hanukkah song filled with anti-American insinuations, in accordance with the practice of using the holiday as a present-day political allegory.

The next instructors’ brochure to deal with Hanukkah is dated November 1956. At this very politically sensitive moment for the Communists, the authors of the brochure stressed “that according to Banki’s secretariat resolution there is the utmost importance to organizing public celebrations that are devoted to Hanukkah.” In the masekhet style, the booklet is constructed around the motifs of just and unjust war and the traditional Hanukkah blessing, “in those days, at this time.” It contains a wide variety of texts, from an essay by Mao to a poem by Natan Alterman. Of the literary pieces focusing on Hanukkah, two came from sources of cultural importance to the Communists.

The first is two poems by Haya Kadmon, the Party’s undisputed poet laureate and one of the most romantic and tragic figures in communist circles. Kadmon held an influential cultural position within Maki. Her “extensive knowledge of Hebrew and world literature made her one of the important contributors to the literary supplement of Kol ha-Am.” Both poems in the 1956 instructors’ brochure express motifs already well established in the communist myth of Hanukkah. The first, “Yet Again as in the Time of Modi’in,” continues, in poetic form, to forge a parallel between antiquity and the present: “Yet again as in the days of Modi’in / the enemy besieges the land / and the pig of Mammon enters the Temple / Once more a handful of seated parasites / burn incense for foreigners and bow to their words.” Another motif expressed in the poem is the popular nature of the Maccabean revolt: “Common people, poor priests / will awaken the spirit of revolt.” This motif, taken from Zionist-socialist culture, is also related to the present: “Once more the Hasmonean fires burn / From Judea to the Galilee; / days of slavery shall end.” The second poem revisits the motif of contrasting the fiery Maccabees to the wicked mityavnim. It also reasserts the popular character of the uprising, describing how “tens of thousands from the vineyard and the field, from the workshops and the city’s huts, broken and wretched / already gathered here to the flag of Modi’in, / to the flag of the proud sons of Matityahu!”

The second important source is the novel My Glorious Brothers by the American communist writer Howard Fast, who occupied a central place in the cultural consciousness of Banki members in the 1950s. Shoshana Shmueli, one of Banki’s most prominent instructors in the 1950s, referred to it as the “Bible” of Hanukkah, recalling that her copy of the book was repeatedly marked with the sections to be used on Hanukkah. It provided material that would be read to the younger age groups by their Banki instructors or acted out in the form of plays, serving in effect as a manual for their activities with the younger members,

The holiday featured diverse practices, including plays and scout games, which extended to the movement’s clubs. In a circular from the early 1950s, it is suggested that the local club be decorated “with Hanukkah menorahs and spinning tops.” Instructors are advised to conduct a menorah-making contest, and that one entry at least should be “on the background of the [Soviet] Pioneers symbol.”

From the late 1920s, Hanukkah had been acquiring increasing symbolic importance among Jewish Communists. Its message of national liberation, of revolt against oppressive foreign rule and traitors at home, suited the Communists’ cultural and political needs. The high point of the integration of the Hanukkah myth into Banki came in the early 1960s, as an attempt to produce a unified guide for the holiday in 1963 makes evident. Like many of Banki’s instructors’ brochures, the 1963 booklet begins with a historical narrative of the holiday. Once more the same elements can be found. The uprising was carried out by “poor peasants, artisans, small merchants and small town priests,” pitted in a class war against “rich clerks, wealthy merchants, landowners and tax collectors—a handful of parasites.” Judah the Maccabee is positively described as “the scion of a farmer family from Modi’in.” The uprising is incorporated in the progressive Jewish tradition of freedom-fighting as another link in the chain stretching from “the Great Revolt, the Bar Kokhva revolt, other revolts against the Roman Empire, [to the] the Ghettos Revolt and the War of Independence.”

As in the earlier texts, the contrast between the mityavnim and the Maccabees is a motif with meaning that extends to the present day, and the young Communists should know “that there was not and cannot be any unity between mityavnim and Maccabees, between the lovers of Rome and the Zealots, between Judenrats and the Ghetto Fighters, between the servants of imperialism and those who oppose it.” Again the contrast is struck between the popular, liberating character of Judah the Maccabee and the despotic rule of the Hasmoneans, who sold out national independence to Rome. And there is a final moral that history presents: in contrast to the past, “today when a third of the world is inhabited by liberated peoples, and in the rest of the world the people are marching safely toward their complete liberation—under the constant guidance of the working class—in the twentieth century, the century of socialism and communism—one oppressor will not be replaced by another.”

The 1963 booklet is divided into three main sections, featuring poems, stories, and plays appropriate for the holiday, respectively. The first section opens with a poem by Alexander Penn, the most important cultural figure in the communist subculture in the 1950s and 1960s. Penn joined the Party in 1947 and very quickly became “the Party’s great poet, its high priest.” His performances reading his poems at Party events left a lasting impression on those who witnessed them. His poems in Kol ha-Am, dealing with the politics of the day, were a regular fixture throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In his contribution to the 1963 booklet, “Brothers’ Light,” the main motif is light—a motif closely connected to Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. The light in the poem is ignited “from the Volga to the Vistula,” connecting Soviet heroism with the “light of our brothers and glorious heroes,” alluding to the Maccabees. Thus, a motif that first emerged in World War II reappears in poetic form in the early 1960s.

The booklet’s poetry section also contains poems by Haya Kadmon, who features prominently in other Banki booklets and articles on the holiday; poems by the French communist poet Paul Éluard; and a children’s poem by Natan Alterman. All the poems repeat such motifs as light, freedom, and anti-Americanism, American ascendancy once more being compared to the Hellenistic imperialism of antiquity. In the booklet’s second section there are stories about Jewish partisans during World War II and stories recreating events from antiquity. One story is situated in a traditional Jewish setting. It deals with young Jewish pupils who give their traditional Hanukkah allowance to their poor rabbi. This story, and a play by Shalom Aleichem in the booklet’s third section, show the emphasis placed by Banki’s instructors on what they considered to be Jewish popular traditions with a class element to them. Also in the third section, Howard Fast’s book is again presented as a play, along with other plays that became a regular staple of Banki’s Hanukkah material.

The booklet’s contents vividly illustrate how Hanukkah was shaped in Jewish communist subculture. The holiday was interpreted through a cultural mix of Jewish popular stories, Israeli communist as well as non-communist poetry, and the reinvention of antiquity to suit the Marxist version of history. The aim of such varied cultural elements was to implant the holiday in the young Communists’ minds in terms that were ideologically permissible in a communist movement, thus creating a Jewish communist progressive narrative of Hanukkah.

As celebrated among Jewish Communists from the 1920s, Hanukkah featured an alternative ritual that, despite being rooted in Jewish tradition, had a distinctive communist aspect. The main ritual traditionally associated with the holiday is the lighting of candles. Zionism and Zionist-socialism adopted this ritual, usually performed in the privacy of the family, and turned it into a national public event. The communist subculture followed the same path, and the lighting of the candles became a ritual performed in Banki’s clubs. The uniquely communist aspect of the ceremony consisted of the blessings said with the lighting of each candle. The young Communists replaced the traditional blessings with ones featuring communist content, such as blessings for the USSR and communist parties worldwide, headed by the Soviet Party, and so forth.

There is no evidence indicating that the ceremony was performed in the early days of communism in Palestine as this kind of public activity was only possible in conditions of legality. Tamar Gozansky—a Banki member in the 1950s and a Communist leader today—dates the start of the ceremony to the 1954 merger of Moshe Sneh’s Left Socialist Party (the Left Party)—originating from Zionist socialism—with Maki in the mid-1950s. However, Yoram Gozansky, a Banki member and a long-time Communist, believes it to have existed long before the 1950s. The earliest visual evidence is a photograph of the ceremony in a 1956 issue of Kol ha-No’ar. It shows three members of the Tel Aviv branch, a young girl and two boys; the girl is lighting the Hanukkah candles. A banner hanging above the three youngsters proclaims: “We will follow the Maccabean way on the path of struggle for the homeland’s independence!” The text below the photo reads: “Members of the Tel Aviv Banki branch light candles in memory of the liberation from the yoke of the invaders.” Although both slogan and caption adduce nationalist motifs, endowing the old Jewish ritual with new national content, the symbols surrounding the ceremony are communist. To the left is the Banki emblem, made up of the national flag signifying the local Israeli element, and the Red Star and the Sheaf of Wheat signifying the progressive, internationalist and Soviet socialist element. To the right is the emblem of the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY), betokening interracial solidarity and universality. These symbols give the ceremony its uniqueness. It is a traditional Jewish ritual with nationalist content as performed by Zionist-socialism, but in a communist setting.

Although there was no uniform protocol for the communist ritual of Hanukkah, the blessings accompanying the lighting of the candles featured a common content and orientation. In Yad Hanna the ceremony was performed in front of the congregated kibbutz members; the blessings over the candles included “a candle for freedom, which the heroic Maccabees enjoined us to fight for no matter what the cost, a candle for peace between nations, a candle for toil, a candle for fraternity between humans and between nations, a candle for the love of the homeland, a candle for the Party that lights our way, a candle for all children, and a candle for our Yad Hanna.” According to the testimony of a former Yad Hanna member, the ceremony also included the acting out of parts of Fast’s My Glorious Brothers by the kibbutz children. The ceremony was conducted under a banner that read “A great revolt happened here,” no doubt a repudiation of the traditional slogan “A great miracle happened here.” In Tel Aviv the same basic pattern was followed. Candles were lit for the true independence of Israel, for Jewish-Arab fraternity, and in condemnation of the military government that was imposed on the Arab population at that time. The ceremonies were conducted in the local Banki club on a decorated stage with a large candelabrum. The members took turns lighting the candles and reciting the blessings over them. The ceremony was followed by a party. Elements of communist and socialist solidarity also had a place in the Hanukkah ceremony. Some of the testimony describes candles being lit for the Soviet Union and Maki, and a candle lit in solidarity with national-liberation struggles like the Vietnam War. Local communist struggles were not forgotten either, as candles were lit for the Arab brethren and in condemnation of the military government.

By the mid-1960s Hanukkah had become a central communist holiday. A short ceremony with detailed blessings was featured in the 1963 booklet, apparently in an attempt to apply uniform practice in all Banki branches. The ceremony was to begin with the playing of a tune or song. Then the candles were to be lit; the first one, the shamash, was to be lit “for the great deeds that were done and are being done by the fighters for freedom, peace, and independence in those days at this time.” The blessings over the candles that follow exemplified the different aspects of communist subculture and identity in Israel as they had developed from the late 1920s. The first blessing connected the holiday to the Jewish heroic lineage from “the Maccabean bonfires, from the fire of the Zealots’ revolt and Bar Kokhva, from the flames of the ghetto rebels and the fire of Israel’s independence struggle.” The text equates the present-day with past oppressors and calls for an intense struggle against “the oppressors external and internal, the heirs of Antiochus and the mityavnim.”

Solidarity with other peoples was expressed in the blessings over the second candle, which was to be lit for all the people struggling for freedom, and over the fifth candle, to be lit “for all the people of the Middle East, who are casting off their chains.” Notwithstanding the Arab states’ anti-Israeli positions, the Communists saw in their radicalization a progressive factor. Loyalty to the Soviet Union and the communist movement was expressed in the blessing over the third candle, to be lit for “the People of the Soviets” and the nations of the people’s democracies. The fourth was to be lit for “the communist parties worldwide, and for the lighthouse—the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” The sixth, seventh, and eighth candles were to be lit on behalf of local Party constituents. The sixth candle was for “our dear friends from Nazareth, the Triangle, and the villages of the Galilee,” and the blessing vowed to keep alive the struggle to end the military government. The seventh candle was for “the humiliated and exploited toilers of Israel,” to whom “the word of truth that rouses to struggle,” namely the creed of the communist movement, would be delivered. The ceremony was to end with the singing of the secular Zionist Hanukkah song, “We Are Bearing Torches.”

Victor Turner defined liminality and communitas as part of the ritual process meant to neutralize crisis points within the social structure, such as differences of status and gender. Ritual carries its participants outside of the normal social structure into a liminal state where they are in effect “betwixt and between” the social structure, thus creating an anti-structure, an alternative to the day-to-day norm. In this condition, those taking part in the process are outside their social roles. Through the ritual and the symbol enacted in this liminal condition, a generalized social bond of communitas is revealed, in juxtaposition to the sociopolitical order.

The Hanukkah rituals performed by the Jewish Communists bear all the characteristics of communitas and liminality. The Jewish Communists were persecuted, at times relegated to the margins of Israel’s political, social, and cultural structures. But even when they were marginalized, Maki and Banki members shared Jewish cultural concepts with the broader society. The Jewish members of Banki were mostly young, Hebrew-speaking, native-born Israelis. This closeness on the one hand and remoteness on the other placed the Jewish Communists “betwixt and between” the social structure. The tension that this position entailed was enhanced by the performance of rituals that expressed affinity with Jewish traditions. At the same time, the Jewish Communists sought to reinvent those traditions to fit their ideological sensitivities. They did so by giving them new, progressive, secular content. Thus their holiday rituals were meant to bond them together in rituals that combined traditional Jewish motifs with Marxist ideology, designed to elevate their status, making them the heirs of the progressive revolutionary legacy they found in Hanukkah.

The Hanukkah ritual had no equivalent in ritual practices in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Its ritual language was made up predominately of local elements from the Zionist-socialist culture and Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, the Jewish Communists amalgamated both national and communist elements in the content of their various Hanukkah rituals, so that blessings were recited over the lighting of the holiday candles not only for the USSR and the Party but for the fallen of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as well. These rituals reflected the attempt to create a Jewish-Israeli communist subculture, based on a delicate equilibrium between local Israeli (mostly Zionist-socialist) and communist elements. This cultural hybrid was viable only when a balance was maintained between the various elements. In the early and mid-1960s, when, under the influence of the former members of the Left Party—known as the “Left Men”—the Jewish communist subculture came to resemble the Zionist-socialist culture, it became untenable.

The integration of the Hanukkah myth into Banki’s communist subculture culminated in the first half of the 1960s. Banki, which was by then controlled by the veterans of the Left Party, attempted to change the movement’s ritual calendar and transform Hanukkah into a central event for its members. Banki General Secretary Yair Tzaban’s proposal to enroll new members to the youth movement during Hanukkah, rather than on May Day as was traditional, sent a shock wave through the Party, highlighting the cultural differences between the “Left Men” and its old guard. This symbolic act brought into the open the conflict between the two approaches to Zionist-socialist cultural practices in Banki and Maki: the more Zionist approach introduced by the “Left Men” as opposed to the emphasis on communist and class motifs. With the balance between those elements disrupted, Jewish communist subculture lost its uniqueness and its raison d’être.


Passover is one of the main holidays of the traditional Jewish cycle, combining the elements of a spring celebration passed down from antiquity with the biblical narrative of the Exodus of the ancient Hebrews from Egypt. The main ritual connected with the holiday is the reading of the Haggadah during the family Passover Seder. In the kibbutzim, in the 1930s, a radical experiment was undertaken—an attempt to rewrite the Haggadah and restructure the Seder itself in accordance with current concerns and ideology. The holiday myth of the Hebrew slaves’ struggle for freedom was well suited to the Jewish Communists’ class and national sensibilities. Freedom and liberty became the catchwords of their version of the holiday, along with elements of the holiday associated with spring and sowing of the land.

The myth of the holiday was accepted by the Jewish Communists as early as World War II. An article by Het Vilner entitled “From Slavery to Freedom” attributed the biblical story to the hostility of the Jewish Bedouin tribes toward settled habitation. The holiday is described as “the nature holiday of the Bedouin tribes that our forefathers filled with the content of popular tradition and turned into the holiday of liberty.” Despite rejecting the biblical story as non-historic, the writer acknowledged the importance of the holiday to Jewish culture and its progressive nature: “Although these Jewish stories and legends did not call for active struggle for freedom, they preserved and developed the love of freedom.” From this love of liberty sprang the Jewish progressive tradition, from the Maccabees through Masada to the Jewish revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia. The text goes on to make the connection between the holiday and the present, using the biblical Pharaoh as a metaphor for capitalists and the nation of Amalek as a parallel to Nazism. The article ends with the prediction that the end of the war would bring with it the end “of the rule of parasitic capital over creative, working human beings,” at which time humanity would celebrate “the ‘great Passover—the Passover of the future.'”

On April 4, 1949, Kol ha-Am devoted two articles in its cultural section to Passover, an article by Yitzhak Hersberg, on the historical validity of Passover, and the other, by Yehudit Veniar, on the history of the Passover customs and rituals. The articles traced the origins of the holiday to a spring celebration of the Hebrews in which an archaic manner of sacrifice was employed to symbolize “the unity of the tribes, the national and spiritual independence of the people.” The article goes on to portray the development of the holiday through Jewish history as having always preserved “the people’s abhorrence of slavery” and its national identity. It ends with a call for a change in the holiday “in accordance with the demands of the times.” This phrase shows the flexibility in regard to Jewish tradition that the Jewish Communists absorbed from Zionist-socialism. They too wanted to add new meaning to Passover, meaning that was progressive and universal as well as national.

Although the 1949 discourse about Passover was heavily influenced by the patriotic stand taken by the Jewish Communists during the 1948 war, and thus placed the emphasis on national identity and freedom, the universal aspect of the holiday was not forgotten. In April 1948 Kol ha-Am published a poem by Alexander Penn, “The Passover Haggadah according to May Day,” which used the proximity between Passover and May Day to express the international facet of Passover. This poem is constructed around a speech made by a comrade at a workers’ rally “in one of the country’s towns” on May Day. The biblical story of the holiday is described as “the first letter in the chronicles / that announced to the universe the torment of slaves.” Moses is dubbed “the first revolutionary in the world.” The holiday is conjoined with May Day in a phrase laden with Jewish symbolism: “because when the Hebrews left Egypt / they did not know—that the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan / would be the firstborn of May Days!”

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, two elements dominated the Jewish Communists’ perception of Passover: liberty and the natural cycle connected with the holiday. In the cultural column dedicated to Passover in Kol ha-Am in 1955, the editorial stated that “a person who remembers that ‘we were slaves’ has the moral duty to extend a brotherly hand to every person who leaps into the sea and waves in order to be liberated from slavery.” The same two elements are intertwined in Haya Kadmon’s poem from the 1956 cultural column, which contrasts images of sowing, spring, and freedom with images of slavery and oppression, “the Jewish Pharaoh who has risen today to impose the rule of force on brother and neighbor” with “the people that wove the blossoms of spring into a single garland and revolted and told the story from generation to generation until dawn.”

A more intellectual look at these twin elements can be found in an article by Shmuel Eisenstadt, a prominent intellectual sympathizer with Maki. Eisenstadt first stressed the folk quality of the holiday, around which the people wove “a tapestry of legends and symbols.” Passover has “an overtone of a spring holiday and a freedom holiday.” He next portrays an ancient country idyll “where free working people… sang in the Passover nights the Song of Songs, the song of awaking nature, the song of freedom.” At present, though, the holiday’s “core of liberty, with active resistance to any form of slavery, needs fostering and development” in order to sound the “struggle for implementing socialism on the soil of an independent, peace-loving, democratic Israel.”

The young Communists shared this stress on freedom and nature, and both these elements of the holiday appear in a 1956 article, where they are connected to universal motifs like the Spring of Nations and the spring of all mankind “that was heralded to the world by the Great October [Revolution].” Liberty was also associated with Jewish heroism like the Maccabean Revolt and the wars against the Romans. The Banki documents of the 1960s placed more emphasis on themes related to nature. Thus, in a song booklet from the early 1960s, six of the eight songs deal with subjects such as the changing of the seasons and spring. Only two songs deal with the biblical narrative and freedom. In another booklet from 1961, six out of ten songs deal with themes connected to nature. The predominance of such elements derived from the Zionist-socialist culture, particularly as developed in the kibbutzim. The connection between youth and nature originated in Europe, in the romantic Free German youth movement, the Wandervogel, which had a profound influence on the Zionist-socialist youth movements. Thus practices imported from Europe were integrated into Banki’s celebration of the holidays.

Banki’s celebration of Passover did not involve particular rituals. The holiday was exploited mainly to tour the country. An item in Kol ha-Am in April 1952, reporting on a trip made by “hundreds of Banki members and non-party youth … on the last Saturday of the Passover,” indicates that some of those trips were of a political nature. Assembling near Tiberias, the youths heard from Uzi Bernstein, then Banki General Secretary, “his impressions of the Twelfth Leninist Komsomol Conference and the life of the youth in the Soviet Union.” The participants were apparently harassed and prevented from passing through Safed by the police under the pretext of an “unlawful demonstration.” A 1960 issue of Kol ha-No’ar reported that the “Passover was characterized by trips of the different district branches.” The districts of Tel Aviv and the Judean foothills in south-central Israel went to Eilat at the southern tip of Israel, while the districts of Haifa, the south, and Jerusalem went north to the Galilee. While the trip to the south, which included bathing in the sea and sailing in a glass-bottomed boat over the coral reefs, was devoid of political content, the one to the Galilee, heavily populated by Arab Israelis, was exploited to conduct an “enthusiastic meeting in Kfar Yasif.”

The Jewish Communists seem to have made no concerted attempt to create an alternative to the traditional interpretation of the main rituals of Passover, the Seder meal and the reading of the Haggadah. Nevertheless, two pieces of evidence suggest that Banki and Maki members did write a proletarian Haggadah. In a 1957 cultural section of Kol ha-Am, one page was devoted to a “Passover Haggadah in a Version Suited to the Aspirations of Workers and All Supporters of Peace,” in the form of a masekhet drawn from various sources, ranging from the biblical to the communist poets Penn and Kadmon. On the basis of the traditional Haggadah text, the motifs of liberty and spring were used to create a Jewish communist text. One passage states that “as the Passover is the spring of the year, so communism is the spring of humanity.” The message of freedom and justice was connected to a lineage of Jewish heroes ending with “Communists everywhere struggling to destroy the evil kingdom and free all the slaves in spirit and in body.”

In an interview, Professor of Hebrew Literature Nissim Calderon, who was a member of the united Banki in 1962–65, recalled the use of such texts. It seems probable that this Zionist-socialist practice, previously unknown to Banki, was adopted in this period when, under Yair Tzaban, the influence of Zionist-socialist culture on Banki was at its height. Although there is no evidence for this practice in the archives, it would accord with the process of diffusion of Zionist-socialist cultural practices into Banki. Furthermore, Shoshana Shmueli describes a masekhet performed in Banki’s clubs, which included pieces revolving around the theme of liberty, with literary works by Pablo Neruda and Nâzım Hikmet, Jewish popular stories dealing with class by authors such as Shalom Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, and references to the blacks’ struggle for equal rights in America.

The main activities connected with the holiday, then, were the field trips, which can be seen as rituals of communitas and liminality. Certain evidence further suggests that the Jewish Communists continued the radical cultural experiment of the Zionist socialists in their attempt to rewrite the text of the Haggadah. However, this did not develop into an alternative to the traditional Seder ritual. The latter was so ingrained in the matrix of family life, and in the community life of the kibbutzim, that a small group lacking in cultural resources such as Banki could not replace it with its own version.

The symbolic language of the holiday clustered around two main themes. The first, liberty, was invoked through both nationalist, popular themes and universal ones. The second, spring, was used in the same way as in Zionist-socialist culture to stress motifs associated with nature, but also as a symbol of political rejuvenation as exemplified by communism. Once more, like the Zionist socialists, the Jewish Communists took Jewish tradition and reinterpreted it in their own way. Thus they made Pharaoh a symbol of capitalism and posited the fight for liberty as part of a worldwide struggle, not just a struggle for national freedom. In the case of Passover, as Hanukkah, the Jewish Communists used their own language, symbolism, and myth to absorb the Jewish tradition into their subculture.


In contrast to the view that the “establishment of the State of Israel apparently led to the decline in the importance of Hanukkah in Israeli political culture,” as the new state cults of independence and remembrance took its place, the vitality of the holiday among the Jewish Communists points to the interrelation between their cultural practices and the pre- and post-1948 Zionist-socialist culture. Clothed in the ideological concepts of Marxism-Leninism particular to the Jewish Communists, this most Zionist of holidays was made acceptable to members of both the Party and its youth movement. From the 1920s the rites and myths of the holiday were reshaped by the Jewish Communists to emphasize the progressive and Marxist elements. Thus the narrative of the Maccabean rebellion became the tale of a class war by the poor underclass of antiquity, and the lighting of the candles, a rite of identification with the Palestinian Israelis and world communism.

The Jewish Communists did not recoil from using Hanukkah as a weapon in their political arsenal. Shaping the message of the holiday in accordance with their changing political purposes, they used it to attack bourgeois Zionism, Palestinian feudalism, and British imperialism in the 1920s, and to denounce the Sinai Campaign in 1956. On all of those occasions the holiday became increasingly accepted into communist discourse. In the 1920s it was used to reject the Zionist cultural project in Palestine; during World War II the heroic narrative of the holiday was cautiously adopted, only to be embraced more fully during the 1948 war as the tale of an anti-imperialist struggle. By 1957, the holiday had been so thoroughly assimilated that Banki members were portraying themselves as the true heirs of the Maccabees.

Passover underwent a similar, albeit less obvious, process. The holiday’s adoption began during War World II, and by the 1950s and early 1960s it was centered on two main motifs: liberty and nature. The connection to Zionist-socialist cultural practices is indicated by the Jewish Communists’ attempt to rewrite the Haggadah, as the kibbutzim had sought to do in the 1930s. The holiday also served as a political tool for the Jewish Communists, with elements of the holiday narrative being used to attack capitalism or accentuate the patriotic stand of the Party in 1948.

The rites, symbols, and myths created by the Jewish Communists in order to celebrate Hanukkah and Passover were intended to alleviate the tensions created by the marginalization of the Communists, enabling them to claim a place, in accordance with their particular political creed, in traditional Jewish narratives. By selectively adopting these holidays, the Communists could use the tools of the hegemonic Zionist-socialist culture to fill the old vessels of Jewish tradition with new wine; this wine was, however, not Zionist but Jewish nationalist and Marxist.

The historical process, in which the Jewish Communists adopted Hanukkah and Passover into their cultural practices, shows a growing embrace of Zionist-socialist elements. Other than the fact that the Jewish Communists did not exist in a cultural vacuum and were influenced by the culture of the Israeli Zionist left, this development may also be attributed to the background of the people who joined Banki and Maki from the 1940s. Banki especially had always contained nuclei of Sabra activists. Even when Moshe Sneh’s Socialist Left Party joined Maki, and its youth section, the Yitzhak Sade Young Brigade, merged with Banki, these few but influential activists—while changing their political affiliations—retained their Zionist-socialist cultural practices. The process culminated when the Left Men achieved cultural and political hegemony, mainly in Banki. Under Yair Tzaban, Banki even planned to defy tradition and inaugurate new members to the movement during Hanukkah rather than on May Day, and the use of a proletarian Haggadah was probably introduced during this period. Thus, the balance struck between the Marxist universalist and Jewish-Israeli national elements was tilted heavily in favor of the latter, adding to the cultural and political strains that subsequently caused the split within Israeli communism.