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Hanukkah Is a Time for Palestine Solidarity, From Fasting to Public Disruption

This holiday of feasts begins as people starve amid genocide in Gaza. Activists are fasting weekly for a ceasefire.

Protesters demonstrate in support of Gaza on November 11, 2023.

Hanukkah Is a Time for Palestine Solidarity, From Fasting to Public Disruption

This holiday of feasts begins as people starve amid genocide in Gaza. Activists are fasting weekly for a ceasefire.

Protesters demonstrate in support of Gaza on November 11, 2023.

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Hanukkah — often a time of joy and abundance — is here. Throughout these eight days, many Jews eat delicious fried foods like potato pancakes and jelly donuts, sing, spin dreidels and celebrate the story of a bit of oil that lasted for eight nights, lighting an ancient temple. While Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar (and its history is fraught with questions of militarism), we look forward to it each year as a winter festival that responds to the increasingly dark season with a celebration of light.

Yet we are entering this holiday of candlelight and feasts as people starve amid rapid genocide in Gaza, where Israel has killed more than 16,200 people, with thousands more potentially dead under the rubble. Hanukkah is coming amid ceaseless heartbreak and horror.

So, on the fourth night of Hanukkah this year, I will be fasting alongside a group of Jews and others committed to Palestine solidarity. We’ve been fasting each Sunday since October 22 as part of the reignited Jewish Fast for Gaza. The fast is an international effort to show solidarity with Gazans and Palestinians everywhere, and to recommit ourselves to action for an end to Israel’s genocide, occupation, colonization and apartheid. We are fasting each week until there is a full and permanent ceasefire. After that, we will be fasting each month until Israel’s crushing, 16-year-old blockade on Gaza is lifted, because while a ceasefire is a first step to curtailing Israel’s mass violence, it’s certainly not the end.

Of course, there is no comparison between the minor discomfort of our weekly day of fasting and the pain and terror experienced by people in Gaza, but this act of solidarity is intended to keep Gazans’ suffering at the top of our minds as this horrific genocide persists.

“A communal fast is held in times of crisis, both as an expression of mourning and a call to repentance,” Rabbi Brant Rosen, one of Jewish Fast for Gaza’s cofounders (and my rabbi), tells me about how the fast is grounded in Jewish tradition. On each fast day, we are rededicating ourselves to taking action throughout the following week in solidarity with our Palestinian co-strugglers. So, going into this season, we remember the meaning of the word Hanukkah: “rededication.”

Taking action has meant different things for the various folks participating in the fast, from the U.S. to New Zealand, Singapore to Canada. Together, and with other formations, many fast participants have organized vigils, collaborated on movement art projects, joined marches, used social media to inform our communities, participated in civil disobedience and engaged in tough conversations. We build connection and solidarity with each other, too, as we’re fasting across state and national boundaries, through messaging apps and social media. This community-building helps us collectively use the fast period as a chance to reflect and double down on our commitments to liberation: As Aotearoa (New Zealand) faster Marilyn Garson — who has spent fast days drafting Palestine solidarity remarks to deliver at the New Zealand parliament — has wished the group, “May your fast be meaningful and radical!”

Through our fast, we’re recognizing the need to commit to disruption on every front, including in our daily lives. Each Sunday as we move through the world, the fast creates an opportunity to talk to people — including people who aren’t thinking about Gaza at all — about why we’re not eating. We hold public events, too: Here in Chicago, we held a lakeside vigil to launch our October fast, and at the start of our November 12 fast, some of us lit up an intersection with the words “Free Gaza” after spending an hour speaking the names of the dead, letting them resonate out into the surrounding neighborhood.

People participate in a Jewish Fast for Gaza vigil on October 21, 2023.
People participate in a Jewish Fast for Gaza vigil on October 21, 2023.
People participate in a Jewish Fast for Gaza vigil on October 21, 2023.

Our fast-based disruption is an internal reminder, too, that these are times of absolute emergency, and that there must be no business as usual at any level. We take to heart the words of organizer and scholar Nadine Naber, who said on Movement Memos, “We interrupt everything, and we leave not one space in our lives devoid of our call to action.”

Some participants in Jewish Fast for Gaza are undertaking a 24-hour fast each week, others a 12-hour fast; others are marking the day in an alternate way. Each week, we donate the money we’ve saved on food to organizations supporting direct aid to Gaza.

The fast is an intentionally international project, with participants around the world sharing different vantages and routes to Palestine solidarity. For example, in Cowichan, Canada, participants in the fast have continually pointed to Canada’s history of persistent support of Israel and its ties to imperialism. Those of us in the United States recognize this genocide is horrifically perpetrated in our name as Jews and also fueled by our tax dollars. Emmy Charissa Cincin, an anti-Zionist Jewish conversion student and member of Jewish Fast for Gaza who lives in Singapore, shared this story when I recently asked why she’s fasting: “My father’s family is from a country where it wasn’t always safe to be ethnically Chinese. When I was young, my family lived in a city there for a while, and my paternal grandfather told my mother that if anything were to happen on the street, she should run to the nearest house, bang on the gate and ask to be let in. I’m fasting because … I would like to be one of the people who would have opened that gate, and would have let my mother in.”

Although our latest iteration of the Jewish Fast for Gaza is new, the project is not. It was established as a monthly fast in 2009 by a group of rabbis led by Rabbi Brant Rosen and Rabbi Brian Walt in response to Israel’s brutal military assault on Gaza during what is known as Operation Cast Lead, an assault which killed 1,419 Palestinians. Walt noted the fast was the “first public rabbinic response to Israel’s immoral collective punishment of all the residents of Gaza.” At the time Cast Lead began, Israel’s catastrophic blockade of Gaza, initiated in 2006, had already severely restricted Gaza’s ability to import food, fuel, and other essential materials. As a result, the Gazan economy was imploding, and the region suffered high levels of unemployment and poverty and rising levels of childhood malnutrition.

“This blockade has only served to further oppress an already thoroughly oppressed people. As Jews and as human beings of conscience, we cannot stand idly by,” Rabbi Rosen wrote in 2009 upon the launch of the Jewish Fast for Gaza.

People participate in a Jewish Fast for Gaza vigil on October 21, 2023.
People participate in a Jewish Fast for Gaza vigil on October 21, 2023.

The 2009 fast had four articulated goals: to call for the blockade on Gaza to be lifted, to provide aid to the people of Gaza, to call for negotiations with Hamas toward ending the blockade and to urge the pursuit of a just peace. To mark the fast days in the early years of the effort, there were conference calls with Gazans, prominent Palestinian figures and solidarity activists. Organizers urged those fasting to donate their food money to aid organizations supporting Gaza, a practice that has continued to this day. The fast was revived in 2014 and again in 2021 in response to subsequent heightened military assaults on Gaza.

In October 2023, Rabbi Rosen and I convened a group to reignite the Jewish Fast for Gaza, shifting it to a weekly fast to reflect the urgency of this genocidal moment, and to demand an immediate and permanent ceasefire.

In addition to drawing on Jewish practices of fasting, we’re inspired by the political tradition of fasters and hunger strikers who have demonstrated their refusal to be complicit with state violence by ceasing to eat. Fasts and hunger strikes have been used to protest many manifestations of state violence, from police shootings to school closings to the U.S.-backed war in Yemen.

In particular, hunger strikes (which require a much greater commitment than our fast — often, a determination to refuse food until demands are met) have long been a hallmark of resistance for incarcerated people. They range from the 60-day California Hunger Strike of 2013, to the Angola 3’s hunger strikes in Louisiana State Penitentiary, to the multiple waves of hunger strikes at Guantánamo Bay, to the hunger strikes undertaken by Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli prisons.

A hunger strike is often a response to a life-threatening crisis, in which other avenues of resistance have been repressed or proven ineffective. As Ahmed Rabbani wrote two years ago for Truthout, “There are very few freedoms at Guantánamo Bay prison, where I have been held without charge or trial … for over 16 years. The right to starve myself is one of them.”

A refusal to eat is an assertion of power, even in situations when it may seem we have none at all.

In considering the links between imprisonment and protest in this time of genocide, it’s important to remember that even before Israel’s latest genocidal campaign began, the people of Gaza were living in an open-air prison, thanks to the blockade. Meanwhile, for more than two decades, U.S. police officers have traveled to Israel to train in techniques of lethal force and “counterterrorism.” As we fast, we recognize that all manifestations of state violence are interconnected.

Beyond Israel’s current campaign of rapid genocide, its slower campaign of starvation and deprivation is also a vicious form of state violence deserving of sustained protest. As Palestinian writer and editor Nicki Kattoura writes, “Before 7 October, Israel was already controlling how much food entered Gaza down to the exact calorie.” This is why the Jewish Fast for Gaza will continue regular fasts even after a ceasefire, until the blockade is ended. And it’s why other fast-based efforts have vocally condemned the violence of the blockade alongside the violence of bombing campaigns.

Last week, organizers from Adalah Justice Project, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, Dream Defenders, IfNotNow and Democratic Socialists of America, among others, supported a five-day hunger strike in front of the White House. Hunger striker Sumaya Awad explained that in addition to pushing for a permanent ceasefire, “we’re going on hunger strike to illustrate even a fragment of the pain and the suffering and the experience that Palestinians go through in Gaza under Israel’s brutal blockade supported by the United States government.”

A public hunger strike or fast calls attention to the reality of extreme suffering, and the urgency of ending it. But through evoking that sense of emergency, it can also pull us urgently toward hope, reminding us that there are possible futures beyond hunger, beyond deprivation, beyond Zionism, beyond imprisonment, beyond atrocity.

In 2012, incarcerated Palestinian activist Hana Shalabi began a hunger strike to protest her administrative detention in an Israeli prison. On the 40th day of Shalabi’s strike, Palestinian poet and activist Rafeef Ziadah offered a poem (excerpted here):

Our Spring in Palestine is born in a prison cell

Our Spring in Palestine is born shackled to a hospital bed

Our Spring in Palestine is born with an administrative detention order against it.

But, it blossoms even in hunger!

As we welcome Hanukkah this year, we can dream urgently of a future spring blossoming in a free Palestine. As we fast amid the holiday, we can remember the struggle, action and commitment it will take to make that spring possible.

Remembering that Hanukkah means “rededication,” as we light the candles each night, we can rededicate ourselves to solidarity with Palestine for the long haul: for a permanent ceasefire, for an end to starvation and deprivation, for an end to Zionist colonialism and apartheid, and for an end to state violence in all its forms, from the U.S. to Palestine and beyond.

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