Luke Berryman | Opinion contributor
Each winter, Jewish people around the world celebrate Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights.” The celebrations include lighting eight candles on a special menorah. These candles represent the miracle of one day’s worth of oil burning for eight during the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago.
Look at the Hanukkah menorah, though, and you’ll see nine candles. Eight of them are sacred, so they can’t be used to light the temple, the home or each other. That’s where the ninth candle comes in. It’s called the “shamash,” which means servant. It isn’t sacred, and its sole purpose is to light the other candles.
This year more than ever, the shamash is a potent reminder that everyone has the power to change the world for the better.
Surge of antisemitism
The United States is experiencing an unprecedented surge in antisemitism. Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, has said that he likes Hitler and loves Nazis; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has abused the memory of the Holocaust; and former President Donald Trump has dined with Nick Fuentes, a notorious white supremacist and conspiracy theorist.
Rosh Hashanah is about one simple question: What kind of world do we want to live in?
Interwoven with headline events like these are countless others that impacted local communities without making national news.
There’s an adage that can help us to understand why this surge is happening: The medium is the message. According to this adage, when your phone goes off, it doesn’t matter whether it’s telling you about a celeb who has said something antisemitic or about a celeb who has condemned antisemitism. What matters is simply that it’s going off – again. Clawing your attention away from the world and toward the little glowing screen that’s always within arm’s reach.
And it’s not just our phones. From targeted ads to 24/7 work culture, the competition for our attention is brutal and nonstop. Under such conditions, some people will inevitably see offensive content as a way of getting attention – a shortcut to going viral.
Contempt for truth allows conspiracy theories to thrive
Just by virtue of being so gratuitously offensive, antisemitism is transforming into an irresistible forbidden fruit. Every comparison of COVID-19 mandates to the Holocaust, and every appeal for impartiality when teaching kids about Nazism, is proof of this.
But there are darker ingredients than attention-seeking in the antisemitic surge. Society’s contempt for truth is leading more and more Americans to believe more and more conspiracy theories. This has allowed violence to overshadow life in the United States, from the U.S. Capitol riots to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
‘Not left or right, but deep’: How people of faith can help to heal America’s divisions
Antisemitism thrives in this environment because it’s the ultimate conspiracy theory. It offers one simple explanation for everything that’s wrong with the world, its long history gives it a semblance of credibility that other conspiracies don’t have, and it has a salacious underbelly that conspiracy theorists can’t resist.
The shamash candle shows us how we can break this spell. By bringing light to the other candles on the Hanukkah menorah, it empowers them to end darkness and to fulfill their potential.
Fear, hate and ignorance have always been associated with darkness, and knowledge with light. That’s why the 18th century Age of Reason – which gave birth to modern democracy, concepts such as religious tolerance and personal liberty, and philosophers like Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant – is also known as the Enlightenment. To know something is to see the facts and truth about it clearly.
In 2020, I founded a nonprofit organization to improve Holocaust education in the United States. It’s called The Ninth Candle, after the shamash. We work to spread knowledge by bringing inquiry-based learning into classrooms all around the country. This method teaches kids to identify historical documents, to analyze them and to think critically about them, and to assemble their findings into coherent historical narratives that cast light on how and why the Holocaust happened at the time and in the place that it did.
Knowing history in this way enables them to tell what feels true from what actually is true – a critical skill for the 21st century.
Hanukkah this year is from sundown Sunday to sundown Dec. 26. Maybe you’ll see a menorah in a window somewhere in your neighborhood. Let it be a chance to reflect on how anyone can change the world by sharing light.
Luke Berryman is the founder and CEO of The Ninth Candle, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end antisemitism by sharing knowledge.