Jews celebrate Hanukkah under cloud of war, spike in antisemitism

The Jewish celebration of Light, known as Hanukkah, begins Thursday at sunset. This holiday comes at a time when antisemitic attacks and rhetoric are at an all-time high.

Hours before sunset, Los Gatos-based Rabbi Aaron Cunin assembled an 18th-century Menorah, gifted to him for use this holiday season. However, some in the Jewish community are worried displays of light by Menorahs could make things darker.

"An 80-year-old woman called me, and she said that her daughter was debating whether or not to put up the Menorah because she didn’t want to draw attention. She was wondering if maybe it’s not a good idea," said Cunin.

This mental calculus came as the eight-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah started at sunset. Experts said the concept that light can pierce darkness is especially poignant this year.

"Sixty percent of all hate crimes in America are against the Jewish population," said professor Ken Gray, a retired FBI special agent-in-charge who lectures at the University of New Haven.

He said antisemitism has spiked following the Hamas attacks in Israel on Oct. 7.

"The display of menorahs is an open invitation for attacks. Consequently, you see some people fearing to celebrate their religion openly because of a fear of attacks," said Gray.

This holiday season, Jews aren’t the only ones worried that battle lines in the Middle East have led to increased conflicts domestically.

"The reality of the way global conflict impacts at home is that the violence does not stop at our shores," said Zahra Billoo, executive director of CAIR San Francisco Bay Area.

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She said there’s been a 170% increase in Islamophobic incidents since the Israel-Hamas war began.

"More and more Muslims are finding solace in community and religious spaces," said Billoo. "So, as more and more Muslims gather together, there is a concern. How do they manage their safety?"

Despite the increased risk, Cunin said for him and other Jews, safety is found by embracing their religion and the collective light beyond religion they believe will destroy darkness.

"It’s not only a holiday for Jewish people, but it’s a holiday for all mankind," said Cunin. "If we hide who we are, then the evil wins. And we’re not gonna let that happen."

Other South Bay Menorah lighting ceremonies will take place at Oakridge Mall, Valley Fair Mall, and Santana Row. The San Jose Sharks will host a Jewish-themed heritage night on Dec. 12.

Jesse Gary is a reporter based in the station's South Bay bureau. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter), @JesseKTVU and on Instagram, @jessegontv