How Donald Trump Stole Hanukkah

12/10/2015 03:30 pm ET | Updated Dec 11, 2015

You're a mean one, Mr. Trump.

Nearly two millennia ago, famed Jewish historian Flavius Josephus first suggested the appellation "Lights" (Greek: photos) for the holiday of Hanukkah, describing it as the moment when, beyond all possible hope, religious liberty returned to his people. Years of oppression and degradation concluded, prohibitions on the study of Torah, circumcision and the observance of dietary laws withdrawn, Josephus understood how the courageous actions of a committed few lifted the fog of persecution and restored all that was right and good in his society. It was truly a time when the darkness gave way to light.

Contrast that with how light gives way to darkness in our present world. Similar religious oppression is emerging on the horizon for another faith, and we must not sit idly by. With Donald Trump's suggestion of banning all Muslims from entering the United States, people of good conscience must raise the alarm. This was not some insignificant hate-monger speaking to a limited band of fanatics -- as presidential candidates speak, they define the essential boundaries of what is reasonable discourse in America. The dangerous and irresponsible speech we now hear coming from Mr. Trump has the potential to foster hatred, ignite violence and cause irreparable harm to individuals and our nation at large. When a candidate's speech veers into such unconstitutional, un-American territory as proposing a religious litmus test for entering our country, the core values of America are in jeopardy.

It has been a mere seventy years since my people were banned from countries, stripped of their religious observance, and listed on government manifests for the express purpose of controlling and eventually annihilating us. I hold dear the memories of my people's fear and loss, the stories of masses fleeing for their lives only to be rejected at international borders, and the acts of courage that the righteous of other faiths committed to protect those in danger. Do we want to live in a country where our Muslim community, or any community of shared belief, is subject to such wholesale maltreatment, especially in a response to the atrocities of a tiny few?

I happened to be in Paris the night of the attacks last month. I watched with my own eyes as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. I have seen, firsthand and up close, the unbearable physical and psychic damage terrorism has done in Israel and all over the world. I understand the need for security in a profound way. But, as the United States learned during the McCarthy era, security must never be obtained at the expense of destroying who we are as a country, a beacon of hope in a world rife with discrimination against those of differing beliefs.

It is laudable that the other Republican candidates have publicly chastised Mr. Trump on this issue. With such remarks, Mr. Trump achieves the opposite of his stated goal of "Making America Great Again." At a time when Jews worldwide celebrate religious freedom, it is as if he is stealing the cherished ideals behind Hanukkah. No candidate, Republican, Democrat, Independent or undecided should ever be permitted to steer America away from what defines us and makes us great: that we are one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., is the President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.