As we gather for Seder, the Jewish people are reeling: from the three killed boys, the Gaza war, the divisive Israeli election and rising anti-Semitism. With emotions rubbed raw by the hijinks of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, John Boehner and Barack Obama – how’s that for non-partisanship – many American Jews in particular will come to Seder ready to fight. These issues can become crowbars dividing Americans and Israelis, polarizing Left and Right, estranging family members. The mistake is only seeing Israel through a politicized lens – as a controversial “issue” rather than the Jewish homeland. This year, let’s ban the killer Bs – Bibi, Barack and Boehner – from the table.
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Instead, let’s celebrate the greatest event in modern Jewish history, Israel’s founding, even if Israel isn’t having what we in our Base-10 culture deem a “big anniversary.” Actually, when so many enemies dream of your demise, every anniversary is a big anniversary. Let’s make our haggadas “Homeland Haggadot,” reading the Passover story not only through the freedom-slavery lens but through the home-homelessness lens.
Leave one empty chair at the table for a Jew who died violently this year. It could be one of the three kidnapped boys, one of the Jerusalemites slaughtered while commuting or praying, one of the soldiers killed in Gaza or one of the Jews murdered in Paris. Tell that person’s story. Leave an empty wine glass, too, moving from the particular to the universal. Our sensitivity to the many Jewish families with empty seats and broken hearts this Seder increases our sensitivity to all suffering, mourning all who died violently, including Palestinian bystanders. The empty chair will never be filled, those people are gone; the wine glass is aspirational, with hopes for a peaceful year next year ready to fill them.
When singing “HaLachma,” inviting the hungry to come eat, my family opens the door. This peoplehood moment allows us go outside ourselves and think of others in our community. Add a peoplehood action. Propose a new charitable initiative to help our people.
This conversation segues naturally into the Four Sons. The wicked child sinned by rejecting, not rebelling. Jews should not fear tough questions, even regarding Israel. The wicked “lachem” – to you – separates that individual from the Jewish people. Wherever we stand politically, let’s remain engaged – while recognizing the good, not just the bad.
Read Maggid, the telling, seeking references to home, specifically to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, the Jewish people’s homeland. Consider what having a homeland means and offers, even if you don’t live in it. A people becomes more fulfilled by returning to their natural habitat and taking responsibility through statehood. Tell the contemporary Jewish story from powerlessness and victimhood to power, yielding complexities – and opportunities.
Here’s a really radical thought: work in some good news from Israel. Talk about Waze, the Israeli GPS technology, and Re-Walk, the walking aid for parapalegics. Toast Israel’s president Reuben Rivlin, for making Israeli Arabs feel included as citizens, and hail Salim Joubran, the Israeli-Arab Supreme Court justice who chaired Israel’s election commission.
Explore how we react emotionally to good news or bad news about Israel, to understand our bond. End with a folk song like “This Land is your Land,” or contemporary songs like “Our Town” from the movie Cars, or just the chorus – the stanzas are X-rated – from the Diddy Dirty Money song, which most kids know: “I’m coming home, I’m coming home, tell the world that I’m coming home.” These songs speak of normalcy, anchoring, permanence, authenticity, contrasting with our fluid, rush-rush, artificial, superficial, hyped-up lives.
If, after all this homeland talk, people still want to discuss power and vengeance, us and them, just and unjust wars, “shfoch chamatcha,” the “pour out your wrath” prayer is the time. Remember to pour out some wrath over the delegitimizers and the terrorists who target Israelis and Jews. And accept the challenge to hate the haters without letting hatred infect our souls, guaranteeing that we never mirror the awful behaviors we have endured. However heated the conversation, everyone can greet “Elijah the prophet,” promising redemption, in song.
Singing “Next Year in Jerusalem” triggers discussion about Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state. Relate to Jerusalem as our ancient and modern capital, the home of Israeli democracy today. Avoid the trap of seeing “Jewish” and “democratic” as opposites. Key democratic ideas of liberty and equality stem from the Bible, developed in ancient Jerusalem, and flourish in modern Jerusalem. Seeing Jerusalem as our people’s historic capital reinforces that Jews are a people. Thus a Jewish democracy is not a theocracy, and we have a 3,000-year story as a people connected to this homeland and this city. When singing “next year in Jerusalem” even if next year will still be in New Jersey, imagine a rebuilt, perfected Jerusalem.
Finally, finish by doing what Zionists do – dreaming about a better future, using our national narrative, values and communal ties to improve Israel and the world. Zionism, the movement of Jewish national liberation, seeks to make the Jewish people a “Values Nation,” not just defend Israel against our many enemies.
This reading, rooted in Jewish, democratic, and Zionist values, parallels the curriculum my colleagues and I developed in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel program. The key is to start talking about Israel where we agree, not where we disagree politically. Make it a values conversation not just a current events debate. The flow from peoplehood to homeland and statehood to power and its dilemmas to Jewish and democratic ends by dreaming about Israel as “a values nation.”
The delegitimizers win when we make every conversation about Israel political and confrontational. Let’s make this Seder a healing Seder, a dreaming Seder, a homeland Seder.The author, a professor of history at McGill University, is teaching this semester at Hebrew University’s Rothberg School. His eleventh book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press this fall.