Make your Seder a Zionist salon, not a liberal guiltfest

IN THAT spirit, try avoiding two buzzwords bamboozling modern progressives: “intersectionality” and “white privilege.”

April 16, 2019 19:57
4 minute read.
ngraved pewter Seder plate; Germany, 1790

ngraved pewter Seder plate; Germany, 1790. (photo credit: DAVID HARRIS/WOLFSON MUSEUM/HEICHAL SHLOMO)


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Tis the night before Seder, and all through the house,

Every creature is scrubbing, hunting down the last louse.

Mom and dad are a-fretting, feeling so un-PC,

Each wonders: What can I do, so my kids will like Passover – and me?

Seder hosts, please resist temptation, I really get the allure –

But don’t reduce this eternal Jewish ritual, to a virtue-signaling exercise in anti-Trump politics du jour!

Dear WJPs of SJWs (Worried Jewish Parents of Social Justice Warriors),

I get it. For the unprepared, Seders are endless and filled with strange customs. College rebels get bored quickly and offended easily. Collectively, we have done such a terrible job of steeping our kids in Jewish history, ritual and literacy that, rather than seeing Passover as this festival of national liberation, many kids look at it as a burdensome OCD-fest. Who celebrates freedom with an interminable meal, where you wash your hands twice, mumble through ancient texts, and are forced to slouch? Whose escape from slavery ends up in a prison of food restrictions and bread bans?

But, hallelujah, amid, all these off-putting elements, rays of (blue) light shine through. Read the texts, focus on the themes – resisting oppression, evil leaders, social justice for all; you can easily reduce the Haggada to a New York Times editorial. Here’s where parents or grandparents or Seder hosts must do something this generation of helicopter and now bulldozing parents – hovering above, clearing obstacles in your kids’ path – doesn’t do well: Grow a spine. Show some soul. Resist the easy path. Find some nuance, some profundity. Take a Jewish stand, don’t just plunge into the PC – Politically Correct – muck.

Don’t get me wrong. Make some connections, showing how we Jews spawned these revolutionary concepts of equality, dignity, democracy. Discuss how the Exodus metaphor shaped the American Revolution, abolitionism, the civil rights movement, Zionism and other national liberation struggles. After “Dayenu,” when my kids were young, we used to march around the house, walking the walk of freedom. Then we’d sing some civil rights songs, building to “If I had a hammer,” so we could belt out: “It’s about love between my brothers and my sisters....”

The key word is “some.” Without some proportion, you lose the Seder’s authenticity. Make some comparisons. Sing some contemporary songs. But to flip it around and turn the Seder into a celebration of our most contemporary political sensibilities circa 2019, with some Judaism, misses the Seder’s majesty, its eternal messaging. Don’t forget: The real story is the grand sweep of Jewish history, the power of Jewish peoplehood, not the immediate needs of today.

IN THAT spirit, try avoiding two buzzwords bamboozling modern progressives: “intersectionality” and “white privilege.”

Conceptually, true intersectionality, emphasizing that all victims of prejudice and oppression share certain experiences and traumas, would fit. But campus intersectionality is a “distorto” drug. It exaggerates certain people’s suffering, privileging certain struggles – especially the Palestinians’ – while dismissing Jewish suffering and our struggle for freedom. Increasingly, Jews are blocked at the Progressive intersection, forced to repudiate their Zionism to join with feminists or LGBT-Q activists or Black Lives Matter activists. We have a phrase that describes treating Jews separately in a discriminatory way – so I wonder, why welcome an antisemitic force at your table?

Similarly, Jews are being shut up repeatedly today, told to “check their privilege,” accused of “white privilege.” Again, there’s value in identifying what built-in advantages and disadvantages come with your race and class. But the list of insulting implications that phrase generates starts by assuming all Jews are rich – or white; that it’s all about race; that Jews don’t suffer from antisemitism and antisemitic anti-Zionism; that we should compete in this sick victimization Olympics, trying to prove who suffered more; and that the best way to win an argument is to reduce people to their race or gender or financial standing, rather than addressing them as individuals and assessing the ideas themselves.

“White privilege” accusations against American Jews eat away at Jewish patriotism and pride. They put Jews on the defensive, while falsely setting Israel up as a bastion of wealth and power – when whatever it has, Israel earned – and it still needs support and friendship, too.

RATHER THAN going all PC, I propose a “Jew-jitsu.”

Use the Seder to tell your Jewish story – your family’s exodus tale – and fold it into the Seder. Use the Seder to make your short, powerful statement of what Judaism means to you. In other words, lean in to the Seder itself, marvel at the flow of history, the resonance of Jewish ideas, the meaning of belonging to this eternal people. And if it’s really good, videotape your statements – after the holiday.

Supplement with Jewish texts, Zionist texts, not too many secular tracts. I have posted supplements from my book The Zionist Ideas at Debate more eternal, more Jewish, questions like Sir Isaiah Berlin on the constructive dimensions of Jewish nationalism or the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Read Berl Katznelson on “Revolution and Tradition,” our need to remember and forget, to remain anchored, yet innovate. Read Annie Roiphe or Herman Wouk on assimilation. Try to nurture your family’s Jewish agenda, to shape your kids’ identity, rather than having their politics shape yours.

Listen to them, invite them in, but stand for something. And, of course, this isn’t just advice for Seder night – it’s a plan for life.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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