Passover lessons

Based on the track record, Jews are rightly concerned about the potential for yet another major outburst of lethal anti-Semitism.

April 2, 2015 22:48
3 minute read.

Ben&Jerry's finds its way to the Seder plate this Passover. (photo credit: FACEBOOK)


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At the beginning of the Haggadah, after recounting the Ten Plagues visited upon the Egyptians before the redemption, the liturgy asserts the ineradicable nature of anti-Semitism and puts forward the belief that God will be there to redeem the Jews.

“In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”

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Whether or not you believe in a redeeming God who never fails to save the Jews from their enemies, it is undeniable that confrontation with tyrants and whole civilizations harboring lethal hatred for Jews has been a central theme of Jewish history. In both the time of the Bible and subsequently, genocidal enemies have targeted the Jews.

The tribe of Amalek tried to annihilate the Israelite slaves as they fled Egypt; Haman collaborated with the Persian Emperor Ahasuerus in an effort to kill every Jew in the 127 countries under Persia’s control; there were Greeks and Romans who conquered the Land of Israel and massacred, subjugated and ultimately expelled the Jews from their homeland.

In the Middle Ages, Christians and Muslims regularly persecuted Jews. The Inquisition was a concerted attempt to erase Jewish identify through forced conversion. In the 17th century, despot Bohdan Khmelnytsky massacred more than 100,000 Jews in an attempt to eradicate them from Ukraine. In the 19th century, a series of pogroms took place in Russia, leaving thousands dead. And in the 20th century, the Soviet regime, particularly under Stalin, was disproportionately repressive of Jews and regularly used anti-Semitic scapegoat techniques.

And of course there were the Nazis.

Based on the track record, Jews are rightly concerned about the potential for yet another major outburst of lethal anti-Semitism.

“Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t after you,” author Joseph Heller had Yossarian say in Catch-22.

There is a tendency among Jews, however, to confuse very different assumptions. One is the ineradicable nature of anti-Semitism. Looking around the world today, it is fair to reach this conclusion.

But the other tendency is to see in present-day expressions of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews a reflection of a recurring, immutable theme. In this formulation, Hamas is Amalek; the Iranian mullahs are Haman; we are living in 1938; US President Barack Obama is Neville Chamberlain, or Haman. The Nazis were Amalek. The massacre on Passover Eve 2002 at the Park Hotel in Netanya was Kristallnacht.

Part of the problem with this way of thinking is that it prevents us from understanding the world the way it is. It replaces rational thinking with a mystical determinism. It obscures and even obliterates distinctions that are important to make if we are to understand our world and react to it in a way that maximizes our ability to influence it.

It was precisely this way of thinking that had to be rejected to make room for the sort of Jewish political activism that facilitated the creation of a Jewish state. As long as Jews believed that they were doomed to live in exile and that the Jewish question was unsolvable until there was a radical shift in conditions over which the Jews had no control, there could be no return to Jewish sovereignty. It was no coincidence that Zionism began as a distinctively secular revolution, which was later embraced, in some cases reluctantly, in other cases wholeheartedly, by Jews with religious faith.

More fundamentally, however, maintaining a habit of thought in which present-day violence against Jews is like all previous versions of violence against Jews and that we once again face Amalek or Haman or the Nazis, prevents Jews from recognizing the extent to which the Jewish present is radically different from the Jewish past. For if nothing else makes 2015 different from 1938, and the condition of the Jews today different from their plight under the rule of, say, Ahasuerus it is the existence of a sovereign Jewish state.

With a Jewish state comes not only power but also the responsibility to devise a policy based on the unique circumstances of contemporary reality. You may or may not believe that God will ultimately redeem the Jewish people, but in the meantime, the Jews of Israel must decide their fate based on more rational considerations.

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