Passover and antisemitism?

While it may be rare today to be called a kike in public, the blogosphere is replete with this type of explicitly vile hate.

Grave stones tipped over after a antisemitic attack in the US (photo credit: REUTERS)
Grave stones tipped over after a antisemitic attack in the US
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Passover is on the horizon. Soon Jewish families all over the world will gather to tell the tale of one of the oldest antisemites in history: Pharaoh. As a grandchild of Holocaust refugees, our Seder gatherings always included Holocaust survivor testimonies and Yiddish song.
The fact that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place on the eve of Passover isn’t to be overlooked. Just as Hitler was quick to forget the thousands of Jews who died as German soldiers in World War I, the Pharaoh of the Bible had no recollection of the good fortune Joseph had helped his country experience. Just as Hitler would in turn place sole responsibility for Germany’s then struggles on Jews, so too did the Pharaoh of the Bible. Both ordered the murder of Jewish infants.
Every year at the Passover Seder, Jews recite the following words: “And this is what has kept our ancestors and us surviving: not only that one rose and tried to destroy us, rather in every generation, they try to destroy us, and God saves us from their hands.” Of course, God doesn’t save all of us, but the Jewish people and faith have managed to persevere despite thousands of years of persecution and hatred. Of course, “they” all don’t try to destroy us, but even in 2018, antisemitism is prevalent and growing.
This past week a Washington, DC, lawmaker made the claim that “The Rothschilds control the climate.” As my German grandmother, a Holocaust refugee, might say, “just add it to the list.” While it may be rare today to be called a kike in public, the blogosphere is replete with this type of explicitly vile hate. Antisemitism is indeed on the rise, the ADL warned in a recent report. To be sure, the Jewish community acknowledges this rise in anti-Jewish sentiment, but whether the Left and Right can tolerate each other enough to work together to stop it is still to be seen.
To put it differently: do we Jews, whoever we are, hate each other more than the antisemites hate us?
From the rallying cry of “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville to the Women’s March founders’ proximity to antisemites like Louis Farakhan, the Right and the Left have plenty of people at whom to point fingers. The Left will note the Women’s March’s public statement after the Farrakhan debacle, or Linda Sarsour’s raising of money for Jewish cemetery repairs; the Right dismisses the need for the president to be judged by his most extremist supporters and points to his embassy move as sign of his steadfast love for Israel.
Those who despised president Barack Obama will point to his affiliation with Jeremiah Wright. Those who deplore President Donald Trump will address his delayed condemnation of David Duke’s support. The list goes on. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of data to mine in terms of antisemitic episodes, and that’s not even looking into fundamentalist Islamic sources.
When Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah calls for the destruction of the Jews, does he differentiate between those who voted for Hillary or Trump? Do we really think the Grand Mufti Husseini really cared what type of synagogue affiliation Jews held?
The facts are clear: there is enough antisemitism in whatever camp you find yourself. Perhaps for my grandparents’ generation it was true that antisemitism was enough of a glue to keep the Jewish people together, holding on to a common enemy in our most dire state, as the Haggada verse notes. However, today, when we’re as politically diverse and divided as we are, even antisemitism doesn’t seem to be enough to bind us together.
The question I as a rabbi ponder when faced with such a sobering landscape of antisemitism as that which we see today, matched with such communal discord, is where do we go from here? How do we counter this modern plague of bigotry and discard the blinders we wear?
To me, there is only one morally sound and effective position besides the obvious need to raise awareness and hold bigots accountable. It is simply to love more. As the late great Rabbi Abraham Kook taught it is only baseless love that can balance baseless hate. As counterintuitive as it may feel when faced with hatred and as much as we may want to blame each other, we gain more when we work together, despite our differences.
Dream with me for a moment, even before you’ve had your four cups of wine. What might it look like if there was more unity in the Jewish communal landscape? What might we achieve and build together for our children and for future generations if we felt we all shared a communal destiny? Calls for unity often may seem to be masks for silencing minority opinions. That’s certainly not what I’m advocating. Unity is not the same as conformity. Working in partnership does not need to mean we avoid healthy conflict for the sake of heaven.
The sages ask, “Who is wise?” and answer: “One who can foresee the future.” I don’t make any such claims, but if thousands of years of Jewish survival have shown us anything, it’s that we Jews are a persistent bunch. Chances are the antisemites aren’t going to win in the end. Tradition instructs us that we must even remember our enemies’ suffering in our moments of joyous celebration, in our spilling of wine come the recitation of the Ten Plagues. Jewish first-born sons are even instructed to fast on Passover eve in remembrance of the ancient Egyptians who perished.
The question isn’t when/will antisemitism end. It will and won’t in every generation. The charge we have this Passover, like every Passover, is to see ourselves as having experienced the Exodus. Can we hold on to the wonder and awe of that marvelous, myth-like experience and harness a vision for all Jews to build a more loving world? As we sit at our Passover tables this year, can we figure out a way for our most bleeding-heart liberal college students and xenophobic great-uncles to “break bread” together and find common ground? The future of the Jewish people is at stake.
The author is a rabbi and co-founder of Base Hillel.