At Passover, The Jewish People Are Under Siege, Again

The closing refrain of “Next year in Jerusalem” should not be dismissed as symbolism or an ancient and outdated tradition.

2024 Columbia University Pro Palestine demo Wikimedia

This is not the first time that Passover has been celebrated at a moment when the Jewish people were under siege or being attacked. The reason why the famous passage in the Haggadah that we read during the seder that references this fact always resonates so much with us is that it has been a rare generation, if indeed there was ever one throughout millennia of persecution, in which those words were not true of the present.

The Haggadah states, “For it was not one enemy alone who rose up against us to destroy us; in every generation, there are those who rise up against us and seek to destroy us.”

We can only imagine what it meant to read those words in Poland in April 1943 as the remnant of European Jewry still alive in the Warsaw Ghetto began their heroic and doomed uprising as the German Nazis and their collaborators began their final drive to exterminate the Jews of Poland.

What did the Jews of Warsaw think on April 19, 1943, as they read the promise of Divine intervention that followed the mention of foes rising against the Jews? “But the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.”

A handful who survived the bloody fight to defend the ghetto—and then survived the death camps or the partisans’ fight in the forests—were saved to begin Jewish life again. But most did not. And after so many had already died of hunger or disease in the ghetto or were carried off to death in the furnaces of the Holocaust, most were realistic enough to know that the odds were against them. And yet, even in that dire moment, the accounts of that awful night when German machine guns were firing and the ghetto had begun to burn do not, for the most part, speak of despair.

If that was true for them, then surely, despite the dire circumstances under which Passover is being celebrated in 2024, we cannot allow ourselves to despair either.

Gimmick or parody seders

Some Jewish families may gather for a seder in prosperous circumstances and peace, oblivious to the events of the last six months. Like many Jews in the past, they will strive to ignore the growing threats facing their people, even in a country like the United States, where Jews have lived in unmatched peace and freedom. For them, the atavistic ritual of the seder—whose orderly regimen seeks to remind us that we, too, were slaves in Egypt, and were among those liberated to find freedom in the Law and the Land the children of Israel were given—is mere rhetoric. They will not remember the Jewish hostages still being held in captivity in the Gaza Strip or those Israelis fighting there to rescue them, as well as to defend their homes and families against the genocidal terrorists of Hamas.

Others, though not as many as some in the corporate media would have us believe, will even gather to express their perverse solidarity with the enemies of the Jewish people and their cause of destroying the one Jewish state on the planet. These recitations of documents, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace Haggadah, which calls for an Exodus from Zionism and support for the cause of Israel’s destruction, will be parody seders. This comes, after all, from a group that openly traffics in antisemitic blood libels against Jews and supports the pro-Hamas mobs attacking Jews on college campuses and in the streets of America’s cities.

In recent decades, gimmicky seders and new rituals have become commonplace as many American Jews sought to universalize even the most particularist elements of Judaism and strip it of its specific meaning. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, such seders were intended to provide some Jewish inspiration and meaning to secular causes. But in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 massacres and the surge in antisemitism around the world—and specifically, in the United States—that is being driven by hatred for Israel and libelous smears of it, tolerance for efforts to hijack Passover in this manner is impossible to justify. Indeed, what could be a greater proof of the antisemitic intent of the “pro-Palestinian” movement than its efforts to twist and distort Judaism to justify the murder of Jews?

Smearing Israel as Pharaoh

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism rightly notes that efforts to accuse Jews of being Nazis as falling under the category of Jew-hatred. The same could also be said of trying to twist the story of the Exodus into a narrative in which the Jews are Pharaoh and the Palestinians are the Jews.

This is a vile lie that seeks to obscure, rationalize or even justify the largest mass slaughter of Jews since World War II and the Holocaust carried out by Hamas and its Palestinian supporters. It is an attempt to delegitimize the rights of the Jewish people as indigenous people, described in the Haggadah as being given to them by their Liberator.

Only in the bizarro neo-Marxist world of the far left can the people who were subjected to murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, burning and wanton destruction on Oct. 7 be portrayed as the Egyptian slavemasters. Only in a world in which woke ideologies like critical race theory and intersectionality grant a permission slip for antisemitism could the justified efforts of Israel to destroy the latter-day Nazis of Hamas be considered analogous to Pharaoh’s evil minions.

That is why this festival of freedom must this year serve as more than merely a family ritual punctuated by food and talk of the past. The Haggadah enjoins us to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt not merely as a history lesson or an exercise in faith about past miracles and wonders. Rather, it is a reminder that the historic challenges facing the Jewish people—whether during the biblical Exodus or in today’s fight for Israel’s survival, are very much an essential part of our lives, too.

Bumping into history

This generation of American Jews had good reason to think of themselves as uniquely blessed. They had achieved more freedom, prosperity and power than any other in the history of the Diaspora, in addition to the ability to assimilate, if they chose, to opt out of the Jewish story. But like it or not, it’s no longer possible to pretend that the sorrows and challenges of Jewish history have nothing to do with us. That’s because it’s not just the Jews of Israel who are under siege by vicious enemies.

The same is now true for American Jews, even in the precincts of institutions—like Ivy League universities—where they once felt most accepted and at home. As the great writer and activist Ben Hecht who worked for Jewish rescue during the Holocaust wrote of himself in the late 1930s, we have all “accidentally bumped into history.”

While the situation of the Jewish people today is not as dire as it was 81 years ago as the extermination of European Jewry was underway, it is easily the most serious and troubling moment in Jewish life since then. The efforts of the Israel Defense Forces must ensure the victory of the Jewish state over Hamas, Iran and other Islamist enemies, and the defeat of their genocidal aims. But American Jewry is similarly challenged to defend itself against the woke tide of so-called “progressives” who seek to drive Jews off of college campuses, the streets, and ultimately, the public square itself.

This year’s seders must not only inspire us to identify with every generation of Jewish history from the Exodus to the present but, as Moses did against Pharoah, to speak up and fight against those who, whatever their claims or motivations, are seeking to normalize antisemitism and hatred for Jews under the guise of anti-Zionism or progressivism. We must resist the lies that falsely brand the cause of denying Jewish rights and security as a “pro-Palestinian” movement or anything other than a particularly vicious form of hatred.

To be confronted with the evidence of the unspeakable crimes of Oct. 7 or even to watch the videos of the woke Jew-hating mobs on American college campuses is enough to cause even strong people to question their faith and confidence. But the seder reminds us that we must find the courage and faith to carry on just as generations before have done.

We should do so with confidence that we are not alone. We have many friends in the Christian community, in addition to great faith in the power and strength of the Jewish state, which is the only true memorial to the Holocaust.

For us, the closing refrain of “Next year in Jerusalem” should not be dismissed as symbolism or an ancient and outdated tradition. It must instead be a clarion call to arms to defend Israel and the Jewish people and to refuse to let the enemies of this generation triumph. And it should be a time for those Jews who haven’t seen Israel firsthand to do so, as others throughout history have wished to do but could not. Just as past generations of Jews, who suffered far more, have taken heart from the promise of liberation inherent in the seder, we must do the same.

Wishing all JNS readers, listeners and viewers and their families, a healthy, happy and inspired Passover. Chag Pesach Sameach!

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of Jewish News Syndicate.


Topic tags:
Israel Judaism Antisemitism United States Religion