ZELINSKY: Passover, the story of anti-Semitism

On Point

This Friday marks the beginning of Passover, the eight-day holiday commemorating the Jewish exodus from Egypt. For me, the festival’s culinary aspects are less than delightful. Matzo begins to taste like cardboard after day three, and bagels — that Jewish staple forbidden during the holiday — look mighty tempting.

Despite these shortcomings, many secular Jews, who typically avoid services and shun tradition, choose to celebrate Passover. They attend Seders (the Passover meal) and read the Haggadah (the story of the exodus).

There is a relatively simple reason why the otherwise unobservant enjoy this particular holiday: The lessons of Passover — on their face — mesh well with a politically correct worldview. The Jews were enslaved, and then they were freed. God was the ultimate humanitarian interventionist, liberating the oppressed and restoring their dignity. For these Jews, Passover is a story of human rights circa 1300 B.C.E.

Through this lens, the festival is linked to modern political issues, such as the American civil rights movement and LGBTQ rights. This year, Slifka will host both a gospel Seder and a queer Seder. At the end of the day, the Jewish experience becomes the human experience writ large.

This universalist take on Passover has merit. Historically, during the 1960s, many black pastors and rabbis drew from the exodus to inspire the fight for racial equality. And as the Jews learned leaving Egypt, freedom is indeed a right inherent to those of all colors, creeds and sexual orientations.

But in the haste to pigeonhole the holiday into a multicultural box, many Jews forget some of Passover’s other lessons — lessons that buck a politically correct narrative. Ultimately, Passover teaches us the importance of Jewish sovereignty and the necessity of the state of Israel for Jews, in biblical times and today.

Passover is — first and foremost — the first story of Jewish oppression and Gentile anti-Semitism. According to the Haggadah, the Egyptians enslaved the children of Abraham because they feared Jews would one day become powerful and side with Egypt’s enemies. So began a trope of disloyalty that has resurfaced continuously in history. We know its high points by infamous names: The Inquisition. Pogroms. Auschwitz.

Nor is global anti-Semitism abating in the 21st century. The recent shooting of Jewish schoolchildren in France reveals that hatred to be alive and well.

Happily, Passover teaches Jews how to combat this timeless oppression. The Haggadah culminates not with Jewish liberation but with the founding of Israel. For the ancient Hebrews, freedom was secured when they established their own country to defend themselves against their enemies.

Today, Israel serves the same purpose. It is a sanctuary for Jews caught in the vice of anti-Semitism. A vibrant democracy committed to the rule of law, it is a place to which all Jews can flee in times of danger. In its short history, Israel has rescued Jews from Ethiopia and Arab countries who faced danger in their countries of origin. It continues to be a refuge for European Jewry facing resurgent anti-Semitism on that continent.

Unfortunately, on college campuses — including ours — it is hip to deride the Jewish state’s existence and to hold Israel to a double standard. Many brand as illegal Israel’s self-defense against Islamic extremism, the newest host organism of anti-Semitism. Other nations can respond to aggression — just not the Jews.

In an ideal world, Jews and supportive Gentiles should not need to defend the Jewish state against illegitimate critics who deny Israel its most basic rights. But because of their double standard, we must justify Jews’ existence in the international sphere. When we do, we should unabashedly look to Passover’s lessons for guidance that we might otherwise forget in our quest to universalize a holiday.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu .

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