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 .


  • yale_senior


    Doesn’t your argument flow the entire other direction as well though. An oppressed minority fought back after Pharaoh refused to listen and let Moses’ “people go.” This minority (i.e. the Jews) replied by, instead of striking military instillation, killing all of the Egyptians first born sons (not to mention all the other plagues).

    Or take this sentence:

    > they feared Jews would one day become powerful and side with Egypt’s enemies.

    If you replace Egyptians with Israelis, and Jews with Palestinians in that above sentence, would you arise with the classic Israeli “security” argument?

    My point is not to say that Israelis are enslaving Palestinians, but I am sort of baffled by the overall tenor of this piece and what point you are trying to complicate here.

    • public_editor

      Palestinian “oppression” is as much a product of the Palestinians’ own doing as it is of Israel’s. Only the most recent example of how the Palestinian leadership is not serious about a two state solution: http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/diplomania/former-white-house-reporter-helen-thomas-honored-by-abbas-1.422148. Sure, Israeli settlement building is problematic (although the vast majority of settlement building is in parts of the West Bank that will unquestionably become part of Israel after any agreement), but how can you take the Palestinian leadership seriously when they honor a women who advocated the removal of Jews from Israel, name streets after terrorists who were not striking “military installations,” and whose only other serious experience with self-determination resulted in the advent of a fundamentalist, terrorist state that incessantly fires rockets at civilian population centers?

  • etoohey1

    so i read this story and was pretty dismayed by its uneducated, overly simplistic and quasi-propaganda nature. And then I read your reply ‘yale_senior’ — i couldnt agree more, both with your attempt to raise the important issue of Palestinians (both those in exile and those who are citizens of Israel) and how they complicate Zelinsky’s characterization of Israel as a “vibrant democracy committed to the rule of law (maybe start by wikipedia’ing the Bishara affair, or Avigdor Lieberman), and with your thoughtful ending that you are not saying that Israelis are enslaving Palestinians.

    Articles like Zelinsky’s reveal the embarrassing state of American Jews in their uncritical perception of Israel as a ‘shining city on a hill’ — without flaws or injustices. The goal is for a more nuanced, mature and complex understanding of the role Israel plays as both as “sanctuary for Jews” and as a deeply problematic hegemonic power in the Middle East.

    And by the way, Nathanial, I get that you don’t actually study or read about Israel, but statements like “Many brand as illegal Israel’s self-defense against Islamic extremism” are really embarrassing for any Yalie. You can argue that Israel’s right to defend its people by any means is a necessary reality, but don’t pretend that those who criticize Israel’s foreign policy actions are ignorant ‘hip’ college students or anti-Semites. Read a copy books, even those by Jewish ISRAELIS, like Benny Morris, Kimmerling, Segev or Cohen, read about Plan Dalet, or about the Kfar Qasim massacre, or the Sabra and Shatila massacre, or Orr Commission, or the Goldstone Report — before you write an article like this.

    The only thing ‘hip’ that I see is the cementing tradition of American Jewish youth that are blindly Zionist, uneducated on Israeli history, and unwilling to entertain the idea that Israel — like every other nation in the world, especially powerful , western-backed nations — has a history filled with mistakes and abuses of power. Israel is a amazing, necessary, and largely democratic nation — but its not perfect. And Passover isn’t a Zionist tale.

    • Phormio

      I have no problem calling out Israel for failing to halt the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Or for building the Wall. Or for the actions of the Irgun back in the 40s. Or Sabra and Shatila

      Are you willing to equally call out the Arab states for refusing (excepting Jordan) to allow in Palestinian refugees? Or for rejecting the Khartoum Proposal for peace from Israel? Or condemn the actions of the Grand Mufti in sparking the Arab Riots?

      Don’t worry- I know my history. Neither side is blameless. But there is one side that repeatedly won wars, offered peace, and was rebuffed. And yet they receive most of today’s blame for the lack of peace.

      • etoohey1

        Phormio, I couldnt agree more with your post. It is right on point. The recognition of crimes, injustices and mistakes need to occurs on both poles. Granted, in my opinion, there is a SIGNIFICANT problem in false parallelism: I am talking ONLY about actions committed by the Israeli government, and you are conflating actions by terrorist groups, Palestinian nationalists, Arab nations, etc etc as a single group. I spoke a lot about the injustices committed against the Palestinian Israeli minority — could you provide comparable examples of injustices this specific group committed? Scholarship has found that they expressed rhetorical solidarity with the intifadas but no material support (in fact more materially supported Israeli security forces than Palestinian terrorists). There have been 2 or 3 specific instances (in 60 years) of terrorism by fringe individuals within this community of Palestinian citizens of Israel, but they have faced repeated dispossession, economic and social marginalization, political discrimination, and repeated military action. They have been denied their rights to protest, to form opposition political parties, to express their dissenting opinion of Israeli policy (even while Jewish ISraeli leftists have been allowed to express the exact same dissent).

        My point is that it IS FAIR to consider the Israeli government as 1 single cohesive unit (obviously dynamic over history), but it is UNFAIR to consider the bordering Arab nations, Palestinian nationalist groups, Palestinian terrorist groups, Islamist terrorist group, Islamic clerics as 1 group upon which to state your conclusion: “Neither side is blameless”

        And even if we accepted for a moment that paradigm, on which side do we put the Palestinian minority of Israel that repeatedly (in surveys, votes and polls) reject the idea of joining a hypothetical Palestinian state and reaffirm (in 80+% levels) their desire to be Israeli citizens — but nonetheless face ethnic prejudice, political discrimination and second-class status in Israel?? When Israel ‘offers peace’ — they are not talking to this minority group, which has never been ‘offered equality’ by ISrael, and would certainly not ‘rebuff’ it if they were….

  • Standards

    I consider myself pretty disinterested without any real horse in this race, but I’m really confused where the “everyone can respond to aggression but the Jews” line comes from. Because I hear it a lot.

    I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that. I think it’s usually something more along the lines of, “hey, you can protect yourself without bulldozing people’s homes, killing civilians, or blockading humanitarian supplies.”

    • etoohey1

      I agree completely Standards — and I would add ‘banning Israeli Arab parties from elections’, ‘enforcing loyalty oaths’, ‘violating due process as long as you are a non-Jewish citizen’, ‘censoring and controlling Israeli media’, and ‘de-legitimizing international criticism of Israel with the ever-silencing claim of anti-semitism’ to your list.

      I am glad to see so many people are interested in a serious and mature discussion of the issues surrounding Israel today.

      • public_editor

        It’s funny because none of those things have actually happened. No Israeli Arab party has ever been banned from an election, no loyalty oaths have been required, Arab (both Christian and Muslim citizens) have all the civil and political rights of their Jewish counterparts, there is no censoring of the Israeli media, and I suppose “silencing of criticism of Israel” hasn’t really worked so well…

        • Jess

          Wrong. Google is your friend.

        • etoohey1

          are you serious? I would suggest reading about Amendment 9 to the Basic Laws, about the martial law period from 1948-1966 (try Kimmerling, Pappe or Cohen’s book on this period), or Elie Rekhess’ articles on the Bishara affair, the exclusion of Arab parties from the Barak coalition, the arrest and discrimination of Balad party members. All of this can be found on Jstor and other scholarly and reputable journals by Jewish Israeli writers.

          As far as civil rights violations, I would suggest reading Peleg and Waxman’s book Israel’s Palestinians on the dispossession of Arab citizens of their land, the restrictions of their right to movement, purchase new land, rent and buy apartments in non-Arab communities, apply to employment in the majority of jobs that require military service (which they are banned from providing — kind of like the grandfather-esque clause of exclusion), or try Elia Zureik’s comprehensive book on the civil discrimination in court systems, police treatment and political activism (granted I guess Zureik is openly leftist so maybe biased in your mind — but very respected), or just read what the Israel government ITSELF admitted in the Orr commission.

          For media censoring, try reading about the military control of gag orders on ‘hot operations’ and embargoes of Arab villages. or try Robert Friedman’s study of Israeli gov’t censorship of Palestinian press, or Ilan Pappe’s 1997 essay on the same topic, or the Shin Bet censorship of the Kav 300 affair, or Moshe Negbi’s HARVARD study on Israeli censorship.

          SO again my point isnt to demonize Israel while ignoring the profound and horrific crimes committed by Palestinian nationalists, Muslim terrorists, and Arab nations. But to recognize both.

          I guess my question to public_editor is why did oyu feel confidant writing your comment and rejecting any wrongdoing by Israel ever on these issues? If you had even done a cursory reading of the prominent scholarship on these issues, obviously you would get how ridiculously incorrect your statements were? Is it that you just never read about it, and assumed (because you have found that those who oppose Israel often distort) that it must be untrue? Yours is exactly the ignorance and radical absolutism I am hoping we can move beyond….

  • The Anti-Yale

    “importance of Jewish sovereignty”

    The importance of Roman Catholic Sovereignty?

    The importance of Protestant sovereignty?

    The importance of Islamic sovereignty?

    The importance of Hindu Sovereignty?

    I see nothing but trouble here.


    • Phormio

      While members of those groups have been persecuted in local cases throughout history, none of them has be targeted repeatedly for large-scale removal (relocation or execution) in the manner that the Jewish people have

  • River_Tam

    Nothing like a column on the (undeniable) historical persecution of the Jewish people to bring out all the Palestinian activists.

  • Arafat

    Well, the comments here prove why Passover was observed.

    Anti-Semitism really is man’s oldest prejudice and it’s rearing it’s ugly head right here at Yale.

    • skeptic531

      It’s comments like this that do nothing except stifle productive conversation. Who are you responding to? Is this meant to be a blanket dismissal of all critics of Israeli policy, or do you actually have an argument to make against something that’s been written here?

      Disregarding the U.S. government’s position, there is an international consensus that Israel is currently occupying the Palestinian territories as the aggressor, not in self-defense. Meanwhile, the U.S. gives billions of dollars in military aid to Israel (a figure which has no precedent in international affairs), benefits from Israel’s strategic position in the oil-rich Middle East and at the same time claims to be an objective arbitrator in the peace talks. It is not hard to see why the U.S. has stood alone, again and again, in opposing U.N. resolutions denouncing the settlements.

      Can we ignore these facts with simple name-calling?

  • Jess

    Tell me, what historical era are you comparing the twenty-first century to when you say global anti-Semitism is not “abating”? Because it sure can’t be the twentieth century, which saw six million Jews methodically slaughtered.

    Saying that global anti-Semitism is not OVER is one thing, and I completely agree with you that anti-Semitism is still a problem! But to cast all critics of the state of Israel into the same category as horrific anti-Semitic murderers is a gross misreading of history.

    • public_editor

      Just because no group has been able to commit a genocide against the Jews rivaling the Holocaust, doesn’t mean that anti-semitism has abated. Look no further than Hamas or Iran, both of which would surely wipe out the 6 million Jews in Israel if given the opportunity.

      • River_Tam

        Heck, Hamas states it outright: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”

    • River_Tam

      > Tell me, what historical era are you comparing the twenty-first century to when you say global anti-Semitism is not “abating”? Because it sure can’t be the twentieth century, which saw six million Jews methodically slaughtered.

      This is one of the worst abuses of logic I’ve ever seen.

      • Jess

        To argue otherwise, you would have to say that the establishment of the state of Israel has put the Jewish people in more danger than it was in before–an argument I’m not willing to make. Are you?

        • River_Tam

          > To argue otherwise, you would have to say that the establishment of the state of Israel has put the Jewish people in more danger than it was in before–an argument I’m not willing to make. Are you?

          huh? I’m not sure I would have to say that at all. Global anti-Semitism can be holding steady or increasing (ie: not abating) while the security of the Jewish people can be increasing as well.

          (For instance: if you want to steal $10 from me and I put it in a vault, your desire to steal my money hasn’t decreased, just your ability to actually do so).

          But in some senses, sure, the existence of Israel makes the Jewish people less safe. For instance, a single nuke can now kill 6 million Jews.

  • Arafat
  • lakia

    People either believe that the Bible or the Torah are the word of God or they do not. The ones who do not, will never understand the sovereignty and sacredness of Israel for the Jewish people and should admit that they practice an inauthentic version of their respective religions.

    • NewCampus

      Wait what? You honestly think that today’s strife in the Middle East can be justified by reference to a 2,500 year old book full of crazy-talk? Seriously?

      • lakia

        uh. derr.

  • Arafat


    The Qur’an is not nearly that old.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “an inauthentic version of their respective religions”

    The AUTHENTIC religion you want me to practice is headed by a God who CREATED the notion of genocide and then ordered it performed.
    < < Deuteronomy 20:17 >>

    New International Version (©1984)
    Completely destroy them–the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites–as the LORD your God has commanded you.
    New Living Translation**Strong**

  • Arafat

    This is in response to antiyale’s nonsense:


  • The Anti-Yale

    **My “nonsense’ as Arafat calls it, is a quotation from the late Roland H. Bainton
    Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History Emeritus
    Yale University Divinity School:
    “You can prove anything you want from the Bible. Deuteronomy 20, is a proof-text for genocide , if you want it to be.”.
    Dr. Bainton was no slim authority. He taught at Yale for 60 years and published 39 books, including “Here I Stand”, the most authoritative biography of Martin Luther and Abingdon Press’s all-time best-seller.**


    • Arafat

      the antiyale,

      Islam is unique among the world religions. Mohammed was unique among the world’s religious prophets. This is not to say other religions cannot be rationalized to justify violence. it is only to say that no religion, other than Islam, will you find violence and supremacism so uniquely glorified.


      • The Anti-Yale

        Christianity, the religion that introduced into human consciousness the concept (the sadistic fantasy) of ETERNAL DAMNATION—(i.e.burning FOREVER in hellfire)—–has with that single act of megalomaniacal irresponsibility, filled the subsequent and cumulative history of human consciousness with more suffering than any other theology before or since.

        Let’s NOT ignore the minor fact that Deuteronomy 20 introduced into human consciousness the concept of genocide (KILLING EVERY SINGLE MEMBER OF A NATIONAL GROUP), A CONCEPT NOT ONLY CONCEIVED BY GOD BUT ISSUED AS AN ORDER, AS A COMMANDMENT TO BE CARRIED OUT BY HIS FAITHFUL, IN THAT BIBLE PASSAGE.

        Islam pales in comparison to the violence and self-abuse Christianity has occasioned in human history.

        Sorry I can’t be swayed by your argument, Arafat.

        You obviously have not been born and raised in this sado-masochistic, bloodthirsty religion which celebrates its holilness with acts of faux cannibalism it has bamboozled its parishioners into believing are harmless symbols (and in some religions , not faux and not symbols at all) of obeisance to the Divine.

        (Happy Easter)

        I have—-and have spent years throwing it off.


        • Arafat


          I do not completely disagree. The masochism description of Christianity makes plenty of sense.

          That said, no religion, in my opinion, comes close to Islam in its hatred of others and its embracing violence against others as an entirely accpetable – make that strongly encouraged – way to spread Islam.

  • DivStudent

    First of all, it is not anti-Semitic to denounce injustice wherever it is found. Secondly, to say that the land on which settlers are constructing armed compounds with the protection of Israeli security forces will ultimately belong to Israel in any two-state agreement is patently false. In 1967, the Palestinians were left with 22% of the land that once belonged to them, and now, the Israeli government controls fully 50% of that 22%. The Palestinians are being squeezed by these illegal settlements, and any two-state agreement will have to restore land siezed by these settlers. In addition, the Palestinians have rejected generous land swaps as part of a settlement because the Israeli government refuses to negotiate a Palestinian refugee right of return and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Israel has indeed suffered historically and has a right to its security, but they are now perpetrating suffering on Palestinians, using ‘security’ as a smokescreen.

  • The Anti-Yale

    This could go on for a thousand years, all because of a “sacred” book which says some people are “chosen” and ,by implication , all others are not.

    Jingoism and fanatic theology. There’s a promising marriage.

    Paul D. Keane
    M. Div. ’80

    M.A., M. Ed.