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Refocusing On The Haggadah Narrative


For all of the difficulties Israelis encounter these days, the greatest sometimes appears to be the implacable nature of this conflict in which they find themselves still embroiled.

Despite the best intentions of a generation of would-be peacemakers and a host of concessions on the part of Israel, Arab opinion seems even more set in its determination to depict Israel as an evil oppressor. Indeed, the long record of Israeli peace offers and concessions since the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993 has, if anything, seemed to encourage the demonization of both the Jews and their state.

The view of this lamentable drift toward further conflict from afar – though it entails less personal sacrifice – is just as dispiriting. For Jews in the Diaspora, even those who care deeply about Israel’s welfare, the process by which nothing seems to deflect the Palestinian Arabs from a course of violence is perplexing and horrifying.

As the virus of anti-Zionism – a belief that is more often than not merely a thinly veiled New Age intellectual version of traditional anti-Semitism – spreads from Europe to America’s college campuses, the question of how to answer the challenge has left many Jews confused. A consistent pattern of Israeli peace offers and concessions answered by Palestinian rejection and terrorism ought to have ended serious discussion about American pressure on the Jewish state.

But it hasn’t. If anything, the more Israel seeks to give in the name of peace, the worse it is treated.

If affirming their continued support for the right of Israel to defend itself against terror makes them stand out, then many simply opt out. The reaction from many Jews who don’t wish to identify with the side that liberal intellectuals often brand these days as the bad guy of the Middle East is to abandon advocacy for Israel, or at least downplay it.

The welcome that pseudo-scholars like Norman Finkelstein – a man who has raised Israel-bashing to an art form – get from academic departments at institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania (as happened last month) is telling. As troubling as such incidents may be in their own right, they also cannot help but discourage many Jews from speaking up for Israel.

Perhaps nowhere in this country is the pressure felt as keenly as on American college campuses, where Middle East studies have long been the preserve of anti-Zionists, and where a left-wing culture of hostility to both Israel and American foreign-policy interests remains deeply entrenched.

Discussing the problem with Jewish students attending a regional pro-Israel conference at Bryn Mawr College (an event sponsored by Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia as an answer to the “Israel Apartheid” week events that have proliferated on the nation’s campuses), I heard about their frustration with a situation in which they felt isolated and embattled.

Though the conference offered the students a lot of valuable knowledge about the situation, as well as tactical advice about advocacy, the answer that made the most sense was one offered by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Students who felt under siege from a barrage of anti-Israel propaganda – often masquerading in academia as scholarship – must, he said, rely on the fact that “truth is on their side.” Their main resource, he added, must be finding “the courage” to answer falsehoods.

Such courage is not always easy to find. Yet the best explanation for this dilemma lies not in any contemporary polemic, but in the ancient text that Jews around the world will soon read as they gather to celebrate Passover.

The Haggadah speaks of the Divine promise of the redemption of the children of Israel in Egypt by reminding us that “this promise has sustained our fathers and us. For not only one enemy has risen against us, in every generation men rise against us to destroy us.”

The answer to that puzzle – why it is that, in century after century, intolerance for the Jews continues, and why the will to destroy them is so immutable – is one that has challenged religious scholars and philosophers for as long as we’ve been reading that text. But though the explanations put forward are not in short supply, the basic truth of the assertion is not a matter of debate.

Interestingly, the willingness to find inspiration at the seder for the courage needed to persist in our current battles runs somewhat against the grain for some. These days, many seek to make our religious rituals “relevant” by transforming the Jewish festival of freedom into a metaphor for every cause but our own.

In these times, it sometimes feels as if to even raise the question of the Haggadah’s prophecy of an endless assault on the Jews is to run the risk of being politically incorrect. It may be easier for many of us to view Passover through the prism of other struggles, but it’s necessary to remind ourselves that it is still a tale of Jewish struggle and redemption.

That’s why students of all ages, as well as their parents, must recall that the goal of contemporary anti-Semitism is specifically to detach us from our history and our connection to Israel.

The retelling of the story of the Exodus seems to inspire free people everywhere.

Yet it also represents the aspirations of countless generations of Jews, who dreamed not merely of universal freedom but of the revival of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. We owe it to them, and even more, to ourselves and to those who will come after us, to never forget that.

Refocusing on that narrative is daunting when you consider the rising support for Palestinian dreams of eradicating Israel and the world’s willingness to tolerate Iran’s faith-based drive for nuclear weapons to help accomplish that horrifying goal. In the face of such hatred, it’s possible to lose heart and to stand silent while an intellectual mob bays for Jewish blood.

But as difficult as the times may be, the words of the Haggadah, which may be hastily read or stumbled over in the rush to get to the food, can still supply us with the courage we need. It’s a lesson we must teach again to our children and ourselves. Like each Jewish generation since the Exodus that preceded us, we can dine well on the inspiration and the promise these words offer.

About the Author: Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com, where this first appeared. He can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@commentarymagazine.com.


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