When we celebrate the holiday of Passover we are not only remembering events of long ago but personally reliving the theme of freedom from bondage.
As we read how pharaoh was suspicious and fearful of the “otherness” of the Jewish people (Exodus 1:8-10), we see echoes in today’s growing anti-Semitism.
The response to anti-Semitism, for some, is to fight all forms of hatred and bigotry wherever we find it. Our historical experience, they say, obligates us to be on the forefront of this fight by educating the young about the virtues of tolerance, and confronting the old about the dangers of hatred.
For others, the ideal response is to prove to the world that we are not “others” to begin with by toning down our obvious Jewishness. Yet, as Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson has pointed out, “Anti-Semitism has existed too long and in too many disparate cultures to tolerate a claim that each culture hated the Jews because of some distinct factor disconnected from being Jewish.”
In other words, neither hiding our Jewishness nor going to battle against bigotry of a general nature addresses the core issue. It is akin to a Holocaust memorial statement that ignores the unique Jew hatred that fueled the Holocaust. Seeking protection by minimizing Jewish identity ignores the fact that some of history’s worst anti-Semitic atrocities were perpetrated during times of great assimilation (as in Spain and Germany).
Passover teaches us a different response: A historically effective response to the unique Jew-hatred we call anti-Semitism is to embrace an unwavering faith in G-d and joyful acceptance of the Divine purpose that brings us here today.
As we read the Haggadah on Seder night this year, let us reflect on the experience of our ancestors: “But as much as [the Egyptians] would afflict them, so did they multiply and so did they gain strength…” (Exodus 1:12) As pharaoh increased the affliction, the Jewish people multiplied and gained strength.
Just as they gained strength from adversity, so must we!
Strengthening our own Jewishness is the best antidote to Jew-hatred and the best way to defeat anti-Semitism at it source. As the verse concludes “…and they [the Egyptians] were disgusted because of the Children of Israel.”
Every act of Jewish pride, every mitzvah and act of kindness and charity, every effort to help our brothers and sisters in need, sends a message to those filled with hate – you are only making us stronger.
If we all will commit to increase our attendance at synagogue to pray and study Torah, or volunteering and contributing to our community, it is a defeat for the cowardly haters all over again, knowing that it is their very antisemitism that is sparking Jewish growth. So enjoy the holiday, drink four cups of wine, eat matzo and celebrate our freedom to be proud Jews.
Rabbi Levi Emmer is director of Judaic enrichment & traditions at the Jewish Home and Care Center in Milwaukee.