Every Passover, Jews across the world recite the Four Questions. The youngest Seder attendee reads from the Haggadah, the Passover prayer book, rhetorical questions chronicling our transition from slavery to freedom. Returning to the common refrain, “Why is this night different from all others?,” the edifying tradition recounts why on this of all nights we eat bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and salty vegetables. Matzah was the bread of slaves; maror, a reminder of the bitterness of enslavement; the salt water, the tears shed in Egypt.
However, this Passover our symbolic transition was brutally halted. Indeed, this Passover was different from all others — for all the wrong reasons. A 19-year-old man walked into a San Diego synagogue and killed a woman, wounding three others. The shooting came on the heels of an anti-Semitic cartoon published in the New York Times’ international edition; the graphic depicts a blind Donald Trump wearing a kippah being led by a guide dog with the face of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a collar with the Star of David. To round out the year, add to this the shooting in Pittsburgh, which came precisely six months before this latest shooting, and the series of anti-Semitic comments from congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Adam Garfinkle recently warned of such events in Tablet, arguing that the American Jewish golden age had come to an end. However, Garfinkle’s focus then turned inwards, as he demonstrated how growing internal divisions and the politicization of Judaism had eroded the foundations of the American Jewish identity. Though lacking Europe’s ancient anti-Semitic traditions, the United States undermined the Jewish community’s cohesiveness through its wonderful assimilatory capacity. Garfinkle chided community leaders convinced that anti-Semitism, in fact, was what drove assimilation: “This trouble is mainly self-inflicted, and the history of Jewish diasporas tells us how unsurprising this is. Far more Jews stopped being Jews for internal reasons of choice than for external reasons of coercion.”
Unfortunately, now anti-Semitic violence has been added to American Jews’ woes. Such attacks are not new to the United States. Periodic violence throughout the 20th century — from the 1915 Leo Frank affair to the 1991 Crown Heights riots and the 2014 Overland Park shooting — targeted Jews. Nonetheless, the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents adds a newfound gravity to the events of the past week.
Passover 2019 punctuated a dismal year for American Jews. On campus, they are subject to abuse and discrimination. In Congress, anti-Semites have found new methods to dress up old hatreds. Now, places of worship are scenes of violence.
The Four Questions conclude with an invocation to commemorate the Jewish liberation from Egypt through reclining, and thus relaxing, throughout the Seder. “This symbolizes a partial bowing to the divine,” Yosef Marcus writes. Despite recounting the trials and tribulations, Jews are instructed to equally celebrate their emancipation. Passover underscores the importance of such optimism, of ultimate redemption. The Exodus story boasts a powerful American tradition, too. Referenced by Benjamin Franklin during the War of Independence and Martin Luther King Jr. amidst the struggles of the civil-rights movement, Passover served as a reminder that in trying times hopes is not lost. Today, contrary to the Passover tradition, the American Jewish community’s problems will not be solved by a higher being “with a strong hand and outstretched arm.” Internally, resolving the ongoing communal debate over defining anti-Semitism and its chief abettors is crucial. Crafting such a consensus will enable the community to mobilize and defend core interests, establish red lines, and defuse tensions. The lethal lessons of this Passover should not be squandered over political bickering.