Opinions & Commentary

From the Passover seder to the real world

By Ben Cohen


Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. At my family’s Passover Seder this year, we read, as we always do, from the traditional Sephardic haggadah, in keeping with the customs of the Jewish communities from Spain and Portugal.

But doing so means our guests need to listen to lots of Hebrew, and the occasional prayer or song in Ladino, before we can start eating dinner. And as it’s 2017, I have to be far more attentive to the problem of getting bored on an empty stomach than my elders ever were with me.

That perennial challenge – how to make Passover relevant – is something I wrestle with keenly, especially as our kids get older and understandably demand more exacting answers as to why we read this same text aloud year after year.

It is tempting, particularly with kids growing up in America, to explain everything connected to the seder in universalist terms. Passover, after all, is rich with the symbolism of freedom and liberation. We Jews were slaves before we tasted the fruits of emancipation, the Haggadah tells us, thereby compelling us to reflect on more recent experiences – whether it’s the past bondage of Africans transported to America, or the present one chaining the thousands of migrant workers laboring in Qatar and other Arab Gulf countries.

Still, I didn’t think this angle was enough by itself. It’s too easy to reduce the Passover narrative into a one-size-fits-all story that can be repurposed by using the exodus from Egypt as an analogy. But first, that doesn’t explain the specifically Jewish aspects of the festival. Second, the universalist focus inadvertently suggests we should concern ourselves with contemporary slavery – around 45 million people, according to the Global Slavery Index – only when it’s Passover, when it’s really something we should be thinking about and acting upon on any day of the year.

I told my kids as much, before offering the best explanation I am capable of (not being a theologian) about the Passover story’s enduring message. Assembled more than a century after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Haggadah, in my mind, tells a transcendental story – but in a manner befitting the historical period in which it emerged.

With its concentration on the order of the service, and its elaboration of the rituals and routines we follow during Passover, the Haggadah assisted with the development of Jewish life during an era when rabbis became the authorities on Jewish law and practice. This doesn’t mean the Haggadah is agnostic on the question of Jewish sovereignty; to the contrary, its repeated invocations of Zion cause more than a few problems for those Jews who insist Zionism is one thing, Judaism something else entirely. But equally, the Haggadah is not a political or national manifesto. Its greater interest is in the question that the first generations of rabbis debated: how Jewish life is preserved and sustained under the rule of foreigners, often hostile foreigners.

In that sense, while the Haggadah does involve a great deal of reading, the text actually condenses the Jewish historical journey so that participants can appreciate the covenant between God and the Jewish people as expressed through the end of slavery in Egypt and the promise of the land of Israel. This is what I stressed to both of my sons in advance of sitting down for this year’s first seder April 10.

Within a couple of days, however, I was swiftly disabused of the notion that one can talk about Passover in largely religious terms and avoid the political resonance flowing from the Haggadah. The catalyst was a report from Palestinian Media Watch, the Israel-based monitoring organization, highlighting an item on Awdah (“Return”) TV during which an interviewee opined, “We always put our hopes in Allah. This is the promised land. The Jews think it is promised to them, but what was promised was to gather them in order to exterminate them by a divine decree.”

You won’t find anything remotely like that in the Haggadah, of course. Still, the interview shows a level of hatred far beyond the objections to political Zionism that Palestinian leaders disingenuously claim lies at the root of their conflict with Israel. What we are dealing with is foremost an assault upon Judaism, in which God’s promise to liberate the Jews in a land of their own is turned on its head. Put simply, the Haggadah, alongside all the other Jewish texts, is held to be consciously promoting a contrived linkage between the Jews and the land we now call the State of Israel. These Jews are not natives, but interlopers, obliged to tell lies through their sacred books in order to justify their control over someone else’s land.

The bizarre, disturbing idea that the Holy Land is really a cradle for the extermination of the Jews rather than self-determination is, sadly, quite common in the Islamic world. Its clearest articulation came from the lips of Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shi’a terrorist organization Hezbollah, back in 2002: “‘If Jews all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Holocaust denial conference he hosted in Tehran in 2006. “Thanks to people’s wishes and God’s will,” Ahmadinejad said, “the trend for the existence of the Zionist regime is [headed] downwards and this is what God has promised and what all nations want.”

Now that Ahmadinejad has returned to politics in Iran, registering his name for the Islamic Republic’s forthcoming presidential election, we will be hearing a lot more of this rhetoric. And if for some reason Ahmadinejad’s candidacy is rejected by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – always the final arbiter in such matters – rest assured that there are several other Iranian candidates who can be relied on to say the same thing.

When it comes to confronting these hateful beliefs and regimes, we have little choice about doing so; they have already chosen us as their principal target. Let us not, though, allow them to poison our festivals with their propaganda. During Passover, one short line suffices as a response: “Next year in Jerusalem.”



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