The Haggadah got it right

Man cannot live by bread alone — still, a slice or two makes a nice change after eight days of matzahs. Some JC readers will, I know, be glad to see the back of Pesach for another year, glad if they don’t clap eyes on another box of Rakusen’s this side of 2015. But I am not one of them. I’ve always loved Passover.

Pesach is the festival that seems to get the balance just right between weakness and strength, between Jewish suffering and Jewish might. The story begins in powerlessness, our ancestors slaves. But it ends with the Children of Israel summoning divine punishment on our tormentors — plagues of lice, boils and pestilence raining down on the Egyptians, as we set out on the moment of our national liberation.
In the Pesach story, we are both victims and victors, both weak and strong. And yet, for the rest of the year, too many people — Jews and non-Jews — tend to see us as only one thing or the other, when in reality we are both.

The cruellest reminder that we remain a people targeted for victimhood came just 24 hours before Pesach, when Frazier Glenn Cross — or, as he calls himself, Glenn Miller — a longtime stalwart of America’s “white power” movement and a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, opened fire outside the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Kansas City, before moving on to the nearby Village Shalom home for seniors. At the JCC, Miller killed a doctor and his 14-year-old grandson; at Village Shalom he killed a woman.

As it happened, all three were Christians, but Miller’s intention was clear. After the shootings, he was filmed sitting in a police car shouting “Heil Hitler!” So public a racist and antisemite was he, that he had appeared as a guest on shock jock Howard Stern’s show in 2010. Asked whom he hated more, Jews or African-Americans, Miller replied: “Jews. A thousand times more. Compared to our Jewish problem, all other problems are mere distractions.”

Now that might come as a surprise to those who like to think of antisemitism as a historical phenomenon.
Those same people will have been similarly unsettled to read the most recent figures for US hate crimes: where those crimes were prompted by religion, 65 per cent were aimed at Jews. Eleven per cent were against Muslims.
That will be no shock to those who see themselves and their fellow Jews as perennial victims, a small, beleaguered people permanently surrounded by implacable enemies.

Yet that narrative, too, took a jolt this month, as the previously tireless US Secretary of State, John Kerry, all but admitted that his year-long attempt to broker peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians had failed. In testimony to the Senate, he appeared to single Israel out for blame, citing its refusal to implement a planned prisoner release and its announcement of 708 new homes beyond the 1967 Green Line. Implicit in Kerry’s remarks was the expectation that Israel had a greater responsibility to budge because, in this conflict, it is the stronger party.

So arises the false dichotomy in which Jews are either cast as immovably strong — the occupier, not the occupied — or as forever weak, the eternal victims of hate.

Yet the awkward truth is that, in today’s world, we are both strong and weak. In the language of the Haggadah, sometimes we are oppressed, sometimes we are oppressors. Yet too many choose to see only half of that picture – the half that provides the warm comfort of a prejudice confirmed.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

Last updated: 3:03pm, April 24 2014