My family and I always laugh at that part in the Passover Haggadah where people sing about tyrants rising up in every generation to destroy us,” my Israeli friend — a historian — said when I called to wish him a happy Pesach.
“You mean the passage, ‘v’hee she’amdah,’ ‘This promise that has stood by our ancestors?’ You laugh at it?” I asked in astonishment. “It is one of the key passages in the Haggadah, and it asserts that not one but many tyrants have tried to annihilate us. How can you laugh at that?”
“We laugh, because everybody sings so cheerily about the enemies who are out to get us. We Jews certainly love to wallow in our sufferings and self-pity,” he answered.
“Don’t you get it?” I tried again. “The last line says ‘and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.’ Yes, it’s about suffering, but it’s also about redemption.”
“I’m a secular Jew,” he snapped back. “I don’t believe in God and redemption. I believe in Jews standing up for themselves and not glorying in their misery.”
“Even so,” I persisted. “This is a passage of hope and the enduring spirit of the Jewish people in the face of tyrants and misery.”
We said goodbye, and a few minutes later he called back.
“Look,” he said apologetically. “I don’t mean to be callous. I understand the dark side of Jewish history. But part of Zionism is the wish for us to become a normal people, like all other people. We have our own state and we’re strong and independent. We also have a rich Jewish culture, and that’s what we should emphasize instead of dwelling on our victimhood.”
As I put down the phone after we spoke, I thought about how this conversation epitomized in many ways the differences between Israeli and American Jews. Secular Israelis, and many religious as well, want a “normal” state, an “Israelish” state that relegates the difficulties and degradations of Jewish history to a past that does not impinge on the present. Israelis live by Jewish time, celebrate Jewish holidays and speak Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people. Yet, since the creation of the state, they have been forging a new, strong and independent Jewish world unlike any that came before it. We in the diaspora, on the other hand, are still linked to the traditional chain of Jewish history. Although we live in the greatest and most welcoming land Jews ever inhabited, many of us still see ourselves a bit as outsiders. The dominant culture, with its holidays and commemorations, is not Jewish but Christian; we worry about assimilation and are conscious of anti-Semitism even if we have not personally experienced it.
We can relate then to the Jewish past, perhaps, in ways Israelis have not been able to. The renowned historian Salo Baron cautioned against presenting only the lachrymose view of Jewish history, with its persecutions and pogroms. He stressed the positives and the many achievements of Jews wherever they lived. I agree with that approach, and yet, we need to acknowledge that the lachrymose is also a large segment of our history. In every generation, and every place Jews lived tyrants did rise up to destroy them, even in lands where they felt most at home, such as Spain in 1492 and Germany in 1933. We need to know that history because it is part of the reality of who we are. In fact, Israelis need to know it as well, because from that history grew Zionism and the Jewish state with its drive to be normal.
Jews everywhere also need to recognize the painful aspects of our history because they teach us about our lives today. In a few weeks, my grandson, Benji, will chant the Torah portion Kedoshim in Leviticus at his bar mitzvah celebration (I can’t resist slipping that in). Among its many social laws, Kedoshim admonishes us to “love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” That ruling appears in many other places in the Bible, and, of course, the Haggadah is all about the plight of the Israelites in Egypt. We don’t bury that experience because of the dreadful past it conjures up. We invoke it time and again to remind us to show compassion to the weak, the outsider, the needy.
In every generation tyrants have sought to destroy us. That narrative might speak more directly to us in the diaspora than it does to Israelis. But it is a narrative we share and that neither of us must ever forget. And it doesn’t take faith in a divine promise to marvel at the survival of the Jewish people against all attempts to demolish it. Then again, some might call that survival a miracle.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.