Gefen Bar-On Santor

White wine for Passover?

Image: iStock, peliustok

Passover, taking place around the joyous arrival of spring, has historically been an especially terrible time for blood libels against the Jews.

In the seventeenth century, the murderous violence against the Jews during the Chmielnicki Revolt was so bad that Rabbi David Halevy Siegel issued a ruling to drink white wine instead of red wine on Passover.  With this switch, the Rabbi’s hope was to “convince” violent Jew haters that the Passover wine did not in fact contain the blood of innocent Christian children as alleged by the libels.  Spoiler alert: it did not work. Two of the Rabbi’s own sons were murdered in a pogrom in Lvov, Poland, in 1654.

Today, some Jewish people are also trying to “convince” the world that they are innocent.  They keenly agree that there is a fundamental difference between “criticism of the state of Israel” on the one hand and antisemitism on the other hand.  And in this way, they give people who wish to enjoy the ancient pleasures of Jew hate the gift of being able to declare, “many Jewish people who agree with me.”

This they do instead of describing reality accurately: every state and every regime needs to be scrutinized and criticized by people who know it and care about it.  Israel is no exception, and “criticism of Israel” pretty much sums up how I grew up.  But in many contexts today, the distinction between “criticism of Israel” and Jew hate has become increasingly theoretical. Like a virus, Jew hate mutates into whatever form will enable it to survive—and today it focuses on an ill informed, disproportionate and hypocritical criticism of Israel by people who seem to be emotionally invested in dehumanizing and mythologizing Israel while minimizing the grave dangers that Israelis live under.  Crucially, this “criticism” does not help the Palestinians, who in my view are exploited by the world to keep the pleasures of Jew hate alive.

Jew haters and the Jews who agree with them metaphorically open a bottle of white wine—the clarity of the wine symbolizing their own moral purity—and together they drink to the point of oblivion.  They often forget that their demonized “state of Israel” is home to nearly half of the Jewish people—with many more Jewish people having family (often parents or siblings) in Israel and/or warm emotional attachment to Israel.  Some Israel haters participate in street demonstrations, but most do not. Many likely understand that street demonstrations are not “classy”—they neither terrify nor seduce the average Westerner.  Many thus prefer to enjoy the pleasures of Jew hate from behind the gentle mask of polite discussion and concern for those who are suffering.  In other words, they exploit the Palestinian people to make themselves feel superior and to enjoy causing suffering to Jewish people who love Israel.

What a strange world we live in: no one that I’ve come across in polite society self-identifies as antisemitic—and yet the pleasures of Jew hate may be enjoyed on tap.  If only one expresses appreciation for the dead Jews of the past or for Jews who renounce Israel today—one becomes free to make Jews who love Israel feel like vermin.  For this is what Jew hate has always been about—making Jewish people suffer and watching them scramble to defend themselves and “prove” their innocence.

Suffering is something we would like to avoid, and with the bottle of white wine open for the pouring, the temptation to self-hate floods the gates of the heart.  If I turn my back against Israel, a country that my grandparents’ generation built from the ashes of the Holocaust, will I be better liked?

This is the bondage that I would like to liberate myself from as we remember the Exodus from Egypt—the seductive potential of self-hate.

To stand against self-hate, I need to metaphorically self-identify as an (hopefully recovered) addict to self-hate.  At a young age, the memory of the Holocaust made a very strong impression upon my psyche, and the incomprehensible horror took grip of my heart—I cannot believe that such an unthinkable thing would have been directed against anyone.  I cannot believe that in real life it was actually directed against people like me. Were the people who were murdered in the gas chambers just like me?

And can this “me” who loves life and wants to experience life as beautiful and meaningful rise to a place in which it is protected from being the target of sadism?  This is how the temptation of Jewish self-hate creeps in to seduce the soul: distance yourself from the “other Jews,” and you will be safe.

Like a recovered alcoholic, I will resist the urge to metaphorically pour white wine into my cup. I do not have to “prove” that there is no blood in my wine.  I know that there is no blood in my wine because I have ordinary human flaws, but also sufficient healthy love for myself and for Israel, the country where I grew up, where I was educated to love and seek peace, and where my parents and siblings and their families live—a country that was brutally attacked on October 7 with the intention to do much more harm in the future, a country that has become a toy in the hands of those in the West who wish to experience the pleasures of Jew hate instead of admitting that they don’t know enough and focusing instead on what they do know and what they love.

Since shortly after October 7, Shai Davidai, an Assistant Professor at the Columbia Business School, has been engaged in activism to resist Israel hate.  This is his summary of Columbia, a place that we used to idealize as a “prestigious university,” today:

In a previous blog, I quoted this passage from Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday in which he describes the tragic role that universities played in facilitating the rise of Nazism:

What the S. A. men, who broke up meetings with rubber clubs, attacked their opponents by night and felled them to the ground, accomplished for the National Socialists was provided for the German Nationals by the Corps Students [Tr.: Students’ Club or Association with distinctive colors and emblems, such as caps and ribbons] who, under the cover of academic immunity, instituted an unparalleled campaign of violence, and who were organized as a militia to march in, at beck and call, upon every political action. Grouped into so-called Burschenschaften [Tr.: German Students’ Association founded in 1815 in opposition to the Corps], scar-faced, drunken, and brutal, they dominated the University Hall, for they did not wear the cap and ribbon like the others, but were armed with hard, heavy sticks. Unceasingly aggressive, they attacked the Jewish, the Slavic, the Catholic, and the Italian students turn by turn, and drove them, defenseless, out of the University. On the occasion of every Bummel (as the Saturday student spree was called) blood flowed. The police, who because of the ancient privilege accorded the University were not allowed to enter the Hall, had to look on inactively from without and see how these cowardly ruffians worked havoc, and could do no more than carry off the wounded who were thrown bleeding down the steps into the street by these nationalist rowdies. Wherever this tiny though loud-mouthed party of the German Nationals wished to obtain anything by force in Austria, they sent this student storm troop on ahead.

(p. 73-74.  Good Press. Kindle Edition.)

The following image also comes to mind (ominously?):

Today’s haters in the West have learned to be more sophisticated by generally avoiding situations in which people are “thrown bleeding down the steps into the street.” But this additional level of sophistication and the claim to act in the name of justice also require higher levels of vigilance in seeing what is behind the smoke screen.

What is at stake is the kind of world that we want to create and leave for the next generations.  The enjoyment of the pleasures of Jew hate point to a lack of concern for the future—and in the most immediate sense a lack of concern for the children of Gaza who could have been living in a stable society if those responsible for their education would advocate for a true pro-Palestinian position—peace with Israel.

When I watched what I believe was Davidai’ s first viral video, I noticed his tendency to publicly shower love and praise upon his children while emphasizing the need of all of us for safety and fairness:

The love of Jewish people for their children can be triggering and frustrating to haters, so it came as little surprise when on April 11, Davidai posted this on X:

“It’s totally fine when the pro-Hamas mob perpetuates lies about me. I’m an adult. I’ll deal with it. But if you have even one shred of decency in you – leave my kids out of it. I will never be ashamed for showering my kids with love and affection, and neither should any parent.”

For today’s Israel haters, Davidai’s publicly expressed love for his children can be fodder for the false claim that Israelis love only their own children and do not care about Palestinian children.  Such claims are manipulative.  Every person (unless there is something unusual about them) tends to care about their own children first and foremost because their own children are their own immediate responsibility and their own abundant spring of emotional attachment.  But the insinuation that the Jews’ love for their own children implies a desire to do harm to other children is false.  It has echoes of the blood-libelous notions that Jews need the blood of Christians.

Today, every child killed in Gaza is a tragedy. It is not true that most Israelis are indifferent to the suffering and death of children in Gaza.  Jewish people are not demons.  They are humans who, like all other human beings, function within the parameters in which they find themselves—and being attacked as Israelis were on October 7 and being threatened on an ongoing basis in similar or worse ways is a constraint that very few people have experienced.  People who congratulate themselves on having more general empathy for humanity than Israelis would benefit from reflecting more deeply on how the historical tropes of Jew hate have metamorphosed into what we see in the present day. Do some people project their own lack of empathy for Jews and their own lack of caring response to October 7 upon an imagined concept of an Israel devoid of empathy that they mentally construct in order to enjoy the pleasures of Jew hate?  And why has Israel hate in the West accomplished so little when it comes to helping the Palestinians, who continue to suffer?

Davidai’s love for his children may have touched a raw nerve among some haters for reasons that have been fueling Jew hate long before the modern state of Israel existed. Throughout the generations, and in the face of hate, poverty and adversity, Jewish people’s nurturing of their children and their belief in education have been a source of resilience—just as the nurturing of children is a source of resilience to other cultures.  And throughout the generations, the Jewish focus on children has provoked some of our haters.  The tendency of Jewish culture at its best to encourage parents to give as abundantly as they can to their children has fed into the myth that Jews are privileged and rich and that even when they do not appear to be wealthy, they must have money hidden behind the walls—for how else could one explain their disproportionate acts of giving to their children?

Jewish culture should not be idealized.  It is made up of human beings with the full spectrum of ordinary human flaws.  However, at its best, Jewish culture, like other cultures at their best, reminds us of the importance of prioritizing the next generations.

 In The Telling, a book about the Haggadah that helps to prepare the mind and soul for Passover, Mark Gerson notes that historically, some people noted appreciatively the Jewish focus on the education of children:

“A Christian monk in [Medieval] France wrote: ‘A Jew, however poor, if he had ten sons, would put them all to letters, not for gain, as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s law; and not only his sons but his daughters too.’ Seemingly all histories of eastern European Jewish life in the centuries that follow report how Jewish parents would sacrifice everything, even food, to provide schooling for their children” (p. 34).

An anecdote from the Holocaust that Gerson recounts helps to demonstrate how the focus on children tends to remind Jewish people of their better selves and helps them to hold on to hope in the face of horror:

“Rabbi Yisrael Spira, the Bluzhever Rebbe of Poland, was one of the great rabbis of Europe in the early to mid-twentieth century. His family was murdered by the Nazis, and he was enslaved in Bergen-Belsen. Because of a strange turn of events, Rabbi Spira got a small amount of matzah before Pesach in the Nazi concentration camp.  Another prisoner asked him who should get, essentially, the matzah rations. The rabbi said that it should be split among some of the adults so that they could fulfill their obligation to celebrate Pesach. Then a voice emerged. It was of an emaciated woman, whose family had also been slaughtered by the Nazis. Bi’naarenu ubi’zkenenu!—“With our young and with our old.”  The rabbi was immediately convinced by her application of Exodus 10:9, and gave the matzah to the children. Upon liberation, he married the woman—Bronia Melchior. They became two of the great Jewish leaders of postwar New York City.” (p. 35)

For Gerson, the prioritization of children, rather than money or privilege, is the explanation of Jewish success:

“In 2018, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ran a segment asking a familiar question: “What’s with the Jews? Their Contribution to Humanity Is Enormous, Unique, and Exceedingly Difficult to Explain.” Maybe not. Maybe it is what happens when a people, from its founding, bets its perpetuation on the education of children” (p. 35).

The following article, which Gerson cites, provides further perspective on stereotypical Jewish parenting: “[Anthropologist Ashley] Montagu was convinced that the most affectionate, touchy-feely people in the world were the Jews. If you’ve lived in a traditional Jewish community, it certainly seems that way.  Jewish parents can never seem to get enough of hugging and kissing their children and grandchildren. . . . Next time your Jewish mother kisses you loudly in public, kiss her back.”

But the ongoing trauma and cognitive dissonance of Jewish existence—most recently embodied in baby Kfir Bibas and his brother Ariel Bibas who are still kidnapped in Gaza along with their parents Shiri and Yarden—is that the very same children who to us are precious and beloved (people who know Shiri say that she is a very caring mother) are viewed by our haters as deserving of torture and murder.

As we prepare for Passover, we remember a Pharoah who felt so threatened by the potential of Hebrew babies that he was determined to throw them into the Nile river—the ancient version of the gas chambers.  But Moses was saved through the love and protection of his mother Jochebed and his sister Miriam, as well as of Pharaoh’s daughter—acting as agents of divine providence.  For today’s Pharaohs, the river is psychological—they hope to drown us in shame, guilt, self-doubt and self-hate.  They bully us to lose the will to love ourselves and our future generations.  They try to make us feel ridiculous.

But despite the efforts of the haters, the values of education and the nurturing of children can continue to provide protection from self-hate.  As such, Jewish parental love and love of education threatens the Jew hater who knows that no matter how much self-hate and self-doubt they will manage to trigger in us, the responsibility toward the future will ground us in what is true and meaningful.

My grandmother Haya from Poland, whose parents and siblings were murdered in the Holocaust, said that her children and her grand-children were her candles.

Today, some of those who have been candles of lasting light to their loved ones are still kidnapped and tortured in Gaza.

This Passover, the most immediate concern is for the liberation of the hostages and for the future of the hostages.

Another wish I have is that Israel haters will free Palestinians of the burden of supplying the pleasures of Jew hate to the world.  I hope that activists who love to hate Israel will become more genuinely concerned about the future of Palestinians and will stop emboldening the fantasy that Israel can be destroyed—for this fantasy cannot achieve anything except bring more suffering to Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Another wish is that Israel haters will become more concerned about their own future and the future of our society.  I hope that the well-meaning people attracted to the concept of justice who in my opinion might have become the emotional and intellectual hostages of haters will be able to liberate themselves. Some Israel haters are paid.  They should find more honest ways to make money. Many are enthusiastic volunteers.  I hope that they will understand how they are being manipulated and exploited.

As we wish for a better future, let us fill our cups with red wine.

Despite the Jewish value of educating children, my grandfather in Poland had to quit school young during his childhood, which was painful to him because he loved studying.  Like many other Jewish and non-Jewish children, he had no choice but to quit school and work to help the family make ends meet.  His family were tailors, and business was busiest around the Passover-Easter period, which was the time of year when many people would order new clothes.  During that time of year, my grandfather’s family often literally worked 24 hours a day to make clothes.  My grandfather remembers the floor of their home being muddy at that time because the spring rain turned the earth to mud and no one had time to wash the floor while they were furiously working to make clothes in time for Passover and Easter.

Like red wine and like the mud in a Jewish home in pre-Nazi Poland, the path toward the future is not crystal clear.  But one thing we should insist on is that blood libels and unaware self-hate should not be a part of the celebration of freedom.

Source for quotes:

Gerson, Mark. The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life. St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at
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