A September survey by the American Jewish Committee suggested that American Jews overwhelmingly prefer Hillary Clinton (61%) to Donald Trump (19%) in the race for the U.S. presidency. While a wide margin was likely expected, some may find surprise in the fact that Trump has the support of any Jews at all, as his campaign has struck anti-Semitic nerves, time and again, apparently hoping to energize a certain “base” of voters. But even beyond anti-Semitism in and of itself, Trump’s xenophobia is likely to strike a chord deep in the vigilant heart of any American Jew who has sat down at a Seder for the Passover holiday—or waits in line to cast a vote today.
Passover celebrations are built around a special Seder dinner ceremony, which features the recitation of the story of the Exodus out of Israelite bondage in Egypt, among other rituals. And this holiday—perhaps the most culturally significant to American Jews—goes a step further. The Seder insists that we were the recipients of God’s grace at Mount Sinai. Exodus was about our escape from slavery. Every spring, we remind each another, “We were slaves.”
Yes, ancient Hebrews were the ones who literally immigrated out of bondage. But so did we. As did our grandparents and parents, and our children and grandchildren.
Our historical narrative did not end with slavery and redemption 4000 years ago. Jews carry a difficult historical burden, and an empowering one. In the 20th century alone, Jewish history is replete with stories of economic struggles, subjugation, and genocide. Donald Trump’s campaign is particular troubling because of the ways that it has featured language that reminds us of the grim ways that history can repeat itself, whether for Jews or other minority groups. Passover’s empathy feels as prescient as ever on this election day.
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The extension of the self into the Exodus story is highlighted in a traditional parable featured in the Seder: The Four Sons. As the parable goes, there are four types of children at any Passover Seder: Wise, Wicked, Simple, and Innocent. The Wise child appreciates the personal significance of the Passover story. The Wicked child actively distances himself from the story. The Simple child does not yet understand the story’s relevance, asking to learn more. The Innocent child does not even know how to ask any questions.
In this parable, we are taught that wickedness arises out of apathy or willful ignorance. The Wicked child refuses to take upon his own neck, for just one night, the yolk of slavery, and with it the opportunity to connect with other human beings who also carry that weight of oppression, whether literally or metaphorically.
Conversely, through the lens of the other three children, we cannot escape a confrontation with history at Seder table. The past is full of horror and glory. When “I” face the blood and locusts, or the miracles and wonders, I can’t simply let it slip by as a fiction of the Bronze Age. When “I” enter the story, I open myself up to empathy. The folly of the Wicked child is that he is doomed to miss opportunities for empathy, and is more likely repeat the mistakes of history.
On the streets of 1920s New York City, we struggled to make ends meet as new immigrants without a safety net, sacrificing so our children could make it in America. In the 1930s, we were the religious families locked out of our own sanctuaries. In 1940s, we were the ones murdered after we were turned away as refugees at the shores of Florida, because the U.S. government was more fearful than empathetic. In the 1950s we were accused of being Socialist spies, marginalized by the conservative political establishment.
As Jews, we have all been the immigrant, the religious minority, the refugee, and the politically persecuted. Because of this, we are likely to see a Jewish vote that is as lopsided as any election has been before. And when we do, it may have been the doing of the Passover Seder, when each year we suspend disbelief and allow our hearts to grow with the wisdom of history’s sorrows, so that they may never be re-lived by others.
We would be Wicked to actively ignore that history. The parallels to America’s political landscape today are too obvious to ignore. Donald Trump and others call for things such as: poor treatment of immigrants; religious discrimination; rejection of refugees; and deliberate political polarization. How can we, Jews who were once slaves, stand idle amidst the xenophobic cries?