March 28, 2002
Why Is This Seder Different?
Every year, the retelling of the story of Passover sparks the same intergenerational debate around our family's seder table. Like singing "Dayenu" or eating charoset, we look forward to our traditional discussion of the nature and extent of anti-Semitism. My father, with my grandmother cheering on, argues that anti-Semitism is alive and, alas, well.
My two sisters and I disagree. Raised in liberal, heterogeneous communities, we describe a time and place where ethnic differences are celebrated, where they are taken in stride, and where surely no one is persecuted on their account.
We proudly tell him about the Korean American who gave an oral presentation on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in our public high school history class. He rolls his eyes and cites litanies of anti-Jewish actions in places like Los Angeles and Paris. We accuse my father of clinging to an obsolete ghetto mentality of victimization; he accuses us of making generalizations based on the distinct liberal bubble in the northeast where we grew up. We are naive, he warns, to think that the world has come to terms with religious difference.
My sisters and I have come to look forward to this Pesach time debate; it is part of our holiday ritual. In arguing for the demise of anti-Semitism in America, we feel downright patriotic, celebrants of tolerant, multicultural America. We are also lauding our success as a generation. As a post-religious cohort, our generation has moved such differences past their potential to divide and to instigate hatred since these were experienced by our parents and even more by our grandparents.
This year, the seder will be different. For the first time in our generation's memory, we have confronted a period of world history rife with blatant anti-Semitism. For sure, the anti-Jewish sentiment is not coming from next door. But the media has brought the accusations and hate against Jews expressed daily in Gaza City, Islamabad and Riyadh to our living rooms.
Young American Jews, who have long considered the Arab-Israeli conflict as a battle between two nations thousands of miles away, this year might be wondering why the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a anti-Semite's must-read, is a best-seller among young Egyptians, citizens of the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state. Even the most assimilated, unaffiliated American Jew, who still clings to the concept of a post-religious age, can no longer be deaf or blind to the hate directed against him. For example, even those American Jews who have long ceased to celebrate Purim could not help but react to a headline published in early March in a Saudi government daily, "Jews Use Teenagers Blood for Purim Pastries."
As a generation of American Jews raised on freedom of choice, Judaism was a part of our identity that we willingly embraced or rejected. We are a generation that treats Judaism as one component of our complex identities, one that we can elect to change and accommodate to the demands of the modern world.
We are, all of us -- or so we have believed -- Jews by choice. And thus we are shocked by this wave of anti-Semitism, because it does not differentiate between the temple-goer and the unobservant, between Reform and Orthodox, between Israel supporter and anti-Zionist.
Our generation of American Jews does not fit one prototype.
The simple son will come to the seder seeking information. With his parents he will discuss the intifada, the Saudi peace plan, the world views held by Islamic fundamentalists and the nature of U.S. foreign policy responses. The daughter who does not know how to ask might be so removed from Jewish practice that she chooses to absent herself and, perhaps, to spare embarrassment and hurt, is no longer invited to the seder. But if she does attend, she will need to be encouraged before she can begin to ask questions. But she will probably not connect Daniel Pearl's last words -- "I am a Jew , my mother is a Jew" -- to her own life.
The evil son will come to the seder table angrily, maybe against his will. He will flippantly disassociate himself from the seder rituals, hurting his parents and grandparents. He will question the need for a Jewish state, though, unlike the simple son, he is fully aware of Jewish history and suffering.
The smart, respectful daughter and son will come to the seder with emotional reactions and questions prompted by their careful reading of current events. If it's a good seder, they will probably leave more confused and upset about Israel and the war on terrorism than when they arrived.
This year, a new intergenerational discussion will dominate our seder. This year, my sisters and I will come to the table, respectfully conceding to our father that anti-Semitism has not perished. But we will also come to answer and provide comfort to our parents.
We will try to persuade them that, while they may be right, after all, that anti-Semitism is our condition, we may also be right when we insist that it is not our immutable destiny.
Dafna Hochman conducts research on terrorism and national security at a foreign policy think tank in Washigton, D.C. Her prior work includes Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine and the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development in Herzliyah, Israel.