Passover, Judaism and Bernie Sanders
Abba Eban once said that “if Algeria introduced a UN resolution declaring the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13, with 26 abstentions.” While he had a point, we all feel fairly comfortable laughing at what was obviously an example of his extra-dry humor. After all, even if such a resolution was proposed and passed, who really cares about Algeria, or even the UN General Assembly?
But what about when a serious contender for the US presidential nomination starts making ludicrous claims against Israel? I am referring to Bernie Sanders’ charge that Israel killed 10,000 Palestinians during the last Gaza War (later corrected, but with heavy equivocation). Can we afford to be amused, just because he has no chance of becoming the president?
Or how about when a former senior US official posits that “Israel is becoming such a strategic liability for us, that it’s detrimental to our own national security”? This particular shocker was uttered by Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired US Army Colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. In the same interview, Wilkerson claimed that Israel’s “behavior” would see the Jewish state “eliminated by the international community, if not the 350-400 million people around it who are opposed to it.” Incidentally, in February, the website Politico reported that Wilkerson was advising the Sanders campaign on foreign policy.
As we enter Passover, it is essential for us to focus on the fact that the slavery in ancient Egypt did not begin with servitude and pyramid construction. It began with the Jews being welcomed into Egypt by a Pharaoh who had benefited from Joseph’s exceptional leadership qualities, and who generously complimented Jacob’s wisdom. One imagines that there were elements in Egyptian society who frowned upon Pharaoh’s fondness for Joseph’s family, and questioned the preferential treatment he gave them. The ultimate result of that resentment was that “a new king arose over Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.”
The Midrash records an ancient backstory that explains this mystifying statement. Of course Pharaoh knew who Joseph was — how could he not? Joseph was the man who had saved Egypt from starvation. But anti-Joseph forces in Egyptian politics were very powerful, and repudiated any praise for Joseph and the Jewish contingent in Egypt. When Pharaoh refused to go along with them, he was deposed, and he was only reinstated once he had agreed to retract his previous fondness for Egypt’s savior. What followed was enslavement and genocide for the Jews. All the goodwill and support for their position had disintegrated in a wave of populism and political opportunism.
The seder night is instructive. We learn how the Jews of ancient Egypt survived this incredible change of fortune. They did it by uniting with each other, so that their identity would not be lost, and then they prayed to God for salvation. That salvation, when it came, was powerful then, and continues to be as powerful now.
There are many reactions to the daunting political challenges faced by Israel and Jews in the contemporary era. One of them is the reaction of Bernie Sanders and his Jewish fellow travelers. They believe they must join forces with the enemies of Israel, and that they must also shed the meaningful aspects of their Jewish identity. There were Jews like that in Egypt, too. The Torah intimates that they consequently never emerged from Egypt together with Moses and the Exodus. Throughout history, there have been Jews who have followed this same path, and discarded their values and their Jewish pride for the sake of expedience. Their story, and the Passover story, illustrates the futility of such a strategy. We are all Jews to those who despise us, and we always will be. We should therefore embrace our identity full-on, rather than reject it.
It is worth noting how many times Bernie Sanders’ Jewishness has come up in town-hall meetings and debates during his campaign. Unlike Mitt Romney, who is a fully-fledged and committed Mormon, and who therefore faced questions about his faith in 2012, Sanders is a self-declared atheist who is about as far removed from Judaism as one can possibly be. Why should his Jewish ethnicity even be an issue? The answer is that antisemitism is not rational, and the widespread obsessive hatred of Israel is totally absurd. But never underestimate political expedience — no one has any friends in politics.
In Europe, there are many mainstream party politicians whose personal views are innocuous, but who nonetheless pander or at least tolerate open hostility towards Israel and Jews. It has recently emerged in the UK that the Labor Party has evolved into a hotbed of antisemitic activism and rhetoric. This is the political party of former prime minister Tony Blair, who was a great friend of Israel. But should the current Labor leader ever get elected as prime minister, UK Jews would be in trouble, and so would Israel. Because the UK is not Algeria, and in the UN the UK is a permanent member of the Security Council.
The Exodus from Egypt was a seminal moment in our history. The reason we revisit it year after year is because it has become the blueprint for Jewish survival. Two things: Jewish pride and a firm belief in God. In the end, we always have our faith, and our self-belief. Even when things seem bleak, and our future is under threat, we must declare that we, the Jews, have survived every attempt to eradicate us right from the dawn of our history in Egypt. Don’t fall into the Bernie Sanders trap of discarding your Jewishness, and certainly do not take seriously the doom-and-gloom predictions of Lawrence Wilkerson, or anyone like him. Rather, we must all declare with gusto: “Next year in Jerusalem!”