In Every Generation… Passover Then and Now

by Rabbi Elchonon Oberstein

As we approach the holiday of Pesach, our minds go back to the sedarim of our youth, when we were together with dear ones no longer alive. I have vivid memories of one Passover when my mild mannered father, who had nerves of steel, lost his temper because of something I had learned in yeshiva and repeated at the seder.

The Haggadah tells us “It is this that has stood by our fathers and us. For not only one has risen against us to annihilate us, but in every generation, they rise up to annihilate us.” It was at this point that I remarked that “Halacha hi, b’yadua sheh Eisav sonei et Yaakov,” it is a fact that Esau -the gentiles — hate Yaakov – the Jews.

My father came to Alabama from Tiktin, Poland in 1924 after narrowly escaping death as a youth in war torn Europe. He was put before a firing squad by the Bolsheviks for being outside during a curfew and at the very last second an old man on a mule came by and ordered them to let the boy go. He found a new life as a grocer in Montgomery, Alabama in an all black neighborhood. he had good relations with his customers and with the gentile majority. Jews were a very small and insignificant element in Montgomery.

When I uttered the notion that “goyim are all anti Semites,” my father was incensed. He said that it was ideas such as this which cause anti-Semitism. He felt that the non Jews among whom we lived had always treated him well and the idea that we were doomed to endless hatred was absurd.

My father did believe that anti-Semitism had the effect of keeping Jews Jewish but he hoped that we could learn to survive without mutual distrust. I found a similar thought from a contemporary Jewish scholar.

In his Haggadah commentary “From Bondage to Freedom,” Rabbi DR Abraham Twerski comments on this passage.”Unofrtunately, what has stood for our ancestors is that we were faced with persecution. This may be what it takes to remind us that we are Jews…..It is time we learn from history, if we take the words of the prophets to heart, there will be no need for any Hamans.”(page 92)

This came to mind because of an article in the Jerusalem Post.

The Jerusalem Post reported on April 2 that Israel and Iran have received the lowest ratings for the second year running, in a BBC poll of attitudes across the globe toward various countries. Nevertheless, negative views of Israel declined over the past year.

Published on Wednesday, the BBC World Service poll asked people to rate Brazil, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the US and the European Union as having a mainly positive or negative influence in the world.

Negative views of Israel fell over the past year from 57 percent, to 52%, while negative views of Iran’s influence held steady at 54%, giving it the worst rating of the countries tested. Pakistan followed Israel with the third worst rating. The proportion of those with a positive view of Israel remained stable at 19%. Nineteen of the countries polled had a negative view of Israel, two leaned to the positive – Kenya and Mexico – and three were divided. Negative views of Israel decreased significantly in five countries in Europe and Latin America. Those with a negative view of the Jewish State fell in France from 66%, to 52%; in Germany from 77%, to 64%; in Brazil from 72%, to 57%, and in Chile from 57% to 43%.

Japan had the best rating for the second year, but Germany, included in the ratings for the first time, comes a close second. The European Union came in third.

This is not the way my father believed it would be. When I was a little boy, he told me that when the current ignorant generation of Arabs passed away and their more educated children took over, there would be peace in Israel. He didn’t foresee so many generations of hatred. Nor did he see that the Europeans would turn against Israel. I guess he made the same error as Theodore Herzl in thinking that a Jewish State would solve the Jewish Problem.

Currently, Christian – Jewish relations in the United States are also being examined in two ways. One is the feeling among many liberal Jews that the warm relationship with Pastor Hagee and other pro-Israel Evangelical Christians is not a good thing. Most Israelis would agree that we should take their money and their political support and when the end times come, we’ll sort it out then. The Reform Movement and many others feel that Jews are making a grave error. Time will tell.

The forthcoming visit of the Pope is unique in his desire to meet with Jewish leaders twice , once in Washington and again at the Park East Synagogue in New York. I can’t imagine popes before John XXIII showing such an interest in fostering good relations with Jews. I do not know what impact this will have on Israel’s position in the world but it can’t be harmful. The only speech I ever heard from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was when I was a student at YUHS and he came out against joining in ecumenical dialogue. Time proved him prescient when, prior to the Six day War, all the years of ecumenism came to naught and Israel was abandoned by the National Council of Churches This was before there were any occupied territories or even a Palestinian People.The Durban Conference will once again feature anti Semites dressed as anti Zionism in full bloom.

Recently, I had a tremor of fear. I realized that it is quite possible that the next President of the United States, while certainly no anti-Semite, may identify with the Third World side of his ancestry. He may not have developed the same sensitivities as other politicians who had to campaign for Jewish votes. His entire career was in an all black state senate district before becoming a US Senator almost by acclimation. I have heard that he never developed the relationships with the pro Israel organizations that would have occurred in a more conventional rise to power.

As we also mark the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., we are reminded that at one time there was a solid alliance between blacks and Jews. It was only later after others came to leadership that the message changed. In those days, there was also admiration for Israel throughout the world as a plucky David against the Arab Goliath. Israel’s victory in the Six Day War changed the equation.

The world has not turned out as my father would have expected. The fact is that in every generation they do arise to destroy us. May the Holy One ever save us from their hand.

[Rabbi Elchonon Oberstein of Baltimore is the only native of Montgomery, Alabama to become a rabbi. He is Director of the Machon Teacher’s Institute at Ner Israel Rabbinical College. Opinions expressed are his own.]

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8 Responses

  1. Charlie Abzug says:

    I presume that it was acclAmation that was intended, not acclImation as was written. There is an enormous difference between the two words.

    I have a strongly differing view from that of Rabbi Oberstein’s father. My mother-in-law, of blessed memory, and my wife, both survivors of the Holocaust, have stoutly held the view expressed by the ancient Rabbis that anti-Semitism is endemic among the [non-Jewish] nations. What my mother-in-law had seen many times over during the traumatic period when we who were born and raised in this country enjoyed our comfort and our good relationships with the non-Jewish majority, was that many non-Jews who had previously SEEMED to be friendly towards the Jews turned out to be secretly envious and hateful towards us. Many of the books published by survivors also detail numerous instances when the trusted employee or friend showed his/her true colors to be different.

  2. Ori says:

    When I uttered the notion that “goyim are all anti Semites,” my father was incensed.

    I would be too. You can’t live in peace among gentiles and then say they are all anti-Semites. In each generation we have enemies. But it is a huge leap from having enemies to expecting most gentiles to be our enemies.

    One is the feeling among many liberal Jews that the warm relationship with Pastor Hagee and other pro-Israel Evangelical Christians is not a good thing. Most Israelis would agree that we should take their money and their political support and when the end times come, we’ll sort it out then. The Reform Movement and many others feel that Jews are making a grave error.

    I suspect that the Reform Movement’s position is not based on an evaluation of Israel’s interests, but their opposition to the Evangelical Christians’ political agenda within the US. That is a legitimate concern for them, but not one that should matter to people with a different agendas for US politics.

  3. bag says:

    The correct girsa is not halacha hi beyadua; it’s halo hi beyadua. Every other time it says omar r yochanan omar rsb”yochai it says halo beyadua. In context, halo beyadua makes sense, while halacha hi beyadua is not a coherent sentence. The midrash is talking about esav the person and saying that we already know that he had it in for yaakov.

    Of course one is welcome to say maaseh avos siman labonim, and the fact that this was taken to say halacha hi beyadua and as a paradigmatic statement tells us something about how Jews historically felt. But the midrash is 1. about esav the person, not gentiles in general should read halo hi beyahdua and not halacha hi beyadua 3. ironically, the focus of the midrash is that despite esav the person’s attitude to yaakov, nichmaru rachomov at that time.

  4. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Are all gentiles anti-Semites? Do all Jews have big noses?

    Just as one cannot generalize anything about the Jewish people, one must always remember that “gentiles” are not one big “other” with uniform underlying values and desires. Yes, there are many people who are anti-Semites. There are, however, many people who are philo-Semites and even more who simply don’t care and wish they would stop hearing about Israel every night on the news.

    If we are to interact productively with the rest of the world, it behooves us to approach that rest of the world intelligently, not with the same reacitonary and simplistic stereotypes that we can’t stand being applied to us.

  5. Ori says:

    Why is Esav taken to mean all gentiles, or all Christian gentiles? It’s highly unlikely he was the ancestor of all of them.

  6. Ari says:

    Thought-provoking post. Thank you, R.E.O.

    I would agree that it’s counter-productive to assume that Jews are universally hated. Subscribing to this may enable Jews to give themselves permission to break the law of the land. It also breeds an us-versus-them mentality that devalues and denigrates all aspects of secular culture and science, whether warranted or not.

    At the same time, I believe that there is an unexplained, fundamental law of human nature (nurtured or natured, I’m not sure) that has consistently scapegoated or condemned those of the Jewish faith throughout the ages. This cannot be explained away as a fluke. The only question is what percentage of the human population is infected with this virus.

    I’d like to believe that the majority of people have some sort of immunity, either through exposure or genetics. Or, they take medication (ie. they work or live with Jews and see them rationally, or things are going well for a host country, or there is a cultural resistance), and only suffer occasional flare-ups. Anti-Semtism can be a recessive gene, skip a generation.

    Personally, I don’t allow it to inform my interaction with non Jews, but it’s helpful to be aware that it’s out there. Sometimes, sadly, we don’t need remind ourselves; others do it for us.

    I think there is some sort of psychological foundation for the idea that family members can be even more bitter adversaries than more casual relationships. Family members have to either physically, socially or mentally deal with other family members — and that constant negotiation and competition can make a conflict intractable.
    That may explain the negative feelings that many of our Semitic brothers and sisters have towards us.

    Time will tell whether the systematic institutionalization of this hatred will result in mass slaughter, G-d forbid, as it did with the Germans and Christians.

  7. Moshe says:

    Rabbi Oberstein’s father was right, but only because of “American exceptionalism.” North America is unlike the Old World lands of Europe and the Near East whose soil is soaked with Jewish blood. In America, Serbs and Croats who would be at each other’s throats in the old Yugoslavia live in side-by-side neighborhoods in Chicago. That’s why Jews could live in peace with their Christian neighbors in Alabama and Georgia and Oklahoma with only sporadic interference by the Invisible Empire.

    Nevertheless, the idea of a never-ending struggle is not confined to the Haggada. Whether we live among the Nations or build a Jewish nation in our own Land, we will get no rest. Rabbi Tarphon tells us at the end of the second chapter of Pirkei Avos, “It is not up to you (lo `alecha ha-melacha ligmor) to finish the work, but you are not free to avoid it.” Nearly forty years ago, General Moshe Dayan reiterated this mission to young Israelis. “It is decreed upon us (nigzar `alenu) to be in a situation of fighting (li-hyot b’matzav shel lochama `im ha-Aravim) with the Arabs. We, in the course of these hundred years of the return to Zion (shivat Tziyon), work for two things — building up the Land and building up the People. This is a continual widening, of still more Yidden, of additional Yishuv and additional settlement. This is an ongoing affair (tahalich) that has not come to its conclusion. It is not up to you (lo `aleichem ha-chova ligmor) to finish the work. It is up to you to lay down your stratum, according to the goodness of your capability (k’meitav y’cholat’chem) in your season, in your lifetime, to make for the widening of the settlement. You are not obligated to finish, but Heaven forfend (chalilah!) you should say, ‘end of the sentence (sof pasuk), this far and no farther (`ad kan v’siy’manu).'” Lo `alenu ligmor. The Haggada says it, Rabbi Tarphon said it, General Dayan said it, that settles it.

    We will know that they will stop rising against us when we open the door and Elijah walks in, when the 770 crowd wins over the 666 crowd, when the Nations admit that their ancestors caused them to inherit lies. May we be zochim to see it this coming Pesach. Chag kasher v’sameach to all our Cross Currents readers!

  8. One Christian's perspective says:

    Sadly, I have learned far more about anti-semitism from Jewish web sites than I have heard or experienced from friends, neighbors, family members and fellow Christians. My parents were nominal Christians, but yet, my mother often told me as a child “Jews are G-d’s chosen people”. This did not make me an anti-semite. As a child hearing this and not much else about G-d, my thoughts were more in the line of “fearfully wondering what about me….what does G-d think of me”. It just gave me a yearning for a few crumbs from G-d’s table and a greater sense of awe when in the presence of Jewish people – my family doctor was Jewish. Anti-semitism was never part of my experience in a gentile world. Yet, I often hear myself saying “I can understand why Jewish people hate gentiles, look at what we did to them “. I never realized until now just how unhealthy collective guilt and even anger can be. When gentiles say, “I understand….” what seems to follows is an almost unconscious sense of guilt because we have placed someone else’s sin and the resultant shame on ourself…but… where we then find ourselves trapped in an unhealthy and unrealistic position of trying to make amends and seek forgiveness for what we as an individual did not do. If I were to say to you , “I am sorry for what some gentiles did to your relatives, please forgive them”, you would respond by saying “only the one who has committed the sin can seek forgiveness after they make amends and restitution”. How does this work in Judaism when the perpetrators are dead ?

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