Celebrating freedom from slavery starts on the journey that begins with despair and ends with redemption, symbolized by the Jewish people receiving the Torah and entering the Promised Land.
We are commanded to retell the story in every generation, and to experience it as if we had been there ourselves. Our children may be wise, sassy, innocent, or uninterested, but still it is our duty to engage in this discussion. Now more than ever we should be focused not just on the joy and freedom, but on what happened to our people then and what seems to be happening again, even on college campuses. That’s because now even with a strong Jewish education, solid Jewish identity, and connections to Israel, which the majority of our young people do not have, they are likely to encounter anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity on campus and possibly in the classroom when they get to college.
After being thrown in a pit by his jealous brothers, Joseph ended up in Egypt, and whether through divine inspiration or ingenuity he managed to interpret dreams that foretold a great famine in Egypt. When he became viceroy of Egypt, he created a plan to feed the people for seven fat years and store enough food for the next seven lean years, and thus to avoid the effects of a drought. Yet a new pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph, and despite all the good Joseph had done for the Egyptians, the children of Israel, who made their way to Egypt to avoid that drought, were enslaved by the pharaoh. The new pharaoh became fearful that the children of Israel would grow in numbers and power and through great cunning would become a threat.
No good deed goes unpunished.
This is a paradigm that the Jewish people have experienced in every generation, and that has not changed in our own time.
In thinking about the themes that might enhance the seder experience, the story of drought and famine that Joseph predicted was on my mind. Recently I have been reading a fascinating book, “Let There Be Water,” by Seth M. Siegel. It’s about the miraculous ingenuity of the modern state of Israel, which decades ago recognized the imperative of making a desert climate habitable by finding a way to supply enough water for all its needs. Amazingly, Israel’s scientists have found ways to meet all its challenges, using techniques ranging from drip irrigation and conservation to desalination and waste water treatment. Not only did Israel solve the problem for itself, but it has been helping other countries, including its neighbors, to solve their water problems.
Ironically, Israel, with all its technological prowess and start-up nation mentality, has managed to bring some of the most important scientific advances and medical achievements to the world, benefitting even states that remain its enemies. Yet the solutions that the Jewish state has shared with the world are met with efforts to Boycott, Divest and Sanction — to engage in BDS. This BDS campaign has spread around the world and manifested in places as various as cultural institutions and labor unions, using a playbook based in part on the anti-apartheid movement. It is an attempt to demonize, delegitimize, and isolate the Jewish and democratic state of Israel, with the ultimate goal of destroying it.
Of greatest concern is the role of academia in BDS. Professors are teaching our children and grandchildren to hate Israel and laying siege to Jewish peoplehood, and their salaries are paid through hefty tuitions at the finest universities in North America and around the world.
Signs and wonders are all around us, but we are not paying sufficient attention. Some say that ignorance is bliss, but ignoring these problems and misidentifying them only will allow them to grow. Recognizing the problem and naming it is an important step. Knowledge is power. When you are retelling the story of our people at the seder, and thinking about how that story once again is repeating itself in the form of BDS, you can commit yourself to raising awareness and find ways to support the kind of educational projects that will confront the scourge of anti-Semitism plaguing our people today.
Nate Geller of Teaneck has worked on behalf of Soviet Jewry and Israel. He is now at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy.