Passover and xenophilia

During the traditional liturgy of the Passover meal, the haggadah, we lift up the matzo and say aloud, “This is the bread of affliction, let all who are hungry come and eat.”

When I was a child, my particular affliction was literal-mindedness. My family followed the 3 + 1 branch of Judaism — going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, celebrating Chanukah, and holding a Passover seder. For Chanukah, there was no liturgy, and most of the words the rabbis and cantors mumbled during High Holidays were Hebrew — arcane and mysterious to me then.

But the genius of Passover is it brings the service to the home and fuses it to a meal. The congregation shrinks and the rabbi becomes that person whose questions or answers move you most. 

In that intimate setting, the words hit home to me. More than anything else, seders shaped my Jewishness. I had time to read and re-read the words and, as I was prone to do, take them seriously. When it said to question, I questioned.

Oy, did I question. My uncle, an observant Jew, ran a very traditional seder. I asked him, “Why do I have to wear a kippah?”  Why not a baseball cap?  Did God really find the Dodgers so offensive? 

Then it came to the part of the seder when we dipped our fingers in our wine glasses, then tapped our plates to symbolize our sorrow at the Egyptian blood God had to spill to free the Jews. Why, I asked my uncle, did he lick the wine off his fingers afterward — wasn’t that taking enjoyment from the Egyptians’ blood? That poor man. For years, he had to watch me make a show of wiping — not licking — the wine off my fingers like I was a murderer, erasing evidence.

Years later, I continued my antisocial habit. The haggadah declares, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”  “Why,” I asked my college Hillel rabbi, “don’t we go out and invite all who are hungry to come and eat?” 

My liberal rabbi changed the subject.

Even more strange and mysterious than the Hebrew was why I believed some words I read to be true and others to be just fiction. I never thought for a second that the sea really parted, that the Nile turned to blood, or even that 600,000 Jews ran into the desert all at once.

Yes, what I’m saying is, much of the Passover story we just spent two days reading always struck me as fake news. The story lacks hard evidence. But I still believe in its meaning and guidance. 

At Passover, we 21st-century Jews slip into our pre-modern minds, when the facts of what happened don’t matter — there was no Wikipedia to record them, or Siri to recall them. What matters is the meaning.

“Since the eighteenth century, we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened,” Karen Armstrong explains in “A Short History of Myth.” “But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what an event had meant. A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”

The genius of Passover is it brings the service to the home and fuses it to a meal.

When the haggadah tells us to remember the stranger because we were once strangers, I take it to heart. When I read that we have to think of ourselves as if we were slaves — even though there is no historical evidence we were — I embrace the ethical imperative of empathy. There is so much wiggle room for the facts in the myth of Passover, but none for the truth.

“A myth demands action,” Armstrong writes. “The myth of the Exodus demands that Jews cultivate an appreciation of freedom as a sacred value, and refuse either to be enslaved themselves or to oppress others.”

In a series of interviews with Laure Adler, published this month in book form as “A Long Saturday,” the philosopher George Steiner zeroes in on this essential truth of Passover.

“Don’t forget (people forget this all the time),” Steiner said. “In ancient Greek the word for ‘guest’ is the same as the word for ‘foreigner’: xenos. And if you were to ask me to define our tragic condition, it’s that the word ‘xenophobia’ survives, and is commonly used, everyone understands it; but the word ‘xenophilia’ has disappeared. That’s how I define the crisis of our condition.

This Passover, I am hoping we Jews do all we can to bring that word, xenophilia, the love of the stranger, back into existence — and do I really have to explain why?

The Exodus may be a myth, but when it comes to its lessons for this holiday, which comes to a close next week, it tells the God’s honest truth.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

This is not my America. Is it yours?

Two scary tweets fell into my feed yesterday. In the first, Linda Sarsour, a Brooklyn mom and activist shared, “When ur kids sends u a text w/ a link to a mayor invoking Japanese internment camps. ‘You think they would do that?’ OMG. My heart.”
In a reply, Suroor Raziuddin, a local mom (and self professed “Valley Girl” by way of Jersey) shared, “My kids ask me “Will they make us leave?” used 2 think telling them we were born here was enough. Now? I'm not so confident.”

They should be confident. I'm confident.
 Her rights are my rights.
Her children's rights are my children's rights.
If you are an American, these rights are your rights too.

The language in response to an immigration “crisis” that is being run up the flagpoles of so many politicians is not merely the instigation and amplification of knee-jerk xenophobia. Worse, it is malicious fear mongering, a conscious attempt at stoking anti-immigrant and Islamophobic feelings into rage, inciting action of a specific voter base while raising support for isolationist policies. This is the politics of fear, plain and simple. I denounce the engendering of fear in the hearts and minds of the American people during this political cycle. This is not my America. Is it yours?

I want my leaders to inspire greatness in every American, and celebrate that our nation has always been a society of immigrants. My America is a welcoming social experiment. A success where all new Americans, born here or naturalized, are granted the same rights to freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and pursuit of happiness.

Thursday’s bill passed by the House of Representatives is a blustery piling on that does not address a real threat. “Not a single refugee has been convicted of an act of terror on U.S. soil… of the one million plus we’ve let in post 9/11,” Maya Berry of the Arab American Institute said on KCRW’s “To The Point” on Nov. 18.

Callbacks to the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s in reference to a current onslaught of xenophobia and bigotry facing Syrian refugees by Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Va. gives me great pause. The Jewish diaspora and anti-Semitism are not, in and of themselves, unique. Jews were turned away at borders in times of great need. Jews have been rounded up into ghettos, forced into labor and starvation, and marched along our own trail of tears.

Have you ever wondered what the biggest indicator of Islamophobic sentiment is? It is the holding of anti-Semitic beliefs. “In fact, contempt for Jews makes a person “about 32 times as likely to report the same level of prejudice toward Muslims,” James Carroll wrote in The Daily Beast in an article titled, “How to Spot an Islamophobe,” in 2010, quoting a 2010 Gallop World Religion Survey.

Publicly protecting the rights of all Americans, native born, naturalized, and the refugee that we welcome is our duty as Americans, and as Jews. By protecting everyone, we forcefully protect ourselves from once again falling victim to a society’s nationalist zeal. This is Tikkun Olam. This is a way to make our world a better place for all people, and set an example for all societies in our shared global community.

When we are triggered, it is our responsibility to acknowledge and move past our knee-jerk feelings of fear, and then repair the world with the gift of our love, acceptance and work towards a pluralistic society.

Linda, Suroor, you are my fellow Americans, and I welcome your contributions to our great nation. Your children and mine share the same liberté, égalité, and fraternité that all of us hold so dear. We will not allow fear to destroy the ongoing pursuit of social justice.

Dear reader, will you?

Howard Seth Cohen is a local actor, artist, and activist. He created “72 Virgins” a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that fights xenophobia one mocktail at a time. @HSCactor

European anti-Semitism and xenophobia are linked, report finds

European anti-Semitism and xenophobia are linked, report finds

March 13, 2011

BERLIN (JTA)—Anti-Semitism and other forms of xenophobia are closely linked among Europeans, and Hungarians and Poles are the most likely to hold extreme anti-Semitic views, according to a new report.

The report, “The State of Intolerance, Prejudices and Discrimination in Europe,” was released March 11 in the framework of a conference by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a think tank associated with the Social Democratic Party in Germany. The foundation commissioned the new evaluation of a 2008 survey by researchers at the University of Bielefeld of about 1,000 people in eight European countries: Germany, Poland, Holland, Great Britain, Italy,  Hungary and Portugal.

Asked whether they agree with the statement that “Jews have too much influence in my country,” 69.2 percent of Hungarians and 49.9 percent of Poles agreed. The lowest levels were in Holland, with 4.6 percent agreeing. Germany, with 19.6 percent, was in the middle, sociologist Beate Kuepper told JTA in a telephone interview.

Kuepper, Andreas Zick and Andreas Hoevermann evaluated the data for the foundation.

Scientists found that those with anti-Semitic tendencies also were likely to be xenophobic against other minority groups, including Muslims, as well as resentful of homosexuals and women, Kuepper said.

Kuepper said she was most surprised by the fact that Germany’s level of anti-Semitism was about average, given the strong public message against anti-Semitism, including the emphasis on Holocaust education. She also said that the results for Poland bore out those of previous studies, which show that religious-based anti-Semitism is extremely high there, at 70 percent.

Researchers find, she said, that “lots of Poles will agree” with the statement that Jews today can be blamed for the death of Jesus, “whereas in the Netherlands people would jump out of the phone if you ask them something like that.”

Fighting the Israel Bash-a-Thon

Critics of the United Nations have been handed a big load of new ammunition as the international body careens toward a high-profile conference that could be the biggest Israel bash-a-thon ever.

The Bush administration is working to thwart the hijacking of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance by some of the world’s leading human rights abusers, including Iran, Sudan, Cuba and China, which are trying to deflect attention from their own atrocious records.

But there is little optimism that Washington — itself facing a backlash by the rights-abusing bloc — will be able to blunt the anti-Israel thrust, which could have a negative impact on the quest for Middle East peace and make a mockery of international efforts to fight human rights horrors across the globe.

Last week, U.N. officials met in Geneva to continue work on a draft program for the conference, scheduled for South Africa in late August, based on working documents created during four regional sessions.

Several of those documents were bent and twisted into anti-Israel screeds.

References to anti-Semitism as a form of racism were carefully expunged. One reference was allowed to stand: Israel was castigated for “Zionist practices against Semitism,” a mind-boggling twist on the concept of anti-Semitism.

In some cases, anti-Semitism was replaced by references to “Islamophobia.”

The draft documents criticize the global mass media for its “racist bias in the reporting of the Palestinian problem and its coverage of the aggression against Iraq.” Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is termed “a crime against humanity, a form of genocide.”

The preliminary meeting of Middle Eastern and Asian nations was particularly virulent, which is ironic in view of the venue: Teheran, capital of a nation where human rights are all but nonexistent.

The anti-Israel surge has not provoked outrage from the European nations; aside from the United States, the world community has been reluctant to confront the Third World and Islamic nations spearheading this ideological hijacking.

The revival of the Zionism-as-racism slur does not help advance the cause of peace in the Middle East. On the contrary, it increases Israel’s feeling of isolation and anger as it fends off a world body that ignores Palestinian suicide bombers who target Israeli children while elevating new mobile home clusters on the West Bank to the status of major war crimes.

Many Israelis believe the government’s settlement policies are misguided. But the implication that settlements are worse than recent genocide in Africa or slavery in Sudan only helps neutralize that opposition in Israel, which is a democracy, unlike the nations pressing for an international bash-fest.

The anti-Israel venom, if it pervades the August conference, will make it even harder for the U.N. to play any kind of constructive role in the effort to find a fair solution to the Mideast dilemma.

And if the U.N. succumbs to the anti-Israel pressure, it will only encourage those Arabs who reject the very idea of reconciliation with Israel.

The U.N. action also reflects a growing pattern of anti-U.S. activity that decimates support for the international organization in this country.

This is the same United Nations that recently booted Washington off a Human Rights Commission that still includes countries like Sudan, Uganda, Libya and Syria, making the panel a “rogues’ gallery of human rights abusers,” according to Human Rights Watch.

A broad coalition of Jewish groups is working to blunt the anti-Israel surge.

The Anti-Defamation League is pressing administration officials to keep up the pressure. The American Jewish Committee is working with Eastern European nations and B’nai B’rith with Latin American countries to build international support for a more balanced conference. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs is coordinating the efforts of Jewish groups.

But pro-Israel groups and the Israeli government, fearing an even bigger and more skewed conference without any U.S. presence, are not pressing for a U.S. boycott.

And they are reluctant to raise the matter in Congress, fearing a new anti-U.N. outburst. Lawmakers are already considering legislation to cut U.S. funding for the international body after Washington was kicked off the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

“This conference is an outrage, but right now what’s needed is carefully calibrated diplomacy, not a big political racket,” said an official with one Jewish group involved in the debate. “But it could come to that.”

Adding to the difficulties Jewish leaders face is the other issue that has come to dominate planning for the session — slavery.

African nations are pushing for a strong focus on slavery and colonialism and for a call for reparations from countries that allowed the importation of African slaves in the 1700s and 1800s.

Many of the same countries that support the emphasis on slavery also favor the anti-Israel thrust of the conference.

Jewish leaders are reluctant to comment on the sensitive slavery issue, but many are uneasy about the way it now seems linked to the anti-Israel emphasis of the conference.

Remembering Our Moral Roots

These days, many people seem to be threatened by immigration as though it were a mysterious virus. But immigration is a phenomenon interwoven with the history of humankind. No human being anywhere in the world lacks an immigrant inheritance. The “virus” infects every one of us.

The United States’ history would be unintelligible without the immigrant waves breaking on our shores from the 17th century on. The first English-speaking immigrants landed here in the early 1600s. The first Jewish immigrants arrived in the 1650s. These earliest American Jews, ancestrally Mediterranean, struggled to absorb a new culture and braved the antagonism of the earlier settlers. Persevering, these Southern European Jews — as well as the immigrant Jews from Central and Eastern Europe who followed — contributed notably to the shaping of our America.

A similar story can be told about every generation in America — about immigrants, mostly non-Jews, from every corner of the globe. Whoever they were, they encountered prejudice and resentment — even from earlier settlers of the same faith and background. They were regarded as threats to what passed for American cultural standards — always their folkways and accents were deemed offensive.

The headlines of today are akin to headlines dating back to the beginnings of American society. Always there have been some Americans forgetful of their own immigrant origins and determined to assail recent immigrants as certain to turn the American Dream into the American Nightmare. This is the real virus, this anti-immigrant fever that today sometimes seems to reach epidemic proportions in certain quarters. This virus has a name: It is called xenophobia — the fear and hatred of the stranger.