Wednesday night, Jews will experience Coronasederettes — perhaps the smallest seders of our lifetimes. We can make them not just b’seder – ok – but soued-up-super-seders, brimming with meaning even if lacking guests. One path to great meaning is by “welcoming” some Zionist thinkers – or at least some of their best texts.
Zionists are ideal virtual seder guests. Beyond being the ultimate peoplehood people and freedom fighters, Zionists deftly transform traumas into opportunities. Israel’s fourth prime minister, Golda Meir, insisted that “Zionism and pessimism are not compatible,” while teaching how to balance sacrifices today with faith in tomorrow, because “To be or not to be is not a question of compromise. Either you be or you don’t be.”
For anyone exasperated by the Haggadah’s OCD specificity, Meir’s colleague – and Israel’s founding prime minister – David Ben-Gurion – had the perfect response. In 1954, when Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sneered “who do you and your state represent? Does it represent the Jews of Poland, perhaps Yemen, Romania, Morocco, Iraq, Russia or perhaps Brazil? After 2,000 years of exile, can you honestly speak about a single nation, a single culture?” Ben-Gurion retorted that “300 years ago, the Mayflower set sail from England,” yet most Americans couldn’t tell you the name of the ship’s Captain, how long the voyage took, or what the people ate on board. Yet “more than 3,000 years ago the Jews left the land of Egypt” – and most Jews today could tell you that Moses led them, they wandered 40 years in the desert, eating Matzah when they left and Manna as they roamed.
Ben-Gurion’s Speech to Mapai’s Central Committee on January 16, 1948 shows how he set priorities during an existential crisis. With Arab attacks on Jews worsening, he argued: “There is now nothing more important than war needs, and nothing equal to war needs. And just as I don’t understand the language of ‘state’ right now, I don’t understand the language of immigration or settlement or culture. There is only one criterion: are these initiatives needed for the war effort or not?” This necessary focus, he explained, comes “precisely because for us war is not a goal in itself, … we see war as a terrible accursed misfortune, and resort to war only from lack of choice.” Once we survived, he assured, we could develop “a vision of life, a vision of national rebirth, of independence, equality and peace—for the Jewish nation and for all peoples of the world.” Read that speech after sanctifying the wine which recalls the world’s creation and the Exodus. Consider other epic events we have experienced in our lifetimes – and Jews confronted over millennia – assessing how we had to prioritize then – and how that perspective might help us now. And start brainstorming a post-crisis agenda – individually and communally.
During the first round of handwashing – a ritual taking on added significance this year (and probably requiring handcream too) – go personal, learning from Ben-Gurion’s rival, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. In The Fundamentals of the Betarian World Outlook (1934), this poet, playwright, and philosopher articulated his vision of “Hadar,” essentially, the glory and dignity you bear when you understand Judaism’s depth and breadth. “Hadar consists of a thousand trifles which collectively form everyday life,” Jabotinsky explained. For example, “moral Hadar” teaches: “You must be generous, if no question of principle is involved. Do not bargain about trivialities. You, rather, should give something instead of exacting it from somebody else. Every word of yours must be a ‘word of honor,’ and the latter is mightier than steel.”
There are so many other moments to link the Passover seder with Zionist thought and our current dilemmas – coronavirus-related or not. Hillel Halkin’s celebration of this grand “adventure” called Israel, is a perfect Dayenu text. The philosopher Moses Hess’s anguished rejection of assimilation in the 1860s and the feminist novelist Anne Roiphe’s reflection 120 years later on the “thinness” of the “eclectic,” universalistic, upbringing she gave her children, transcend this year’s dilemmas, as do the teachings of Isaiah Berlin, Yuli Tamir, Ruth Gavison and so many others about the value of constructive Jewish nationalism, ie Zionism. All these texts are on the Haggadah Supplement on my website www.giltroy.com and in my book The Zionist Ideas.
Perhaps the most-compelling Zionist bridge to this year’s Coronasederette, can be built via a pithy line by the playwright David Mamet – and a longer explanation by the Israeli historian Anita Shapira. Mamet says, bluntly, poetically, “real life consists in belonging.” Shapira explains that: “Zionism has always focused on the collective, its assumption being that national redemption would also promote personal redemption. It is high time that we recapture the sense of togetherness we’ve lost, the togetherness that was the cohesive power—and gift—of Zionism.”
Our mass experience of enforced isolation, these improvised rules about social distancing, could have spun us further and further away from each other, burrowing ever deeper into our high tech age of hyper-individuation. Instead, this social deprivation has increased our collective craving for collectives. This Passover, even around thinned-out seder tables, let’s contemplate how much richer our lives are by a thick web of associations, commitments, references, rituals. And how much more meaningful life is when played out in plural than alone.
Those insights might help us follow these emergency rules more thoroughly – to choose life — and more thoroughly appreciate the communities we eventually rejoin – to cherish life too.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .