On the afternoon of Shabbat Hagadol a few years ago I got into a fight with a racist yob in London. It was raining and I couldn’t see too clearly, and so when two blurry figures called from the other side of the street I thought it might be friends.
When I realised that it was anti-Semitic slurs rather than a warm greeting, something inside of me snapped. Perhaps it was the fact that I was walking with my petite mother that brought the red mist down or maybe that we had been talking about how Pesach was the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In any case I stormed across the street and confronted the pair and asked what they thought they were playing at. One backed down and began to apologise but the other escalated. Within a matter of seconds we were inches away from one another’s faces and on the point of blows.
And then a pre-Pesach miracle occurred. On the quiet residential road a police car screeched to a halt and two armed policeman jumped out and split us up – they turned out to be the Hertfordshire Firearms Squad (police in the UK don’t usually carry guns). In those initial seconds of their intervention, I morphed from alpha-aggressive-male to polite, middle-class victim of abuse whilst my ‘friend’ took the unwise approach of shouting and cursing (the fact that I was wearing Shabbat clothes and my poor mother was standing there petrified certainly helped my case). Within seconds he was being handcuffed and was having his head forced into the car whilst the police apologized and escorted us home.
With Pesach on my mind I thought later that afternoon that this was really the meaning of Dayenu. Jews throughout the generations have suffered anti-Semitic abuse, and I am thankful to live in a democracy where, when the police arrive, they are on the side of the victim rather than the perpetrator. That wasn’t always the case. Dayenu represents an idea of being grateful to God even for a redemption that is less than complete – this in itself is enough to give thanks.
One of the things that I have found most remarkable since moving to America this last year is the way in which so many Jews that I meet don’t see themselves as belonging to a minority with a history of prejudice. On the one hand this is undoubtedly a blessing – a sense of victimhood can be choking and stultify to one’s identity. But at the same time it strikes me that something is lost. In the eyes of most Jews and gentiles in America, Jews are white, rich and the possessors of privilege.
At an anti-racism rally I attended a few months ago with a large Jewish contingent present, speakers repeatedly linked up the struggle of Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBT, and women. And I kept on waiting: when would the speakers mention the group who are currently experiencing the worst time in Europe since the Holocaust? When would they mention the group who, hatred of whom in the Arab world, is a vile stain? And when would they mention the group who, according to the FBI, 60% of anti-religious attacks in America are directed at?
And yet they didn’t mention the J-word. And when I spoke to Jewish students about it afterwards, many of them hadn’t noticed what to me was so obvious by its absence.
Whilst every other group that sees itself as suffering from prejudice makes common cause with one another – the feted intersectionality – Jews are excluded from this narrative and this is just as much due to self-exclusion.
This isn’t to say that we should be playing the victim card, or that, heaven forbid, anti-Semitism is a good thing, but as a Jew coming from Europe, it strikes me as bizarre that Jews are not contributing to the debate on prejudice and privilege in America by telling their own story of how they have dealt with, and to a certain degree overcome a history replete with oppression and exclusion. Part of the message of Pesach is how a story of injustice and oppression can become the source for a rich, vibrant and nuanced identity. The seder celebrates the redemption from bitter slavery. It doesn’t forget that it occurred.
Day nu! Enough already.
(Written for the The NYU Kollel)