Even during the best of years, Passover, with all that Seder plate symbolism and forbidden grains, is usually a tough holiday for Jews. But this year was different from other years, where a subplot marred the happy ending of the Exodus story and where the bread of affliction (matzo to most people) was not the most distasteful reminder of Jewish suffering.
For Jews living in the United States and Ukraine, this year’s Passover painfully recalled the terror and relief of having the angel of death pass over them, yet again.
A day before Passover, Kansas City became the scene of a Wild West shootout, except the targets were not the customary outlaws or sheriffs. A gunman with longtime white supremacist and anti-Semitic associations opened fire at a Jewish community center. Moments later he did so again at an assisted living facility named for the Hebrew word “peace.” After killing three people and upon being captured he proclaimed, “Heil Hitler,” as if to dispel any doubt as to why he was shooting on that day and in that direction.
The tragedy was not lessened by the paradox that his victims, ultimately, were not Jews but rather Christians who never believed there was any danger in sharing these facilities with their Jewish neighbors. In the ironic spirit of the holiday, the deadly bullets passed over their intended targets and claimed the lives of innocent people.
Two days later, on the second day of Passover, this time in eastern Ukraine halfway around the world, five masked pro-Russian militants distributed leaflets to Jews leaving their synagogue. The flyers demanded that all Jews report to a government office where they were expected to pay a $50 registration fee verifying their religion and documenting their ownership of property. Failure to do so would result in the confiscation of property, the loss of citizenship and ultimate deportation. A Daily Beast reporter arriving at the designated government office the next day discovered that it was empty. No one apparently knows what group was responsible for creating and distributing this hateful message, but it was clearly intended to terrorize these Ukrainian Jews and revive old but easily reclaimed anti-Semitic feelings.
The fact that the leaflet may have been inauthentic didn’t diminish the trauma to the Jewish community of Donetsk, which totals 15,000. It was, after all, the 17th incident against Jews to have taken place in Ukraine since the start of this year. And for Ukrainians, such anti-Semitic antics recall a different time that produced far more lethal outcomes. In 1941, the Jews of that same region received a similar notice requiring them to appear the next day with all of their belongings at an assigned destination. Nearly 40,000 Jews were marched through a forest to a ravine where they were stripped of their clothing and possessions, mowed down with machine guns and buried in the mass grave of Babi Yar.
If the Passover leaflet from 2014 was nothing but a joke, then it was nonetheless a sick and twisted one. Passover, after all, was always the default holiday that animated the blood libels of Jews killing Christians in order to make matzo, and the resulting retaliatory pogroms.
With the Kansas City shootings, Americans harshly realized that there are still those who happily hail Hitler and who will not hesitate to murder Jews if the mood strikes them. And Ukrainian Jews received a similarly invidious reminder that unlike other citizens, registration is always in their future, which can lead to the confiscation of their property, expulsion, and possibly murder. For a European or Russian Jew, after all, any edict to register or face expulsion packs all of the metaphorical punch, and evokes the same murderous memories, of cattle cars and broken glass.
And for some regional variety, in Iran with its nuclear ambitions, every day is Passover.
With talk of Israel being a superpower in the Middle East, it’s easy to forget that not too long ago Jews were homeless with some of their host countries rolling out welcome mats in the form of mass killings and gas chambers. Passover commemorates liberation from bondage and the exodus from ancient Egypt, but those euphoric former slaves and their descendents didn’t have it much better during later epochs in world history, whether it was the Inquisition, Czarist Russia, the Holocaust, the entrapment of Jews caught on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain, or the hostile neighbors that still surround Israel.
Only those with pathetically short time horizons, an abysmally poor knowledge of history, or simply implacable anti-Semitic leanings will refuse to acknowledge why after two millennia of persecution a Jewish homeland was finally created and why its moral legitimacy and physical existence is simply beyond denial.
For now, however, Jews should feel relieved that they got through Passover without any further incidents. The ritual of imagining themselves as having once been slaves, this year at least, felt unnervingly all too real.