Why is this Passover different from all others? In a word: Trump

The president has enacted policies antithetical to the values we honor on this holiday, like compassion toward society's most vulnerable.
Image: ISRAEL-RELIGION-JUDAISM-PASSOVER
Jews wearing prayer shawls take part in the Cohanim prayer during the Passover holiday at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on April 22, 2019.Thomas Coex / AFP - Getty Images
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By Halie Soifer, executive director, Jewish Democratic Council of America

As Jews conclude the celebration of Passover, we are reminded why we tell the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the first person, as if we experienced redemption from slavery ourselves. The personal narrative allows us to apply the lessons of Passover to each new era — including this one, in which American Jews look to the U.S. president to defend our freedom, as well as the freedom and rights of others.

At the Passover Seder, children ask four questions about why the night is different from all other nights. But, for the third year in a row, a fifth question has also emerged: Why is this Passover different from others?

The answer around many Seder tables has been to acknowledge that President Trump has enacted policies antithetical to the values we honor on Passover. His divisive actions and rhetoric have corresponded with rising hate crimes targeting religious and racial minorities, and a deep and growing sense of insecurity among American Jews.

One of the most important lessons of Passover is summarized in Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger.” Jews are taught to demonstrate empathy and compassion toward those most vulnerable in society because we were oppressed throughout our history, especially before the founding of the modern state of Israel.

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Having experienced this history, it should come as no surprise that 73 percent of Jews disapprove of Trump’s immigration policies, according to a poll conducted in October 2018 by the Jewish Electorate Institute. An overwhelming number of Jews support the fair and humane treatment of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees because we have faced the devastating consequences of closed borders.

Jews continue to protest Trump’s Muslim Ban because we have suffered the pain and indignity of religious discrimination. And Jews responded with overwhelming opposition to forced family separations because we have faced this inhumanity ourselves: Many of the more than 1 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust suffered the pain of families being torn apart.

And then there is the notion of our country being “full,” as Trump declared earlier this month after threatening to shut the U.S.-Mexico border. This xenophobic dog whistle is darkly reminiscent of an enduring stain on American history, when in 1939 more than 900 German Jewish refugees on the S.S. St. Louis were denied entry to the United States.

The ship was turned away by American officials fearing an influx of WWII refugees and forced to return to Europe, where more than a quarter of its passengers were eventually killed by the Nazis. (The refusal of America, Cuba and Canada to accept the passengers of the S.S. St. Louis was used by Hitler’s propaganda machine as evidence that no country in the world wanted Jews.)

One need not look any further than the president’s own words to understand how stoking the fire of ethnic divisions has led to the increased targeting of Jews. Hatred of “the other” — whether immigrants, refugees, or religious and racial minorities — is rooted in the same ideology.

For instance, his equivocation in the face of white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville exposed his tacit acceptance of domestic hate groups. When the president refers to migrants, like those he associates with MS-13, as “animals” and “not people,” it mirrors the dehumanizing language used by the Nazis against Jews. Similarly, when Trump exaggerated the threat of the so-called caravan of migrants allegedly storming our southern border in advance of the midterm elections, it was exploitative, dishonest and designed to manipulate public opinion against those seeking refuge.

We saw the danger of this kind of xenophobic vitriol in October 2018, when a gunman stormed the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh shouting “all Jews must die.” Just minutes before the shooting, the man charged in the attack allegedly posted on social media disdain for the leading Jewish organization focused on refugee resettlement, accusing it of bringing into the country "invaders that kill our people.” This deranged alleged murderer of 11 innocent Jews had repeated a conspiracy theory that Republicans had disseminated about alleged Jewish support for the migrant caravan, which Trump himself referred to as an “invasion” in late October.

Earlier this year, Trump repeated the empty threat of a migrant “invasion” just hours after another attacker — a white supremacist who claimed to be targeting “invaders” — killed nearly 50 Muslims in New Zealand. A dangerous wave of hate has manifested itself in rising nationalist movements and right-wing violence that has extended beyond our borders, targeting both Muslims and Jews. Many of those fanning the flames of hatred are inspired by, and believe they have an ally in, the president of the United States.

It would have once been hard to believe that anti-Semitism could be resurgent — let alone in America — but the facts speak for themselves. According to FBI hate crime statistics, Jews are the most frequently targeted religious group by a margin of more than 3-to-1. In 2017, there was a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents from the previous year, the largest single year increase on record since the Anti-Defamation League started tracking such incidents nearly four decades ago.

On Passover, we end the Seder by committing to celebrate “next year in Jerusalem,” a reference to both our freedom from slavery and the end of our subsequent exile. But as we end this Passover, many Jews are also committed to “next year, a new president” because the one currently in the White House has repeatedly betrayed the values we celebrate — and which we aim to carry from one generation to the next and into the future.