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We are instructed, in the Haggadah that we will read at Wednesday night’s Seder, to retell the story of our ancestors’ divine liberation from slavery in Egypt not as a history lesson but as directly applicable in the here and now.
“In every generation, it is our duty to regard ourselves as having personally gone out from Egypt,” runs the text, quoting from Exodus to the effect that it was not only our ancient forebears who were redeemed and brought to the promised land, but we, too, who were redeemed with them.
I have heard some eminent rabbis suggesting these past few days that, with Israel in the midst of a tragic, dangerous internal crisis, and individual families bitterly riven from within over the rights and wrongs of the Netanyahu coalition’s bid to neuter our judicial system and take absolute power, we should keep politics out of the Seder, and focus instead on that ancient Exodus and the miracle of what we have achieved in our modern Israel.
But the “in every generation” paragraph, to my mind, sends us the opposite directive.
Requiring us to retell the story of our ancient deliverance from tyranny as though we were among those rescued, the Haggadah is reminding us annually how miraculous and precious our freedom truly is, that it must never be taken for granted, and that we are obligated to protect and defend it from abusive, hardhearted leaders.
Even when — especially when, in this case — those leaders are our own.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu granted us a short respite from his looming decrees — a promised suspension through Passover, through Remembrance Day for our fallen soldiers, and through our 75th anniversary of independence.
He did this not because he is planning on abandoning the legislation that would politicize the judiciary and prevent it from defending our most basic rights — to free speech, freedom of religion, elections and much more.
Rather, as his Likud party’s own Justice Minister Yariv Levin privately acknowledged, and his staunch ultra-Orthodox ally Aryeh Deri publicly confirmed, several Likud Knesset members could not have been relied upon to support the passage of the first, central revolutionary law — giving the coalition near-absolute control of the appointment of judges throughout the court system — when it was set to be brought for Knesset approval last week. The last few remaining clearsighted Likud MKs managed to belatedly take a stand after the prime minister’s outrageous decision to fire his defense minister — for having dared to publicly warn that the looming destruction of democracy is causing immense social rifts, and that the divisions, extending into the military, now constitute a tangible threat to national security — and the vast spontaneous nationwide street protests that this decision triggered.
A brief pause enables the prime minister to get through Passover and Israel’s most resonant national days with opposition reduced from last week’s peak, to then organize his own mass pro-overhaul rallies, and thus to ostensibly showcase vast domestic support for his march to tyranny, defang White House and other international criticism, and claim to have attempted to negotiate a good-faith compromise with an unyielding opposition… and then to push through the legislation when the Knesset returns less than a month from now.
Several Netanyahu loyalists — including Levin, Miri Regev and Miki Zohar — have made plain that this is the plan. Netanyahu himself, even as he announced the temporary suspension, confirmed that what he has ludicrously taken to calling the “democratic reform” would be legislated “one way or another.”
Meantime, the prime minister continues to play fast and loose with Israel’s most vital needs. He is refusing to convene the key, decision-making inner cabinet (which in any case now includes theocrats and racist provocateurs like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, whose agenda is antithetical to the national interest) to discuss security threats internal and external. And he is cynically, paranoically, keeping Defense Minister Gallant in limbo over whether he’s been fired or not, to the deep detriment of the proper functioning of the national defense establishment.
Meantime, too, Netanyahu and his spineless ministerial colleagues maintain their complicity in handing ever greater power to the most dangerous members of this unprecedentedly extreme government. This week, they voted for the establishment of National Security Minister Ben Gvir’s euphemistically titled “national guard” — a force that the oft-convicted anti-Arab rabble-rouser intends to build up as a personal militia. Don’t do it, urged the police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, calling the projected new force a recipe for chaos that would undermine and compromise the actual police. Don’t do it, pleaded a former commissioner, Moshe Karadi. Netanyahu “should learn a little bit of history and see what happens in countries in which politicians have their own armed forces,” Karadi elaborated. “It’s a short distance between this and the fact that he [Ben Gvir], with this power, could take over the Prime Minister’s Office and launch a coup.”
If that warning sounds far-fetched, it’s only because Netanyahu is already in the process of launching his own.
Ignore all this at the Seder table? Focus instead on the biblical salvation from slavery and the many things for which we have to be grateful, but avoid discussing what plagues us now?
That’s not the message of Passover. Rather, the Haggadah’s injunction is to debate and discuss, to internalize and learn from our own history, to confront the dangers we face and seek paths to thwart them, and to try to do so as a unified people.
Seder night calls attention to our history of persecution at other hands, and our own wrong turns. It aims to embed lessons learned over the millennia, and also to highlight that we are blessedly empowered with a code of moral behavior — to guide us, most emphatically now too, in thwarting a leadership that is destroying Israel’s tolerant Jewish and democratic Zionist ethos.
Indeed, the requirement to reflect, and consider, and learn from our history, surely applies most of all to those who are in that leadership — those who have the direct means to change course and heal our people.
And if we’re still passionately debating at daybreak — seeking the most effective, unifying, restorative path out of this crisis — then, as the Haggadah notes, that is more praiseworthy still.
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