Dusk Somewhere

Red Seder Haggadah

Posted at — May 6, 2024 by Izzy Meckler

This Pesach, I helped organize a Seder for lefty Jews. For this we wrote a haggadah, which focuses on the actual history of the Jews with an eye toward understanding the phenomenon of Zionism.

You can find the whole haggadah here.

Below I have reproduced the short history which appears in the passover story section of the haggadah.

Where did we come from?

Judaism originated as the religion of a group of people ruled by the Kingdom of Judah in 1200 BCE, a little over 3000 years ago. At that time, it was mainly focused on worship led by a class of priests at the temple in Jerusalem.

But most of us are from America, or Canada, or Mexico, or Europe, or one of many other places, so, how did the Jewish diaspora get started?

The Kingdom of Judah had the misfortune of being between several much more powerful kingdoms at the time. One of these was the Assyrians, who kicked out many of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah around 730 BCE. Not too long after, around 580 BCE, the Babylonians conquered the territory, and killed and deported a large number of the inhabitants.

This marked the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. The displaced subjects of the Kingdom of Judah spread throughout the Middle East, and they were able to start to re-orient their religion around “portable” practices (like reading the Torah which was developing around this time, and following daily rituals) rather than temple worship. The modern Jewish communities of Iran and Iraq are likely descended from Jews who were displaced by these exiles.

Soon after the Babylonians conquered Judah, they themselves got conquered by the Persian empire of Cyrus. Cyrus established a self-governing Jewish province in modern day Palestine. The Jews built a new temple, and temple-based Judaism dominated by priests was restored.

Control of the region passed hands a few times, eventually becoming part of the Roman empire around 60 BCE. The second temple was destroyed by the Romans in the context of a rebellion by the Jews against Roman rule about 100 years later in 70 CE. Not too long after, the Jews were expelled

The destruction of the temple and resulting crisis of temple-based Judaism led to two new forms of Judaism: Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, which adapted Judaism to the new conditions in different ways.

Rabbinic Judaism re-centered the religion on reading Torah, prayer, and the observance of laws and rituals in daily life – a set of practices compatible with living anywhere, rather than the rituals of the temple in Jerusalem.

Already by this time, more Jews lived in the diaspora than Palestine having relocated or been relocated for a lot of different reasons, but this innovation made it much easier to maintain a Jewish identity through the many migrations that would follow, with traditions synthesized with local ones. Over the centuries Jews spread throughout the Islamic empires and post-Roman Europe, often initially as traders.

Antisemitism in Europe

We will now look at the very broad strokes of Jewish life in Europe, because this is where antisemitism and later Zionism were born.

By the 1000s, Europe was ruled by warlords (usually called nobles or aristocrats) who controlled medium-sized areas and secured their power by extracting from peasant farmers in the areas under their military control. We call this regime “feudalism”.

European Jews at this time had a wide variety of economic roles. A relatively large percentage of Jews – although generally the minority of the Jewish population – were traders and later money-lenders, probably since that is how they had come to Europe in the first place. Even though the majority of lending during the medieval period was carried out by Christians, moneylending was stereotyped as a Jewish occupation. Lending was imagined to be parasitic to the feudal structure, rather than simply a part of the aristocracy’s system of exploitation. This image of Jews was promulgated in numerous ways in feudal times.

Moreover, the Catholic Church – the “mass media” of its day, stoked hatred of Jews on religious grounds. Priests taught the masses that Jews had killed Jesus, and promulgated ”blood libels”, claiming they killed Christian children to use their blood for religious rites.

All this together meant Jews were condemned to serve an extremely useful social function for the feudal ruling class: as a release valve for the pain and anger peasants felt due to their exploitation by the aristocracy. Their anger could be misdirected away from the system as such and toward Jews.

European feudal antisemitism also relied on Jews being kept separate from the general population, which was enforced by restrictions on their movement, the banning of Jews from owning land or living in rural areas (which restricted them to work in trade, lending, and crafts), and in certain times and places requirements for Jews to wear special badges or hats, so that they could be easily identified.

In this context, we can see that the Holocaust was not something that emerged from nothing due to an evil man named Hitler, or from an eternal hatred of Jews, but from hundreds of years of ideology that served a powerful role in maintaining the feudal class hierarchy.

Socialism and nationalism

For reasons outside our scope, nationalism emerged as an ideology in Europe. The idea of a “nation” is an imagined community, membership in which is determined by some set of cultural practices. European nationalism contended that every “nation” in this sense should have corresponding to it a state – that is, an organization composed of a military and a bureaucracy capable of controlling and exploiting the population of a given geographic region.

This idea was taken up by Zionists who applied it to the Jews as a potential solution for European antisemitism. It appealed to pessimism of overcoming antisemitism and the religious affinity with the land of Israel.

The other idea taken up by Jews as a potential solution to European antisemitism was socialism. Socialist thought identified class domination as the main obstacle to overcoming antisemitism, since the scapegoating of Jews for the pain caused by that domination was so useful for maintaining ruling class control. Therefore it posited the end of social class, and thus the end of a need for scapegoating, as a solution to antisemitism. Jewish adherence to socialism was also driven by the fact that the masses of Jews were being proletarianized (i.e., turned into workers).

Tragically, European socialists failed to overthrow capitalism in the early 20th century. The early 20th century was a period of extreme crisis for capitalism in Europe ending in the World Wars, which led to the genocide of the Jews of Europe with the Nazis drawing on the many centuries of antisemitic ideology.

After the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews were housed in displaced persons camps. The Allies' policy was to repatriate them (Polish Jews to Poland, German Jews to Germany, etc.). This was resisted by Jews for obvious reasons, but only very few were allowed to emigrate to the US, Canada, or elsewhere in the Americas. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 provided a solution to the Jewish refugee crisis that was convenient on a number of levels to the ruling states of that time (primarily England and the US). The majority of the survivors migrated to Palestine, usually by necessity rather than an ideological commitment to Zionism. However, the idea of building socialism in Europe as a way of combating antisemitism was pretty much discredited.

In Israel, the Zionists worked hard to eliminate diasporic Jewish culture, which was seen as antithetical to their project of creating a new Jewish nation. This is summarized in the Zionist concept of shlilat hagalut (“negation of the diaspora”) which posits that Jews in the diaspora are essentially deficient, weak, uncultured and degenerated (echoing European antisemitism) and that Jews could never be safe or flourish without their own state.

Owing to its nationalist self-conception and the need to establish a capitalist economy, Zionism entailed the mass displacement of Palestinians, the people who had been living in Palestine prior to Zionist settlement. Decades of land-seizures and violence against Palestinians culminated in the Nakba, in which about 750,000 people (about half the population), were expelled by Zionist paramilitaries and the IDF. The overall effect of Zionism was essentially colonial: the ways of life of the original inhabitants of Palestine were disrupted and they were forcibly brought into the global capitalist system on very bad terms.