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On Tyranny: A Passover Message

My dear friend and esteemed colleague Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum recommended a little book for me to read, and now I want to recommend it to all of you. The book is “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. Snyder has written numerous works, among them Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. He serves as a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

On Tyranny can be read and absorbed in one or two sittings. It is a work of “public scholarship”, a manifesto meant to show us a bigger historical picture, and to equip us with the necessary understanding so that we can confront our own political moment with clarity and with courage.

By drawing lessons from the collapse of democracies and the rise of fascism and totalitarianism during the first half of the twentieth century, Snyder makes clear that the future of democracy in the United States is by no means ensured. History teaches us that democratic systems can lose their footing, and that opportunists will reliably exploit those weaknesses to further undermine the rule of law and replace it with governing systems that consolidate power in the hands of a few. Snyder’s account of Vladimir Putin’s current skillful maneuvering to undermine and weaken European and American democracy is especially chilling. Framed within this global perspective, the election of our current president and his administration’s priorities fit into a terrifying pattern of democratic systems losing their grip in a way that might have seemed unimaginable until recently.

Unimaginable, that is, if one has been raised on what Snyder calls the “politics of inevitability”. This is the mythic framing of American history as the inevitable march toward ever-greater democracy and freedom. I remember learning back in junior high about the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, that the United States of America was somehow blessed – even chosen – by divine providence to move ever forward to greater glory and fulfillment. Growing up as I did in the prosperous post-war baby boom, I absorbed and accepted this ahistorical myth of the march of progress. It was a comfort, and an inspiration to live within this bubble: to the moon and beyond, humanity marches toward a brighter tomorrow. But it is beyond time to put these myths aside; history is a clear-eyed witness that human progress is not assured.

This should be of keen interest to us as Jews for multiple reasons. As an oft-maligned minority, we Jews thrive and are safest when societies abide by the rule of law and the protections of human rights. The tyranny of Nazi Germany led to our near-annihilation. The tyranny of Stalinism led to the crushing and near-extinguishing of our culture and religion, and to gross institutionalized discrimination against us. It is in our obvious self-interest as Jews to resist tyranny and to defend democracy.

Even more obvious is the message of Passover: Long ago, we ourselves were subjugated by tyranny. We groaned under our servitude. And the Source of Life brought us out from that crushing place to freedom. Therefore, we tell this story to remember where we came from, and to remember that we serve the Source of Life. And, as the Haggadah then explains, “Whoever expands and expounds upon this story is worthy of praise!”

This Passover let us be wise, and learn from both the lessons of Torah and from the lessons of recent history. The world needs us to be informed and empowered citizens. I recommend as your Passover reading On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Wishing you all a sweet and illuminating Pesach,

Rabbi Jonathan