Israeli democracy needs ‘Sharanskyism’ not ‘Liebermania’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-26-11

When I studied modern Jewish history in graduate school, one book in particular revolutionized my understanding of Israel – and helps explain Israel’s current democratic predicament — Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917. By following the migrations of Russian Jewish ideologues, especially to New York and Palestine, Jonathan Frankel showed their extraordinary influence on the two centers of my life, America and Israel. As modern Israel seeks suitable boundaries for democratic debate amid security threats, Frankel’s insights remind us how the Russians and other immigrant groups molded Israel. Considering that Russian impact, Israeli democracy today needs a big red purge of certain, destructive, Soviet impulses.

Linking the Jewish labor movement in New York with Zionism’s early stirrings in Russia and Palestine, Frankel’s book taught me how Russian Israeli culture is and how Americanized my understanding of Zionism was. I then learned from Melvin Urofsky’s American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust, shaped by Louis Brandeis’s marvelous mix of Zionism and American Progressivism. The great American Supreme Court Justice – and Zionist – cast the story of Jewish national liberation in American terms, emphasizing the Jews’ flight from oppression to pioneer a new, enlightened democracy in Palestine. This cocktail helped American Jews view supporting Zionism as an expression of Americanism, not a distraction or a betrayal.

Labeling Israel the Middle East’s only democracy exaggerates geography’s political relevance. Actually, culture counts. How Polish-Russian Jews like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, born into the Czarist Russian Empire, learned to appreciate democracy and implement it in a country filled with immigrants from undemocratic regimes remains one of Zionism’s greatest achievements.

Zionism functioned as a centrifuge, mixing different cultures, ideologies, and values, then incorporating the best of them into this exciting new experiment in Jewish nationalism and state-building. The early Russian pioneers contributed a communal passion that still exists in creative tension with American Zionists’ Brandeisian individualism and liberalism. But while that collectivist zeal frequently elevated Israeli society, most nobly with the Kibbutz movement, it degenerated in Bolshevik hands into Soviet totalitarianism. Vladimir Putin demonstrates that within Russian political culture an authoritarian streak still resists free expression, especially untrammeled criticism, while longing for strongman rule.

That Soviet strain – which we can call in Israel Liebermania, named after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – propels the undemocratic ideas in Binyamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Unfortunately, that repressive strain also appeals to a growing number of native Israeli Jews and those in the religious camp who misread Judaism as monolithic rather than disputatious and democratic. Culture is, of course, adaptive and dynamic, neither immutable nor genetic. Many who survived the Soviet regime – and Arab rule – emerged as champions of democratic expression and civil society. Natan Sharansky is only the most famous example of that counter-tradition.

And no culture is problem-free. Modern American political culture, especially the post-1960s progressive variety most American Jews embrace, tends to be highly self-critical, relativistic, and frequently blind to the presence of real enmity or evil. This approach encourages political reform and national self-improvement. But it discourages the necessary moves for self-defense embattled democracies must make while often accepting the narratives of critics and enemies over more patriotic and admittedly self-serving storylines.

Israel needs Sharanskyism rather than Liebermania, a vital democracy that is neither oppressive nor self-destructive. We must welcome Russians’ continuing concerns with high culture, science, and the collective national soul. But we also must purge that lingering Soviet influence – the totalitarian instinct to outlaw free speech we hate rather than refute it, along with the yearning for tough demagogues.

Similarly, Israel should help the United States – and the rest of the West – balance self-criticism with survival. The Zionist instinct toward self-preservation, and the blunt Israeli approach of “Ein Breira,” we have no alternative, serve as important correctives – within limits – to Western prosperity-laced guilt mixed with American “We are the World,” and “I’m OK, you’re OK” diplomacy. As we approach September 11th’s tenth anniversary we should remember that the day America was blindsided by Islamist terrorism – despite years of warnings – Americans turned toward Israel to learn how thriving democracies can fight terror effectively, so that the Constitution would not become “a suicide pact.”

In this struggle for Israel’s soul, Binyamin Netanyahu should lead not waffle. His background is American not Soviet, more Brandeis than Lieberman. As UN Ambassador and in his books, he argued that democracies could preserve core values while protecting themselves. As Prime Minister, he seems too concerned with preserving his coalition not protecting those values. Democratic ideals should be guiding principles he defends passionately – not just easy applause lines when dueling Barack Obama or Mahmoud Abbas.

This is an educational and ideological challenge. North American Zionists, watching this struggle, should not cut and run. Saying “Israel is pushing me away,” as one Huffington Post blogger recently complained, is immature. Here is a noble cause, a delicious struggle, an opportunity for Anglos — and other freedom-lovers — to import our values to shape Israel’s future. In this fight, advocating a ‘Big Red Purge’ challenges those who escaped Soviet tyranny to explore what destructive impulses they absorbed unintentionally. Yelling “McCarthyism” repeatedly, in addition to being historically inaccurate, doesn’t resonate with that audience – and reflects the self-referential elitist bubble encasing Israel’s left.

Israel is a young country still forming. Our challenge, our opportunity, amid all the surrounding threats, is to ensure that Israel fulfills its core Zionist vision, becoming a model state that welcomes immigrants from different cultures, culling the best of what they bring, while retaining democratic and Jewish values. Making that effort succeed can be one of the great adventures of modern life, injecting, as Jonathan Frankel’s Russian thinkers did, a touch of prophecy into everyday politics.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

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National Insecurity American Jews haven’t stood up for Jonathan Pollard. That might finally be changing.

American Jews haven’t stood up for Jonathan Pollard. That might finally be changing.

By Gil Troy, Tablet Magazine, 11-16-10

Jonathan Pollard.

Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; photo: Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Pollard, who is now marking his 24th year in prison, has earned the dubious record of serving the longest prison term in American history for spying for an ally. Convicted of espionage in 1987, Pollard was the suburban American Jewish dream turned nightmare: a good, middle-class, high-achieving boy turned traitor. The son of a college professor, smart enough to graduate from Stanford, patriotic enough to be hired to work in naval intelligence, he made a criminal decision to betray his country to help Israel.

And yet new petitions on his behalf have recently begun to circulate, and gain momentum, both in the U.S. Congress and the Israeli Knesset. This is, in large measure, because Pollard’s situation rests on a contradiction: He was guilty of a reprehensible crime, and yet he has been treated abominably. One of the most infamous Jewish criminals in modern times, he is also the victim of the worst act of official American anti-Semitism in our lifetimes. With his round face and shoulder-length hair, Pollard today still looks more like a perpetual grad student than an arch criminal, but he has suffered severely. He has served hard time, mostly in maximum-security prisons, spending years in lockdown 23 hours a day. Websites pleading his case detail his medical ailments, noting that he has “developed diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-glaucoma, and arthritis while in prison.”

From the moment he was sentenced, there were people in the Jewish community—and beyond—who believed Pollard had been unjustly punished and who fought for his release. But they were few and far between, and they often made the wrong case for him. This newest round of argument on Pollard’s behalf is different. For starters, many of his champions have been careful not to lionize him. Rather, they focus on correcting what Judge Stephen Williams, who filed a dissent in one of Pollard’s failed appeals, deemed “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Most surprisingly, on September 27, 2010, a former assistant secretary of Defense confirmed many people’s decades-long fears that, at some point, the case had turned personal—and poisonous. Without explaining what prompted him to break his silence, Lawrence Korb, who served in the Pentagon in Reagan’s first term, wrote President Barack Obama: “Based on my first-hand knowledge, I can say with confidence that the severity of Pollard’s sentence is a result of an almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies in our foreign policy on the part of my boss at the time, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.”

Decades into this tragic and pathetic tale, American Jewry’s continuing allergy to defending Pollard says more about our communal fears and the price we are willing to pay for social and political acceptance than it does about Pollard and his crimes.

***

On November 21, 1985, FBI agents arrested Pollard, 31 at the time, just outside Israel’s embassy in Washington. Since June 1984, Pollard had been routinely removing sensitive documents from the Naval Intelligence Support Center on Friday afternoons, passing them to his Israeli handlers for Xeroxing, and blithely returning them on Monday mornings. When first interrogated by the FBI, Pollard called his wife. After he worked the word “cactus” into the conversation, their designated SOS code word, Anne Henderson-Pollard scurried about their house—with a neighbor’s help—sanitizing it. The neighbor subsequently gave the FBI a 70-pound suitcase filled with secret documents, reflecting the volume of Pollard’s activities and sloppiness.

Despite transferring thousands of documents to his Israeli handlers, Pollard failed to gain asylum at the embassy on that day in 1985. Backpedaling furiously, Israel first labeled Pollard a rogue agent, as his handlers worked out of a shadowy organization called Lekem, the Defense Ministry’s Bureau for Scientific Relations. The department, headed by the legendary Mossad man Rafi Eitan, was disbanded shortly after Pollard’s arrest. Israel granted Pollard citizenship in 1995—long after such a move could have done him any good. And it wasn’t until 1998 that Israel finally acknowledged what everyone knew: Pollard had been an authorized agent spying for Israel.

An American Jew’s arrest as an Israeli spy was upsetting enough for American Jews. But Pollard’s defense made the affair excruciating. Minimizing the thousands of dollars he earned, the diamond-and-sapphire ring the Israelis gave him, and his efforts to shop American secrets to South Africa and possibly Pakistan, too, Pollard portrayed himself as a Zionist idealist. Anti-Semites bullied him as a child, he recalled. He claimed that the documents he smuggled out, so crucial to Israeli security, should have been shared freely. And, using a most obnoxious and threatening term, he said a “racial obligation” compelled him, as a Jew, to defend the Jewish state.

Suddenly, amid Ronald Reagan’s resurgence of hard-bodied patriotic machismo, in the age of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and Clint Eastwood’s tough-guy “make my day” taunt, a balding, mustachioed, jowly-faced American Jewish nerd in glasses was betraying the red, white, and blue for the blue and white. Pollard’s crimes epitomized Zionism-run-amok, with the ideological implications of Jewish tribal solidarity pushed to its extreme.

“I feel my husband and I did what we were expected to do, and what our moral obligation was as Jews, what our moral obligation was as human beings, and I have no regrets about that,” Anne Pollard said defiantly on 60 Minutes shortly before being sentenced, one of many arrogant, self-destructive moves the couple made back then. While stirring up the terrifying “dual loyalty” charge—far more terrifying to Jews than to Irish-Americans and other hyphenated Americans—the Pollards defined every Jew’s ultimate loyalty as being to the Jewish state. Desperately repudiating the charge, the prominent academic Jacob Neusner would declare America to be the true “promised land.”

This American Jewish skittishness regarding Pollard was particularly surprising because by the 1980s American Jews were thriving in America’s suburban meritocracy. Some American Jewish superstars were accented immigrants like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel. But most American Jewish success stories were 100 percent American. Speaking unaccented English, they were supposed to be unscarred psychologically, unapologetically American.

***

American Jews had been here before. Three decades before Pollard made headlines, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s arrest, trial, and conviction as Soviet spies for stealing atomic secrets rendered the American Jews’ nightmare scenario in pinkish hues. But in the 1950s, American Jews were greener, more marginal. Julius Rosenberg represented the intellectual, foreign-born, New York Jew as Communist, at a time when Communism was disproportionately popular among Jews.

With the Rosenbergs—as with the Pollards—the rightness of finding them guilty was often confused with the wrongness of their punishment. The zeal with which they were prosecuted, the way Judge Irving Kaufman presided over their trial, and Ethel Rosenberg’s unjust execution along with her husband, all suggested something deeper in both the American Jewish psyche and the larger American political culture. The American legal establishment particularly enjoyed prosecuting these treasonous Jews, while many American Jews leapt to prove their own loyalty—at the Rosenbergs’ expense.

Just as in the Rosenberg case, the judge presiding over Pollard’s sentencing was swayed to render too harsh a punishment—a decision that kicked up new waves of suspicion and anxiety.

In an effort to keep his wife out of prison, Pollard pleaded guilty to one count of espionage. His wife, Anne, then 26, pleaded guilty to the milder charge of illegally possessing classified documents. In return, the prosecutor asked the judge to punish Pollard with a “substantial number of years in prison.” During the sentencing phase, one voice proved damningly influential. In a secret 46-page-pre-sentencing “damage-assessment memorandum” sent to the judge—and an additional four-page memo that was recently declassified—Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger made a fierce argument. “It is difficult … to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the U.S., and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel,” wrote Weinberger, before adding—malevolently and unnecessarily—that Pollard’s “loyalty to Israel transcends his loyalty to the United States.”

Judge Aubrey Robinson Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, sentenced Jonathan Pollard to life in prison and his wife to five years. (After Anne Henderson-Pollard served three-and-a-half years, she was paroled. Jonathan Pollard divorced her so she could rebuild her life without him.) The sentence was surprisingly harsh. By comparison, in 1987 Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, who’d been seduced by a Soviet agent, became the first Marine ever convicted of espionage. His crimes compromised agents and the American embassy in Moscow. Yet a military court—under Weinberger’s direct authority—sentenced Lonetree to 30 years in prison, and he eventually served nine years. Richard Miller, an FBI agent who spied for the Soviets in the 1980s, served 13 years. Spies for other allies, like Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Egypt, and the Philippines, served anywhere from two to four years, with maximum sentences of 10 years. Pollard’s extreme sentence—along with the continuing refusal to free him–has raised questions about official American anti-Semitism and whether Pollard is enduring harsher punishment for the crime of being an American Jew spying for Israel.

Given that neither Weinberger nor Robinson ever explained their actions, the Pollard case remained shrouded in this noxious mystery. Years later, Weinberger would skip over the case in his memoirs and, when asked about the omission, would dismiss the Pollard case as a “very minor matter.” But it’s clear that his accusation that Pollard committed “treason”—and harmed the nation—had a devastating impact.

In his recent letter, Lawrence Korb suggested that Weinberger, his former boss, had exaggerated the damage Pollard caused and that an anti-Semitic bias distorted the case. From the start, some speculated that Weinberger, who had Jewish grandparents but was a devout Episcopalian, sacrificed Pollard to exorcise his own ancestral demons. There was something about this pudgy, sloppy, unapologetic Jewish spy for Israel that repulsed Weinberger. Weinberger was also one of the Reagan Administration’s leading Israel skeptics. Caught in a power struggle with the pro-Israel Secretary of State George Shultz, Weinberger usually viewed the Jewish state as more albatross than asset.

More benign observers guessed that the secrets Pollard spilled did more damage to U.S. interests than Pollard or the Israelis suggested. Perhaps, some argued, Russian spies secured key codes thanks to Israeli-based KGB agents. Others assumed Pollard received instructions from a higher-level mole who remains unexposed. After Aldrich Ames’ arrest for spying in 1994, some speculated that Weinberger and others may have blamed Pollard for the damage Ames had actually caused, including the deaths of as many as 10 CIA assets. The author John Loftus and others theorized that Ames, who was a top CIA counter-intelligence official, probably pinned his own crimes on Pollard. In 1995, Moment magazine editor Hershel Shanks would quote Loftus quoting naval intelligence “sources” who admitted that “90 percent of the things we accused [Pollard] of stealing, he didn’t even have access to.”

***

After Pollard’s sentencing, New York Times columnist William Safire warned that Pollard encouraged “anti-Semites who charge that Jews everywhere are at best afflicted with dual loyalty and at worst are agents of a vast fifth column.” Issuing a personal declaration of independence from Israel, Safire proclaimed: “American supporters of Israel cannot support wrongdoing here or there. In matters of religion and culture, many of those supporters are American Jews, but in matters affecting national interest and ultimate loyalty, the stonewalling leaders of Israel will learn to think of us as Jewish Americans.”

But one keen observer of American Jewry, the political scientist Daniel Elazar, noticed that it was American Jews—and not their non-Jewish neighbors—who were actually raising the dual-loyalty specter, “apparently in the hope of preventing the issue from surfacing by raising the charge in order to deny it. Even more frequently, it was raised by Jews in the media, most of whom were highly assimilated but still apparently needed to demonstrate their ‘bona fides’ as Americans.” Elazar concluded: “The level of American Jewish insecurity is astounding.”

American Jews still viewed themselves and their community as on probation in the United States, with their ultimate acceptance conditional on good behavior. This pathology would be stated clearly, if unconsciously, years later, by one of the highest-ranking Jews in American history, who served his country nobly as director of naval intelligence from 1978 to 1982 and yanked Pollard’s security clearance—temporarily—years before the spying began. Rear Admiral Sumner Shapiro sounded like a scared yid when discussing Pollard. Annoyed at fringe American Jewish groups that defended Pollard, Shapiro told the Washington Post in 1998: “We work so hard to establish ourselves and to get where we are, and to have somebody screw it up … and then to have Jewish organizations line up behind this guy and try to make him out a hero of the Jewish people, it bothers the hell out of me.”

All minorities want to celebrate their tribal successes as reflecting the best of their people without being tarred when one of their own acts poorly. And given the torturous history of anti-Semitism, American Jews feel this intensely. We circulate lists of Jewish Nobel prize winners, delighting in each American Jewish success, using Jewish achievements to validate our rich but complex Jewish baggage. And while we reserve the right to cringe when a Bernard Madoff becomes the modern face of the greedy Jew or a Jonathan Pollard becomes the modern face of the traitorous Jew, we also reserve the right to object when our neighbors make similar leaps from the one bad apple to the whole bunch.

Nearly two years after Pollard’s arrest, with the sentencing returning the case to the headlines, the Israeli academic Shlomo Avineri zeroed in on this American Jewish insecurity—and inconsistency. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, first condemning Pollard as a traitor and his own government as clumsy, Avineri mocked the “nervousness, insecurity, and even cringing” of American Jews. Playing the role of the abrasive Israeli—or biblical prophet—Avineri wrote: “Today, American Jewish leaders by their protestations of over-zealous loyalty to the United States at a moment when no one is really questioning it, are saying that America in the long run is no different from France and Germany. When you have to over-identify, there is no other proof needed that you think that your non-Jewish neighbors are looking askance at your Americanism. You are condemned by your own protestations of loyalty and flag-waving.” At a time when Israel’s actions made it unpopular with many American Jews, Avineri’s aggressively Zionist analysis only exacerbated tensions.

***

The controversy–and speculation–peaked during the Wye River negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in October 1998. Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first round as Israel’s prime minister, lobbied hard for Pollard’s release. President Bill Clinton seemed set to free him as a sweetener to Israel until the CIA director, George Tenet, threatened to resign. Such power politicking against a spy who had been imprisoned for over a decade reinforced both camps’ speculation. Those who fear anti-Semitism say this irrational move reflects a deep aversion in the WASP-iest bastions of the American government. Those who believe Pollard did more damage than we know insist that the usually mild-mannered Tenet had a good reason to be so rigid.

To Israeli settlers, Pollard’s case symbolizes the anti-Semitism of even benign non-Jewish polities such as the United States and the weak-kneed appeasement policies of successive Israeli governments, which have failed to free Pollard. The most popular pro-Pollard bumper sticker in Israel simply appeals for Pollard to come home “haBaytah,” but a few years ago one poster challenged: “BUSH: FREE YOUR CAPTIVE.” This poster not only targeted a good friend of Israel’s, George W. Bush, but it pictured Pollard with the young Israeli Hamas is holding, Gilad Shalit. The implicit comparisons, between the innocent Shalit and the guilty Pollard, as well as between the democratic United States and the terrorist-state Hamas, were offensive. While the right’s support has sustained Pollard emotionally, it may have made his get-out-of-jail card even harder to get. The Israeli right is unpopular with both the American Jewish community and the American political establishment, making Pollard even more unappealing.

***

However unappealing he may be, the time has come to free Jonathan Pollard—not as some sop to Israelis but as a matter of justice. Holding an individual hostage to the vagaries of the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process is cruel and unusual punishment. The Pollard case has become a question of justice, American-style, unrelated to American-Israeli relations. And justice when applied too zealously becomes unjust. For decades, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil-rights organizations have taught that we take up certain criminals’ cases not because we like the criminals or excuse their crimes but because, at a certain point, it becomes the right thing to do.

Imagine another case in which an accused man served a disproportionately long sentence after being tried in a court where direct pressure was applied by the secretary of Defense for reasons that may well have been mistaken or personally motivated. If there was another such case, one imagines that it would attract lots of attention from the ACLU and other groups concerned with the civil liberties of Americans. So why are they silent? More to the point, why are we silent?

If the Pollard case represents the worst of American anti-Semitism, then, by historic standards, anti-Semitism American style is mild indeed. Still, that American Jews, despite their long record of defending the underdog, still hestitate to champion Pollard’s release now, suggests that we—like Jonathan Pollard—remain victims of the “astounding” insecurity Elazar witnessed two decades ago.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of six books on American history and Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

My soviet seder from hell

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-25-10

Twenty-five years ago, in April 1985, I had the seder from hell in the world’s largest prison – the Soviet Union. My friend Danny and I landed just before Passover in Novosibersk, emboldened after meeting in Moscow with the legendary Yuli Kusharovsky, a man the KGB secret police targeted for teaching Hebrew. Seeing his and his fellow “refuseniks'” courage, watching them carve out meaningful Jewish lives amid great oppression, made us confident we would complete our mission to make seder with Jewish professors fired because they applied to emigrate to Israel. Alas, we were wrong.

In those bad old days, a new Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, had just emerged. We assumed he was no better than his dictatorial predecessors. Anatoly Sharansky’s name was on everyone’s lips, but we were sure it would be years, if ever, before he would be freed. Kushavorvsky and others seemed particularly worried about their heroic young friend Yuli Edelstein, recently jailed on false charges and ailing in prison. Many feared he would not survive.

From Novosibersk, in the heart of Siberia, we traveled 20 kilometers to Akademgorodok, the academic suburb. We approached an apartment building, laden with matzot and other gifts, ready to swoop down as heroic angels from America and the Jewish people on the professors who awaited us. In Moscow, we had knocked on doors, said “Shalom Aleichem,” then been embraced by strangers who instantly became brothers. But here a menacing man sporting a huge Russian fur hat blocked us. We said we had come to visit a friend. He said, “This building is not for ‘foriginers,'” comically mispronouncing the word with a hard g. We insisted, but he was adamant – and intimidating.

Devastated, we returned to our hotel just before the holiday – with no seder, no seder plate, only the first-time understanding in our American-charmed lives of what it meant to feel unfree. Scrambling, we improvised a seder plate. Finding an egg in the hotel’s breakfast room, we charred it using the cigarette lighters we carried to burn the messages we wrote each other when we wished not to be overheard. The “shank bone” was kosher salami brought from New York, ripped to look rectangular, not circular. Karpas, the green vegetable, was fittingly, dried fruit, because there was no spring in still-snow-covered Novosibersk – nor any sense of renewal. We made charoset from the dried fruit and some nuts – an awful concoction tasting more like mortar than my grandmother’s sweet mush. But we hit a wall with marror, the bitter herbs. Finally, we realized we were so bitter about how the Communists treated our fellow Jews and human beings we needed no more marror at the table.

During this, the smallest, most pathetic, depressing, homesick seder of my life, never before had the words and rituals so resonated. When we said shebechol dor va’dor, that in every generation enemies rise up to try knocking us down, we instinctively raised our voices and looked up, not at the Lord above, but at the KGB microphone we assumed was hidden in the ceiling vent; during the trip we were followed frequently and would be detained once.

The feast of freedom, the human yearning for freedom, took on tremendous meaning for me in the pathetic hotel room at what felt like the end of the earth. Still, I lacked faith. I did not believe the redemption the Haggadah promised would come. The names of Sharansky and other heroes had been etched in the bracelet on my wrist – and in my heart – for so long, I assumed they would stay there forever, just as every academic expert I knew assumed the Soviet Union would last. I never believed that within a few years Sharansky, Edelstein and other Prisoners of Conscience would be freed, the Soviet Union would crumble, a million former Soviet Jews would live in Israel, our national homeland, or that today, I, a kid from Queens, would serve so casually on Jewish community committees with these giants.

From this celebration of freedom in the land of the unfree, I learned that Jewish tradition is renewable. In every generation we experience the ancient rituals differently, even as we connect to each other and our proud past. In 1985, I considered the Soviets the modern Egyptians. Today, I read the four sons as mapping out modern Zionist challenges, with the Wise Ones – from Left, Right and Center asking “what are our principles,” “who are we,” “who will we be”; the Wicked Ones disdainfully disassociating themselves from our collective Zionist project, saying “yucch”; the Simple Ones mystified by the craziness swirling around Israel and Zionism today, simply saying “duh,” and, the vast majority at least, not being able – or not even bothering – to ask.

From this little taste of oppression – which lasted only three weeks and was blunted by the power of the precious American passport tucked safely in my money belt – I learned that history is correctable. I never thought the Soviet Union would fall even as I witnessed the beginning of its end. Similarly, a few years ago, many of us thought Palestinian terror would never end – and were so dumbfounded when it petered out we never even mounted the victory celebration Israel deserved for smashing Yasser Arafat’s terrorist infrastructure.

And from my Siberian Seder I learned that peoplehood is redemptive. We have great power in our solidarity as a people, as a nation. My membership in the collective enterprise called the Jewish people sensitized me to Soviet oppression when many of my professors were still enthralled by Communism and appalled by America. Moreover, by belonging to the Jewish people I had a small role in the great historical movement which resulted in Communism’s collapse.

For too many of us, the seder is a rote ritual, done on automatic pilot to discharge some family and ancestral obligation. May this seder instead be like my Soviet seder in hell was – ironically, a seder of renewal and relevance, part of a great historical correction, a seder of redemption.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction was recently published by Oxford University Press.