Hitler, Passover, and the Coronavirus — Finding Strength in Troubled Times

By Aaron Kliegman

I must confess something: Adolf Hitler authored my favorite quote about Jews. Yes, that Hitler, the monster who tried to exterminate European Jewry — and came horrifically close to succeeding. Before you stop reading out of disgust, allow me to explain.

There is a striking moment in Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, when the Nazi leader seems to concede that the Jews might just be the chosen people — and seems to fear that his anti-Semitic plans may be doomed to fail.

“When … I scrutinized the activity of the Jewish people,” Hitler writes, “suddenly there rose up in me the fearful question whether inscrutable destiny, perhaps for reasons unknown to us poor mortals, did not, with eternal and immutable resolve, desire the final victory of this little nation.”

That Hitler, the most fanatical of all history’s anti-Semites, could not help but acknowledge — and tremble at — the miraculous survival of both Judaism and the tenacious Jewish nation over millennia should be a source of strength and inspiration to all Jews.

I bring all of this up as Jews around the world prepare to celebrate the week-long festival of Passover, which begins on Wednesday night. The holiday commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. According to the biblical narrative, after Pharaoh refused to free his Hebrew slaves, God inflicted 10 plagues on the Egyptians, allowing Moses to lead them to freedom.

As in Egypt, the Jews survived slavery and death during the Holocaust, the darkest chapter in the Jewish story of survival and flourishment against all odds. Indeed, Passover tells the story of Jews becoming a free nation, beginning their journey to find the promised land, the land of Israel. And after much struggle, they made it.

Of course, Jews didn’t have their national home during the Holocaust — it was previously taken from them, but they never gave up title to it and always sought to return. Jews had nowhere to go to escape the Nazis’ grasp and protect themselves. Now, however, they do have their home: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.

The link between Israel and the Jewish people (and Judaism itself, for that matter) is deep and inexorable. Passover is, at least to me, in part a reminder of that link. It is also a reminder of the collective Jewish will to persevere and, somehow, ultimately thrive after hardship — hence the quote from Hitler.

As I write, Jews everywhere are preparing to celebrate Passover in unusual ways because of the coronavirus, which prevents them from gathering in person. Some Jews are gathering virtually over Zoom; others are quietly reflecting on the meaning of the holiday at home. In such troubled times as a global pandemic, remembering the story of Passover can be a source of strength. Indeed, religious faith and tradition can provide resolve to so many through adversity, for Jews and non-Jews alike.

In the case of the Jews, even Hitler recognized the power of the Jewish story, which should motivate and inspire, especially in the face of anti-Semitism.

Speaking of anti-Semitism, the Jewish story should also remind us that hating Israel is the same as classic Jew-hatred. Indeed, given Israel’s connection to Jewish identity and Jewish survival, it should be clear that seeking its demise as the Jewish state is a form of anti-Semitism, and that demonizing and delegitimizing Israel are inherently anti-Semitic actions.

Bernard Lewis, the late and eminent historian of the Middle East, noted that two special features make anti-Semitism a unique form of bigotry. First, “Jews are judged by a standard different from that applied to others.” Second, and more importantly, is the “accusation against Jews of cosmic evil,” the likes of which can be found nowhere else. Today, these two features manifest as, first, applying double standards to the Jewish state (e.g., only Israel is condemned for defending itself against rocket attacks) and, second, attributing to the Jewish state a cosmic, satanic evil (e.g., the absurd allegation that Israel is like Nazi Germany, committing the worst atrocities against the Palestinians).

There has been a surge in anti-Semitism because of the coronavirus — tragically, there is a long history of people accusing Jews of spreading deadly viruses. And several examples compiled by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in a new report clearly show that anti-Semites accuse Israel, Zionists, and Jews without distinction.

But at least today, the Jewish nation has a physical place of refuge and a standing army to defend itself, unlike the ancient Israelites in Egypt and European Jews during the Nazis’ reign.

The Jewish story is relevant to everyone as we endure this pandemic and adversity more generally, not just to Jews. Of course, we find in the Jewish experience the will to survive hardship, even tragedy, and the ability to flourish when the dust settles. But we also find the power of a nation, a people united by history and culture. One of the most striking effects of the coronavirus has been the resurrection of the nation-state. The last several weeks have clearly demonstrated that, in times of crisis, people still look to this old social and political construct, even in the 21st century. More than anything and anyone, Israel and the Jewish people show that nationhood can overcome slavery, genocide, and even pandemics.

Aaron Kliegman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Previously, he was a staff writer and news editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where he wrote analysis and commentary on foreign policy and national security. Aaron’s work has been published in a range of publications, and he has a master’s degree in international relations. Aaron is now writing regular columns for the Inner Circle as a contributor, and I am excited to have him on the Gingrich 360 team. — Newt